Tag Archives: how to interpret the Bible

Is the Bible Inerrant?…and did God command genocide?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the first chapter of Peter Enns new book The Bible Tells me so…why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.

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I have since finished the book, it’s fantastic!

I wanted to reflect on what I saw as the main points of the book and where I resonated the most.

The main point of the book is that too many people have attempted to defend the Bible as an inerrant rule book that gives one harmonious story and picture of God, and this view has thus hindered them from reading the Bible as it is.

Enns’s conclusion?

The Bible doesn’t behave like a divinely dictated, inerrant rule book. The Bible contradicts itself, gives various pictures of God, and often tells stories that are not factually or historically true.

Enns jumps right into the complexity by dealing with one of the hardest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, the genocide of the Canaanites that was commanded by God.

In the book of Joshua it states, “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

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Enns writes, “It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday.”

Enns goes a step further and writes, “…this God is flat-out terrifying: he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.”

If you are like me and have struggled with understanding how a loving God could command such atrocities your not alone!

Enns shows that the archeological evidence suggests the annihilation of the Canaanites never happened. (I have written about the historical inaccuracy of this here.)That’s correct…what the Bible claims to have happened appears to have never taken place…at least not on the scale that the story claims.

Before we get into other places where the Bible contradicts itself ( in Joshua it says that they annihilated all the Canaanites except for a few, but Judges makes it clear there were many still alive), we still need to answer the question of why this story is in the Bible.

Christians believe the Bible is somehow inspired by God. If this is the case, why would God allow such stories to become a part of the Bible?

Enns answers this (and I agree) by showing that God lets God’s people tell the story. The picture of God, in the case of the Canaanite annihilation, was not an accurate picture of God, but it was the way they viewed God at the time. Enns writes, “the ancient Israelites were an ancient tribal people. They saw the world and their God in tribal ways.”

I would add that we should be careful here to not think ourselves as having it all figured out. In another three thousand years I am sure people will look back upon us in many of the same ways we do to ancient people now.

So the story of the Canaanite annihilation is not a factually true story and God did not command genocide, but it was rather the view of ancient Israel of God as a tribal warrior deity similar to all other tribal warrior deities in the surrounding areas?

Yes.

Recently Richard Rohr wrote, “But, some will say, the Bible talks about God’s wrath. Yes, it does, but I would say that it was the people who were hateful at that point, and we wanted to create a God in our image. So we justify our wrath, our vengeance, and our violence by saying, ‘God orders us to kill all the Canaanites.'”

In other words, God works within whatever system or view humanity has of God at the time – even views that are not completely accurate (doesn’t this makes sense? If God is working through our limited views now, which I’m sure are not completely accurate, than our experiences would confirm this). We are limited in our perspectives. We see the world through certain lenses that our science, technology, archeology, cosmology makes available to us at the time. In the story of the Canaanites, the people of the Bible viewed their God in much the same way other people viewed their gods. Israel saw the world in much the same way other ancient people saw the world.

If the Bible is not an inerrant rule book or manual for life, what then is the Bible?

According to Enns, the Bible works, “as a model for our own spiritual journey. All of us are on a journey of faith to encounter God from our point of view.”

“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.”

The Bible is inspired because it reveals the story of God that climaxes in Christ, yet it is always written from the perspective of humans and humans have different ways of seeing things.

So the Bible is not a simple, laid out, harmonious story that we just passively absorb. The Bible is a complex, multilayered, collection of stories with different perspectives that don’t always align. Thus, we are invited to enter into the story, engage with the story, learn from the story, struggle with the story, wrestle with the story, and even…yes…disagree with the story, in hope that we can continue the story of God in the present and into the future – this is actually what the people in the Bible were also doing when they wrote it down.

What I learned from a Rabbi

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week in a class learning from a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim scholar, and a Christian theologian.

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One aspect that I found most interesting (I was  slightly aware of before) came from the Rabbi.

While Judaism and Christianity have much in common (much of our sacred texts), we have been shaped very differently.

The Rabbi talked in story and narrative as he described Judaism and I realized I am really drawn to this way of teaching (I was reminded that Jesus was a first century Jew and spoke mostly in parables). Afterwards I spoke briefly with him about why Judaism takes such a different approach than Christianity and he talked mostly of the different ways the Hebrew tradition, language, and culture engaged the world and the way Greek tradition, language and culture engaged the world.

I increasingly see how Christianity (most of it at least) has been largely shaped by a Greek, rationalistic and either/or way of thinking. While I’m sure this can be played out in many ways, what most intrigues me is the way it plays out in reading and interpreting our sacred texts.

The Rabbi spoke about the midrash way of reading the Hebrew Bible. In a recent meditation, Richarh Rohr wrote:

“The best Jewish approach to scripture study was called midrash; they struggled with the text, unraveled it, looked at its various possible meanings, and offered a number of interpretations that often balanced and complemented one another. There was never just one meaning, or one certain meaning that eliminated all others.”

I find this so refreshing and insightful!

Much of Christianity has been shaped by Greek thinking and we have approached our sacred texts in such a way as to uncover the “one and only truth” behind it. So we argue and debate, but not in the same way as the Jewish tradition does. While midrash  is flexible and invites exploration and questions that is open to different ways of interpreting the text, much of the Christian tradition is closed, rigid, and invites only certainty, uniformity, and one way of interpretation.

I have bumped up against very conservative/fundamentalist Christians from time to time who do not seem to be able to understand that Scripture must be interpreted. For some, their motto seems to be, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” (I was actually in a church service where the pastor made this exact quote…wow!).  Some are not aware of their personal lenses and since they cannot separate their lenses from the text it leaves little room for disagreement or different views.

I think there is much we can learn from our Jewish friends as we learn to wrestle with our own sacred texts. I hope and pray that we can find the grace and insight to disagree without labeling others as “heretics” or “outside the faith”. As I have engaged people of different views, both within and outside of my tradition, it has shed light on different ways of seeing that I never would have thought about before. This has been hugely beneficial and I think Judaism has much to teach Christianity concerning this.

The Bible Tells Me So – what is the Bible and how do we read it?

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Confession – I am a huge Peter Enns fanatic! I love his blog, his books, and the bioLogos website were he often writes puts out some fantastic stuff on science and faith!

His book The Evolution of Adam came out in 2012 and gave me a relief from an internal inconsistency, namely, how to read the Adam & Eve story in light of evolution.

Most recently he has come out with a new book titled The Bible Tells Me So…Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It. While I am suppose to be researching and writing an exegetical paper for my Hebrew Bible seminary class, I am distracted as I started to read this book (story of my life!).

When it comes to understanding the Old Testament, there are few scholars who make it more easily accessible than Enns. If you have struggled with science and faith as I have, he is an invaluable resource!

So I was raised in a tradition where the Bible was taken literally – meaning there was an actual garden with a literal Adam and Eve and a talking snake who was actually Satan (an evil fallen angel). Now, I want to be careful because there are many people I know that believe this and I want to be clear it is not my intention to  debate in a way that tries to change their minds (experience tells me this is ineffective and actually harmful to some). My intent is to reflect on this book while I intertwine my personal journey…who knows it may help someone who is going through something similar.

If you have struggled with an understanding that the Bible is to be taken literally, the Bible is inerrant, or everything in the Bible is historical fact, than this is a great book for you.

If you become angry and feel the need to argue the Bible should be taken literally, than you should probably not continue reading because this does not apply to you.

Here’s the intro to his new book.

“The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naivety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed.” – C.S. Lewis

To start off Enns makes it clear that he values the Bible and that the Bible is, “the main way for Christians today to learn about God…”.[1] It’s interesting to me that many people who do not read the Bible literally are often accused of not taking it seriously (myself included) and yet this is the dominant way the Bible has been read throughout history. It just seems foolish to argue that because someone does not read the Bible literally they do not take the Bible seriously. In fact, I would argue just the opposite is true.

Enns writes, “Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instructional manual…deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force”.[2] This is precisely the way I was taught to read the Bible (Bible – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), but while working my way through undergrad at an Evangelical Liberal Arts College this began to make less and less sense to me. It’s not that I was convinced of something else, it was actually that I became less and less convinced the more I heard the arguments for this view – I found them lacking (I wish I had something else, but that took time).

This may sound all well and great, but let me tell you it was like having the ground ripped out from under you…I didn’t have anything to replace it with and was forced into a free-fall (I know I am not alone in this experience and unfortunately some people never recover).

Enns continues, “this view of the Bible does not come from the Bible but from an anxiety over protecting the Bible and so regulating the faith of those who read it”. [3] In other words, the Bible does not claim to be a rulebook, blueprint, scientific or historical textbook and to think otherwise is to prop the Bible up so high it will fall – therein lies my greatest concern with this view.

Many well meaning people believe the Bible to be without error because it was written by God. The problem with this view is that there are differing perspectives, dialogues and debates within, and it becomes clear that it was written through the eyes of an ancient way of understanding the world (e.g. three tier universe, warrior deity, when science couldn’t explain something people were considered demon possessed). Most modern critical scholars easily admits this.

Here’s the problem if

A – the Bible is presented as perfect because God wrote it

B – since the Bible has inconsistencies, contradictions, and ancient ways of seeing the world then

C – God becomes untrustworthy, barbaric, archaic, irrelevant and outdated (I think many have arrived at this very conclusion)

(A+B=C)

Judgment Of God

Enns talks about the first two books of the Bible (Genesis and Exodus) and writes, “If we read these sorts of episodes outside of the Bible, from another ancient culture, we wouldn’t blink an eye. We’d know right away we were dealing with the kinds of stories people wrote long ago and far away, not things that happened, and certainly nothing to invest too much of ourselves in”.[4] Several years ago, while a Biblical Studies major, this became ever so clear to me.

But, what does that leave us with?

“Other parts of the Bible are shocking to read, even barbaric…God either orders a lot of killing or does it himself” (I only use the exclusive masculine pronoun here because it is a quote). “If we read this anywhere else, we would call it genocide”.[5]

– more on this topic later but I cannot begin to explain how this sent me on a tailspin that took a couple years to recover from. This struggle was one of the darkest times of my life…but that’s for another time.

Enns ends (try saying that three times fast) with a statement and two challenging questions, “The God of the universe often comes across like a tribal warlord”.[6] Yes, interesting how God comes across like other violent deities in the ancient Near Eastern world, almost like they were influenced by other cultures. Has this bothered anyone else?

So I leave you with the two questions Enns left at the end of the first chapter and these are basically the two questions that haunted me for months while I struggled to find answers.

  • “What are we supposed to do with a Bible like this?”
  • “What are we supposed to do with a God like this?”

 

 

[1] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 3.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] Ibid, 4.

[4] Ibid, 4.

[5] Ibid, 6.

[6] Ibid, 6.

How do we handle historical inaccuracies within the Bible?

The majority of modern critical scholarship openly admits the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies within the Bible.

In my Hebrew Bible class (which I absolutely love!) we are given a question we are to respond to in an essay form. Several weeks ago we were asked this question and below is my response.

– I plan to do an addendum in the future which deals more specifically with the question of how/if God commands genocide. (That addendum can be found here)

Note – in respect to my Professor who is a Jewish Scholar, I do not spell out the Hebrew name for God  – Yahweh (YHWH).

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Today’s question is “given the differences between the biblical books of Joshua and Judges and historical account of that period,  how then do we read Joshua or Judges as sacred scripture?”

This week we read through Joshua and Judges which tell of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua and Israel’s time in the land until Samuel.[1] Even from the outset, it is clear that the Joshua narrative begins with the Israelite belief that YHWH has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites.[2] As the Israelites cross the Jordan, YHWH miraculously provides a dry path for them to walk across[3] and YHWH divinely intervenes by bringing down the powerful walls of Jericho[4]. Next, Israel defeats the city of Ai[5] and then turns toward the Gibeanites who trick the Israelites into a peace treaty[6], and finally bring the city of Hazor to complete ruin[7]. Repeatedly, the Joshua narrative describes these conquests as a divine mandate in which the Israelites completely annihilate everyone[8]. Joshua 11 best summarizes this conquest by stating:

“There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”[9]

What is most interesting about the Canaanite conquest in the Joshua narrative is that the following narrative found in Judges opens by stating, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’”[10]

Clearly the Canaanites were not completely wiped out as the Joshua narrative suggests.

Not only are there biblical inconsistencies but there are also historical inaccuracies. First, it is now well known that the Israelite nation grew out of the Canaanite population and were greatly influenced by this culture.[11]

Second, the archeological evidence shows that Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon were all uninhabited during the time the Israelites entered into the land of Canaan around 1200 BCE.[12]

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Concerning this one scholar wrote, “…the observation that the historical portrayal of the complete conquest of the land of Israel and the destruction of the Canaanite population is simply not true”.[13]

Should we throw out this narrative since archeological evidence, as well as biblical inconsistences, show it is historically inaccurate?

If we were to throw this out, as some may suggest, I think we would be falsely assuming that truth can only be found when it is conveyed with perfect historical accuracy. I’m not sure the author of Joshua was all that concerned with perfect historical recollection. One historian writes, “The theological messages that the biblical writers sought to convey are so thoroughly intermeshed with their perceptions of history that it is difficult to separate one from the other”.[14] When it comes to the Joshua narrative in particular, and any part of the Hebrew Bible in general, when the narrative does not align with historical and archeological evidence, we should ask what the main theological message of the narrative was – this is key.

One easy way to help uncover what the theological message concerning the specific narrative in question is to find out when and why this narrative was written. Concerning historical narratives Dr. Sweeney writes, “History was not written simply to provide an account of the past; it is written so that both its writers and readers can reflect on and learn from the past in order to build a better future”.[15]

It seems the Joshua narrative was not written primarily to give a perfect historical account of Canaanite conquest, but was written to answer the question, “why are we, as the nation of Israel and the people of YHWH, in exile?”

Much of the Joshua and Judges narratives were written to show YHWH’s fidelity throughout Israel’s history. The people who were living in exile were certainly wrestling with the question of why – something we consistently wrestle with when we endure hardship today. By reflecting upon their history as shown in the Joshua and Judges narratives, Israel was reminded that YHWH was always faithful and that the nation of Israel prospered when they were faithful to YHWH, but were faced with difficult circumstances when they were unfaithful to YHWH.

How then should we as modern readers understand the Joshua and Judges narratives?

We should read these narratives in light of the theological message which include the questions of why and when they were written. If we get hung up on the historic and archeological inconsistencies (or on arguing against archeology and science) it only encourages us to miss the main message which is still applicable today.

The message suggests that if we face difficult situations it is not because of YHWH’s infidelity. YHWH is always faithful.

 

 

[1] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 179, 193.

[2] Joshua 1:11, 2:9, 2:14 etc.

[3] Joshua 3 & 4.

[4] Joshua 6.

[5] Joshua 7 & 8.

[6] Joshua 9 & 10.

[7] Joshua 11:11-14.

[8] For Jericho see Joshua 6:21; for Ai see Joshua 8:22-24; for Libnah and Lachish see Joshua 10:32, 35, 37, 40; for Hazor see Joshua 11:11-14.

[9] Joshua 11:19-20 NRSV.

[10] Judges 1:1 NRSV.

[11] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 182.

[12] Ibid, 183.

[13] Ibid, 182.

[14] Steven L. McKenzie & Stephen R. Haynes, To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1999), 21.

[15] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 172.