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The Bible’s awkward bits

When I was younger I used to look down on the ‘unbelievers’ who claimed that the Bible was ‘full of contradictions’. When I asked them to tell me one, they never could. I felt smug and justified. I now know, of course, that it does contain contradictions: lots of them. As evidence I have several ‘encyclopedias of biblical difficulties’ on my shelves.

It’s a great relief when a sound evangelical Christian and biblical scholar not only admits this, but faces it head on and does so without losing his conviction that the Bible remains God’s Word. Peter Enns has done just that. The book is The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it by Peter Enns (Harper One, 2014. ISBN: 978-0-06-227202-7).

Enns is best known for his pair of serious academic books on related issues: Inspiration And Incarnation (my review of it here) and The Evolution Of Adam (here). But this new one, aimed squarely at a more popular readership, is written in a laid-back, chirpy style with lots of current language and illustrations (all of them very American and some of which, since I am British, went over my head). But the content is far from shallow and the message is clear.

The author maintains that evangelicals who want a ‘well-behaved’ Bible can’t face up to the reality of its manifest contradictions, such as the conflicting accounts of Israel’s kings in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles, the huge differences in the four Gospels and the way the New Testament writers quote and use Old Testament verses with little regard for their original context and meaning.

The Bible, he maintains, is not a rule-book with universally-applicable guidelines for living. It is a story of people in different generations and their encounters with God. And because this happened in real history, God met them where they were, with all their cultural assumptions, their ancient science and their (to us) cavalier approach to history-writing. This makes for a ‘messy’ Bible, but one which, for that very reason, encourages us in our own walk with God, which is full of ups and downs, mistakes and struggles.

Reading this book will free you from the unspoken pressure of trying to keep the Bible looking tidy as a manual for all of life and doctrine. It will free you to get far more out of it as you live your Christian life in the company of the God who meets us where we are.

I give you a larger-than-usual helping of quotations below, but you might like to read Enns’s own 265-word summary of the whole book, which is as follows:

‘The Bible is an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one . So seeing God portrayed as a violent, tribal warrior is not how God is but how he was understood to be by the ancient Israelites communing with God in their time and place. The biblical writers were storytellers. Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. “Getting the past right” wasn’t the driving issue. “Who are we now?” was. The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the spiritual journeys of people long ago. Jesus, like other Jews of the first century , read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended or simply bypassed the boundaries of the words of scripture. Where Jesus ran afoul of the official interpreters of the Bible of his day was not in his creative handling of the Bible, but in drawing attention to his own authority and status in doing so. A crucified and resurrected messiah was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.’

[The numbers after the quotations below are Kindle location numbers.]


Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual—follow the directions and out pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force. (107)

[According to parts of the OT] Defeating Israel’s enemies wasn’t a necessary evil but brought God glory and honor. And when provoked, God wasn’t bashful about killing or plaguing his own people. The God of the universe often comes across like a tribal warlord. (146)

I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it. I don’t believe he wants us to be in constant crisis, in a stress-reduction mode of having to smooth over mass floods, talking animals, or genocide. (175)

The Bible isn’t a cookbook—deviate from the recipe and the soufflé falls flat. It’s not an owner’s manual—with detailed and complicated step-by-step instructions for using your brand-new all-in-one photocopier /FAX machine/ scanner/ microwave /DVR/ home security system. It’s not a legal contract—make sure you read the fine print and follow every word or get ready to be cast into the dungeon. It’s not a manual of assembly—leave out a few bolts and the entire jungle gym collapses on your three-year-old. When we open the Bible and read it, we are eavesdropping on an ancient spiritual journey. (392)

The Bible we have just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact. (401)

Three big controversial issues shaped my discovery that the Bible is not an instruction manual but instead a model for our spiritual journey:
1 . God does a lot of killing and plaguing, orders others to do it (usually the Israelites), or stands by watching as the Israelites go ballistic on their own. Exhibit A is God’s command that the Israelites exterminate the inhabitants of the land of Canaan so they could move in.
2. What the Bible says happened often didn’t—at least not the way the Bible describes it. And sometimes different biblical authors have very different takes on what happened in the past.
3. The biblical writers often disagree, expressing diverse and contradictory points of view about God and what it means to be faithful to him. (421)

Christians, taking the Bible as a how-to book, have killed pagans, taken their land, and rejoiced in God’s goodness. (470)

How can Islam be condemned for promoting a warring God who smites the infidel (a common Christian summary of 9/11) when the Christian God in the Old Testament does pretty much the same thing, only without airplanes?

Jonah versus Nahum is a good example of the kind of diverse thinking we find in the Bible. (699)

Eventually we must confront the truth. However immoral the Canaanites were, the real problem isn’t what they did, but where they did it. They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. (746)

To move forward, we need to look at the Canaanite issue from a different, and perhaps very new, angle. And here it is: God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites. (786)

Respecting the Bible does not require us to endorse everything the Bible says about God or Israel’s past. The Bible won’t fall apart in the process. Neither will God. Neither should we. (795)

Taking land and defeating enemies with the blessing of the gods was as common in the ancient world as Dunkin’ Donuts in New England. And, as the Canaanite extermination story shows, the Israelites were every bit as much a part of that mentality as any other ancient culture we can point to. (815)

Biblical archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded. (842)

Not only was Jericho minimally inhabited at best at the time, but it had no massive protective walls, which means the biblical story of the “walls of Jericho” tumbling down is a problem—at least that’s what a hundred years of digging there has shown us. (865)

The ancient Israelites were an ancient tribal people. They saw the world and their God in tribal ways. They told stories of their tribal past, led into battle by a tribal warrior God who valued the same things they did—like killing enemies and taking their land. This is how they connected with God—in their time, in their way. (894)

The Bible—from back to front—is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time. (912)

Speaking for Christians, capturing land and holding on to it by violence is not a gospel way of living. Christians today, therefore, have an obligation not to “follow the Bible” here, not to allow the ancient tribal description of God in the Old Testament to be the last word. These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time… For Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word. (951)

Some of Israel’s laws make sense to us, roll off our tongues naturally, and don’t give Christians a minute’s stress: don’t steal, kill, commit adultery—that sort of thing. But it’s hard to know what to do with other laws, or how God could ever have been responsible for them [examples follow]. (989)

What could be more normal than for different people, living at different times, in different places, who wrote about the past for different reasons and to different audiences, to produce different versions on the past? Nothing. And that’s what we see in the Bible. (1085)

What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply. (1097)

John is deliberately shaping the past, and not apologizing for it. He moved this [cleansing of the] temple episode to the beginning of his story of Jesus and lengthened it to include a debate with the religious leaders. Why? Because, more than the other three Gospel writers, John is big on Jesus’s divine authority over the religious leaders. That’s part of his agenda, and so he shapes the past to make the point. (1150)

Matthew’s portrait of Jesus serves his purpose: he drops into his Gospel images of Jesus that remind you of Moses and the exodus story. (1180)

If we are fixed on the Bible as a book that has to get history “right,” the Gospels become a crippling problem. (1256)

These two portraits [in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles] of David and Solomon aren’t “basically the same” with some minor details shifted around. They tell two irreconcilably different stories of Israel’s founding kings. Why? Each writer was speaking to his time. (1363)

We are modern people and we don’t like it when someone twists and shapes the past to make a point. Yet, here is our Bible doing just that. In plain sight, the Bible holds side by side vastly different takes on Israel’s past. (1382)

(1) Israel’s dismal story of the monarchy is the meat of the Old Testament, and the origins stories [the first seven books of the Bible] are an introduction to that main story. (2) Israel’s origins stories, like the stories of the monarchy, were written during the period of the monarchy and the exile when the Israelites were ready to write it. (1465)

As you read Israel’s origins stories, especially in Genesis, you’ll notice embedded into them previews of coming attractions, a deliberate setup for what is to come in Israel’s life later on in the Promised Land. (1489)

Babylonian culture is far older than Israelite culture, and so it seems that the Israelites modeled their creation story along the lines of the Babylonian story, not to copy it but to do it one better. Israel’s creation story was its declaration—perhaps even written while under the thumb of the Babylonians in exile—that its God is superior to all the gods of Babylon, because he is the true creator. The Babylonians and their gods are put in their place. (1511)

Stories of sibling rivalry in Israel’s deep past, where the younger comes out on top, don’t just “happen” to look like the story of the divided kingdom. The “younger brother,” the southern nation of Judah, scripted their long drama and eventual triumph into the stories of Israel’s deep past. Israel’s origins stories, with God’s preferential treatment of the younger sibling, were written to explain why the southern kingdom, the “younger brother,” survived Babylonian exile whereas the elder (and larger and more powerful) northern “brother” was wiped off the pages of history by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. (1576)

The story of Adam, from life with God to death in exile, is an abbreviated version of Israel’s story. Rabbis have noticed this since at least the medieval period, and for good reason. (1613)

On day three, God sets his sights on the waters below—a vast body of water covering the entire earth. He divides it to reveal dry land beneath, which is precisely how the parting of the Red Sea is described in the book of Exodus. (1715)

“Did what the Bible says happened really happen?” has been a nagging, even crippling, question for Christians for generations and is still a big reason why some people either keep away from the faith or leave it. (1776)

The passionate defense of the Bible as a “history book” among the more conservative wings of Christianity, despite intentions, isn’t really an act of submission to God; it is making God submit to us. (1794)

Looking to the Bible to find out what God is like seems like the most obvious thing the Bible should hand you on a silver platter. But it doesn’t. You have to work for it. The God we meet there sometimes knows everything, and other times he’s stumped and trying to figure things out. He’s either set in his ways and in full control of the situation or he changes his mind when pressed. He gives one law in one place and then elsewhere lays down another law that requires something else. Sometimes he’s overflowing with compassion and at other times he has a hair-trigger temper. (1862)

Think of Proverbs as a snapshot of how the Bible as a whole works. Treating Proverbs— or the Bible—as an ironclad, fixed-in-cement rulebook isn’t an option. We need to think for ourselves and figure out what to do with what we read. Maybe we shouldn’t expect the Bible to hand us answers to life to be checked off one by one. (1954)

Job’s friends. They were fine people, I’m sure, and they were technically right if you’re going by the book. But God says they are wrong. So it seems like God isn’t operating by the book. The book doesn’t limit God. There is more to God than what the book says. God is bigger than the Bible. (2052)

“How many gods exist?” seems like a pretty basic question for the Bible to get right, but even here the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice. The answer to that question depends on what parts you are reading. (2117)

These are just a few examples [e.g. Exodus 12:8-9, 46 cf. Deut 16:7-8], but they are enough to make the point: Israel’s laws sometimes contradict each other. (2236)

The editors of the Bible were obviously quite happy to include these law codes just as they are and leave them be. They didn’t smooth things over, and they didn’t seem to fret over how confused this would make God sound to people like us. (2256)

These [NT] writers transformed Israel’s story, rethought it, changed it, adapted it, and in some cases left parts of it behind to describe this unforeseen move of Israel’s God. When it comes to understanding the Bible, these first Christian writers have something to say to Christians today, and it’s this: getting the Bible right and getting Jesus right are not the same thing. (2277)

Like any Jew of his day, Jesus revered his Bible (especially Torah). He also understood, along with his contemporaries, that creative readings of the Bible (that look like free association to us) are completely in step with that reverence. (2339)

[Re Matt 22 and parallels]  We see here Jesus handling Psalm 110 in a very ancient, creative way. We might think he is “misreading” the first line of Psalm 110—and from the point of view of the writer of the psalm he is, since Psalm 110 doesn’t say what Jesus says it says. But in Jesus’s day, such creative handling of the psalm to draw out a deeper meaning is perfectly fine. (2417)

I simply want to point out that “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” is hard to square with a rulebook view of the Bible. (2501)

Without a Jesus who is deeply part of the world of first-century Judea—as anyone at the time would be—there can be no true Christian confession that Jesus is God and human mysteriously in one. (2586)

The story of Jesus is connected to the story of Israel like the iPhone is connected to Bell’s original. (2636)

Israel’s story, taken on its own terms, is not adequate to bear the weight of God’s surprise move of a crucified and resurrected messiah. It must be reshaped around Jesus. (2646)

Israel’s story was the only God-talk these Jewish followers of Jesus had available to them. So what did they do? They adapted and transformed their sacred story to serve the story of Jesus—the story of the future invading the present, of an executed and raised messiah, of a “new creation.” (2705)

You’ll never read Israel’s story on its own terms and “find Jesus” on the surface. To see Jesus, you won’t get there by sticking to the script. You will only see Jesus there in hindsight and under the surface, where your reading of the Old Testament is driven by faith in Christ, where Jesus has become the starting point for re-understanding Israel’s story, not the logical conclusion of Israel’s story. (2735)

All four Gospel writers transform one key moment in Israel’s story around Jesus: the exile to Babylon and Israel’s return. (2786)

Matthew’s genealogy is creatively and carefully crafted to present Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited deliverer—descended from David, who will bring an end to the exile and restore the land promised long ago to Abraham. (2823)

Official Roman policy held that Caesar Augustus (the Caesar at Jesus’s birth) was begotten of the gods, sent to the people as a gift to restore “peace,” to “save” the people, and to bring “good news.” Luke uses these same words to describe Jesus’s birth. Jesus not only breaks the mold of Jewish political ideas, but Roman as well. Jesus is super-Caesar. (2900)

Explaining how the Jesus story made Israel’s story an every-person story is more or less what Paul’s letters are about, not every word or verse, but the heart of them. (2984)

We should feel free to see a tension in Paul’s thinking, a paradox: what God has done in Jesus is deeply connected to Israel’s story while at the same time breaking out of the confines of that story. As soon as we try to resolve that paradox in Paul we will misunderstand him. (3013)

Paul transforms Israel’s story from a Torah-centered faith of one small ethnic group to a universal story that decentered Torah and put the crucified and resurrected Jesus in its place. Despite the surprise factor, Paul argues, what God is doing now in Jesus, not Torah, was God’s plan all along. (3064)

Sticking to the Bible at every turn, like it’s an owner’s manual or book of instruction, as the way to know God misses what Paul and the rest of the New Testament writers show us again and again: the words on the page of the Bible don’t drive the story, Jesus does. Jesus is bigger than the Bible. (3126)

On the pages of the Old Testament we see the ancient sages and storytellers pondering a God who won’t sit still long enough to have the cement of people’s perceptions dry around him. (3190)

If we read the Bible today thinking that this God of creation, freedom, and mystery is bound by a book as if it were a contract, with nothing left to say, no further moves or surprises, we will miss much. The Bible tells us so. (3197)

An unsettled faith is a maturing faith. (3238)

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