Good Question


       A few days later, Annette and her college-age daughter, Cari, rode with me on the way to their church. As much as I'd enjoyed spiritual fellowship with Annette during our many discussions at the station, that morning I didn't have much to say. A variety of questions I'd asked other ministers rumbled around in my mind. I didn't even notice the landscape until Annette exclaimed, "Look! The bright green leaf buds are just starting to open."
       Just beyond Lobelville we turned onto a side road and wandered a short distance past houses and small pastures. Horses reached over the fence that separated pasture from the small church. In the church foyer, several different people greeted us warmly. The service was interesting, but I was disappointed that the pastor would not be there that day because he was preaching at another church.
       The man who preached referred to himself several times as a farmer. But he surely seemed to know the Bible. He turned to various texts easily -- no turning to the list of the books of the Bible at the front like I usually had to do. And he made a lot of sense.
       People seemed warm and friendly as we exited. There was lots of visiting between the others and with us. In fact, one couple invited us to their home for dinner. Turned out to be a pleasant afternoon. I couldn't help but notice that Bible verses wove in and out of conversation comfortably. Annette and this man and woman obviously spent some time with the Bible.
       But I saved my tough questions till I could talk directly to the pastor. He was scheduled to be at their church the following week. I'd be doubly ready by then.
       Pastor John Riggs was a small man -- thin and a foot or so shorter than I. But if he lacked anything in size, he certainly didn't lack a thing in enthusiasm. And his sermon was no philosophical treatise. It was a study on salvation -- straight from the Bible. I perused the verses surrounding the texts he read. Not a single one contradicted the way he applied it.
       After the service, he greeted people as they left. His was no wet-dishrag handshake. This little man grasped my hand with strength. "Glad to have you here."
       We visited for several minutes. I was impressed with his genuine interest and friendliness. Finally I asked, "Would you mind if I asked you a question or two about the Bible?"
       "Not at all! Nothing I like better than studying and talking about the Bible. What's on your mind?"
       "Well frankly, I'm not all that sure the Bible is dependable. For instance, remember when Cain killed Abel?"
       "Yeah."
       "And God chased Cain away to another part of the world?"
       "Uh-huh."
       "And Cain married."
       "Yeah."
       "Adam and Eve and Cain are the only people on the earth according to the Bible. Where did Cain find a wife? And where did the people in the land of Nod come from?"
       "Good question," he said with a smile. "Let me grab my Bible."
       Good question? I couldn't believe it. No minister had ever complimented my questions before. He really didn't seem to mind.
       He got his Bible, a King James Version, and we sat down in a pew.
       "Cain," he said, as he opened his Bible on his lap. "That's going to be right near the beginning. Genesis." He flipped a few pages. "Here it is ... in Genesis 4."
       I turned to Genesis 4 also.
       "In verse 8 it talks about Cain killing Abel," he said as he scanned. "Verse 16 talks about the land of Nod. Seventeen's about Cain's wife ... but let's just go back to the beginning of the chapter so we see the whole picture. Is that alright? Do you have time?"
       I blinked. Huh? Did he say what I thought I heard? That was one of the main bones I had to pick with a lot of preachers. So many with whom I'd talked before took a verse here or there, but when I read the verse in its context, it said something other than what it looked like it said just by reading the one verse. "Sure," I said. "I have time, if you do."
       "Good." He shifted in the pew. "Chapter 3 ends with Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden," Pastor Riggs said. We read the fourth chapter together.
       "Did you see anything about the amount of time that had elapsed through the chapter?" Pastor Riggs asked when we finished reading.
       "No. But there had to be enough time for Cain and Abel to grow up and for Cain to get married."
       "Right. Any idea at what age they married then?"
       "No."
       "Look over here in Chapter 5," he said. "Verse 3 -- Adam lived 130 years and had a son they named Seth. Verse 4 -- Adam lived 800 years after he had Seth and had more sons and daughters. Verse 5 -- Adam lived 930 years. And as we go on down, Seth lived 105 years before he had a son then he lived on another 807 years and died when he was 912."
       We looked on down through chapter 5. Everyone lived several hundred years. And what appeared to be their first children were born when the father was old by our standards.
       "We really don't have any idea specifically how much time elapsed," Pastor Riggs said, "but we do know that often first children weren't born until after the father was a hundred years old. And, like verse 4 said, Adam had other sons and daughters. How many children could Adam and Eve have had during the time Cain grew up?"
       "If Cain didn't have his first child till he was a hundred ... or more, Adam and Eve could have had quite a family by then."
       "You're right," Pastor Riggs said. "Since they were so close to the perfection of creation, there were no genetic problems with marrying within a family. So Cain easily could have married a sister.  In fact, he may have already been married before he killed Abel. He may well have taken his wife and family with him to another part of the earth."
       The whole picture unfolded to me like I'd never seen it before. "And if there was indeed only one extended family, at that point," I added, "there's all the reason in the world why Cain would have been worried about someone taking revenge. The person he killed was everyone's son, husband, father, brother, or uncle."
       "Right," Pastor Riggs agreed.
       "I can't believe it. I've puzzled over that for years. And the answer is all right there in the Bible if you just read the whole thing and use your head a little."
       "Does it make sense now?"
       "Yeah. Perfect sense."
       Pastor Riggs welcomed question after question. And he answered them straight from the Bible. Finally, I asked, "Do you have time for one more question?"
       "Sure."
       "Well," I asked, "how can God condone adultery among His 'chosen' people in the first part of the Bible yet tell us that if we do those things, it's sin and we'll go to hell?"
       "Are you thinking of any specific examples?"
       "David."
       "David with Bathsheba?" he asked.
       "Yeah, I think that was her name."
       "Did David think what he did was all right!"
       I tried to remember the story, but it had been years since I'd heard it. "I don't know."
       "Let's take a look." He paged through His Bible. "Maybe in Samuel!" I was still looking for Samuel when he added, "Here -- Second Samuel II is where that incident starts.
       Again, we read whole passages together. David surely wasn't announcing his affair. It didn't take long to figure out that he didn't think it was the best practice.
       "But the real question is," Pastor Riggs said "what did God think about it, Right?"
       "Right."
       "Let's read chapter 12."
       We read the prophet's parable of a man who stole a pet lamb from his neighbor. David reacted angrily. Then the prophet announced, "Thou art the man." (verse 7) God's reaction? "Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in his sight?" (verse 9) David recognized the awfulness of what he'd done. He said, "I have sinned against the Lord" (verse 13).
       "God said David sinned," Pastor Riggs said, "and David recognized it as sin. Unfortunately, David wasn't much different than the rest of us. Let's look over in the New Testament at Romans 3:23."
       I found it and started reading aloud: "'For all have sinned .. .'" "How many sin?" Pastor Riggs asked.
       "All."
       "Everyone has sinned. Fortunately, David knew about something else. In fact," Pastor Riggs continued, "one of David's prayers after this is recorded in Psalm 51." We turned to that text.  "See how his prayer starts?" he asked.
       "'Have mercy upon me, O God ...'" I read.
       "David knew," Pastor Riggs interrupted, "that even though he'd committed adultery and murder and tried to cover them up, God still loved him. Look at the way he continues praying."
       "'Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.'"
       As we read, the text made it clear that David recognized the heinousness of his sin. But he begged God for forgiveness and cleansing.
       "God doesn't belittle sin," Pastor Riggs said. "Sin costs a horrible price -- death. But Jesus paid that price. Because of His death, David and Abraham and Moses, and Peter and John, and you and I all can be forgiven. In fact, let's look at Romans again -- chapter 6, verse 23."
       "'For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."'
       "We've all sinned," the pastor said. "So we've all earned the wages of sin. And there's nothing we can do to earn back life. But God pleads with us not to accept that wage. He paid the death price of sin, and He has a gift for everyone who'll accept it. God's gift is life."
       "It's only because of God's gift," he continued, "that David or you or I can have eternal life with God. If we could earn it ourselves, it would be salvation by works.  But we can't! Salvation is God's gift -- God's gift of grace." He shifted in the pew. "Just because something's in the Bible doesn't mean it's the way God wanted things to be. He recorded the Bible characters' lives, warts and all. No touch-up work to make them look perfect. That gives me hope. If God's grace is big enough to save them, it must be big enough to save me too."
       "OK, so what was sin back then is still sin and vice versa. Right?"
       "Right."
       "But this text. . ." I pointed to Romans 6:23. "Doesn't it prove reincarnation?" I had him this time. "Everybody dies ... whether they're good or bad. So there must be another life when those who have worked off their negative karma continue to live."

 

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