Dueling Duets

· Bible

There are portions of scripture that seem to contradict each other. I call them dueling
duets. One dueling duet that gets under my skin is voiced by two prophets, Isaiah and Joel. Isaiah says,

He shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

I want to claim Isaiah’s words, but I can’t ignore that Joel twists them around to claim
the opposite:

Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”

Joel 3:10

There are many other dueling duets in scripture. Let’s consider a handful. In the law, we

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you and from their families who are with you who have been born in your land; they may be your property.

Leviticus 25:44‒45

Eeks. Even Paul doesn’t seem very concerned about slavery when he writes to Philemon. But Isaiah prophesies something very different:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:6

So, what do we do with that?

There’s one instance in the Old Testament when God comes face-to-face with a human being:

Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.”

Genesis 32:30

But John’s gospel makes the claim that

No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1:18

Then there are scriptures about enemies. We don’t need to zoom forward to the New
Testament scriptures about loving our enemies to find a contradiction. On the one hand, readers are given this advice:

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.

Proverbs 24:17

But David, on the other hand, takes a bloodier view:

The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.

Psalm 58:10

Then we get contradictions about God. In both the law and the prophets, God seems to hold a grudge that lasts generations:

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.

Exodus 20:5


Prepare a place of slaughter for his sons
because of the guilt of their father.
Let them never rise to possess the earth
or cover the face of the world with cities.

Isaiah 14:21

But elsewhere in the law and the prophets, we see the opposite:

Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death.

Deuteronomy 24:16


A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be their own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be their own.

Ezekiel 18:20

Throughout scripture, God is said to be the kind of God who is marked by universal goodness and compassion. Again, we hear from David:

The LORD is good to all,
and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Psalm 145:9

But then Jeremiah communicates something completely different:

I will dash them one against another, parents and children together, says the LORD. I will not pity or spare or have compassion when I destroy them.

Jeremiah 13:14

Now lets reflect on two stories of dueling duets that debate whether God changes God’s mind. At the beginning of the great flood story, the LORD

saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the humans I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air—for I am sorry that I have made them.”

Genesis 6:5‒7

But after the LORD carried out this destruction,

The LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humans, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

Genesis 8:21

Much later, the LORD’s people, having been delivered from slavery, build an idol. The LORD says to Moses,

“Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

Exodus 32:10

But when Moses intercedes on their part, reminding the LORD of the covenant made long ago with Abraham,

the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Exodus 32:14

Even Jesus seems to contradict himself—in the same gospel! First,

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:16

But then,

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:3‒4

The final dueling duet I will mention wins the prize for causing cacophony among followers of Jesus today. James indicates that

a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

But Paul claims the opposite:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Ephesians 2:8‒9

What do we do with all of this? Are we to understand that how we behave toward others is not clearly laid out in the Bible? And—perhaps more frightening—that God’s character is inconsistent?

Let’s pause for a moment to take in the proverbial wisdom of Michael Stevens from VSauce:

By now, I’m sure you know that I’m not advising that we get in a tizzy over these dueling
duets. When we read the Bible, we can’t expect all its wisdom to be found in one verse or one portion. We have to read the whole of the Bible to understand what wisdom it has for us today. And we have to admit that what suits one context does not suit another.

This does not mean there is no truth. It does not mean God is fickle. Day-to-day living teaches us this. For instance, as a young mother, I had to figure out when to tell my toddler to “Hold Mum’s hand and stay close” and when to say, “It’s okay, you can go and play with your friends.” Both instructions were different because of what was happening in the moment. But both were equally valid. And while I think I have a pretty consistent parenting philosophy, I do find myself changing my mind quite a bit, often because of what I learn through my relationships with my children. So, is it too heretical to imagine a God whose mind is changed through experience? A God who learns while participating in developing relationships?

There are occasions, I admit, when I can’t understand why something is in the Bible to begin with. Sometimes, we just have to live in the mess of dueling duets, admitting that we see through a glass darkly.