Tag Archives: How to read the Bible

Does the Bible contradict itself?

A few weeks ago I wrote about genocide that was commanded by God in the Bible. This week I wanted to finish the two part serious on Peter Enns book, The Bible Tells Me So…Why Defending Scripture Has Made US Unable To Read It.

Some would deny that the Bible contracts itself or offers differing perspectives, but anyone who has studied the Bible in depth cannot deny these – though many do enter into intense gymnastics to jump around or try to explain away the contradictions.

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Enns talks about the fact that there are four different gospel stories that do not all line up perfectly. It should also be noted that while these gospels are traditionally attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these disciples were unlikely the authors of these gospel accounts (John is one exception – though it was redacted heavily). Each gospel writer tells their story in unique ways because they were addressing a specific audience and wanted to get specific points across.

The birth of Jesus is not even mentioned in Mark (the first gospel written) or John. Many scholars agree that Matthew most likely created some of his birth stories (e.g. the Magi and killing of babies by King Herod).

And then there’s the resurrection story.

Who is first to find an empty tomb?

In Matthew it was two women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and are greeted by an earthquake and an angel.

In Luke there are many women including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women. No earthquake and not angel but two men (the two men could be interpreted as angels).

Marks gospel has a shorter and a longer ending. The longer ending was most likely added on sometime in the second century. The shorter ending has four who visit the empty tomb – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Solome. They see one man (not two) and do not experience an earthquake.

John’s story has Mary Magdalene who goes alone to the empty tomb and runs back to tell the disciples. Peter and another disciple race back to the tomb. There is no angel, no man, and no earthquake.

So we have four differing accounts. Was it two women? Four women? One women? Did they see an angel or angels or men? Was there an earthquake? These answers depend upon which gospel story one is reading from.

Enns then writes about the two differing stories within the Christian Old Testament. The first story is told in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings while the Israelites were in exile. The second story that was written about two centuries later, after the exile, is 1 & 2 Chronicles. These two stories note different details and do not always agree.

This reminds me a lot of the prophets which we talked about at length my Hebrew Bible class. The different prophets challenged each other, saw things differently, and disagreed because each was wrestling through their current context in light of the past and trying their best to see into the future.

2 Samuel 24 states, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them…”

1 Chronicles 21 states, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.”

So which is it? Was it God or was it Satan? (I wrote about the evolution of the view of Satan here).

Below is a short (not exhaustive list) of other places the Bible contradicts itself take from a great book by Kenton Sparks titled Sacred Word Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture

In some places God changing God’s mind and others claim that God never changes God’s mind – Gen 6:6-7; James 1:17

Some places describe God as having a physical body and others no body – Is 6:1; Amos 9:1; Jn 4:24.

Some texts say that Israel knew God’s name as Yahweh, while other texts say that they did not know God’s name – Gen 28:16; Ex 6:2-3.

Some texts tell Israel to boil the Passover meal and another forbids boiling it – Deut 16:7, Ex 12:9.

Some texts declare that God will judge the children of sinners and others say that God will not harm them – Ex 20:5; Deut 24:16.

One text says that Jesus’ family was originally from Nazareth, and another that says Bethlehem – Luke 2:1-4; Matt 1-2.

One text says that Jesus’ family moved to Nazareth soon after his birth, and another that says this took place several years after – Luke 2:39-40; Matt 1-2.

One text declares that there is no excuse for idol worshipers and another gives them an excuse – Rom 1:18-23; Acts 17:29-31.

One text says David paid 50 shekels of silver for Israel’s temple site, and another that says he paid 600 shekels of gold – 2 Sam 24:24; I Chron 21:25.

The Bible claims there was a world wide flood that killed almost everything, but geological  evidence proves this never happened.

If one reads the Bible seriously, one cannot just ignore these things and claim the Bible is without error.

How then should we read these stories?

I think a better way to read these stories is to ask why the original authors wrote these stories down the way they did. There was a point, a reason, why these stories exist (and others don’t) and continued to be passed along.

If one believes that God inspired the Bible, and believes that God’s Spirit was at work among the people who canonized the Bible, then we have these stories for a reason. I do not think that the reason we have these stories is to give us a rule book for how we are to live in the 21st century, but rather they are to give us a way people have engaged with the divine through their perspectives, their times, and in their places.

The Bible, as Enns suggests, is not a simple how-to manuel where we look how God acted in one stories and we extract that to mean that is how God acts in all times and places. The Bible is much more complex than that.

I cannot write without adding what I see as the crux of the story – Jesus. I read the Bible as a human journey to better understanding God, i.e. progressive revelation. This revelation climaxes in Jesus who I believe is the image of God. Jesus shows us that God is not distant, angry, or punitive, but is loving, forgiving, and merciful.

Unfortunately, a lot of violence has been and continues to be done in the name of a non violent and loving God. I would say that this god is not the god revealed in Jesus, but just as the Israel often viewed God as violent because of their consciousness at the time, we continue to struggle with ways to better understand God today. In this way the Bible seems most relevant to us in the 21st century!

 

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.

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.