The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“God gave Israel the land. Unconditional. Everlasting. Period.”

For some evangelicals, that’s the definitive answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. End of discussion. This sentiment was echoed in some of the comments to my recent post on why we shouldn’t equate modern-day Israel with the ancient biblical kingdom.

It’s what came to mind as I listened to the appointed readings in my church last Sunday. (It’s funny how the lectionary is able to speak into real-life events sometimes.) As I heard the words of Romans 9, it was impossible not to think about Israel and Palestine. I thought of the 1,300+ Gazan civilians who were killed in the latest round of fighting—400 of them children—and how their deaths were dismissed by some on account of Israel being God’s “chosen people.”

I thought about the volatile—and lethal—combination of politics and theology, which makes reasonable discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult. I thought about what happens when we miss what it means to be God’s chosen people.

Against this backdrop came the words of the apostle Paul:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
— Romans 9

The people of Israel occupied a special place in Paul’s heart—not just because he was one of them, but because they occupy a special place in God’s story. Paul left no doubt about this. They were adopted by God, he says. They have the covenants. The law. The temple. (Paul wrote these words about a dozen years before Rome destroyed the Jewish temple.) The people of Israel have the promises and the patriarchs. The Messiah was one of their own.

But isn’t it interesting what Paul doesn’t say they have? The land. Oh, he mentions covenants and promises all right, which some might read as including the land. But he never comes right out and says, “Theirs is the kingdom,” or, “Theirs is the territory.”

Romans 9–11 is the most extensive discourse on the role of Israel to be found in the whole New Testament. This is where Paul deals with the question of Israel’s future in light of the new covenant. If land was part of that future, surely this would have been the place to spell that out.

Yet there is nothing here about territory. Israel has a future, all right. God still cares about them. The fact that many of Paul’s own people chose not to believe in Jesus had opened the door for him to bring the message about Jesus to the Gentiles. As far as Paul was concerned, opening the doors like this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, going all the way back to Genesis 12. But God was not through with Israel. “All Israel will be saved,” Paul insisted.

Still, Paul says nothing about Israel being restored to a particular piece of real estate. Nowhere in this passage does he mention land. Not once.

He’s not alone in choosing not to depict Israel’s restoration in geographic terms, either. In the book of Acts, Luke records the disciples asking Jesus, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” just as Jesus is about to return to heaven.

In other words: “Are we going to reclaim our land now?”

Jesus dismisses the question out of hand. He’s going to do the opposite, in fact. He’s going to send them out of the land. Luke’s first volume depicts Jesus moving toward Jerusalem as he brings Israel’s story to its culmination. But in his second volume, Acts, the movement is away from Jerusalem. It’s not about one parcel of land anymore. It’s about Samaria*, too. It’s about Asia Minor. It’s about Europe—and even Rome itself. It’s about the whole earth.

This is not a case of God not keeping his promise to Israel. It’s a case of God over-fulfilling his promise. It’s no longer restricted to one particular piece of earth or just one group of people. It’s all nations. All people. That’s why in another letter, Paul declared Gentile Christians to be descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise.”

“Now you,” Paul goes on to say, “like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Like Isaac.

Whose son was Jacob, otherwise known as Israel.

So central to Paul’s message is this idea that God is over-fulfilling his promise to Israel that he keeps returning to it. In Ephesians, a letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he writes:

You… were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
— Ephesians 2

In other words… excluded from citizenship in Israel no longer.

To be clear, classical supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel—gets some things wrong. The church doesn’t replace Israel as recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, the rest of us are invited to join with Israel in receiving that blessing—a blessing that has grown to encompass the whole earth, which is going to be renewed and restored by God someday.

This is where the biblical drama was heading all along. This was the whole point in God choosing a Mesopotamian nomad named Abram and giving his descendants a home at the juncture of three continents. It wasn’t an end unto itself, but the start of something much bigger. God was making “one new humanity.” The old divisions and identities—and all they carried with them, including territorial claims—would be rendered obsolete. A new identity—and with it, citizenship in a kingdom uniting heaven and earth—is here.

That’s the story of the New Testament. That’s the story of Jesus’ kingdom. This story says nothing about a particular piece of land for a particular group of people, because the story has moved beyond that.

When Christians use Scripture to defend the territorial claims of the modern Israeli state, we miss the story the New Testament is trying to tell us. In fact, you might say we’re moving in the opposite direction of that story.

Of course, this doesn’t settle the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians today. We shouldn’t think we can resolve a dispute like this based on the assumptions of one religion. (Not even that—the assumptions of one subset of one religion.) It should be resolved on nonreligious grounds. For Christians to use Scripture to validate the territorial claims of one side is to misuse the Bible.

*Disclaimer: I’m using the term Samaria as it’s used in the New Testament—i.e. the central part of ancient Palestine, the territory formerly associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. I’m not using it in the way that modern-day Israeli settlers do when trying to claim the West Bank for themselves.

14381016166_cd1e784260_zRelated post: 
Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

The Bible is messy, troubling, and weird. And that’s OK.

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Someone shared this quote with me from Peter Enns’ preview of his forthcoming book The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, September 2014):

What if God is actually fine with the Bible just as it is? Not the well-behaved version we create, but the messy, troubling, weird, and ancient Bible that we actually have? Maybe this Bible has something to show us about our own sacred journey of faith. Sweating bullets to line up the Bible with our exhausting expectations, to make the Bible something it’s not meant to be, isn’t a pious act of faith, even if it looks that way on the surface. It’s actually thinly masked fear of losing control and certainty, a mirror of our inner disquiet, a warning signal of a deep distrust in God. A Bible like that isn’t a sure foundation of faith; it’s a barrier to true faith. Creating a Bible that behaves itself doesn’t support the spiritual journey; it cripples it. The Bible’s raw messiness isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s an invitation to a deeper faith.

What if the battle for the Bible is really just a battle for control? Is it really such a “high view” of Scripture if it means making the Bible something it’s not and never meant to be? Isn’t it a higher view to accept and embrace the Bible we have than the one we might wish we had?

Needless to say, I will be buying Enns’ new book when it comes out. (Unless I can wrangle myself an advance review copy…)

For more, see “Quick preview of my next book (or, respecting the Bible enough not to defend it)” on Peter Enns’ blog.

The Bible is not “scientifically accurate”: why that’s good news for Christians

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)

Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still by Joshua Martin (courtesy of Google Art Project)



In a previous post, I mentioned Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 as “problem passages” for those whose view of inspiration depends on the Bible being accurate in everything it says (or seems to say) about astronomy, geology, biology, etc.

Joshua 10 claims the sun temporarily stood still during a battle between the Israelites and the Canaanites, while 1 Chronicles 16 describes an immovable earth. On my blog the other day, I wrote that it’s obvious these texts “should be viewed as metaphor, not literal assertion.”

Actually, I got it wrong, as a friend pointed out later.

These texts are not simply metaphor. They’re not merely “the language of appearance,” as sometimes claimed. They’re not the equivalent of modern-day people saying “sunrise” and “sunset” when we know full well the sun doesn’t literally rise and set.

Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 reflect how people in the ancient Near East understood the cosmos.

They really DID think the sun moved and the earth didn’t. “Sunrise” and “sunset” weren’t metaphors to them; that’s what they thought the sun did.

This drawing depicts the cosmology of the ancient Near Eastern world.

anecosmology1

The earth was conceived of as a flat disc, surrounded by a primeval ocean. Above the earth was the firmament, a solid dome which held the sun, moon, and stars. Above that, a heavenly ocean.

This is how pretty much everyone, including the writers of the Bible, understood the universe. That’s why the authors of Joshua 10 and 1 Chronicles 16 wrote what they did.

It shouldn’t come as surprise that we also find this view of the cosmos in the creation story of Genesis 1.

The primeval ocean shows up as the watery depth over which God’s spirit hovers in Genesis 1:2. A solid “firmament” or “vault” is depicted a few lines later (1:6), holding back the “waters above,” a.k.a. the heavenly ocean (1:7).

In other words, Genesis 1 reflects an ancient cosmology which we all know to be scientifically inaccurate. The earth is not a flat disc surrounded by a primeval ocean. There is no solid dome above us, and there is no heavenly ocean above that.

For young-earth creationists like Ken Ham, to question the scientific accuracy of Genesis 1 is to undermine confidence in the whole Bible. For me, accepting that Genesis reflects an ancient (and scientifically inaccurate) cosmology causes me to love these ancient texts even more.

Why? Because it means God meets us where we are, limitations and all. Speaking in and through the scriptures, he met people of the ancient Near Eastern world where they were. He didn’t let their limited understanding of the universe stop him from revealing himself. He doesn’t let our limited understanding stop him from doing he same for us today.

So, for example, when God revealed himself as creator, he did so in the language of a prescientific world, within the framework of ancient Near Eastern cosmology — flat earth, solid firmament, moving stars, and all. That’s the only way that would have made sense to an ancient Near Eastern person, so that’s how God spoke.

This is sometimes called the incarnational view of scripture. Just as God took on flesh in the form of Jesus — a reality people could see, touch and understand — so God revealed himself in scripture in ways the very first to encounter his revelation could understand.

He doesn’t demand we overcome our limitations first. He did not wait for ancient people to shed their ancient cosmology before he said something about why he made the world.

We’re not so different from the people of the ancient Near East. We have our limitations, our blind spots. We may know the sun doesn’t move across a solid dome of firmament, but we do not know everything there is to know. Not by a long shot.

That doesn’t stop God from revealing himself to us.

Genesis is not a scientifically accurate record of how the universe came into being. It was never meant to be. But that didn’t stop God from telling us something about why the universe came into being.

For me, the latter is a story worth reading.

—//—

*A great book on the incarnational view of Scripture is Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns.

3 things in the Bible you’ll want to avoid if following Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice

Kirk Cameron, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr
Former Growing Pains and Left Behind star Kirk Cameron is getting into the parental advice business. In a recent post, Cameron shared the “train, don’t explain” childrearing philosophy of author Jay Younts.

Basically, this approach says you don’t owe your kids an explanation. Ever. You tell them what to do/think/believe and demand their unquestioning, unhesitating obedience.

To quote Younts:

God has not called parents to explain but to train. Explanations often lead to frustration and anger for both parents and children. Children are not in need of lengthy, compelling explanations. What they are in need of is the understanding that God must be obeyed.

Setting aside the question of whether this parenting advice is better suited for raising robots than actual humans, there are at least three things in the Bible you might not want to let your kids read if you follow a “train, don’t explain” approach.

Otherwise, your kids might start getting ideas.

1. Don’t let them read Exodus 12. Or Deuteronomy 6. Or Joshua 4. 
The ancient Jewish faith had many rituals, ceremonies, and symbols. And these had a way prompting curiosity. Every time a family would celebrate Passover or break out the phylacteries or build a monument from a pile of stones, kids would ask why.

Even worse, it seems this was the whole point: so that kids would request an explanation from their parents:

“When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’…” (Exodus 12)

“In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’…” (Deuteronomy 6)

“In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’…” (Joshua 4)

It’s almost like the Israelites didn’t follow Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice at all.

2. Definitely don’t let your kids read the book of Job.
After being hit with all kinds of calamity (apparently the result of a cosmic bet between God and the devil), Job spends most of the book demanding an explanation… from God himself.

Job’s three friends are shocked by his impertinence. Their advice to Job — essentially, “Shut up and take your medicine” — sounds a lot like Kirk Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting.

The only problem is God doesn’t seem to mind Job’s impertinence. He shows up. He answers Job’s summons. And when he does, he’s angry — not at Job, but at Job’s friends.

If kids read Job and see that it’s OK to question God, they won’t think anything of questioning their parents now and then.

3. While you’re at it, you might want to avoid any mention of Israel.
After all, their name means “wrestles with God.” To the ancient Israelites, the Scriptures were not a monologue from God; they were a dialogue with God. And God’s people didn’t hesitate to ask some hard questions.

In fact, it’s probably best not to let your kids read the Bible, period. Otherwise they might stumble across Abraham asking God to explain how he can possibly deliver on his promise of children for the aging patriarch. Or Jeremiah accusing God of deception. Or Habakkuk demanding God explain himself over his plan to use Babylon to punish his own people. Or Jesus wrestling with his Father in the garden.

And so on.

God is often described as a Father in the Bible. Yet he doesn’t seem to follow Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting with his own children.

Maybe a better approach would be one that honors the curiosity and personhood of our children. One that shows them it’s OK to ask questions. In other words, “Explain. Don’t just train.”

(H/T Benjamin L. Corey, who wrote about Cameron’s parenting advice on the Formerly Fundie blog.)

Should we even be fighting the War on Poverty?

Lyndon Johnson signing the Medicare bill (source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library)Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. The legacy of this war is hotly contested, and there are at least three competing views.

Some argue the War on Poverty created a culture of dependency, while pouring massive amounts of money down the drain. They point to official government figures, which show the poverty rate hasn’t changed all that much since 1964.

Others argue that poverty would be double what it is now if not for the safety nets established in the 1960s. They dispute the accuracy of government figures, pointing instead to competing studies which suggest a more dramatic decline in the rate of poverty since then.

I’ll leave that debate to others. Right now, it’s the third group I care about: those who question the very notion of waging a war on poverty in the first place. Charity is all well and good, they might say, but it’s grandiose and naïve to think we can ever fully eradicate poverty.

They even quote Jesus: “The poor you will have with you always.”

I should know. I used to be part of this group.

This approach recently led one writer to suggest we leave should Jesus out of the whole poverty debate. But I think it’s worth taking a closer look at what Jesus really said — and what he meant. Because it turns out this statement was anything but an excuse for apathy.

Yes, it’s true Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Although Mark’s gospel, usually known for its brevity, extends the quote: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” This ought to be our first clue that Jesus’ statement wasn’t meant to trivialize the importance of helping those in need.

But there’s an even bigger clue when we turn to original source of Jesus’ statement. You see, Jesus didn’t pull this line out of thin air. As a Jewish rabbi, he was constantly quoting or alluding to the Old Testament. In doing so, he employed a common rabbinical technique, which later came to be known as remez, in which the speaker quoted a small piece of text, with the intent of calling to mind the larger passage it came from.

When Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always,” he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, but he expected his disciples (and us) to think about the whole passage. 

Deuteronomy 15 commanded the ancient Israelites to cancel each other’s debt every seven years. (Interesting to note that no distinction was made between responsible and irresponsible debt; no matter how people fell into financial distress, they were to be given a clean slate every seven years.)

The passage ends with the statement quoted by Jesus centuries later: there will always be poor people among you. Which is precisely why laws protecting the poor were needed in the first place. 

Again, from Deuteronomy:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

What’s more, to the writer of Deuteronomy 15, persistent poverty was anything but acceptable. Back up a few verses, to Deuteronomy 15:4-5.

There need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands…

In other words, when the writer said there would always be poor people in the land, it was a concession to Israel’s likely failure to obey the law requiring them to protect its most vulnerable citizens. Sure enough, that’s pretty much how the story plays out in the rest of the Old Testament.

There would always be poor people because the Israelites would not prove as generous as they were meant to be. There would always be poor people because Israel would not cancel everyone’s debts like they were supposed to. The statement “you will always have the poor with you” is not an excuse for apathy; it’s a condemnation of it.

Good people will disagree on the best ways to mitigate and perhaps even eradicate poverty. The success (or failure) of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty will be scrutinized to no end, and even then we still won’t settle on what works and what doesn’t.

But one thing is clear, at least for those of us who claim the Bible as some kind of authority: apathy in the face of poverty is not an option. We do not have the right to use Jesus’ words as an excuse for inaction. The statement “there will always be poor people” might describe the reality that is, but it does not describe the reality that ought to be.

How this is about context (and not botching the Bible)

Rep Conaway debates SNAP reduction

So…the debate on Capitol Hill turned biblical the other day.

Democrats and Republicans took turns quoting Scripture during a debate over a proposed $4 billion cut to the welfare program formerly known as food stamps (now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP).

Kicking things off, Representative Juan Vargas (D-California):

There are starving children in the United States… but for me, it’s more basic. Many of us who follow Jesus — who say that openly, and I certainly do — often times read the Bible, and Jesus kind of fools around and gives you parables. He doesn’t often times say exactly what he means. But in Matthew 25, he’s very, very clear. And he delineates what it takes to get into the kingdom of heaven very, very clearly. And he says that how you treat the least among us — the least of our brothers — that’s how you treat him. And interestingly, the very first thing he says is, ‘For I was hungry, and you gave me [something] to eat.’

If Republicans were caught off guard by Democrats unabashedly using the J-word, they hid it well. But they had their work cut out if they were going to regain the upper hand in the Capitol Hill Bible Challenge.

Not missing a beat, Mike Conaway (R-Texas) took to the pulpit to respond:

I read Matthew 25 to speak to me as an individual; I don’t read it to speak to the United States government. So I will take a little bit of umbrage with you on that. Clearly you and I are charged that we do those kinds of things, but not our government.

And then came Stephen Fincher (R-Tennessee) with a prooftext of his own, quoting the apostle Paul as an early supporter of cutting government food assistance:

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

Rep. Fincher’s mishandling of Paul’s statement has to be one of the more egregious abuses of Scripture I’ve seen. Others have already pointed out how the context of 2 Thessalonians undermines Fincher’s interpretation. Paul was addressing a community of early Christians who thought the end of days was upon them, that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. Therefore, they decided there was no point in working any longer. They were content to just sit back and wait for Jesus to reappear.

Paul wanted Christians to be active and engaged in the world around them — earning a living, contributing to society — not pressing the “check out” button early. That’s why he said, “Hey, if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to eat, either.” It had nothing to do with poverty, government assistance for the hungry, or anything like that.

Nor is it remotely fair to equate food stamp beneficiaries with the supposedly lazy recipients of Paul’s letter. The reality is that most people living in poverty work harder, longer, and earn much less than I make while I sit in a comfortable office each day.

All of which is to say: context matters.

By quoting an isolated verse with complete disregard for its context, Rep. Fincher shamefully misused the Bible to advance his own political agenda.

I would really like it if the story ended there. I’d also really like it if Matthew 25 meant what Rep. Vargas said it means.

But it doesn’t.

Social justice organizations — many of which I support — have gotten a lot of mileage out of Jesus’ “least of these” statement in Matthew 25. It’s quoted repeatedly as a general call to help the poor, the hungry, the vulnerable. Heck, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used it that way.

But what Jesus actually said was, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine…”

“Brothers and sisters” (adelphoi) is a term Jesus used of his disciples. The word “least” is actually a form of the Greek word for “little ones” — which he also used in reference to his disciples.

If you back up a few pages, you’ll find that Matthew 25 is part of an extended discourse which began after Jesus and his 12 disciples left the temple. As they sat on the Mount of Olives, Jesus started preparing them for a coming period of upheaval — one so intense that not even the temple would survive.

Jesus told his disciples to anticipate hardship in the years to come. The blessings (and curses) in Matthew 25 were for those who showed (or withheld) some form of mercy to Jesus’ suffering followers. It was not a blanket statement about poverty and injustice.

Now, as it happens, there ARE plenty of broad statements about poverty and injustice to be found in the Bible.

Isaiah 58, for example.

Or Isaiah 61 which, though originally addressed to Jewish exiles in Babylon, was picked up by Jesus and was expanded to include Gentiles (much to the chagrin of his synagogue audience in Nazareth).

The fact that Matthew 25 may not be a blanket statement about poverty does nothing diminish to Scripture’s unrelenting focus on the poor and the vulnerable.

So why do we keep using Matthew 25 out of context?

The thing is, if we insist on using our favorite verses like this, then we have no right to challenge others when they misuse the Bible. I happen to think Rep. Vargas is more in tune with the overall trajectory of Scripture than either Rep. Conaway or Fincher. But all three were examples of Christians quoting the Bible badly the other day.

Not that such examples are hard to come by. The truth is, we’ve all given in to the habit of quoting Scripture selectively.

We might not have this problem if we didn’t insist on dicing Scripture into artificial nuggets and calling them verses. Or if we would get into the habit of reading what comes immediately before and after a given passage of Scripture. Discerning the context of Matthew 25 or 2 Thessalonians 3 doesn’t take a theological degree.

All it takes is a willingness to read attentively. To read the Bible on its terms, not ours.

And to maybe read more than a verse at a time.

If we read the Scriptures more holistically, we might not make Mike Conaway’s mistake either — claiming the Bible addresses individuals only and not societies whenever it says something that doesn’t line up well with our political leanings.

“Clearly you and I are charged to do those kinds of things [e.g. feeding the hungry],” Rep. Conaway reasoned, “but not our government.”

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has read the prophet Amos, who yearned for justice — by which he meant economic justice — to “roll on like a river.”

And just who, according to Amos, was partly responsible for maintaining economic justice?

Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway has ever read Psalm 72, where the writer prays that the king (Solomon in this case, according to tradition) will maintain justice and righteousness:

May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.

May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

I wonder if Rep. Conaway is aware that his brand of individualism — the lens through which he reads and then discards those parts of the Bible that make him squirm — would have been an utterly foreign concept to the original writers and recipients of Scripture? Theirs was a world shaped by community, one in which an “I built that” mentality was simply incongruous.

The idea that some portions of Scripture could be read individually and not corporately?

It would have been unthinkable to those first recipients of the Bible.

Context matters when reading the Bible.

Which means that, no, Matthew 25 isn’t a blanket statement on helping the poor — though there are plenty other such statements in the Bible.

And no, 2 Thessalonians 3:10 isn’t a biblical endorsement of libertarian economic policy. (It’s a denunciation of end-times escapism.)

And no, Rep. Conaway, you can’t read the Bible’s injunctions on poverty and injustice as if they were statements to you as an individual and not to the society you’re a part of. The biblical writers simply didn’t make that kind of distinction. And as for the prophets, well, they spent a good chunk of their time addressing people like you — that is, rulers and authorities with the power to do something about injustice.

So may we all learn to do better by the Bible so that, together, we can embody the kind of justice it expects of us and our society.

Is Story all there is?

Leslie Leyland Fields’ latest feature on Christianity Today, The Gospel Is More Than a Story,” starts by expressing ambivalence for an unnamed but “much-hyped” story version of the Bible.

I’m pretty sure she’s talking about one of my old projects.

I helped create The Story in 2005, intending it to be an easy way for non-Bible readers to get a handle on the scriptural narrative, so that when they opened a real Bible, they could see how the various pieces fit together.

To our surprise, some of the strongest response to The Story came from churches that wanted to use it for their own congregations. Randy Frazee, then a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, began developing a curriculum to take churches through The Story. When he moved to Oak Hills (pastored by Max Lucado), Randy took his idea for The Story with him.

To date, hundreds of churches have used The Story. It became a #1 bestselling Bible. There have been all manner of product spinoffs: companion books, kids versions, CDs, even a concert tour.

Field’s chief concern with The Story — assuming I’ve guessed right on which “story version” she was reading — seems to be its tendency to discard everything in the Bible that isn’t story. (Though to be fair, The Story does include a sampling of other biblical genres. But yes, the overriding focus is on the narrative.)

Fields argues that much of what makes “narrative theology” so compelling gets lost whenever it’s translated into a commercial product like The Story:

Though the larger narrative theology movement revives a deep respect for the Bible’s language and literature, many of the commercial products show little respect for Story. Story, as all high-school English students know, relies not simply on what happened but also on the language and literary devices used to tell it: metaphor, description, analogy, repetition, parable, image. Nor does this larger narrative movement pay heed to the other literary genres God chose to speak his words through — poetry, lament, epistle, proclamation, prophecy.

She’s got a point.

We often think of the Bible as a story, and indeed story is one of the dominant motifs in Scripture. My own “gospel sketched for kids” is yet another attempt to present the core message of the Bible in story form.

But Scripture is not simply one big story. It is a collection of books, representing a wide array of literary genres: poetry, correspondence, prophetic oracle, song lyrics, laments, legal codes, genealogies, apocalypses — and yes, narrative. Each has to be read in light of its particular form. You wouldn’t read a poem the same way you’d read a legal text. Nor should we read an apocalypse the same way we read a more straightforward piece of narrative — not if we want to understand it properly, that is.

In the past, many Christians insisted we read everything (or almost everything) in the Bible literally. This tended to flatten Scripture, obscuring its many genres and literary devices. Fields seems to think the modern-day obsession with narrative carries the same risk, and again… she may be onto something.

All this points to an even bigger series of questions being asked by a growing chorus of people:

What is the Bible? What do we do with it?

Simplistic, reductionist answers will not do. If you’re interested in the growing conversation about the Bible, I encourage you to start following blogs by people like Scot McKnight, Rachel Held Evans, and Peter Enns. Pick up a copy of The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith, while you’re at it.

And if you’re one of many who’ve read The Story, great. As one of its creators, I’m thrilled to see the impact it’s having. (I’d be even more thrilled if I’d gotten a royalty out of it!)

But don’t stop there. The Bible is so much more than narrative, just like it is more than a series of propositional statements or a list of do’s and don’ts. The Bible represents the collective effort of God’s people to tell God’s story through all manner of genres and literary devices. When read with this in mind, I can’t promise the Bible will always be easy or enjoyable, but it can be deeply rewarding.

Putting the “fun” in dysfunctional: Joseph and his brothers

[This year, my wife and I are reading the Covenant History books of the Old Testament during Lent. We started a bit early because, well, they’re really long.]

After Isaac dies and Esau moves on, the spotlight comes to rest on Jacob’s family. Which is to say it rests (mostly) on Jacob’s upstart son Joseph.

Joseph is the first of two children born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. No surprise, then: he’s Jacob’s favorite son. And he knows it.

Joseph is a mixed bag. There are flashes of remarkable integrity and breathtaking impudence, all from the same guy. (You have to admire the writers/editors of Genesis for allowing their heroes to come across very un-heroic at times.)

On the one hand, while in Egypt, Joseph refuses to violate his master’s trust when the boss’s desperate housewife makes a pass him. (Several passes, actually.) On the other hand, Joseph is a schemer just like his father. He’s a tattletale. And as he proves to his brothers early on, he doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

Carted off by the Ishmaelites Midianites Ishmaelites

Joseph's brothers were about to sell him into slavery when Superman came running out of the shower.

Fed up, Joseph’s brothers toss him into a well. As they’re deciding what to do with him, a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants come along.

Or were they Midianites?

The text refers to them as both. So which is it?

Apologists who see Genesis as a literal/historical composition, authored by Moses from beginning to end, argue the terms are interchangeable. But that’s not very convincing, because according to Genesis itself, the two groups descended from different branches of Abraham’s family tree.

Some see this as proof Genesis was cobbled together from a variety of disparate sources. In which case, the final editor was either profoundly stupid for not smoothing out the apparent discrepancy before going to press (not likely) or he wasn’t bothered by it to begin with because the story he’s trying to tell wasn’t meant to be read as exact, literal history — not in the way we understand history, anyway. (That’s just not how they did history in the ancient Near East.)

The other possibility is that the dueling references are a literary anachronism — the author taking something from his own time and importing it into a much older story. This makes more sense, assuming that Genesis in its final form came together relatively late in Israel’s history — say, sometime in the first millennium BC. There is reason to believe the Ishmaelites had assimilated into other groups, including the Midianites by then. Plus, it would go a long way toward explaining how this story can depict both groups as well-established tribes, presumably only a few generations after their ancestral namesakes were alive.

It helps to remember that Israel is telling these stories in order to make sense of its own story. As Peter Enns would argue, they’re a “theological response to Israel’s national crisis of exile.” They’re the product of a Jewish nation, either in danger of collapse or having just recently collapsed, asking itself, “How did we get here? And what do we do now?”

Mandated polygamy and the inspiration of scripture 

The account of Jacob’s family also features the bizarre tale of Judah and Tamar.

It starts with Judah, fourth son of Jacob, finding a wife for his oldest son, Er. When Er dies, Judah orders his second son Onan to get busy making babies with Er’s widow, Tamar. Onan doesn’t want to, because any son they have will be reckoned as Er’s, not his. So Onan dies too.

By this time, Judah’s only got one son left, and he’s not about to risk losing him, too. So he sends Tamar back to her family and forgets about her — until she disguises herself as a religious prostitute and tricks Judah into sleeping with her. (You might’ve gathered by now that Genesis is not for the underage.) Thus Tamar is able to shame Judah into taking her under his protection.

There are a few interesting things about this story. For starters, Tamar is a Canaanite. Which means, according to tradition, a sizable portion of the Jewish nation — including the Davidic line of kings, was part-Canaanite. Keep this in mind when you come to the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua.

This story also prefigures the Hebrew custom of levirate marriage. This custom, which was later enshrined in Jewish law, obligated the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s widow.

Levirate marriage would pose a fascinating dilemma for modern society, since the passage in Deuteronomy doesn’t make an exception for brothers who were already married. In other words, to the already married brother of a deceased man, the Hebrew scriptures didn’t merely tolerate polygamy; they mandated it.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why polygamy is BAD idea. And the concept of levirate marriage has to be read against its cultural backdrop. Back then, it was the only way of providing some marginal protection for widows in a patriarchal world. We can be thankful that’s not the world we live in — and that there are better, more humane ways to look after widows today.

But this apparent endorsement of polygamy should give us something to think about before we weigh into some of the present-day debates involving sexual ethics with simplistic, “Bible-based” answers.

Finally, the original audience would have immediately detected the custom of levirate marriage in the Genesis story — even though from Judah and Tamar’s perspective, Jewish law (including levirate marriage) didn’t exist yet. It’s possible that levirate marriage was a much older custom that came to be absorbed into Jewish law.

This is yet another reminder that the Bible was not written in a vacuum. From its story of creation to its legal code, the ancient writers freely interacted with — and, at times, borrowed from — surrounding cultures.

For some, this may come as a blow to the inspiration of Scripture. But not for me. I see it as proof of inspiration. If we know anything about God from the Bible, it’s that he’s in the business of incarnating himself — coming down from lofty heights to enter into our story.

Incarnation is an act of divine self-limitation. If God doesn’t accommodate his self-revelation to the linguistic, cultural, or scientific limitations of the day, then no one would have any chance of understanding him. Just like none of us would be able to see God if he hadn’t incarnated himself into a human body.

I’ve shared this quote from Peter Enns before, but it’s worth repeating:

There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, so human, so much a part of this world: it looks this way to exalt God’s power, not our power.

The ‘creaturelines’ of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome so that God can finally be seen. Rather, we can only see God truly because of the limited, human form he has chosen as a means of revelation, and if we try to look past it, we will miss everything.

Election in the Old Testament, part 1

When discussing a contested issue — you know, like predestination — there’s often a tendency to say things like, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says.” But it’s not always that simple. There are a couple reasons for this; but for now, let’s highlight one.

All of us read with a filter — a set of presuppositions that color what we read and how we interpret it.

For example, most people reading this are the product of a Western culture that prizes the individual above all else. We’ve drunk deeply from the font of individualism, without even realizing it.

If you grew up in America, you’ve gotten a double dose. The virtue of “rugged individualism” (it’s taken for granted that it’s a virtue) courses through our veins. It’s woven into our national mythology.

And so we tend to think of our faith, like everything else, in primarily individual terms. We read the Bible as if it were written to each of us personally. (There’s even a website selling personalized Bibles with your name inserted into over 7,000 verses.) We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. We invite others to accept him as their personal savior.

There’s just one problem. The Bible doesn’t talk like this, because it’s not a Western book.

It never characterizes Jesus as our “personal savior.” When it does speak of a relationship with God, it’s usually in the context of a community. To have a relationship with God is to be part of a redeemed community — the covenant people, the body of Christ, etc.

We sometimes talk about “walking with God” as if it’s just me and Jesus strolling down the beach. The Bible imagines it in very different terms:

I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. (2 Corinthians 6, where Paul quotes several OT passages)

When we come across the pronoun “you” in our Bibles, we assume it means each of us individually. But more often than not, it’s plural, not singular. It’s you the community, not you the individual.

Here’s an example:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3, NRSV)

Paul’s not describing each believer as their own little temple here. He’s saying you the community are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you as a community. (The NIV does a better job in this case by using the phrase “you yourselves.”)

So what does all this have to do with predestination? Everything.

Is it possible we’ve simply assumed the Bible has individuals in mind when it talks about predestination? In doing so, is it possible we’ve imported our Western cultural assumptions into the text, without even realizing it?

Next up, predestination in the Old Testament.

Genesis 4–6(ish)

This is where the story gets depressing for a while. Eviction from the garden is followed quickly by the world’s first murder, followed by more murder, followed by a list of people who seem to live for ridiculously long periods of time, followed by God finally throwing his hands in the air and deciding he’s had enough.

But at the beginning of Genesis 4, God hasn’t given up on creation. He’s still fighting for it. When Cain gets ticked over the whole prime-sheep-versus-leftover-fruit incident, God pulls him aside and gives what sounds vaguely like a coach delivering a halftime pep talk. God seems to think Cain can actually beat back the sinful impulse that wants to rule over him.

Cain doesn’t listen. He decides life would be better without his annoying little brother. Then God shows up and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain responds, famously, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Um, that would be a yes. Remember that whole “it is not good for the man to be alone” thing? If community and companionship are woven into the fabric of creation, then the whole thing hinges on whether we take responsibility for each other. Individualism and “each to their own” are poison to God’s creation.

Cain’s life becomes a story of what happens when we reject the idea that we are our brother’s (or sister’s) keeper. The alternative is a life of “restless wandering.” And that is Cain’s fate. He is driven out. Sent away.

Cain understands that he’s not being let off easy. He complains someone might kill him (kind of ironic, for a guy who probably hasn’t had time to wipe the blood off his hands). What surprises me is that God doesn’t go for the death penalty. Not only that, but he threatens to punish anyone who lays a finger on Cain.

Why? It’s not as if the capital punishment isn’t in the Bible. It’s mentioned as the penalty for a number of crimes — and not just murder. So whatever happened to justice? Retribution? Deterrence?

Apparently God already knows what we’ve yet to figure out after all these years. The only thing violence ever leads to is more violence. In the words of the great theologian, Commissioner Gordon from Batman Begins (I know, I know, he doesn’t get to be commissioner until the Dark Knight): “We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armor-piercing rounds.”

Maybe God’s mercy on Cain is his attempt to short-circuit the escalation. Apparently, God still thinks we’re worth saving from our worst impulses.

Unfortunately, a few generations later, a guy called Lamech loses the plot. He seems to think being Cain’s descendant means he’s got a divine license to kill. What he doesn’t realize is that God’s protection of Cain was meant to stop the violence, not give his descendants free reign to wreak havoc without fear of reprisal.

Things are looking pretty bleak. But there are threads of hope. Which is exactly what you’d expect in a world filled with the “knowledge of good and evil.”

In some ways, Adam and Eve got exactly what they were promised when they ate the forbidden fruit. In Hebrew, to “know” can be a euphemism for intimacy… as in, “Adam knew his wife, and nine months later, out popped Cain.” Knowledge isn’t just intellectual awareness of something; it’s an experience of it.

Knowledge can also imply control over something, as in, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jeremiah 1). Which may explain why the thought of possessing the “knowledge of good and evil” was so tantalizing to Adam and Eve. It meant control. Power.

In reality, it meant engaging in an endless (and often losing) struggle against evil… as in, “Sin desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4).

But the good news is, if there’s knowledge of evil, then there must be knowledge of good, too. All is not lost. The ground still yields food. Women still give birth and perpetuate the human race. While some of Eve’s descendants, like Lamech, make violence; others make tools and musical instruments. Some even call on the name of God.

Even at its worst, God cannot bring himself to give up on the world. Not entirely, because there is still good to be found in it — in the person of Noah.

For me, the stories of Genesis 4-6 are a reminder that we’re meant to participate in the struggle between good and evil here and now, not sit and wait for it to be settled in some distant future apocalyptic event. It is this world that God cares about, and this world that he still hasn’t given up on.