marked-up Bible

Enns’ explanation for Old Testament genocide: It didn’t happen

Reading The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It by popular theologian Peter Enns brought back two memories from my days attending an evangelical Christian college. I remember reading the entire Old Testament for the first time and thinking: “These writers believed there is more than one God — it’s just that their God is the right one and other nations worship the wrong ones.” The second involved writing a term paper on the book of Ecclesiastes, which caused me to wonder why such a cynical book even belonged in the Bible.

I learned then that the Bible wasn’t what so many people seem to think it is. I realized that it didn’t present a consistent view of who or what God is. I also learned that the personalities of the authors and the times they lived in had as much to do with the views they presented as did whatever divine inspiration they received.

So I had to chuckle a bit when Enns devoted four pages in the middle of this book to how many gods the Old Testament writers believed in. His conclusion: Sometimes they treated the foreign gods as meaningless, but “[a]t least as often, the Bible treats these gods as real, actually existing, and who have to be reckoned with. Israel’s God isn’t the only God; he’s the best and mightiest among the gods. (Emphasis in original.)

Back to an overview of the book: As Enns studied the Bible, from early in life until he started teaching at a theologically conservative seminary, he came to the realization that one traditional view of the Bible — as a sort of instructional manual and history book downloaded from heaven — couldn’t make sense when he would read the Bible on its own terms. He came to the conclusion that the Bible was, in essence, a collection of books that told how the writers experienced God in the cultures they lived in more than a collection of universal truths.

It was obviously a big paradigm shift, and ultimately he was suspended from his tenured seminary teaching position. It’s not surprising that his books have been controversial in Christian circles, sometimes viewed as heretical.

Enns begins laying out his case with what is often one of the biggest challenges for those who believe in a traditional view of the Bible: the divinely ordered genocide of the Canaanites. Enns’ conclusion: God never ordered genocide, but the tribal Israelites believed he did, because, well, that’s the sort of thing tribal gods do.

I won’t go into the rest of Enns’ argument, which might be described as critical Biblical scholarship written for the non-scholarly with a huge dose of humor. But I will mention the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: The book is a quick read (I had finished the book a day after I checked it out) and does an excellent job presenting a perspective that has become accepted by many progressive Christians. I think he was most effective in his section on the New Testament, where he explains how Paul and the Gospel writers were able to turn Old Testament theology on its head, taking a system of beliefs in which Israel was God’s chosen nation into a system that finds Gentiles as welcome to God’s love and mercy as are Jews.

What will be troubling for many readers (sometimes including me) is that Enns does a much better of explaining what he doesn’t believe than what he does. And he doesn’t do an adequate job of explaining why he sees so much of the Old Testament as nonhistorical but doesn’t similarly question the Resurrection, which he believes in. He provides no comprehensible method of discerning what about the Bible is universally true and what is cultural. Those looking for clear answers about God won’t find them in this book. (But then again, Enns may not believe there are clear answers.)

Finally, a note to my LDS friends: There’s a lot of talk about faith crises in the LDS church these days. Many of those who come out of such a crisis and remain in the church do so by taking an approach similar to what Enns does, not just for the Bible but also for LDS scriptures and history. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but many of us do it. I have no advice to offer, just pointing out that other branches of Christianity face some of the same types of questions that many LDS are asking.

Photo by George Bannister/CC BY 2.0

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