Canaanites, Reality Checks, and Letting the Bible Out of the Box


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’ve always been a Bible nerd. 

Growing up in an evangelical church, I memorized all the verses in my AWANA notebook and boasted enough badges and pins on my bright red Sparky vest to rival a five-star general. I was elected president of the Bible Club in high school, and in college I minored in biblical studies at a college famous for teaching students to analyze the world with a “biblical worldview.” The fat study Bible I carried under my arm bore the highlighter marks of a devoted reader, its pages wrinkled and worn. 

I’ve also always had questions about the Bible. 

Have I ever mentioned that I won the "Best Christian Attitude Award" four years in a row in elementary school? Or that my bangs accounted for about 40% of my body weight? 

Have I ever mentioned that I won the "Best Christian Attitude Award" four years in a row in elementary school? Or that my bangs accounted for about 40% of my body weight? 

Once, in Sunday school, I raised a slap-bracelet-bedecked hand to ask why God drowned all the world’s animals in the Great Flood—save those on the ark—when it was people who had sinned, not innocent penguins and kangaroos. (She told me to go home and ask my father.) 

In high school, in the midst of yet another noble attempt to read the Bible in a year, I remember drawing breath upon reaching the story of the Battle of Jericho and realizing that after the walls came a-tumblin’ down, the Israelites “destroyed with the sword ever living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys,” all on God’s orders. In any other context, this would be condemned as genocide. Why would a good and loving God call for the slaughter of little children? 

A tipping point occurred during a sleepy, 9-a.m. Introduction to World Literature class when my class read the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem purportedly written before the book of Genesis, which tells the story of a worldwide flood, a favored family, and an ark full of animals, only with Sumerian gods and heroes at its center instead of the familiar Yahweh. The similarity in style and content between the stories I knew from the Bible and the myths of other Mesopotamian cultures suddenly made those strange tales of talking snakes and forbidden fruit and boats packed with animals seem colloquial, routine—nothing more than myths operating from the religious and literary conventions of the day. 

There were other issues too: The way the accounts of Israel’s monarchy contradicted one another, the way Jesus and Paul quoted Hebrew Scripture in ways that seemed to stretch the original meaning, the fact that women were considered property in Levitical Law, the way both science and archeology challenged the historicity of so many biblical texts, and the fact that it was nearly impossible for me to write a creative retelling of Resurrection Day because each of the gospel writers tell the story so differently, sometimes with contradictory details. 

The Bible just didn’t seem to want to behave the way I was told it was meant to behave—as a scientifically-provable, historically-accurate account of God’s actions in the world and a cohesive, inerrant rulebook for how to think and live as a Christian. 

Invariably, when I expressed concern over these issues, well-meaning apologists would refer me to Gleason Arche’s massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, a heavy volume that seeks to provide the reader with sound explanations for every conceivable puzzle found within the Bible—from whether God approved of Rahab’s lie, to where Cain got his wife. But encountering a 500-page book listing hundreds of apparent biblical contradictions, half of which I didn’t even know existed before, did not have the desired affect and in fact only made things worse. 

After about a decade of doubt, study, and frustration, I made a resolution: to pursue the truth about the Bible without compromising my intellectual integrity, regardless of whether that pursuit led me to affirm my long-held presuppositions or whether it forced me to change my mind. I wanted to accept the Bible on its own terms, without projecting my evangelical community’s expectations upon it. I wanted to let it out of the box. 

Truth be told, this is a somewhat futile endeavor, as no one can approach a text with complete objectivity, somehow setting their culture, experience, background, gender, and ethnicity aside. But the pursuit did start me on an exciting, surprising journey toward loving the Bible more for what it is, not what I want it to be. 

Life would never be the same. 

"The Bible Tells Me So"

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, one of my favorite guides on this journey has been Old Testament scholar (and friend) Peter Enns. Pete’s books, blogs and articles just make sense to me—as a skeptic, as a literature lover, and as a Christian. The guy speaks my language, and he consistently writes with unusual wit, clarity and honesty.  

This is especially true of his latest book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, which released last week and which I highly recommend. 

I’m not sure how else to describe this book except to say that reading it is an experience. Never have I encountered a book on biblical interpretation that manages to be as simultaneously challenging and funny, uncomfortable and liberating, intellectually rigorous and accessible, culturally significant and deeply personal. It’s a book that invites the reader to really wrestle with Scripture, and it’s not for the faint of heart. 

Enns begins by observing that “when you read the Bible on its own terms, you discover that it doesn’t behave itself like a holy rulebook should.” There are contradictions, discrepancies, bizarre stories, ethically-troubling scenarios, and puzzles. But “the problem isn’t the Bible, Enns contends. “The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.” 

“What if the Bible is just fine the way it is?” he asks. “What if it doesn’t need to be protected from itself? What if it doesn’t need to be bathed and perfumed before going out in public? And what if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is without needing anyone to stand guard over it? Not the well-behaved-everything-is-in-order version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible we actually have?” 

Enns goes on to tell his own story of asking tough questions about the Bible as a devoted Christian and a scholar, often at great personal and professional cost. “My goal with this book,” he writes, “is to assure people of faith that they do not need to feel anxious, disloyal, unfaithful, dirty, scared, or outcast for engaging these questions of the Bible, interrogating it, not liking some of it, exploring what it really says, and discerning like adult readers what we can learn from it in our own journey of faith…We respect the Bible most when we let it be what it is and learn from it rather than combing out the tangles to make it presentable.” 

And then he dives right in, starting with what are perhaps the most troubling, problematic, and upsetting passages in Scripture: those that describe Israel’s conquest of Canaan and the supposedly God-ordained ethnic cleansing that conquest entailed. 

Enns skillfully dismantles some of the common responses to these passages—that the Canaanites were super-duper evil and therefore deserved to be exterminated, that war with the Canaanites was inevitable, that God’s bloodthirsty portrait in Joshua is balanced out by more flattering portraits elsewhere in Scripture, that questioning biblical accounts of God-ordained genocide is sinful because God can do whatever God wants to do, etc—before offering his own controversial, yet well-argued, conclusion: “God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.” 

I told you this book is not for the faint of heart. 

Enns argues that as ancient tribal people, the Israelites saw their God in tribal ways. In describing their relationship with God and the world around them, they spoke their own cultural language. “The Bible,” writes Enns, “is the story of God told from the limited point of view of real people living at a certain place and time….The Bible looks the way it does because ‘God lets his children tell the story,’ so to speak.” 

This doesn’t mean that the Bible "lies," or that our ancient ancestors were barbarians to simply be dismissed. It just means that whenever God enters the human story, God speaks to (and through) people using their own language, their own view of the world. And we make an enormous mistake when we project our modern, Enlightenment-shaped presuppositions regarding history and storytelling onto writers who were addressing ancient, pre-modern questions through ancient, pre-modern literary genres. 

Furthermore, Enns argues, the ancient tribal description of God is not the last word.  

“These ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time,” he writes, “but not for all of time—and if we take that to heart, we will actually be in a better position to respect these ancient voices and see what they have to say rather than whitewashing the details and making up ‘explanations’ to ease our stress. For Christians, the gospel has always been the lens through which Israel’s stories are read—which means, for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word.” 

Enns goes on to explain how much of the Old Testament was written while the people of Israel were in exile and therefore seeks to respond to questions of Jewish identity. The stories of Genesis and Exodus, Joshua and Judges, and many others can be better understood as origin stories that helped the people of God make sense of their place in the world.  

“The biblical writers were storytellers,” says Enns. “Writing about the past was never simply about understanding the past for its own sake, but about shaping, molding, and creating the past to speak to the present. 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 and lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons.” 

This is not only true for the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures but also for Jesus and for the authors of the New Testament. Jesus, like other first-century Jews, read his Bible creatively, seeking deeper meaning that transcended the boundaries of the words of Scripture. “A crucified and resurrected messiah,” writes Enns, “was a surprise ending to Israel’s story. To spread the word of this messiah, the earliest Christian writers both respected Israel’s story while also going beyond that story. They transformed it from a story of Israel centered on Torah to a story of humanity centered on Jesus.” 

Citing multiple examples from Genesis to Revelation, Enns shows how the many writers of Scripture used stories, poems, letters, and accounts written in their own voice, with their own assumptions and agendas, to tell the story of God, which, in various and complex ways ultimately bears witness to Jesus Christ. 

“The Bible doesn’t say, ‘Look at me!’” writes Enns. “It says, ‘Look through me.” 

All of this leaves us with a Bible that includes fissures and tensions, contradictions and questions, a Bible that invites wrestling, conversation, and a variety of interpretations (which Enns is quick to note is a reality that has long been celebrated, rather than glossed over, in the Jewish community). 

It’s hard to do justice to The Bible Tells Me So with a summary, and already I’ve seen several bloggers misrepresent it, (most having not bothered to actually read it).  One does not have to agree with all of Enns’ conclusions to be challenged and inspired by this book, and one need only look to the list of sources in the back to dig deeper on one’s own time. 

What I appreciated most about The Bible Tells Me So was its tell-it-like-it-is approach. The book takes you from one reality check to the next—bringing science, history, archeology, and scholarship into the conversation without apology—but with gentle good humor and disarming honesty.  This is one of the only books I’ve ever read that addressed the conquest of Canaan without either glossing over the genocide or offering feeble, inadequate defenses of it. It looks Scripture straight in the eye, without flinching, and in so doing manages to be both unsettling and profoundly liberating. 

Enns concludes: 

“This is the Bible we have, the Bible where God meets us. Not a book kept at safe distance from the human drama. Not a fragile Bible that has to be handled with care lest it crumble in our hands. Not a book that has to be defended 24/7 to make sure our faith doesn’t dissolve. In other words, not an artificially well-behaved Bible that gives false comfort, but the Holy Bible, the Word of God, with wrinkles, complexities, unexpected maneuvers, and downright strangeness. This is the Bible God has given his people. This Bible is worth reading and paying attention to, because this is the Bible God uses, as he always has, to point his readers to deeper trust in him. We are free to walk away from this invitation, of course, but we are not free to make the Bible in our own image. What the Bible looks like is God’s call, not ours.” 

I’m beginning to think I will always be the sort of person who struggles to reconcile my love of Scripture with my questions about it. 

And thanks to this book, and others, I’m beginning to think maybe that’s okay. 

***

Check out The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns.  Note: Though I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book by the publisher, I was not compensated for this review or discussion. 

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