I’ve had this book on my NOOK wishlist for awhile now. So I was SUPER excited to see it on sale this last week. (I love it when that happens.) Of course, after reading it I would have more than happily paid full price for it, so I think I’ll order a hard copy to have and mark up!
Right off the bat though, this book is going to make a lot of people mad. Really mad. There are generally two views of the Bible in our society today. On one hand you have some Christians who believe that it’s a giant law book/owner’s manual and that everything it says literally happened exactly the way it says, and if you disagree, well enjoy your pre-booked, all expenses paid suite in Hell.
The other opinion is the polar opposite. This comes from folks like “the new atheists” (though I don’t generally care for that term) who see the Bible as nothing more the ramblings of a bunch of crotchety ancient guys with no truth and no redeeming value whatsoever.
Enns presents a third viewpoint, and with this viewpoint he is primarily addressing Christians, but he does talk about some of the points raised by the Richard Dawkins crowd as well. Enns talks about how the modern world fundamentally sees the Bible differently than people in times gone by did, and if we can learn to read and wrestle with the Bible in the same way that these people did, then we can really unlock the value it has for us, even still today. He breaks the book down into three sections, primarily. The first deals with the Old Testament and how it was written and compiled. The second deals with Jesus and how he used the Jewish scriptures during his lifetime, and the third deals with the New Testament writers, primarily Paul, and how they re-imagined the ancient story of Israel into a story with Christ as it’s center.
In the Old Testament section he addresses one big thing that makes so many people, Christian or not, uncomfortable with the Bible: the conquest of Canaan. If you’re not familiar with this story, here’s the short version: after Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt they show up to the borders of Canaan, the land God promised to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. Moses bites the dust and Joshua takes over. God commands Joshua and the people to enter Canaan and slaughter every last person (women and children included) and to even kill all the livestock. The first part of the book of Joshua talks about how they accomplished this in several gruesome scenes.
This presents a problem. Why would God order this mass slaughter? Well, according to Enns, he didn’t. He goes through some of the archaeology of the area in question and talks about how there really isn’t any evidence that a lot of these towns were ever involved in large battles at the time that the Conquest was supposedly happening. In fact, there isn’t really evidence that the city of Jericho had walls to come tumbling down at Joshua’s trumpets at the time when it supposedly happened. Instead, evidence suggests that by in large the Israelite culture grew up side by side with people in Canaan, eventually becoming the dominant culture and resulting in the Israelite monarchy.
So why would the Bible say otherwise? Well, if you think that these early books were written as they happened by people who were there, thus containing inerrant history, it makes no sense. If you stop and realize that these books were written much later by some people who were primarily interested in telling a good story as opposed to writing a history in the modern sense of the word, well then, things become clearer. According to Enns, who has a degree about this stuff from Harvard, the OT writers were more interested in forming a national identity and were writing much later, either during the Monarchy or during/after the Exile to Babylon. People who were returning home after the exile, or living in time of the glorious monarchy would like to hear tales about their God helping them triumph over their enemies and making them all around bad-asses.
In short, the Old Testament is a story, written by different people, using different genres, at different times to talk about where they were, and where Israel was in relation to it’s God at the time when the books were written. This was an ancient, tribal people, and if we expect the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to not seem like a product of an ancient, tribal people then we’re in for some trouble.
The second section talks about how Jesus used scripture. Enns points out that if Jesus were a college student studying the Bible today, he’d probably fail his Bible classes. The Gospels are full of Jesus getting creative with scripture. He makes things say what they don’t seem to say. He reinterprets several things. He kind of does away with some other things. He makes the scripture say what he wants it to say.
Well, that sounds like something that both fundamentalist Christians and atheists would have a big issue with. Jesus is cherry-picking scripture and making it say what he wants it to! Except that practice was totally the norm among first century Jewish people, and in fact the Jewish religion has a great history of debate about scripture, even Torah itself, and that history still exists. For a lot of Jewish experts on scripture, the wrestling with the scripture is part of their tradition. The conversation between the person and scripture, and between different people about scripture, is a necessary and rich part of their tradition. Enns says we should take a page from their book.
Finally Enns talks about how Paul and other New Testament writers reshaped Israel’s story to be all about their Messiah, Jesus. That’s right, Paul and other writers also played fast and loose with scripture too! For most of them, this same Jewish tradition of wrestling with and molding scripture into their lives provides the basis for how they tell the story of the crucified and risen Christ, and how they took that message into the bigger world. In fact, they didn’t always agree with one another. Paul and Peter clashed heads more than once, but that’s all part of the journey of wrestling with scripture and with God, which is what Enns believes is exactly what God wants us to do as well.
This all sounds really high and mighty and drab and dull. I promise you, it’s not. The book is peppered with jokes and witty, and sometimes downright snarky comments that made me laugh loudly many times. You don’t get the sense that you’re in classroom listening to Enns lecture, you get the sense that you’re at a laid back restaurant having a nice discussion over burgers and a brew. His style is wonderful, honest, and refreshing.
So if you’re curious about the Bible, or if you have some of these same nagging questions about it, I invite you to check out this book. I think if every Christian were to read it and seriously consider what it has to say, well then we could start to fix a lot of the things that go on in our culture.