Tag Archives: inerrancy

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 is the Bible?

It is my belief that many of the divisions and debates within the Christian community can be funneled down to one simple question.

What is the Bible?

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How one answers the question determines so many other things that it is important to take the time to consider this question.

In my experience, whenever I am in a discussion with someone who disagrees with me, I often find that it is rooted in a different way of answering this question. For example, many who argue in a literal six day creation most often believe the Bible to be inerrant, while those who believe in evolution view the Bible differently.

Most know this, but the Bible is not a book, it’s actually a collection of books written by well over 40 different authors (many of which we do not know of), and written well over the span of a millennia. This means that there are many different genre’s within including: myth, poetry, history, wisdom, narrative, parable, prose, and some really obscure stuff called apocolytpic literature found in Daniel and Revelation.

There are many ways to answer this question, but I think most of them can be placed into three primary categories – each one also as a wide spectrum within.

1. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

This is the view I grew up with, and because of this it is the one I am most familiar with. As I mentioned above, people with this view have many small nuances, but most who hold to this view would see the Bible as without error.

Where they do not agree is whether the Bible is without error in it’s current English, the original languages, or the original writings called autographs – it gets very slippery here because a large number of people hold that the original writings are inerrant, but we don’t have any of the original writings (what we have are copies of copies of copies of copies etc).

Now, when pressed on issues like grammar, punctuation, etc. these people tend to lean away from thinking all of these things are without error, but are rather mistakes made by humans as they copied these texts.

These people tend to read the Bible literally. In other words, they believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal Noah, ark, and global flood, they usually believe Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, etc etc. They will tend to take any evidence that suggest certain aspects of the Bible to not be historically accurate as a threat – something they will defend vehemently.

When some suggest that the Bible contains historical inaccuracies and the impossibility of reading everything in the Bible literally, they tend to think that Satan (again a literal demonic being) is trying to blind people from the truth and that scholars and scientist are themselves  deceived, are deceiving others, or both.

2. The Bible is one big myth.

Many in this category see only two options: option 1 or option 2.

Many people will often think that either the Bible is historically accurate or it cannot be trusted. They may even have respect for the Bible, as a sacred writing for a religious community, but often view the Bible as a bunch of made up fairy tales.

In my experience, most people in this category tend to focus on the irrationality and inaccuracy of the Bible to show that it is just old stories made up by people who lived hundreds of years ago. They will point out that the Bible is archaic, old, outdated, and…come on…we live in the 21st century people!

3. The Bible is inspired by God

This is a very nuanced approach (as they all are), but overall people who hold this view tend to believe that God was working and continues to work through the Bible – it is inspired in ways other books are not.

These people believe that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but is more accurately a faith book.

These people teach that the Bible is not always historically accurate, but also understand not everything must be historically accurate in order to present truths. They also understand that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were passed down orally for centuries and they were far less concerned with be perfectly historically accurate as they were in learning and retelling their stories while conveying the deeper truth within – whereas those of us who live in the 21st century often think of a picture or photograph (which shows every single detail), it is more accurate to think of a painting – both are true, but they do not show the exact same thing in the same detail.

These people think science and faith can go hand in hand, and are not afraid when science suggest that the way we interpret the Bible may be wrong.

These people also see that the Bible is not one singular voice, but rather a plurality of voices, each one bound by their culture, cosmology, worldview, etc. The Bible actually contains different perspectives and even different ways of seeing things – they would argue that this is to be expected in a book that has been written by so many different people spanning so many years.

Where do I stand?

I would fall into the third category and if I was asked what the Bible is I would respond by stating:

I think the Bible is a collection of books written by humans as they interpret the divine.

Inspired by God, written by man.

Because of this, we see human fingerprints all over the Scriptures. Some perspectives found within are more accurate than others. I do believe God was working through the limited understanding, cosmology, and consciousness of each of the authors – just like I believe God is still working through each of our limited understanding, cosmology, and consciousness.

In the pages of the Scriptures I see the divine pulling humanity forward into a greater consciousness, a greater awareness of what is right and what is wrong, how to live a fuller life, how to better take care and love others, how to live more economically and sustainably.

This way of thinking shapes the way I see the world at this moment.

I believe God is pulling us forward into greater consciousness.

The invitation is, will we enter into the growing expanse, or will we fight against it?

 

 

 

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.