By Alan Bean
Peter Enns wants to work with the Bible God gave us instead of the Bible we think God should have given us. He wants a messy Bible that refuses to behave because that’s the only Bible we have. The Bible isn’t history–in the modern sense of the word–it’s a book of stories written by ordinary people trying to make sense of God and the world.
And the stories in the Bible kept changing over the one thousand or so years during which the book was being compiled.
Narratives that worked for people during the reign of Old King David didn’t work after that kingdom split in two. Stories that worked during the divided kingdom proved inadequate when the Assyrians “disappeared” the ten northern tribes. Stories told when the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were keeping the dynastic dream of David alive failed to deliver the goods when the Babylonians carried God’s people into exile.
We shouldn’t be surprised that this diverse assemblage of stories produced contradictory portraits of God, dueling theologies and inconsistent moral codes.
Like most biblical scholars, Enns thinks the biblical writers were free to re-craft traditional texts to meet their own needs. Sometimes these stories give us valuable historical information; sometimes they are pure inventions, usually they are literary inventions rooted in a smattering of historical knowledge. For the storytellers who gave us the Bible, the issue was never what happened back then; it was always about what’s happening now.
The same pattern holds in the New Testament, Enns believes. Jesus introduced a radical reinterpretation of his inherited faith. The infinitely compassionate God of Jesus calls his people to live by the impossibly non-violent rules of the kingdom of God. There are intriguing foretastes of this God in the Old Testament, but Jesus pushed inherited ideas to their logical extreme while flatly rejecting narratives and notions that conflicted with the God he called “Father”.
Enns says there is no way the kingdom ethic of Jesus can be squared with the portrait of a genocidal tribal deity in the earliest strata of the Old Testament. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ could put entire nations under “the ban”, demanding mass slaughter, pillage, and the enslavement of foreign peoples. The God Jesus proclaimed would have no interest in destroying the entire human race (a single family excepted) in a great flood.
So, what does professor Enns do with the conquest of Canaan as depicted in the bloody book of Joshua? Simple, it didn’t happen (more on that later).
Jesus sets the standard. If we insist that Jesus and Joshua must share a common understanding of God’s character we end up signing off on genocide, and that is precisely what millions of would-be disciples are refusing to do. Tragically, they are heading for the church exits and they aren’t coming back. Jesus and Joshua disagree, Enns says, and twenty-first century Christians must decide whose side they’re on.
The author isn’t saying that we lop off the bits of the Bible we don’t like. Everything in the book is 100% Bible; the book we have is the book God wanted us to have. If God had wanted to give us a self-consistent operators manual he would have done so; but that’s not the kind of book God has given us. Pretending the Bible is what it obviously ain’t leads us off in the wrong direction.
If you, as a good liberal, were offended by the use of male God-pronouns in the previous paragraph, you will be offended by The Bible Tells Me So. Enns understands the ethics of inclusive language, but he doesn’t want his syntax to distract from his message. So God is a “he” and a “him”, theological jargon is kept to a minimum, and the narrative is studded with jokes and bits of whimsy. And there are no footnotes.
Enns could churn out oceans of terse academic prose if he wished (he has a Harvard PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations for God’s sake) but he is casting a broad net with The Bible Tells me So and that demands a simple, witty, colloquial style that may strike purists as glib, annoying, or even irreverent. The readers Enns is targeting won’t be concerned. For reasons that will become clear shortly, this author no longer cares what the guardians of literary or theological purity think.
Enns wrote The Bible Tells Me So for potential Jesus-followers who have been taught to read the Bible as a how-to instruction manual and can’t seem to make it work. Young people are powerfully attracted to the non-violent kingdom Jesus talked about, but wonder how Jesus fits with the stuff in the rest of the Bible which can be confusing, troubling, horrifying and downright weird.
Noah’s flood and the conquest of Canaan aren’t the only challenges Enns confronts in his latest book, but Old Testament carnage enters the discussion early and is frequently revisited. This extended quote will give you a feel for the colloquially comic style I mentioned earlier but you will also feel the urgency behind the quips and clever asides.
Christians today . . . denounce genocide as evil. After all, it’s hard to see Jesus, who gave his life for others, advocating the systemic extermination of a population. Plus, he told his followers that true children of God love and pray for their enemies.
Some of Israel’s ancient prophets strummed a similar chord. The book of Isaiah says there will be a time when Israel’s God will settle all disputes between nations without violent conflict. Swords and spears will be forged into farming tools; war and fear among nations will cease. All will be at peace, because the true God is a God of peace, not of war–and certainly not of an assembly-line slaughter of people from the wrong tribe.
Slight problem though. Earlier in the Old Testament, God also orders the Israelites to (ahem) enter the land of Canaan, march from town to town, and (embarrassing shuffle of feet) wipe out their pagan inhabitants–men, women, and children–and take over their fields and live in their houses.
Then Enns shows how these blatant contradictions have marred the history of the Church.
To the Spaniards, the ‘Indians’ were simply their contemporary version of Canaanites. The first Europeans to settle North America also tended to see it as their Promised Land and the local Native American population as Canaanites who had no divine right to the land, and their fate was similar . . .
You don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to figure this one out. Christians, taking the Bible as a how-to book, have killed pagans, taken their land, and rejoiced in God’s goodness. I mean, if it’s in the Bible, it can’t be bad, right? RIGHT?
Enns then takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of biblical, God-sanctioned massacre. He shows how the Canaanites were set up as the bad guys in the biblical story from the beginning so the eventual conquest of Canaan would appear justified.
No need to be afraid to attack and kill, because God will be right there with them making sure they come up winners. He will be at the side of the Israelite soldiers as they gut young non-Canaanite husbands and take their wives and children into slavery. He will stand and watch as they run their swords through every living thing in Canaan: men, infants, someone’s grandmother, or pregnant wife, and even livestock. God will be with the Israelites, pleased as they level town after town, deaf to screams and cries for mercy.
As a boy, I was bothered by the conquest of Canaan. If God loved everybody, I asked, how come he had it in for the people of Canaan. My interim solution carried a chillingly contemporary relevance. There was only one holy land, the Canaanites were in that land, so God had to move them out so the chosen people (the “real” people) could have “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
I was never satisfied with this logic, but it was the best I could do with what I had. The conquest was mentioned in Sunday school (it’s too central to the story to ignore), but the full horror was muted by a selective reading of the text. I didn’t realize how dreadful the narrative can be until I got to seminary, and even then my professors were too polite to dwell on the obvious.
If you don’t think the commands to commit genocide in the Old Testament are a problem, just watch Pat Robertson struggle to explain why biblical genocide differs from the kind practiced by groups like ISIS:
Enns dwells on the conquest so long and hard that the most callous reader will feel the problem deep down where it hurts. His goal is to continually ratchet up the horror until his readers are begging for a solution, a way out. But Enns won’t provide a hint of relief until he shows us how badly the traditional solutions to the problem fail.
The Reformed tradition tells us to sit down and shut up because God’s ways transcend the comprehension of our puny minds. But “this isn’t a solution,” Enns says, “It’s simply restating the problem.”
Then he touches on a more serious response that demonstrates how impossible it is to “get” Jesus if you are forced to accept Jesus and Joshua as reflections of God’s character:
Sure, Jesus talks about loving your enemies, but Jesus also talks about throwing sinners into hell to burn forever. Since eternal damnation is far worse than exterminating merely one ancient people for their land, the argument goes, don’t get all worked up about the Canaanites.
Enns points out that most of our ideas about “hell” spring from the medieval imagination and find no place in the Bible. Making Jesus as bloodthirsty as the God of the conquest is no solution; in fact it’s a big part of our problem.
Nor does it help to “balance” God’s nice and nasty sides–they can’t be balanced because they stand in stark contradiction. You don’t have to wait until the New Testament to find God’s people wrestling with the wrath-mercy contradiction; it’s right there in the Book of Jonah.
When Israel celebrated a tribal deity who vanquished their enemies, Enns points out, they were simply being what we would expect them to be: citizens of their own place and time. It was perfectly natural for them to think of God as a tribal deity because that’s the way the nations around them pictured their gods.
The Israelites shared with their neighbors a tribal view of the world around them: We are the good guys, and all of you out there are the bad guys. We hate you, your gods, and your strange ways.
Enns’s solution to the God problem begins by pointing out that there is no archaeological support for the conquest. Most of the towns mentioned in biblical narrative have been thoroughly excavated and the evidence for conquest simply isn’t there. In fact, Enns says, according to the best evidence at our disposal:
The Israelites were probably originally made up of a mixture of groups: an indigenous population of Canaanites and outsiders, likely nomads or others who wandered into this part of the world after Egyptian (to the south) and Hittite (to the north) decline left a power vacuum in the region.
Armed conflict between these peoples would have been inevitable and, Enns surmises, “as time went on and Israel became a nation (after 1000 BCE), stories of these earlier skirmishes grew and turned into exaggerated stories of Israel’s wars against the Canaanites in days of Old.”
What most everyone is certain about . . . is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened. And that puts the question ‘How could God have all those Canaanites put to death? in a different light, indeed.
All of which leads to an obvious question. So maybe it is natural for a tribal culture to tell stories about how their God brought them glory in battle back in the day, but if God really is like Jesus describes him, why did he allow his children to write things that weren’t so?
The answer is remarkably simple. God lets his children tell their own stories in their own way. God likes stories.
Like all storytellers, biblical storytellers invented and augmented dialogue, characters, and scenes to turn past moments into a flowing story–not because they were lazy or sneaky, but because that’s what all storytellers need to do to create a narrative. They shifted and arranged the past, or wove together discrete moments, all for the purpose of telling their story for their audience.
To illustrate this point, Enns shows how the authors behind the two books of Chronicles handled the same stories we find in the two books of Kings very differently. They weren’t correcting the earlier narratives; they were reworking these stories to meet the needs of their own place and time.
Even the origin stories in the early chapters of Genesis reflect the concerns, interests and theological challenges of a later period. For instance, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden foreshadows the Babylonian exile. In both cases, the moral is the same: “Obey and you stay; disobey and be exiled.”
For the ancient Israelite storytellers, living in the shadow of the crisis of the divided monarchy and then the exile to Babylon, the takeaway point of all this is: we are still here, for the God of old, the mighty creator, the one before time, the God of ‘back then and up there’ is on our side here and now.’
The same point is made with reference to the four gospels. Matthew and Luke depart from Mark not because he got the story wrong, but because they were applying a story they inherited from Mark to different people living with different problems and concerns.
Enns wants us to work with the Bible we’ve actually got, not the Bible we think we must have. The Bible God gave us is the Bible God wants us to have. Here’s the heart of the problem:
There’s an irony: 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.
In its more extreme forms, making God look like us is what the Bible calls idolatry.
The Bible we have, Enns argues, proves that God loves a good story and isn’t fussy about historical precision. The Bible we have shows that God wants us to wrestle with the hard places in our lives, asking how the God of the Bible relates to the lives we live today. “A book like that shows us what a life of faith looks like.”
A big chunk of The Bible Tells Me So is dedicated to the rich diversity of outlook, insight and aspiration found within the Bible, even within a single tradition. The Torah ascribed to the pen of Moses contradicts itself at every turn. Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes give us three very different takes on whether “wisdom” can be found in this wicked world.
And then we come to Jesus.
Jesus often reads his Bible in fresh ways that challenged old ways of thinking about God and what it means to be the people of God. Specifically he often focused attention on himself, as if he was somehow not simply interpreting the Bible but that he was the Bible’s focus . . . Jesus was no rulebook reader of the Bible. Jesus was bigger than the Bible.
And that is the critical point Enns is making: ultimately, the Bible is a book about Jesus. If we insist that the Bible must speak with only one voice, we will try to make the teaching of Jesus consistent with the rest of the Bible. Jesus wants to introduce a radically new way of thinking about God, but we can’t hear him until we stop worshiping the Bible. To find Jesus, we must lose our religion.
Peter Enns wouldn’t have written a book this challenging during his sojourn as a tenured professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. Westminster was founded in the late 1920s as a conservative (all right, fundamentalist) alternative to the “modernist” Princeton Theological Seminary. John Gresham Machen, the schools’ most eloquent and influential founding father, envisioned an institution rooted in the Westminster Confession, a pristine expression of Reformed (Calvinist) theology. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
Peter Enns grew up with this theology, and was tutored in its fine points as a Master’s student at Westminster in the 1980s. But his work with Jewish professors of religion at Harvard introduced him to the wild theological variety on display in the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather than striving for uniformity of opinion, Enns learned, Jewish theologians allowed radically opposing views to co-exist in peace. As believers wrestled with God, and with one another, surprising truths and insights emerged. A messy business, perhaps, but there was no other way.
After graduating from Harvard in 1994, Enns returned to his alma mater. Westminster remained a theologically conservative school, but it prized academic rigor and the humorous and engaging Enns brought prodigious skills to the table. He was exactly the marriage of orthodoxy and academic excellence Westminster was looking for.
And then, in 2005, Enns published Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. The Bible is like Jesus Christ, Enns said, fully God and fully human. The humanity of the Bible is on display at every turn and evangelicals can admit as much without abandoning their traditional focus on the sufficiency and divine origin of the Bible.
It is likely that Enns would have escaped serious scrutiny if Westminster hadn’t hired a new president, Peter A. Lillback, a man determined to return the school to the Reformed orthodoxy of the sainted Dr. Machen. Lillback was working on a book that portrayed George Washington, America’s first president, as an orthodox Christian. The book, published a year after Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, languished in obscurity until Glen Beck stumbled upon it and began selling it to his audience as a must-read for every patriotic American. In other words, Lillback is a Reformed version of faux historian David Barton. What Barton did with Thomas Jefferson, Lillback has done with General Washington.
It was clear to Lillback that if his vision of Christianity was to prevail at Westminster, Enns, a natural rival if ever there was one, had to be silenced.
The seminary president’s first step was to convene a panel of professors in order to examine the theological purity of Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation. When the faculty gave the book a ringing endorsement, Lillback took the matter to the board of trustees, a group that, traditionally, had no dealt with matters of theological import.
Lillback knew Enns was a popular professor, but he was determined to see him gone. This quote from an article in Christianity Today, captures Lillback’s dilemma.
Inspiration and Incarnation has caught the attention of the world so that we have scholars that love this book, and scholars who have criticized it very deeply. We have students who have read it say it has liberated them. We have other students that say it’s crushing their faith and removing them from their hope. We have churches that are considering it, and two Presbyteries have said they will not send students to study under Professor Enns here.”
Westminster Seminary circa 2005 was a microcosm of American evangelicalism. Many evangelicals will read The Bible Tells Me So (a book far more provocative than the volume that got Enns in trouble at Westminster) with a mix of relief and elation; others, sensing where the argument is headed, will lay the book down after a couple of chapters. It is significant that two-thirds of the professors at Westminster Theological Seminary had no beef with the theology of Peter Enns and that the nine trustees who supported the popular professor resigned in protest when he was sacked.
The bold thesis advanced in The Bible Tells Me So will be rapturously embraced by thousands of American Christians and I am one of these people. Enns has admirably summarized the rough scholarly consensus about the Bible and I hope his particular emphasis on the the conquest of Canaan and the character of God will spark a debate too long deferred.
But official evangelicaldom will recoil from TBTMS with horror and revulsion. If Enns is right about the Bible we will have to rethink our Christianity from the ground up, and when we are done we will find ourselves in a brave new world of faith and practice.
The men (and they are almost all men) who run the megachurches, parachurch ministries, and flagship academies of American evangelicalism will be forced to damn Peter Enns as a godless heretic (the Grand Inquistor story from The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind). To quote Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
If Enns wins, the theory of biblical inerrancy is finished as a bedrock doctrine. Since American evangelicalism is an edifice built on an inerrant Bible it must reject not just the author’s ideas but the author himself. “Let him be anathema,” will be the cry.
A new kind of Christianity is emerging in America, but, as yet, it has received very little institutional support. Can existing congregations, evangelical or mainline, debate the merits and demerits of Enns’s thesis; or will pastors continue to ignore the hermeneutical elephant in the room? These ideas will be debated online, but few preachers, however much they love Peter’s book, will be willing to spark the necessary conversation.
But the conversation is happening nonetheless. If there had been an internet when I was struggling with the conquest of Canaan as a wee lad, I might have worked my way out of the evangelical straight jacket much sooner. In most urban settings, the right pastor could fill a new congregation with hundreds of young seekers eager for a real conversation about the real Jesus. I don’t know of any denominations ready to support these hypothetical churches . . . which may point to the need for new, post-denominational, webs of support.
I have no beef with a high view of biblical inspiration, so long as that doctrinal commitment doesn’t dull the message Jesus injected into the world. I know of many Christians with impeccable conservative credentials who appear to be hearing Jesus loud and clear inerrant Bible and all. May their tribe increase. So long as the Jesus of the Bible stands at the heart of Christian piety, it doesn’t matter how we regard the Bible.
But most of us can’t find Jesus until we lose our religion. If we must believe that every chapter and verse of the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, we will be tempted to add Conquest to Christ and divide by two. Sure, we rarely talk about the God of the Conquest; we no longer believe in that kind of a God. But we can’t open ourselves to the miraculous dynamism of Jesus either. The Galilean contradicts the tribal God of Joshua so emphatically that he must be exaggerating for effect. Because, like it or not, every gory detail of the conquest depicted in Joshua is true in every detail and reflects, in some twisted way we can’t quite grasp, the character of God.
That’s why I am thankful for Peter Enns. I’m glad he addressed the elephant in the room. I’m glad he eschewed academic jargon and learned footnotes. I’m glad he had the courage to reveal the humorous side of this debate (from God’s perspective, our attempts at theology must be hilarious). I’m glad Enns chose to express himself in simple, proletarian English.
And I hope the backlash against The Bible Tells Me So will be so over the top that millions of young people will wonder what the fuss is all about and pick up this wonderful book.