Review: Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So

How do we make sense of difficult passages in the Bible? What about the violence or apparent contradictions? Peter Enns addresses these concerns in his new book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It. Enns is concerned that instead of honest engagement with Scripture some segments of the Church have made untenable attempts to cover up or explain away the challenges. He specifically sees this occurring among Christians who treat the Bible like a rulebook of fixed, timeless truths. Instead of a rulebook, Enns suggests we read Scripture in the genre of storytelling with inspired examples of how God-fearers of the past have wrestled with their faith. To be clear, Enns affirms the value of Scripture—we know God better by reading it—but he believes we have erroneous expectations of it. He wants to help his readers understand the nature of Scripture and, therefore, how to correctly read and apply it. Instead of diminishing reverence for the Bible, Enns seeks to affirm it by accepting it for what it really is: an inspired but messy text.

There are both positive and problematic aspects of Enns’ work. But before, I provide my own reflection, here are the stats. The book is divided into seven chapters that each have multiple, short readable essays. He centers his thesis on three primary realizations that challenged him to re-think the nature of Scripture. The Bible depicts:

1. God doing a lot of killing.

2. Events or details that are not always historically accurate.

3. Diverse, even divergent views.

The first portion of the book hammers home the reality that parts of the Bible show God sanctioning massacre. Enns states that God can appear “flat-out terrifying” and as a “perennially hacked-off warrior-god” (31). He concludes that killing is God’s go-to punishment, according to the Israelites. Enns says this is “barbaric tribal nonsense” (57). We do not have to accept everything the biblical authors endorsed as being God sanctioned. God in reality is not an ancient Near Eastern tribal god. Instead the Israelites “saw the world and their God in tribal ways” (61). It was how they understood and connected with God in their time. Enns anticipates our question: why would God allow himself to be portrayed in this way if it’s not accurate? Enns simply says, “I’ve given up trying to get into God’s head” (62).

In terms of historical accuracy, Enns does not believe the Israelite conquest of Canaan happened as depicted. There was no genocide. Archaeological evidence does not support the kind of mass take-over that the biblical authors describe. He also says we should not understand the story of Adam and Eve, talking animals, and the parting of the Red Sea in a literalistic manner, but as a form of storytelling. This does not mean the stories are fairy tales, but rather the biblical authors purposely conveyed their history and relationship with God in story-telling genres common to that time period and culture. Similarly, the Gospel writers probably created some scenes. For example, Matthew intentionally shapes his Gospel theologically by connecting Jesus with Moses and the exodus story. But Enns does not see this as a problem. Matthew wrote the way he did in order to get the real Jesus across. The real Jesus was only truly understood after the resurrection. Enns says, “What makes the Bible God’s Word isn’t its uncanny historical accuracy, as some insist, but the sacred experiences these stories point to, beyond the words themselves. Watching these ancient pilgrims work through their faith, even wrestling with how they did that, models for us our own journeys of seeking to know God better and commune with him more deeply” (77). Enns concludes that storytelling is a better way to conceptualize the Bible rather than history writing (128). However, he seems to affirm the historical veracity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Finally, Enns spends a good amount of time emphasizing the divergent views of biblical authors (e.g. Jonah vs. Nahum, Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes, Kings vs. Chronicles, and the various Gospels). He states there are different perspectives of God in the Bible and stresses discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He notes that Jesus was not the kind of messiah Jews were expecting and that Paul’s perspectives on Mosaic law were a radical departure from Israelite religion. Enns does not see these divergent views as a problem. Rather different parts of the Bible guide and comfort us at different times. He points to the book of Proverbs as a good example of how to read Scripture; this text places opposing maxims side by side. The proverbs don’t always express one right way to handle a situation, but suggest different situations call for different responses. Sometimes we answer the fool; sometimes we don’t. Instead of being a rulebook, the Bible teaches us to grow in wisdom. Wisdom does not involve rote adherence to rules, but discerns situations on a case by case basis.

Reflections

What Enns believes about biblical interpretation is somewhat of a mixed message. On the one hand he emphasizes the creative interpretations of Jesus and the New Testament authors, seemingly implying we have such freedom as well. But on the other hand, Enns is firmly in the historical-critical camp of hermeneutics. He believes attending to the context, especially historical context, is essential and his book models historical criticism as the primary hermeneutical method. In fact, the book is the most witty and accessible overview of standard historical-critical views of the Bible (esp. the Old Testament) that I have read.

His analysis covers familiar assertions prominent in the guild: The Old Testament was written by an ancient tribal people who believed their God was a warrior. The creation account is myth and the miraculous stories largely fiction (e.g. there was no parting of the Red Sea or talking donkey). Enns concludes the Israelites were simply wrong about God some (or much?) of the time. For example, God never commanded the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites mistakenly believed that God told them that. However, Enns also maintains that genocide or conquest never happened per archaeological evidence—at least on the scale that the biblical authors depict.

Many conservative Evangelicals will be tempted to dismiss Enns as having gone off the deep end. But, anyone who has spent time studying the ancient Near East and the Graeco-Roman world quickly realizes that Enns has a point. The Bible is unnervingly similar to the cultural context in which it was produced. Conservatives sometimes warn about the dangers of the academe causing people to lose their faith, but it is not the fault of a sinful academe; it’s the fault of certain churches that have not adequately studied their own sacred book. When people begin to investigate and discover what they have been taught is not exactly true, they sometimes conclude the Bible itself is false. But, as Enns points out, the problem is not with the Bible, but with the expectations we place upon it. The reality of God meeting us where we are at in our cultural context is evidence of God’s presence and nearness. God is with us and thus speaks our language. The cultural trappings that characterize the biblical text are not evidence of its lack of divine influence but, in fact, demonstrate God’s involvement with us. While many conservatives are likely to miss the value of Enns book, he is actually trying to help people hold onto their faith who might otherwise walk away from Christianity precisely because the Church has not provided adequate answers to the hard passages.

However, I do have a few quibbles with the book:

1. It can reinforce stereotypes about the Old Testament that many people already have (e.g. the Old Testament God is the vengeful, mean God while the New Testament God is the nice one.) As a scholar and teacher of the Old Testament my desire is to help people gain greater appreciation and comprehension of it. There is much more to the Old Testament than violence or contradictions, but that is hard to see in Enns’ book. I understand he had a particular objective in mind—to make us really reckon with the difficult passages. We do need to reckon with them. However, he could have provided some nuance. Using over-the-top descriptions such as “perennially hacked-off warrior-god” is an inadequate and incomplete presentation of Israelite theology. Similarly, nuances could have included mentioning that erem is largely confined to parts of Deuteronomy and Joshua. And scholars have long recognized differences between Genesis and Deuteronomy in their depictions of violence. Elsewhere, Enns acknowledges Scripture has a plurality of voices, but when it comes to discussing Old Testament violence he presents a largely one-dimensional perspective. Again, I understand he has a particular objective, but ultimately the book reinforces certain stereotypes of the Old Testament. I think he could have accomplished his objective without doing so.

2. The book tends toward ethnocentrism. I have noticed a couple trends in the prolific conversation on violence in the Old Testament: either the violence is swept under the carpet or the Israelites are depicted as backward, primitive human beings. The ethnocentrism in Enns’ book comes out in his use of descriptions like “weird,” “bizarre,” or “tribal nonsense.” Often in ethnocentric portrayals scholars view modern human beings as more enlightened and civilized than the “savages” of antiquity. For example, Kenton Sparks who also addresses similar concerns as Enns believes we understand the character of God better than ancient peoples. It feels a tad Colonialist and disregards the gross violence committed in our own modern era. The attitude also overlooks the fact that we still have “pre-modern” people living in many parts of the world today, including stone-age Indian tribes that are far more “primitive” than the Israelites. Yet, it is no longer kosher in most scholarly circles to refer to tribes in Papua New Guinea or Columbia as “weird” or “bizarre.” Somehow we think that because ancient peoples are no longer able to speak for themselves we can relegate them to inferior status.

Cultural sensitivity helps to shed light on violence in the biblical text. For example, hyperbole was common in ancient Near Eastern rhetoric. While war certainly happened the language of “wiping out” a people did not necessarily mean wiping out. We see an example of this on the Merneptah Stele where the Egyptians claim to have wiped out Israel around 1200 B.C.E. Obviously that didn’t happen. Similarly, the biblical authors say the Canaanites were wiped out, but flip to the next page and we read they were not successful. K. Lawson Younger Jr. provides a helpful look at hyperbole in his book Ancient Conquest Accounts: A Study in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical History Writing. Another example, of cultural factors is the role of a collective society vs. an individualistic society. As in other parts of the ancient Near East, the Israelites sometimes practiced collective punishment. Collective reward also occurred. Americans have a difficult time understanding this mentality because of our individualistic culture. That doesn’t mean collective punishment is, therefore, excused but it does provide greater understanding than simply that the Israelites were weird. It should also be pointed out that some biblical authors actively spoke against collective punishment. It did not go unchallenged even in antiquity.

3. Enns claims a center for the Old Testament. Many scholars over the years have tried to find a “center” to the Old Testament, and they have all been unsuccessful because the Old Testament cannot be reduced to one theme. Enns knows this because he acknowledges the plurality of the texts. He also denies that the Bible is a coherent whole. But that does not stop him from essentially making the claim that the Old Testament has a singular coherent message. He writes: “Israel’s dismal story of the monarchy is the meat of the Old Testament” (103; emphasis in the original). Even the creation narrative is understood as a retelling of Israel’s Babylonian exile. He essentially reduces the Old Testament to the politics of Israel. Enns’ proposal that most of the biblical texts relate to the monarchy, divided kingdom, and exile is compelling and worthy of consideration. But, it’s reductionistic to assert that the Old Testament can be summed up in politics.

4. The book is theologically anemic. It is missing robust theological engagement with the Old Testament. Essentially, the conclusions Enns draws sound like the result of historical-critical scholarship meets contemplative spirituality. He is a good historian. And he seeks to find meaning in the Old Testament, but it’s largely reduced to a “model for our own spiritual journey” and “all of us on a journey of faith encounter God from our point of view” (24). I am all for historical-critical scholarship and contemplative spirituality. I practice both. And I agree that we can learn from how the biblical authors wrestled with God or experienced joy or suffering. But given that he sees the ancient perspectives as their views and now we encounter God from our view, there doesn’t seem to be a sense that the Old Testament conveys enduring theological truths. There is no discussion in the book of prominent themes like creation, sin, redemption, justice, or righteousness. The Old Testament is theologically rich and unfortunately that is not captured in Enns’ book. Part of the problem seems to be Enns’ lack of engagement with 2,000 years of Christian exegesis on the same questions he asks. He cites Jewish interpretation, but there is no mention of Christian biblical scholars from across time. There are plenty of theologians in history who have struggled with the problems of violence in the Old Testament. Thus, his work seems strangely individualistic in its detachment from the community of Christian saints. For theological balance I recommend folk read Old Testament scholars like Ellen F. Davis and Brevard Childs, or books such as The Mighty from Their Thrones: Power in Biblical Tradition by J.M.P. Walsh.

In essence, Enns has written a witty, readable historical-critical account of the Old Testament that accurately describes many important facets of the biblical text. He is right that we cannot simply appropriate Scripture like some kind of manual or rule book. That would mistake the nature of the Bible. Rather, Scripture helps us to grow in wisdom so that we can discern how to live a Christ-like life. However, Enns’ rendering of the Old Testament has weaknesses. Some of this is likely the result of trying to write a pop culture friendly account of the issues rather than a more “serious” work like his book Inspiration and Incarnation. Some also stems from Enns’ methodological preferences (e.g. lack of theological engagement). Ultimately, Enns’ book might help those who are on the verge of leaving Christianity or throwing out the Bible. That is a good thing. But, if people only read Enns’ book, they will not obtain a fully accurate understanding of the Old Testament.

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