Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

You may be reading the Bible wrong. Pete Enns says the Bible itself shows a better way.

Biblical scholar Peter Enns. Photo credit: Shelby Kuchenbrod.

The Bible isn’t a rule book, an instruction manual, or a road map, says Peter Enns, a Hebrew Bible scholar and the host of the popular podcast The Bible for Normal People.

So what is it?

Something more complicated but infinitely better, as he explains in his thought-provoking new book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News.

I thought this book was fascinating (not to mention quite funny) and hope you’ll check it out. — JKR

 

RNS: I loved this book, which seems to be about the importance of honest wrestling with the Bible. You focus here on the Bible as a model of situational wisdom: what it teaches is not always consistent from one situation to another, and our job is to figure out how to navigate that.

Enns: In this book I take a more constructive approach than in my other books, which focused on deconstructing some points of view about the Bible that are very problematic. I’m trying show what the Bible’s antiquity, ambiguity, and diversity tell us positively how the life of faith is more like a quest for wisdom than following a road map or book of instructions.

The Bible doesn’t work well as an owner’s manual that lays out for us what to do or think at every turn. It is holding out to us the invitation to accept the sacred responsibility going forward and working things out.

RNS: Early in the book you look at an example of how the laws about slavery change from one part of the Torah/Pentateuch to another. Slavery was a given in that world, but the specifics changed quite a lot.

Enns: Torah has diversity in its laws, and that’s been a fact of life for people of faith from the beginning, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we run into them. One example concerns Hebrew slaves. In Exodus, a male Hebrew slave, if he wishes to, can go free in the seventh year. Hebrew slaves who are women, however, are not given the option of going free.

In Deuteronomy, which clearly mirrors this law in Exodus, both male and female Hebrew slaves have the option to go free in the seventh year. One way to explain this change in this later version of the law is that Israelites thought it more consistent with God’s nature. But whatever the reason, it is clearly different and more humane. Leviticus contains probably the most recent version of the law, and now no Hebrew slaves are allowed at all. They can work for you for hire, and you can own non-Hebrew slaves, but you can’t own Hebrew slaves.

RNS: You say that this kind of contradiction is not a mistake but a model: the Bible itself is modeling for us how people need to reinterpret the law with every passing generation in a changing society.

Enns: Right. These changes in laws—all believed to have been given by God on Mt. Sinai, mind you—demonstrate that obeying God isn’t simply a matter of “obeying the law” but of thinking through what it means to obey God as circumstances change. More than simply being about changing views on slavery, we are seeing here different ways of thinking about what God is like, and what God expects from us in treating others.

These laws are not meant to be awkwardly reconciled, as if deep down they are actually saying the same thing, but respected as telling us something about how the Bible works. These laws contradict, and saying so is not an attack on the Bible but an acknowledgment of what is there. These contradictions are characteristics I embrace, and I actually think they are what make the Bible worth reading because they push us to think for ourselves, “Okay, what does it mean to obey God here and now?”

RNS: Is that idea threatening for conservative Christians? That the contradictions in the Bible are a feature, not a bug?

Enns: It is, and I get it. Many Christians are taught to think from the outset, before they really have a chance to read the Bible carefully as adults, that the Bible by definition cannot contain contradictions. That is a hard position to maintain even within the first five books of the Bible. Rather than avoid the contradictions or explain them away, we should listen to what they are telling us.

RNS: You spend a lot of the book trying to help readers understand historical context, especially that our understanding of God is conditioned by our time and place. In the Old Testament, for example, they took it for granted that of course other gods really existed.

Enns: In the second half of the book I use the language of “imagining” and “reimagining” God. All of our God-talk, all of our conceptions of God, are inevitably filtered through our humanity—and that is no less true of the biblical writers.

For instance, in 2 Kings 3 we meet King Mesha who ruled Moab in the ninth century, which borders Israel across the Jordan river. Moab has been subject to Israelite rule, and Mesha decides to rebel, prompting the king of Israel Jehoram to put Mesha in his place. So Mesha is outnumbered, and in an act of desperation, he sacrifices his own son on the city wall.

What many of us might expect the Bible to do with this story is to show that the child sacrifice doesn’t work because that other god doesn’t exist (and because child sacrifice is wrong and barbaric). But that’s not what happens. The story ends, “And a great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from [Mesha] and returned to their own land” (v. 27). In other words, it worked.

I like using the word “imagination” with God. We all image God in our minds in ways that make sense to us culturally, and the Bible itself models that. In the Bible YHWH is not the only God in existence; he’s one of many, but what makes him worthy of worship is that he’s the best one. In the Exodus plague narratives Yahweh does battle with the gods of Egypt (see Exodus 12:12). Psalm 95 claims that Yahweh is the “great king above all gods.” These stories show us that people will articulate God in ways that make sense to them culturally. And back in the day, it was that there were lots of gods, and they were being worshiped all over the place.

I don’t personally believe that many gods exist. But that’s irrelevant because the Israelites clearly did. Judaism and Christianity are now monotheistic religions, but they didn’t start out that way. Jews and Christians have reimagined God, and we see that process happening in the Bible itself.

RNS: You said that people will articulate God through the lens of what makes sense to them culturally. How are we articulating God in America today, based on our culture? In what ways does that reflect—or not reflect—the Bible?

Enns: A common and true criticism of conservative Christianity in America is that we’ve forgotten the prophetic call, in both Testaments, to call power to account rather than align the Gospel with any political regime.

This is a place where Americans have a deaf ear to the way the biblical tradition has already reimagined something that is very important, something that sticks. The non-alignment of the kingdom of heaven with empire is a vital message we should be sending. The role of people who try to follow Jesus, and who follow the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, is to critique power, not to seek after it.

RNS: Is there anything else you want readers to know about How the Bible Actually Works?

Enns: I would just want to stress that the punch line of the book is that the Bible is designed for us to seek wisdom, and to ask ourselves what this faith we are a part of requires of us in this moment. The answers to those questions are rarely simply written out for us. And we are all in the same boat on that. I think that’s actually what God wants: to raise us to be thoughtful, mature followers rather than young children always looking for a parent to tell them what to do. The Bible, simply by being what it is, points—or even pushes—us in that direction. And that is good news.

 

 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

70 Comments

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  • Enns will be back because his new understanding is a function of a new era that man is entering into. This wisdom is time released and what appeared to be contradictions will turn out to be changes to the Fathers’ covenant. Hebrews chapter eight shows us four covenant time periods. A changed testament is a new testament, it is not a contradiction with an earlier covenant.

    The fourth covenant is the one Jesus makes, hence it is the “fourth time” period. Covenant time periods are also called generations and each covenant time period can also be a “day”. Working from this one could say Jesus is the fourth generation or could also say that Jesus life is the fourth day.

  • I’m Catholic, and I was taught the Bible teaches us how we can love like Jesus Christ to the end, til death, happily spent; it’s a love story, of a Father Who love His children.

  • TRUE OR FALSE: “Obeying God [is] thinking through what it means to obey God … think[ing] ‘Okay, what does it mean to obey God’ … [who is] not the only God in existence [but] one of … lots of gods”.

    FALSE(HOOD).

  • It seems he can only go so far. “These laws contradict, and saying so is not an attack on the Bible but an acknowledgment of what is there. These contradictions are characteristics I embrace, and I actually think they are what make the Bible worth reading because they push us to think for ourselves.” Indeed. And the conclusion of any sane objective observer is that it’s all made up. There is no god, just someone’s idea of something called god, which changes from generation to generation, culture to culture. Take the next step, Enns.

  • From the first verse of the Bible to the last verse of the Bible, it is all about Jesus.

    Genesis chapter 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” In the original Hebrew language, there are seven words in the sentence. roughly translated “Beginning created God (AZ) heavens and earth” So all translations of Bible translated the six words but ignored the center word made up of two Hebrew alphabets – Aleph Tav which are the first and last alphabets of the Hebrew language. In Greek it would have been Alpha and Omega which any Christian would be able to tell you Alpha and Omega is Jesus.

    So the Bible from the first verse, Genesis 1:1 to the last verse in Revelation 22:21, it is all about Jesus Christ . Wake up before He is drawing nigh.

  • “eth” is widely used in the Hebrew Bible as a marker of the accusative case.

    As a simple marker of the accusative, no translation is called for or even possible.

  • For me as an Episcopalian its always been about the journey, not about a so called literal (mis) interpretation of the KJ version. I’m certain this will rile up the calvinists and others who hold on to their heretical beliefs of the Bible’s inerrant nature.

  • If one wants to try to follow Jesus’ teachings and sees wisdom in the Bible, but can no longer accept the literalist “Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” upbringing, Peter Enns’ book is a welcome validation.

    The Bible was written by humans over the centuries based on and limited by the knowledge and mores of their time, collected by humans, translated by humans, the books chosen by a committee of humans, and now explained by untold numbers of human preachers, churches, scholars, writers, interpreters, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, televangelists, …

    If an eternal, omnipotent and omniscient God had really wanted to give us a rule book, he certainly could have found a better way to do it.

  • I am an Atheist and unlike many I accept that the Bible is the work of men, not the word of God. And that it is full of great wisdom for those that read it thoughtfully and critically. The Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful piece and it makes absolutely no difference who composed it. Wise words stand on their own merits. They need no claim of divine authorship or other scholarly credentials to prove their worth.

    UNFORTUNATELY far too many people have never learned how to read something thoughtfully and critically. For them if something is in print it is the literal and absolute truth. If something appears on TV or now on a facebook page it is the absolute literal truth.

    Instead of reading what the Bible says they search the Bible to find passages to support their pre-conceived beliefs. If a passage doesn’t fit their perceptions they try to explain it away, look at some of the comments below, or they ignore it.

  • Amen. When I left the JWs, I took with me some of the good things I found in Jesus’s teachings, some Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

  • Great article and interesting insights that are not going to be popular with the “Prosperity Gospel” crowd.

  • 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16

  • “The Bible doesn’t work well as an owner’s manual that lays out for us what to do or think at every turn. It is holding out to us the invitation to accept the sacred responsibility going forward and working things out.”

    In short, the man is making the statement that we have always known to be true: whatever you want to find in the Bible, which is usually yourself, you will. His statements about the Bible and how it is a guidebook can be said of any book, not just one that pretends to be from God. I learned a great deal from reading lord of the rings any number of times, starting when I was about 11 years old. I would never pretend that it was of divine origin.

    Let me provide a more psychologically and sociologically true statement about this. How one reads the Bible very much depends on the kind of person that one is, and not the other way around. Almost No one reads the Bible and says, “hey, I think I’ll be that person.”

    Here’s A very current example. Big al Mohler just came up with a policy statement about how people— not people, of course, but his sort of Christian, becuase you are either in his group or you’re not—should deal with transgender people. Big Al says that transgender people don’t exist, and they should be ministered to to prevent their theological error. Big Al also signed the Nashville statement, which admits that transgender people do exist.

    So which is it, big Al? And can you answer why your book demands compassion, except when It doesn’t? Why the fear based attacks oN trans people? Why the demand for repentance from trans people from one side of your mouth, when with the other side you have frankly admitted that “God does make mistakes”? Except that it’s not a mistake, it’s just the fact that you don’t like.

    Here is the real question That comes up. What do you get out of it, Big Al? As with your attacks on gay people, attacks on trans people are not going to stop anyone from being gay or trans. All it does is create a hostile environment which will make it more likely that the object of your disaffections are going to be unhappy and suicidal. Where does your compassion and “love” go at night? What is so difficult about compassion and understanding directed at people who are different than you, rather than the east path of creation of a hostile environment for those people?

    Going back to my original point, it’s very clear to me that big Al uses the Bible to get himself what he wants. Or putting it another way…

    “The Bible doesn’t work well as an owner’s manual that lays out for us what to do or think at every turn. It is holding out to us the invitation to accept the sacred responsibility going forward and working things out.”

  • “whatever you want to find in the Bible, which is usually yourself, you will. ” I haven’t seen it endorse homosexuality yet Ben. Please show us the scriptures that endorse homosexuality as strongly as it is condemned. I’ll wait.
    The compassion for “transgender” people is to point them to the word of God that they are only fooling themselves and rebelling against Christ
    (edited)

  • “God breathed” Written by Inspired people, not dictated word for word by God. And reading the words, while inspired by the Holy Spirit, allows one to encounter the Word. Isn’t that basically what the book’s author is saying?

  • not at all – that’s just an excuse for people who are too lazy to type the scripture into a search engine – ta ta

  • Just did. I suppose the part you meant to highlight is “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying…” How did the Lord “spoke” to the Lawgiver? Aloud? In his heart? Send an angel? How? We don’t know. I find it revealing that of all the thousands of “thus spake the Lord” sayings in the Bible you could have chosen, this one is about sex. Be that as it may, my favorite Leviticus chapter is 14:33f. Again, this is a “the Lord spoke to Moses”. This one is about leprous houses. Got some white mold in a dark corner of your bathroom, call for the priest. If it doesn’t go away you must burn down your house and send the ashes to a designated landfill. Do you really think the Lord God, Almighty, said that in Moses’ ear?

  • “And that it is full of great wisdom for those that read it thoughtfully and critically.”

    In your many many posts you’ve made clear that means they agree with you.

  • With the rest of ONLY 3% of the U.S. population that’s like her, Susan Humphreys boasted “13 hours ago … I am an Atheist”!

    Wanna know how IN-significant or use-LESS or LAUGH-able 3% is? WATCH THIS:

    (1) “ONLY 3% of American shoppers regularly buy groceries online”, CNN, February 7, 2019.

    (2) “ONLY 3% Of Technicians Are Certified To Work On Electric Cars”, InsideEVs, November 28, 2018.

    (3) “ONLY 3% of Russians say they believe Moscow poisoned Skripal”, Euromaidan Press, October 31, 2018.

    (4) “ONLY 3% of Gaza water is fit for human consumption”, Near East News Agency, June 17, 2016.

    (5) “[Of] the proportion of Americans who call themselves ‘unaffiliated’ … [ONLY] 3% of the total population … call themselves atheists”, The Economist, May 16, 2018 (“The elusive phenomenon of churches without God”).

  • Letters, not alphabets. For example, the Spanish alphabet consistes of 27 letters, one letter more than the English alphabet.

  • Bring up The Bible and the nut cases ooze out of the woodwork with their bizarre concepts of the secret things spoken of in The Bible and that they have the combination of how to decode it.

  • Here is the secret: my Bible is written in English, but if you count on your fingers, maybe you can get up to the number four in Hebrews chapter eight where it is listing covenants. The bizarre idea that no time went by between covenants is totally yours.

    You too could have the combination to crack the code; get some flash cards and learn to count to four.

  • RNS; “You say this kind of contradiction is not a mistake, but a model” This statement is 100% correct. God has to make changes as time goes by. The creation of Man is also a learning curve for the Father. God knows man will make errors but like every man with a child becomes a father by experience, so does the Father of man. God did not experience the pain of death until Cain killed Abel.

  • “Begin at the beginning,” the King of Hearts advised would-be writers in Alice’s” Adventures in Wonderland”: “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

    The kids say, “Tell it all the way from A to Z.” Yet the ancient Greek alphabet was from alpha to omega (“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord” – Revelation, 1.8). This order preceded the Latin alphabet in the history of letters.

    So, if omega is the end in Greek, how did the Z wind up in last position?

    In Phoenician, the precursor of all alphabets, and in Hebrew and then Greek, Z is the seventh letter.

  • Very interesting. So god isn’t all knowing. He has to “learn”. Can you tell me again why he is all powerful, all knowing, and present everywhere?

  • Check his comment at the top of the page. It turns out that a god bothered doesn’t think too much of his god. Quelle surprise.

  • If you want to proof-text you wont find it – but if you really want to find the heart and mind of Christ, He will most likely give you the direction to the Cross and the unflinching love for people. It’s far too easy to judge if you are straight. Of all the gays in my life, none of them would have chosen it, especially if they come from Evangelical homes. Grace and mercy – just like how God deals with us.

  • I did not say that God did not know that Cain would kill Able. Knowing that something will happen is not the same as experiencing it , is what I said. If you have a child, you know absolutely that someday that child will die, but if that child dies before you, you will have the experience of grief and loss which you would never have if you die first. You could say that as a father, you would learn about this kind of grief and loss by experience only.

    Would you tell someone who has just lost a child; “I know how you feel” when you have never experienced it?

    The article is about how we have been experiencing the Bible, and Enns is correct.

  • The question one should ask in regard to this passage is what constituted “Scripture” in the mind of the author and the reader at the time this “letter” was written. The only scriptures at that moment read by Christians were the Hebrew scriptures, as there was no Christian canon at that time.

  • They all say they didn’t choose it, but they are proud of it – a bit contradictory to say the least.
    God does deal with us through grace and mercy, but He also expects obedience – homosexuality is a sin

  • So everything written in the currently accepted canon was future proof? Although there was no New Testament canon at the writing of 1 Timothy, this statement included, the as yet non-existent, New Testament?

    To which scriptures do you subscribe, the Protestant approved scriptures or the Roman Catholic approved scriptures. The Catholics have more, the RCC Old Testament has 73 books.

    So why can’t there be modern day scriptures, such as the Book of Mormon?

  • So you believe that Paul wrote his letters with the view that they would be scripture?

    OK, the Protestast OT has fewer books than the Roman Catholic OT. Which one was it?

    Why can’t there be more recent scripture?

  • You never actually address anything. You make your false claims and never really have anything to intelletually offer the conversation.

  • She just goes on & on with this circular logic and won’t ever offer anything of intelectual significance to the conversation. You’re at a dead end with Sandi in HELL.

  • I debated with an Evangelical for a year or so on a forum. He knew his Bible well and argued strongly. Then all of a sudden, he announced he was giving up his faith. This is the great danger of the literal reading of the Bible : once doubts arise in one thing the whole faith comes crashing down like a house of cards. Enns approach is to be welcomed.

  • “So which is it, Moore or less?” Outright laugh during a stressful morning. Maybe I’m easily amused. Well done, sir.

  • Sandi,
    I happened to watch a foreign movie (with subtitles…no I don’t wear a beret and smoke Gauloises :-)), where the poor woman accused of witchcraft in a 17th century setting was condemned to death based on Exodus 20:18-22.

    I don’t think God has ever walked back his condemnation of witches, either. [Not conceding that “God” is actually speaking through men in the bible, but for the sake of argument…]

    Do you support then the execution of modern-day witches? If yes, do you make any distinction between so-called white magic v. black magic? (I personally don’t place any stock in any of it.) If no, then how do we know what part of the bible to act on, and what parts to ignore?

  • In spite your non sequitur, and your lack of response to the questions I actually posed, I’m happy to respond to your question.

    Mainstream Christian doctrine is that God became flesh and suffered himself to die in expiation or atonement of the sins of the world. If one accepts Christ as their personal Savior, the atonement becomes active in their lives, they are made clean, possibly also becoming less prone to sin in this life, and presumably they receive a reward in the hereafter. The atonement of Christ is the good news of the Bible. Feel free to nit pick about my response, I may not have picked up every nuance or spoken for every sect, but the basic answer is yes, I know.

    What I reject is the basic proposition of the atonement. It is profoundly immoral. It says that God deliberately sent his sinless son to suffer a horrible death in order to be able to forgive us. That is not divine. That is reprehensible. Further, it implies that we are subject to a divine contract a) we don’t remember, and b) quite likely never were a party to.

    Standing back and simply examining the big picture, ignoring the more trivial parts like should a woman cover her hair while praying, etc., gives one a better clarity to the analysis. For example, if there is no cosmic scorekeeper making entries on his clipboard, then it really does not matter if a woman covers her hair, or if a person if fully immersed during baptism, or (here’s one for you South Afrikaaners) if a church sings hymns rather than psalms.

  • David, in a way, Sandi’s responses give the sense of speaking with some not-quite-ready-for-prime-time artificial intelligence. Non sequiturs and just…weirdness.

  • Who is God who cannot stand up to mere mortal reasoning? Is it so unreasonable to call out a being who nearly wiped out the human race with a flood? Who presents the nut case of Abraham, who was willing to murder his only child and would have save for divine intervention, as a role model? For a good person to do evil acts surely requires religion.

    You really want to worship a dysfunctional and abusive being? Have at it. I will reserve my devotion for somebody/something worthy of it. Such as the beautiful woman sleeping peacefully next to me as I write this. Or a beautiful tee shot on the golf course.

  • You are not showing “basic moral reasoning” You have shown a blatant disrespect for God.
    end of conversation. When you grow up, get back to me

  • Actually, I think I’m the adult here. I’m using reason and rationality. Let a neutral reader judge between our posts. There is little chance I will accept the proposition of the Abrahamic god without better evidence. And even if that being were to be proven, I’d have to have much better explanation into her reasoning in order to feel she was worthy of worship.

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