“The Bible Tells Me So” (Book Review)

Everyone likes a good story, including God! This is the premise of Peter Enns’ book “The Bible tells me so.”[1]  Enns believes that, “Defending Scripture has made us unable to read it.”[2]  Essentially, God and his book the Bible have been badly misunderstood with dire consequences.

Enns’ argument is that we need to read the Bible as an ancient text. It’s full of stories.  We should not attempt to force these stories or “myths” into a Modernist understanding of historical accuracy. In fact, many of these stories are completely made up and God is pretty much okay with that. In this way, Enns offers a neat solution for those who find the Bible a troubling book.  Take for example the story of Creation and the Fall with “a talking serpent” and “magical trees”[3]: this is a myth designed to help the people of Israel make sense of their political and social situation at a much later date in history.[4]

What about the Canaanites? Did God encourage genocide when they he ordered the Israelites to wipe them out? Enns summarises each of the usual attempts at solutions to this problem before quickly dismissing them out of hand. For example, wickedness including child sacrifice and their punishment points forward to the final day of judgement when God will punish all evil.[5]

He then offers his own solution. The Canaanites were simply the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.[6]  This is one of his examples of God’s ancient people telling an even older story to help explain their own political circumstances.[7]  More than that: it’s not that God told the people to wipe out the Canaanites because they were in the wrong place.  God never told the Israelites to wipe them out[8] and what is more, they never actually tried to do it in practice either.[9]  This is simply a story to show that the Israelite God Yahweh is the greatest in much the same way that a boy in the playground will declare that “my dad can beat your dad.”[10]

The historical Jesus is still there in Enns’ version of events – well, more or less. [11]  The Gospel writers took their own liberties with the account, including the Virgin Birth and visitors from the East.[12]  However, Jesus really did die on the Cross and he really did rise again[13] (here Enns follows NT Wright’s argument that the resurrection was such a surprise, going against popular and learned expectation so that no Jew could have just made it up[14]).

Enns believes that his approach enables us to read the Bible properly and take it seriously. It still is God’s Word, but we should not expect it to conform to our expectations of how it should behave.[15]

And here’s the thing: Enns is being consistent. What he believes about the Bible affects how he lives or specifically how he writes and teaches (which is about how he lives given that this teaching and writing are his day job). If God speaks to us through stories that others have created about him, selectively shaping their accounts, choosing to omit or include in order to make a point, that will affect our approach to preaching and teaching.  So Enns gives us a book full of stories: stories about himself, stories about the Bible and how it came to us.  It will not surprise us then to find out that Enns also selectively shapes his text.

Let me give you an example. We’ve seen that Enns argues that the Israelites never really tried to wipe out the Canaanites.  His basis for arguing this is that he claims there is no archaeological evidence for a mass invasion of Canaan by the Israelites during the time of Joshua.[16]   Now, there’s a useful corrective here. Some people talk as though all the archaeological evidence is neatly in place without question or challenge, but that’s not the case. Archaeologists and historians argue about the evidence and what it tells them about the time when the Bible was written (just as they do about other ancient events).  They debate the dating of findings, they debate what those findings tell them and they debate the significance of the findings.  Life might be more simple if they didn’t do this, but they do.

But to announce that there’s no archaeological support for the invasion of Cannaan and the destruction of the cities including Jericho? Well, that’s to go to the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of omitting a significant portion of the story. It won’t take the reader too long to find out that Enns is being very liberal with the truth.  A quick Wikipedia search will tell you about what archaeologists have found at Jericho.[17]  Some believe very strongly that they’ve found evidence of Joshua’s attack, others disagree, but the evidence is not missing: it’s just debated.

In fact, this point is so glaringly obvious that one half wonders if it’s intended as one of those little signals to the reader that Enns claims to spot in the Bible!

And here is the problem with “The Bible Tells Me So” It has been so selective in its story telling that it hides from the reader the possibility of real, searching, rich, deep engagement with God’s Word.

Let’s come back to that Canaanite example. Take these two quotes from Enns.

“Israel can in principle co-exist with other nations`- as long as everyone behaves and keeps their distance. But you can’t have God’s people sharing living space and intermingling with unclean pagans.”[18]

And

“To sum up: Why did God single out the Canaanites for extermination? The factor that distinguished the Canaanites from everyone else, the reason they ‘deserved’ to be exterminated wasn’t their immorality, but the fact that they (like everyone else) were an immoral people who occupied the land God promised to the Israelites. To leave any Canaanites alive would (1) contaminate the land and (2) threaten Israel’s devotion to their God.”[19]

 

Here, he stumbles almost by accident on something incredibly poignant. The issue that God and Israel have with the Canaanites is their location in the land promised to Israel.  God’s concern is for the distinctiveness of his people as seen in all those detailed laws about cleanness and holiness. For some reason, there’s a risk that the Canaanites will compromise this.

Here, in embryonic form, we have a powerful message, but Enns misses it. He is so keen to rush on to argue his own message that these things never happened.  Enns is working as an Old Testament scholar.  This is one of the important disciplines in theological study, but a good Old Testament scholar will also bring into play other vital disciplines including Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology.  The aim of these two disciplines is to help us step back and see the bigger picture of what God is saying and doing. These disciplines help us to see how themes link together and how the picture of revelation builds up over time.  They help us to wrestle with the text, think clearly, make careful distinctions and come to appropriate practical applications.

With those disciplines in place, we have the makings of a very interesting discussion and perhaps a much more fascinating book. What does it mean to say that the Canaanites were the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Why is it that the Israelites were allowed to engage with some people groups by making treaties, trading and even intermarrying and not with others (this seems to be much more than an ethnic, tribal thing)?  Why will the prophets look forward to a day when people from many nations will not just come but be actively welcomed in the land and even at the Temple?

Well, this is just a little review so I’m going to leave you with these questions rather than try to answer them all now. But this is where those other disciplines will help.  People like Chris Wright will help you think about the important relationship between God, the People and the Land.  He will offer a paradigm that will get you thinking both about theology and ethics.  Systematic Theologians will get you thinking about what these events tell us about God’s character and what it means for him to say “Be Holy as I am Holy”  Our own little paradigm will help us to think through what we can see about God, Creation, Us and New Creation in these events.

Oh and one more thing. As you wrestle with these questions, why not entertain the possibility that God really did say the things we find him saying in the Bible and that the events we are told about really did happen? What might happen if you do that?  Well, two things.  First of all, we will stop trying to control the Bible by making it into an ancient book malleable and subordinate to 21st Century thinking.  Secondly, by hearing it as God’s timeless Word, we will allow it to do what it should do if it genuinely is God’s word: to disagree with us.

[1] Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it (New York, NY.: Harper One, 2014).

[2] Longer Title on Front  cover, see also Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 4.

[3] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 4.

[4] See Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 113-114.

[5] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 33-57.

[6] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 49.

[7] See Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 54-72.

[8] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 54.

[9] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 58.

[10] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 61-65.

[11] See Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 73-94 and 167-192.

[12] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So,82-86.

[13] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 196.

[14] See Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 196-223.  See also NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London, SPCK, 2003).

[15] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 231-232.

[16] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 58-60.

[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jericho.  The challenge here is twofold.  First of all, historians disagree over the dating of the archaeological evidence of destruction. Secondly, they disagree over the dating of the Exodus.  So, if the Exodus was at the later end of the spectrum and the destruction of Jericho’s walls at the early end, then we have a problem, but if the date of the walls falling is at the late end of the scale or the Exodus is placed earlier, then we don’t have a problem.

[18] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 49.

[19] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 53.

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