Category Archives: Bible

The Bible Tells Me… What?

So here I am, again, writing about The Bible Tells Me So — which I already reviewed here. I’ve continued mulling over the book, bothered by various things. I wanted to return and complete my earlier representation of my experience with it here.

Basically, I think it reflects some degree of scholarly hubris on the part of its author, Peter Enns. I have a lot of respect for him, and I believe his intentions with the book are good and God-honoring. But the overall result is to make the Bible into a book that’s not so much a human-divine hybrid as a human recasting of the divine. It never really deals with the resulting elephant in the room, which is: why bother to read it? There are plenty of other ancient stories regarded as fairy tales. Why read this one as anything more? Somehow, the recommendation to defer to tradition and read in faith rings hollow (quoted in my review) after all that’s gone before.

For instance, after a discussion of how troubling it is that God would order genocide, it suggests that God simply didn’t tell the Israelites to attack and destroy the Canaanites; they just thought he did. Archaeology hasn’t confirmed the story either. Same with the story of the dramatic exodus from Egypt. No archaeological evidence unearthed of Pharoah’s army, and no extra-biblical accounts of the tale. Just stories, then, says Mr. Enns. But that’s okay, because God likes stories. He likes for his children to make stories about him, even when they are filled not with occasional factual errors based on the knowledge limitations of the time, but with grand misconstruals of God’s character and communication with human beings.

It takes the point too far. One wonders how the author feels so confident making a pronouncement of this scale after so many centuries.

One of the main thrusts of the book is that it has been wrongly read — and defended — as a literal historical or scientific “manual for living.” We should not project modern questions and concerns on to an ancient text written by people with a tribal mentality. True enough. It doesn’t reward efforts to wring geology and biology and physics and astronomy out of it. Still, it claims to be “inspired by God.” In the passages about Israel’s history — tales that are not offered as mythical — we can expect to see a flat earth as the conceptual framework, different concepts of time, imprecise numbers, some exaggeration. But assertions of things that never happened? That’s a little different.

I wonder if the author is committing the very error he warns against: bringing a modern sensibility to an ancient text and saying, “This can’t be true. God can’t be like this.”

I’m not saying I don’t struggle with the Bible. There’s plenty there to stop us in our tracks and make us struggle and question and pray and seek answers. I struggle with the violence too, and the many supernatural events recounted matter-of-factly in the Old Testament.

But the fact that I struggle with it doesn’t mean I can make it disappear. In the end I am much more comfortable concluding that somehow, the ancient writers didn’t get it totally wrong. They did capture some aspects of God, however mystifying to me. And even if they exaggerated, the didn’t make up historical accounts out of thin air.

My faith can accept the uncertainty of this. But the seeming certainty of The Bible Tells Me So — a certainty that doesn’t even stop short of proposing that the Son of God “creatively interpreted” the Scriptures he himself inspired — seems to overreach. I was listening for a humility that should accompany study of the Bible, but I had a hard time hearing it in The Bible Tells Me So.

John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)
John on the Island of Patmos (Gustave Dore)

More than once in The Bible Tells Me So, Peter Enns affirms the tradition of debate in Judaism. I wanted to offer an extended quotation toward the end of the book that captures that tradition. I love the picture it gives us of God:

A famous story from the Talmud, Judaism’s early medieval core text on Jewish faith and life, records a debate between rabbis. The debate is over whether an oven that has been made impure could be purified and used again.

The majority opinion was no but one rabbi, Eliezar, argued the opposite, but, alas, to no avail. Exasperated by his colleagues’ dim-wittedness, he challenged them with some miracles. If I am right, he said, may that tree over there move — whereupon the tree picked itself up and moved about the length of a football field. But the others weren’t convinced. They were certain their argument from the Bible was sure, and no moving tree was going to convince them otherwise.

Eliezar wouldn’t give up. He called a stream to reverse course and then the walls of the house to bend inward, but the others responded the same way. Finally, Eliezar asked whether hearing the heavenly voice of God himself would convince them, at which point the voice of God declared that Eliezar was absolutely right.

This didn’t work either. The others responded that God had already given his Torah on Mount Sinai. In that Torah we read that God’s commands are “not in heaven” but right here, available to all. God himself is bound by his own recorded words in Torah, and so even his heavenly voice can’t change that.

At hearing this, God laughed with delight. “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”

This story illustrates something Judaism seems to have a good handle on but that many Christians do not: debating each other, and debating God, is what God wants. (Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So)

Reflections on the Bible

6a00d834890c3553ef01b8d06778a3970cPeter Enns’ Evolution of Adam was one of my favorite reads of 2013. So I didn’t think twice about tackling his newer book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. This one has a similar purpose — recalibrating our expectations of the Bible. But it leaves me with a very different mixture of reactions.

Like The Evolution of Adam, The Bible Tells Me So showcases Enns’ considerable knowledge of the Bible and skill with historical criticism. It takes us on a very readable and interesting tour of what we might call the Bible’s human features — and limitations. And it challenges us to think. Enns’ main purpose with this book is to encourage readers to accept the Bible for what it is rather than projecting modern expectations and questions on it or treating it as an instruction manual for life.

What is it, then? An ancient text, one full of truth claims and purporting to be inspired by God (although we don’t hear much about that), even as it’s unavoidably marked and shaped by the historical, culture-bound human minds through whom God inspired it (and we hear a LOT about that).

That sums up my response to this book. It’s strong on supplying evidence of Enns’ thesis about the Bible’s human shaping. But it does little to balance these features against its transcendent qualities. The bulk of the book shows us the contradictions, historical accounts unsupported by archaeology, competing perspectives on God, and rhetorical stretches by its writers. If I didn’t have prior experience with the Bible within the context of my own relationship with God, I would wonder, by the time I got to the end of The Bible Tells Me So, why we should bother to read it at all.

The strange thing is, I agree with Enns in the main when it comes to what kind of book the Bible is. I agree that it bears plenty of human markings, and what’s more, I see this as a strength of the Bible. How God inspired it tells us almost as much about him as what’s on the pages. He is a God willing to humble himself, even to take on human flesh and enter into the limits of space and time — and, in the Bible, into human language and imagination and experience.

Yet despite this basic sympathy, I reached the end of The Bible Tells Me So with some disappointment. It’s probably because I was expecting a different kind of book — much like some people do with the Bible, a point Enns returns to many times. As the subtitle indicates, he feels that excessive defense of the Bible is the last thing it needs, so it’s no wonder that he doesn’t mount one here. Sometimes, I thought that Enns was trying too hard — too many jokes, too much eagerness to point out problems, too much overstatement. (There are, after all, other interpretations out there.) But he provides an honest assessment of a believer’s struggles with the Bible. This will come as a welcome alternative for those who feel they can’t investigate the Bible or get a hearing for their questions.

I’m a Christian, but the book did something for me too. It made me listen from beginning to end to some specific problems with the Bible — without the author kicking into rational defensive mode. It made me uneasy, but this was good in a medicinal kind of way. I guess I have more “defending the Bible” pulsing through my veins than I realized. (Edited to add: Still, his assertions require some defense, whether or not the Bible does. Essentially he proposes that much of the Bible is simply humans misunderstanding of what God is trying to say, but we should read it anyway.)

I didn’t accept or agree with everything, but I really liked a lot of what I read in The Bible Tells Me So. It was unfailingly engaging, and as I scribbled my questions in a notebook while reading, I was reminded that the Bible isn’t the end-all of the Christian faith. Restored relationship with God is. One thing God gains from a Bible inspired in this way is that it repels our tendency to bibliolatry. We aren’t meant to be Bible-worshipers, and this Bible invites too much struggle and debate to become a passive idol. It invites us to read and study, it stirs up confusion alongside the wisdom and reassurance and instruction, and in our best moments we take our questions to God.

All this talk, and I still haven’t offered a single quotation. I’ll give Peter Enns the last word:

The Bible is God’s Word. The Bible has been around a long time and it’s not going anywhere. Even with all its challenges and odd stories, its naysayers and skeptics, it’s got staying power. People just keep right along meeting God there.

Forget everything else. Forget all the reasons we might have for putting it away in a box somewhere with other ancient relics. Forget the fact that God often has a temper and commands strange things. Forget the fact that its writers thought the earth was flat, a flood covered the earth, or the first woman held a conversation with a snake.

The Bible, just as it is, still works.

Don’t try to explain it. Just accept it. That won’t make you a mindless zombie. It just means you are accepting your own human limitations and acknowledging by faith something bigger than ourselves is happening, someone bigger is behind it, and we have the privilege to be a part of it.

Hold on to the time-tested wisdom that in order to know God better, we should keep reading and wrestling with the Bible. It’s God’s Word and that’s what he wants.

Edited to add: Afterthoughts here.

Diaspora

I’ve been musing over some things I read in the notes to my chronological Bible recently. They seemed to me to suggest a compelling parallel between post-exilic Jews and modern American Christians.

In the transition into the book of Esther, the commentary points out that the book’s purpose was to encourage Jews living in a foreign land. “These Jews of the Diaspora (meaning “dispersion”) faced different pressures and different problems than those Jews who had returned to Palestine,” it explains. The religion of the Diaspora had certain characteristics, such as the tolerant attitude toward intermarriage. Earlier in the Old Testament, Phinehas skewers Israelites who marry people of other faiths, and later, after Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah make it a priority to confront intermarriage. But Esther’s marriage to Ahasuerus is depicted as a good and saving event in the book of Esther.

Also, while Palestinian Jews were very vocal and demonstrative about their faith, Diaspora Jews kept a low profile. Though ultimately she’s willing to die for her faith, Esther doesn’t tell her husband that she’s a Jew until it becomes essential to the survival of her people. And in the way the story is told, we see a similar reticence, for it tells the story of God’s salvation of the Jews without ever mentioning God’s name.

Palestinian Jews’ faith in this period has a very different character. It’s more outward and demonstrative. These Jews had returned to their homeland and were reclaiming territory they saw as rightfully their own. But it shares with Diaspora religion a focus that’s more Book-centric than temple-centric. Even though the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Exile had changed the emphasis from the Temple to the Law. That’s why Ezra’s priestly heritage is so important, and why he points to his knowledge of Scripture as proof of his authority — rather than to the King who gave him permission to rebuild the wall.

All of this raises questions for me. For one, did God allow the Exile only as discipline, and was it merely tragic for the Jews — or did God really send it partly for the express purpose of transforming the Jewish faith, making it less about the objects and traditions, and more about His word? Did He want the Temple destroyed because it had warped the relationship between God and His people by becoming an idol?

For another, which branch of post-exilic Judaism does the American church resemble most closely? A goodly number of evangelicals would say, speaking as if from a majority position, “we are a Christian nation and must get back to our roots.” I have a hard time seeing this. But in any case, it resembles the more outspoken faith of Palestinian Jews who were in their own territory than that of the Diaspora Jews who were trying to maintain their identity in hostile territory.

I wonder, ultimately, if the American church labors under a false sense of itself as representing Palestinian-style faith, when in fact it is essentially “dispersed,” and would be better off adopting a more Diaspora-style perspective. There have after all been many “dispersals” for a once-unified, coherent expression of faith. The splintering into denominations. The movement, so much like that of the ancient Jews, away from knowledge of God to Temple-centric (institution-centric) faith — mere cultural Christianity. The divergence between faith and practice (read any poll on marital faithfulness or divorce rates in evangelicals). The slide from love for people to political stances. These and many other forces have weakened and splintered the church.

The good news is that in cultures where Christians recognize their Diaspora-state, Christianity is on the rise. The problem in this country is that we may fail to rightly assess our condition. Look around and try to see this as a culture in which Christianity has any momentum at all. Perhaps we are not “heirs apparent” to a Promised Land, but a people in exile right here on our native soil, in urgent need of repentance and revival. Perhaps like the Jews of the Diaspora, our faith should be less noisy and more real.

Violence in the Bible: Some Useful Sources

I think I’m done writing out my questions and thoughts-in-process on this subject for awhile. (I’m actually taking a reading detour into an Elizabeth Goudge novel right now and leaving this pot to simmer in the back of my mind and heart.) But I want to record here a few of the relevant ideas and resources that I’ve come across in recent weeks. In the comments, some others have indicated similar questions, so I’m sharing these for anyone interested in checking them out.

1.) This past Sunday, my pastor preached a sermon called “Holy Violence.” The podcast is here. He packs a lot in, including the relationship between Genesis 15:16 and the later wars against the Canaanites, as well as a consideration of the whole idea of God’s wrath. I’m grateful for his perspective on all of this, and I believe you will be too if you listen.

2.) Greg Boyd has a series of blog posts about the Bible’s violence at his blog. He is kneading some of the issues and ideas that will be developed in his forthcoming book Crucifixion of the Warrior God. The book won’t be out for another 18 months or so, but you can get a taste of some of the thinking behind what he calls “The Cruciform Thesis.”

3.) Boyd touched on the subject of violence in his book Letters from a Skeptic, which represents his thinking as of several years ago. The upcoming book will not necessarily reflect these same ideas in this form, but they have still fed into my own recent engagement with this subject. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Jesus Christ is the person in whom God is fully revealed. This, for me, must be my central definition of God. Whatever else God is like, He can’t be different from the God I encounter here. “If you see Me,” Jesus says, “you see the Father” (John 14). If something in Scripture appears to contradict this, I must confess ignorance and suspend judgment. I don’t always know why God did what He did in the Old Testament. But since I know on other grounds that God is all-loving and all-wise, I must simply trust that He had wise and loving reasons for doing what He did.

He moves on there to talk about

  • …how “intensely violent” and “power-driven” the ancient world was; he discusses some aspects of Canaanite culture and concludes, “perhaps one of the reasons God had to use violence in the Old Testament was because violence was the only way of accomplishing what He wanted to accomplish…”
  • “Perhaps the death of certain people was, in certain circumstances, the lesser of two evils. Do we not also believe that death is sometimes preferable to life? If, with this, one considers God’s universal perspective, one must ask not only what is the lesser of two evils for the individuals involved, but what is the lesser of two evils for the entire world throughout history?…”
  • “If one believes in an afterlife, as I do, then the death of the Canaanites is not really the end of their life at all. It may be just the beginning of an eternal life with God. What God does for historical purposes is not necessarily an indication of how God judges people eternally. And in this light, the death of certain Canaanite people, especially the children, could be seen as an act of mercy. Perhaps they were spared the hellish life (and afterlife) they would have had if they had grown to maturity…”

Now, all of this is excerpted from his book, and if it piques your interest I urge you to get ahold of a copy and read it so you can see the full development and context of these ideas. I am giving only brief quotations here and that never does full justice to someone’s thoughts.

4.) If you’d like to get a sense of Eric Seibert’s overarching themes in The Violence of Scripture, he wrote some guest blog posts over at Peter Enns’ blog: here, here, and here. Dr. Seibert’s book was helpful to me as a survey of both the troubling texts in Scripture, and the ways they have been used to justify violence throughout history (including in America). But though I agree that the Bible’s historical context is important, I don’t have quite so limited a view of its authority, so I didn’t find his recommendations for how to deal with the Bible’s violence that helpful. (I think the way certain elements in evangelicalism are attacking him is inexcusable.)

There are aspects of all these sources that I agree with, disagree with, and am up-in-the-air about, but here they are for anyone who’s interested.