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)

On debating God

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.

Cosmic battle, human war

I wrote this post last week, and it’s been sitting in my drafts folder. It’s such a sensitive subject, and I am so very much “in process” in mulling over it. But I know that as my understanding grows, I’ll want to remember the stepping stones along the way, and this is one of them. I’m planning to follow up this post with another one that simply lists some recent sources I’ve found helpful.

On to the post at hand…

This week’s chapter of The Story includes lots of war. Jericho. Ai. The Amorites. Makkedah. “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded.”

It seems clear that we aren’t supposed to emulate the Israelites in geopolitical terms; we’re not supposed to invade and conquer to gain territory or kill inhabitants in God’s name. Why? Because “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet here it is.

It makes me take a step back and think about the larger perspective on war in the Bible. Recently I read in The Myth of a Christian Nation that we probably wouldn’t have war, even wars with “good” results like Civil War or World War II, if Christians were really living the way Jesus tells us to. What if Christians had stood against slavery? What if pastors had put slaveholding on the same level as other “bad” sins, like adultery? What if Christians had worked with southern plantation owners to make their economy viable without dependence on human trafficking?

Unfortunately, it happens time and time again: Christians don’t actively love — don’t step up to protect the good and the beautiful and the right — and war becomes an alternative.

War is a condition of life in the Old Testament; God is said to command the Israelites to fight often to further his goals for humanity at large. Immediate issues usually involve territory; often there is a spiritual conflict as well. Time and again they are told to thoroughly demolish their enemies, including people of all ages, possessions, and religious paraphernalia. It’s more than what’s necessary merely to gain territory or establish political dominance. It makes me wonder if there are spiritual dimensions to life in the ancient world that are no longer apparent to us today. There are, after all, plenty of miracles, all told matter-of-factly: divine manifestations through pillars of fire or voices descending from heaven; angelic visits, some of them involving visible ascents heavenward (Samson’s mother and Manoah). Sometimes God’s “army” appears visibly, but they seem to be more a sign of God’s presence with the Israelites than supplemental military force. There is a big fish that swallows, delivers, and deposits a prophet where he is supposed to go. Two cities are destroyed with fire and brimstone after several reasonable warnings. These things are all incredible! They imply that the spiritual atmosphere is somehow thinner in the ancient world. In such a context it becomes imaginable that the military conflicts had more obvious spiritual dimensions too.

In Letters from a Skeptic, I read some of the horrific details of Canaanite life: ritual slaughter of infants; tying women’s legs together during childbirth so that they would die; torture and abuse of all kinds. It’s part of the “normal” texture of life for them. It sketches out in much more graphic detail what may have been meant by the terse statement in Genesis 6 that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” It isn’t hard to believe that there may have been demonic forces involved in such cultural practices. Thus it becomes at least a possibility that ancient wars were more obviously spiritual battles than can be seen merely from the written record.

But over the course of Scripture, things change. In the New Testament, Jesus is noticeably less political and less of a warrior. He does not join in with any of the varied political forces vying for power in his day, and he chastises John and James in Luke 9 for wanting to call down God’s wrath. He heals the Roman’s ear that Peter cuts off, and scorns political boundaries by healing Roman and Samaritan people as well as Israelites. But he too seems to regard war as a condition of life in a fallen world: Matt. 24:6 he says, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”

He is depicted as a warrior himself in Revelation, but these are not visions he ever delivers on in his Incarnation. They remain veiled to us, accessible only in dream visions and prophecies. I understand Jesus’s warrior status as referring to his authority in the spiritual realm — and authority that Scripture tells us we will one day see him act upon. But this is in marked contrast to the frequent intervention of God in human wars in the Old Testament.

I guess my point is simply that there is a very obvious progression in the attitude Scripture takes toward war. Yet overall war remains something that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us either how to justify or how to condemn. It’s like many other consequences of fallenness that we see in the Bible. Illness. Aging. Corrupt authorities. Abuse. Jesus lives among these grievous realities, and in his lifetime he works to stop suffering wherever he can. He heals. He protects. He tells the truth. Could it be that he sees war as a consequence of a fallen creation, and simply expects us to pray and follow our conscience? For some that will mean pacifism. For some, that will mean fighting to protect certain ideals or people. Neither should be made into an absolute moral rule.

The existence of wars in the first place, like the existence of so many other kinds of fallenness, is what is wrong. How we respond is a secondary question at best. I appreciate the protection of our country’s military. However dysfunctional our foreign policy is, however corrupt our political powers, the armed forces are made up of many honorable and brave people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us. But wouldn’t the best possible option be a world in which they didn’t have to? We scoff at the possibility: “Such a world will never be.” Maybe our thinking needs to shift away from abstract questions about whether war can be just, and toward questions about how we can live our faith in ways that prevent war from becoming a possibility in the first place.

Worth Reading

Greg Boyd, who wrote Letters from a Skeptic, has a post called Getting Honest about the Dark Side of the Bible. It touches on the subject of his upcoming book: Crucifixion of the Warrior God. It looks like one I must read, because it concerns violence in the Bible. But unlike *Eric Seibert’s The Violence of Scripture, which was helpful in surveying problematic texts in the Bible but which had a more limited view of biblical authority than I was comfortable with, Boyd holds to a more challenging position. His post is worth reading because it begins with a list of examples of divine violence in the Bible and faces the difficult questions with faith. He concludes the post this way:

To be clear, in obedience to Jesus, I adamantly affirm that all this material is inspired by God. In my book I argue against the many scholars today who try to resolve the problem this material poses by dismissing the text, whether on historical or theological grounds. But to say it is God-breathed says nothing about how it is God-breathed. Nor does it say anything about how this material is to be interpreted such that it bears witness to God’s unfathomable love revealed on Calvary.

As with all matters of faith, the place to start is by getting honest with ourselves, each other, and God by admitting the obvious. It was when I got to this point that the clouds began to lift and I began to discern that something else is going on in these horrific portraits that I hadn’t noticed before. So can we be honest? Can we agree that causing babies to be viciously ripped out of wombs, causing babies to be dashed on the ground, and causing mothers to eat them is horrific, macabre, and revolting, regardless of where the divine portrait is found, and regardless of the deity this behavior is ascribed to? As we admit this, let us hold fast to the conviction that this material, in all of its ghoulish detail, is “God-breathed.” And now begin to prayerful ask – how might this depth of depravity point us to the cross?

Lord bless our honest ponderings!

I’m interested to read the book because although Boyd touched on these questions in Letters from a Skeptic, this will be a more thorough study. I can relate to his sense of clouds lifting as he faced the obvious about Scripture; though it’s a bit destabilizing, I feel like I’ve gained something, not lost something.

So far, in my own reading and searching, I’ve come up with a few ways of responding to violent portrayals in the Bible. Though they don’t yet represent the more complete understanding I’m seeking, they are ingredients in a developing perspective:

  • Remember the nature of inspiration, which allows human elements to be mixed in with the divine word — culture, history, personality of the writer, etc. C.S. Lewis talks a lot about this in Reflections on the Psalms; So do Peter Enns, Eric Seibert, and Greg Boyd in the books I’ve read by them lately.
  • Read the Old Testament in the light of Christ, God’s most complete revelation of himself.
  • Name the problems for what they are; don’t skim or sanitize or ignore.
  • Pray for understanding.

It’s not a very long list, is it? But this is a journey, and it may take awhile.

*Here is a troubling post about how Seibert is being maligned by certain evangelicals.

Old Testament Struggles

031095097XOur church is “doing” The Story, a resource that helps churches to experience the overarching themes of the Bible together within the span of a year. It’s an abridgement that puts the Bible into chronological order and divides it into 31 chapters. I have mixed feelings about it in some ways, but we are off and running at this point with Sunday school classes at all levels working through it together.

This week we’re up to chapter 6, which covers a big chunk of the Israelites’ wanderings in Numbers and Deuteronomy. I’m actually teaching an adult Sunday school class, and one issue that has come up is the violence and divine anger that keep showing up in these stories. This is something I was struggling with myself, even before the class; in fact, one of the reasons I agreed to teach is that it would force me to continue reading my Bible in a season when I’ve been tempted to just avoid it — sort of a “run towards the roar” approach. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but it’s not solving the problem of what to do with these bewildering depictions of God.

I read this week’s chapter over the last two days and decided to keep track of the instances of violence recorded even in our excerpted reading from The Story:

  • God sends a plague on the Israelites for complaining about the food;
  • Miriam gets leprosy for criticizing Moses (Aaron doesn’t, though both of them criticize);
  • God wants to destroy them with plague for lack of faith, but Moses talks him out of it; God settles for refusing to let this generation see the Promised Land;
  • God punishes Moses for striking the rock;
  • God sends poisonous snakes against the Israelites — and then sends a cure (?);
  • God sends plague on the Israelites for getting involved with Moabite women and their gods; it ends when Phinehas skewers an Israelite and a Moabite woman in one swipe. Phinehas is rewarded with a “covenant of peace” and priesthood.
  • There are also two military conquests depicted in which God helps the Israelites invade and conquer other nations, the Amorites and Bashan.

How to make sense of it all? It’s difficult to read of all this in terms of a loving and gracious God, who claims he is slow to anger. It’s hard to reconcile it all under the heading of discipline either, though that’s what Moses does in his final speech to the people. I find myself asking, how accurate is this as an account of God’s behavior? How relevant is all of this to us in the post-Jesus age? How do we determine what still applies?

If the idea of post-exilic authorship I encountered for the first time in The Evolution of Adam applies, then we can assume a degree of exaggeration. The author is engaging the Israelites’ past creatively in an effort to show that they matter to God, that he does think they’re special, that he is a super-strong warrior. This theory suggests that the Old Testament writers are interpreting their history in the light of present concerns and circumstances — just as Paul later interprets the Old Testament in the light of his new knowledge of Christ.

But even so, this picture of God is of someone violent and capricious in his moods. Even the matter of keeping the covenant he has made is depicted as something Moses has to keep talking him into. So I am wondering: is this less a history of a nation than it is a history of a developing God-consciousness? Could it be that God is patiently working to reveal his character to a people meeting him for the first time, and they are misreading and misrepresenting him a lot in the process?

I know I come across differently to someone who first meets me than I do to someone who knows me well. Some of the conclusions you might draw based on surface impressions turn out not to be borne out once you see my heart. Couldn’t it be the same with God? And wouldn’t this help to explain why it takes him such a long time — the entire Old Testament — to lay the groundwork so that his people will recognize him in Jesus? — at least, some of them will. Many of them are still blinded by this very idea of a warrior God, a lens that keeps them from recognizing him when he comes to heal, restore, serve.

Because the God ultimately revealed in Jesus is just night-and-day different than this God. This God is angry; that God is patient. This God is about Law; that God is about grace. This God sends plagues; that God heals. This God sends storms; that God calms the sea and reassures those who fear.

Two Ways of Reading

…I believe that most people who read the Bible as Scripture do so in one of two ways: compliantly or conversantly…

Compliant readers are individuals whose basic instinct is to read the Bible trustingly. Those who read this way accept the Bible’s claims, adopt its values, and embrace its assumptions without necessarily giving serious consideration to the implications of their consent. Rather than questioning or challenging the text, compliant readers take what the Bible says — or at least what they think it says — for granted. Their reading is appreciative and accommodating. It is neither confrontational nor contentious. Rather, they embrace the text “as is.”  Therefore, they choose to agree with — and submit to — the Bible’s assessment of things, even when this may be difficult to understand or morally troubling…

Conversant readers, on the other hand, are not constrained in the same kind of way. Rather than simply acquiescing to the text, their fundamental disposition is one of active engagement, sustained conversation, and critical evaluation. Conversant readers are ready to engage the Bible in a genuine dialogue whose outcome is not predetermined by the ideology of the biblical text. While they might agree with the views and values on this or that Old Testament text, they are just as likely to disagree. Conversant readers are discerning readers who accept what they can and resist what they must… Conversant readers do not feel obligated to agree with texts that violate the most basic dictates of human decency, and they are not prepared to remain obsequiously silent…

From The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, by Eric Seibert.

Obviously this passage raises a question: what kind of readers are we? What kind of readers do we want to be? It’s worth thinking about. I would have said I was a conversant reader of my Bible — but after reading Dr Seibert’s book, I realize that I have missed an awful lot.

I would like to include more excerpts here from books I’m reading. I have numerous passages underlined and highlighted for further reflection, but I don’t always get back to them. I reviewed this book earlier this week, but there is always so much more to a book than can be discussed in a review. My Kindle informs me that I highlighted or bookmarked 76 passages in this book! That’s more than I’ll ever be able to quote here. But I’d like to lift a few of them at least to help round out the very limited perspective my review provided, and to stimulate thought.

The Violence of Scripture

“Is this a good story, or a bad story?”

Some friends were over, and the kids were watching Prince of Egypt. They were up to the plagues, before we even got to the part where the firstborn sons are all killed, and before the Egyptian army and all their horses are drowned, when the little boy asked his question.

poeIt’s a good question. I suppose the answer is, “It’s both — depending on your perspective.” For the Egyptians, it was a bad story. For the Israelites, it was a good story — or at least, they seemed to think so. They broke out the tambourines and sang and danced. (Remember when the Palestinians did this on 9/11?) That leads me to believe it’s a bad story for everyone. When we sing and dance over death, we are damaged people.

Lately I’ve felt like a deer in the headlights as I’ve been thinking about the many examples of violence, conquest, oppression, and in general moral atrocity in the Bible. How have I lived with this book for so long without facing it?

If you’re like me, you’ve woven an intricate dance through the Scriptures, perpetually adjusting your orientation so that these troubling scenes are in your peripheral vision. Once in awhile you don’t spin fast enough, and you come up against something unspeakable face to face:

  • Egyptian bodies washed ashore to the sound of gleeful singing (I have sung along with the catchy “Horse and Rider song” that was popular in the 80’s)
  • Foreign priests lured into a temple and then summarily executed
  • Jericho, in which men, women, children, and animals are slaughtered
  • Abraham sacrificing Isaac; Jephthah sacrificing his daughter
  • War — first in a long list of “holy wars” for which God’s will is used as justification
  • Slavery, rape, kidnapping (the virgins of Jabesh-Gilead are taken as prisoners of war and forced to marry the Benjamites)

There are lots of other examples, and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy sets these and many more before us. Author Eric Seibert calls it “virtuous” violence — in other words the violence is depicted as good and necessary in some way. Sometimes God orders it in the text (Canaanite genocide); sometimes it’s written into the laws (capital punishment); sometimes it is more cryptic or ambiguous whether God approves of it or not (Jephthah sacrificing his daughter). In several instances (Ezekiel, Nahum…) metaphors of sexual abuse are developed to illustrate God’s wrath at various cities. (I have to wonder if these texts would have even made it into the canon if they had depicted sexual violence against men.)

If you grow up in the church, you become desensitized. All the tales become fodder for abstract spiritual lessons without your having ever been encouraged to see them at their literal level. Seibert calls it “textual blindness”: “We have grown so familiar with these violent stories, and with certain sanitized ways of reading and hearing these stories, that we fail to notice what they are actually saying.”  I feel a little angry about that official sanitizing. I admit it. None of us probably has to look very far back to see an example of it. As someone who has been fed these tales since childhood, I feel I haven’t been well-served.

One of the experiences that led me to home school was when my oldest daughter was in kindergarten and heard the Easter story. She exclaimed, “That’s terrible!” and then looked at me very hard, very searchingly. She was looking for confirmation that she was really hearing it right, and that her response was right. It was a teachable moment, an opportunity to affirm her natural sense of right and wrong and her tender heart. The crucifixion is terrible (and some aspects of its traditional western interpretation that emphasize God’s wrath and turning away from Jesus as he dies are equally terrible). But there are lots of other terrible things in the Bible too, and I haven’t named them for what they are. I get all up in arms about the violence people allow their young children to watch in movies, but I remain silent about the battle of Jericho. I am pro-life, yet I haven’t noticed that Abraham and Isaac, or Jephthah and his daughter (for whom no ram is provided), or the numerous children killed in biblical battles, devalue human life on a grand scale.

I believe there has been a level of conditioning that has encouraged my “textual blindness.” But ultimately I have to take responsibility for any callouses on my moral sensibility. Children don’t have that callous. And having children is among the first of the pricks that have pierced mine.

When I look down deep, I see that the way I’ve always dealt with this is by believing that the ancient Israelites simply got it wrong. This belief has been fuzzy and undefined, lurking there and producing cognitive dissonance alongside my belief that the Bible is God’s word (something I still believe, let there be no doubt). How can the God who forbade murder order it on so many occasions? How can the God who was always headed toward redemption of the whole world be so selective about the value of human life in the Old Testament? “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed,” he says to Abraham in Genesis 12. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” Jesus echoed in John 3. How can the God whose ultimate judgment on all violence and killing was pronounced from a cross where he bore it all demand it so many times?

I realize that this sounds like I’m being pretty free with Scripture. But the truth is that I know of no one who doesn’t do this already — who doesn’t write off large chunks of Old Testament morality. Today if a parent kills a child, it is universally condemned. Today when one country invades another because they believe themselves to be entitled to the land, there is an international response. Rightly so. Is this because we believe God’s moral standard has changed? Or because our cultural conditioning has changed?

Maybe it seems to put us in less stable territory to suggest that there are things in the Bible that reflect the human vessels through whom God spoke, but it’s no less stable than it had ever been. If we believe in inspiration of Scripture, be acknowledge a level of cultural conditioning in the human minds through which God works as he conveys his word. I guess this book has made me think seriously about moving the boundaries I’ve placed circumscribing the divine word within the human vessels. It’s a smaller territory than I thought — unless I believe that God’s moral sensibility is accurately reflected in some of these stories.

I am amazed by the humility of a God who is willing to be so misrepresented, willing to work with such desperately misguided and self-involved creatures as we are. In Jesus we see a God willing to humble himself “even to death on a cross.” In Scripture, perhaps we see a God equally willing to humble himself to violence done to his character through our human terms. He overcomes both sets of strictures: the cross, by returning to life; the violence in the Bible, by managing to convey a clear redemption narrative across the whole sweep of history and the intricate and often confusing polyphony of the biblical writers. Though I am beginning to believe he is victimized by having words put into his mouth that he didn’t say in the Old Testament, the events of history (Jesus) and the fulfillment of prophecy (the promised Messiah, the suffering servant) indicate that he triumphs over these limitations and his character is revealed in the person of Jesus. Enough truth gets through to validate the Bible’s overarching message.

I keep veering away from talking about The Violence of Scripture.

Honestly, I’m not sure I recommend this book. It is helpful in a limited way. It locates the hard parts of the Bible very well, and it assures us that we’re right in seeing serious confusion in the moral picture of the Old Testament. Seibert also lays out a number of historical events in which the Old Testament has been used to justify atrocities.

But I part ways with Seibert in several regards. For one thing, what seems to be his primary motivation is preventing further misuse of Scripture to justify violence, whereas my interest is in clarifying the character of God. For another, Seibert’s solution is changing how we read Scripture to “reading nonviolently.” This involves using the ethics laid out in some of Scripture — what he calls its “normative” pattern — as a lens through which to judge what we read, and I’m fine with that. But he also recommends various other “reading strategies” that I am more dubious about: filling in the gaps in the stories with our own imaginative material; using literary deconstruction to make sophisticated analyses of the ancient texts; censoring the Bible for children. (In this last item I wouldn’t argue that all the stories in the Bible are suitable for children, but I favor a developmentally appropriate approach that introduces different parts of the Bible at different ages rather than censorship or rewriting. For instance, at one point Seibert recommends excising the verses where David says God is with him when he fights Goliath, then following up the story with lots of imagining how Goliath might have felt.)

To me the elephant in the room with a book like this is, who needs a holy book if you know better than it does? Who needs a holy book that has to be censored and heavily superscribed with your own enlightened editorial judgments and additions? And who, certainly, needs a holy book that can’t be understood without the techniques of postmodern literary theory? At times Seibert assures us that there is much to be appreciated in the Bible, and he speaks from a believer’s perspective. But overall I found his attitude toward it to be too condescending to be of much use.

The-Violence-of-ScriptureIn the end it’s the Holy Spirit — who, we believe, inspired the biblical writers in the first place — to whom we must appeal for help in understanding his book. I don’t believe these matters are intellectual so much as spiritual. God will help us to push all the way through to meaningful answers. (He has already begun to do this.)

I can look back and see what I believe to be a long accumulation of answered prayers in my life, many of them prayers for understanding. But one stands out. It was when I was in my twenties and had gone through a period of rebellion, and now I was repenting. I regretted the way I had spent that year and realized that I couldn’t make things all better; such damage as was done, was done. But God forgave me. I remember crying off and on for several days in a curious combination of grief and joy, sorrow  and grace. It’s the most real, most powerful marker in my spiritual life. A church kid, I saw my sinfulness at last. And I knew God’s love and grace. That’s who he is: he is beyond intellectual precept or emotion, and he gives us his Spirit to meet us, to provide for every need of our souls. Surely one such need is for wisdom regarding his written word, and I believe he is the one who clarifies all that’s confusing or false.

Lent begins today. I guess what I’m giving up is some of my security in how I think of Scripture. I’m giving it back to God. I am probably giving up some of my security in my community too, because these are very uncomfortable issues and questions for evangelicals. These are the kinds of questions that can lead one to stumble in their faith. Yet I still believe a faith that never works through them is ultimately in more danger. God asks for more than mere intellectual assent; he asks for our trust. That’s what makes it so important to face these questions honestly. God is big enough.