Enns, Peter. 2014. The Bible tells me so…Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it. New York, NY: HarperOne.
Peter Enns is Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania.
The book is basically about the creative handling of Scripture, following what Enns perceives as the Jewish practice of interpreting (and arguing about) the Torah. It will come as a “shock” to any fundamentalist Christian who says “The Bible says it; I believe it.” The problem is, of course, interpreting what the Bible says and who says it. And, incidentally, what you might mean by “I believe it”.
Enns, rightly I believe, understands the Bible as a storybook and not a historical textbook. He makes this clear in Chapter 3 (God Likes Stories), especially in the sub-sections “The stories of Israel” and “The Exodus Story”, although his conclusion is obvious throughout the book.
Chapter one outlines why Enns found a literal interpretation of Old Testament events unconvincing. His Jewish professors at Harvard had a profound grasp of the OT (their Bible) and were able to discuss unusual and disturbing events and people without losing their belief in God. Enns follows the same road and states “I don’t believe God wants us to live our lives wringing our hands over how to make the Bible behave itself, expending energy 24/7 to make the Bible into something it is not, and calling that ‘serving God’” (p. 8).
Harvard was not a hotbed of liberalism: for Enns it was a transformation process, from a literalist to when “[the Bible] wasn’t as special anymore, a book kept by God at a safe distance from every other kind of book, acting according to the attractive trifold color brochure that church and seminary had handed me” (18).
With a new outlook, the Bible (and God) were no longer off limits for complaints, interrogations, or disagreements, even within Enns’s act of faith and trust. God would not be angry if Enns got something wrong. A fundamental issue is that when we read of God and ancient peoples in their environment, they are asking their questions “expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were…genuine, authentic and real. But they were also ancient—and that explains why the Bible behaves the way it does” (23).
That background sets the stage for the reader to grasp why Enns examines how God treated the Canaanites, for example, by eventually obliterating them. It is part of the story of how God dealt with this group of people and who they were—Ham’s descendants. And why is it OK for God to exterminate the Canaanites—is he really a loving God?
Enns works his way through various stories of the OT, looking for lessons, including the story of Jonah, which is like “the story of the Canaanite prostitute Rahab [which] may give us a glimpse of the Israelites’ thinking about what it means to be an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ to God” (48).
Enns resolves the problem of God killing the Canaanites by saying that God never told them to, but rather, “The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites” (54). Archaeology and the biblical story of the destruction of the Canaanite towns also do not line up—“what most everyone is certain about, however, is that the Bible’s version of events is not what happened” (60). In other words, God did not have all the Canaanites put to death. Enns’s point is that the “ancient writers had an adequate understanding of God for them in their time, but not for all time….” (65). It is an example of how Biblical writers talk about the past. Further, “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” (77).
For examples of story variations in the NT, Enns turns to the stories of Jesus: for example, how differently Matthew and Luke treat his birth, and how Mark and John leave it out. And Jesus himself quotes from the OT in quite contextually questionable ways to make his points. It is the same with the Easter story: it is reported very differently by the Gospel writers. Stories are told from different points of view because “followers of Jesus always have and always will meet Jesus and see him from where they are and they will experience Jesus differently as a result” (89). Stories from the OT past serve the present: “The stories of Jesus and of Israel’s dismal slide from kingship to exile…are windows onto how the Bible as a whole handles the past” (98).
Enns also comments on Adam, who is “about Israel’s present brought into the past—even as far past as the beginning of the human drama itself” (115). Likewise, in Exodus, the storytellers were taking us back to creation and not simply national origins.
On p. 122 Enns provides a diagram of how the “earth” was represented by the early writer of Genesis: waters above the firmament of heaven, pillars of earth and the water below, with side pillars of the sky. “God splits the deep in two…to form waters above the dome and waters below”, where the dome is the sky with vast waters covering the entire earth. This was the view of the early storytellers. In this story and in Noah and the Exodus, God is in control of the water.
Enns asks the question that has plagued many generations: Did what we read in the Bible happen? Is it history or is it story, or is it some combination of both? He sees it as a “grand story” that meets and invites us to join a world outside our own “and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process” (129).
Chapter four follows a new theme: looking to the Bible to try and clarify issues that aren’t in focus “by [trying] to squish the Bible’s diverse voices into one voice” (136) and in the process distort what he find in the Bible. God, in fact, tells us to do things in contrastive ways, depending on the context (Proverbs 26:4 and 5 on answering fools is an example). We need to read and examine and then figure out what to do with what we read (141).
Job and Qohelet also come into the picture—Job is a man who gets upset with God and Qohelet simply doesn’t know what to make of life or God. Both stories are real, proving that “God certainly is a multidimensional character in the Bible” (159).
Enns also looks at a few of the laws given in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus and shows the differences and contradictions that exist, concluding that “The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story” of how God and his people related to each other in various circumstances (163).
“Jesus is Bigger than the Bible”, the title of Chapter five, is something that Bible translators and organizations should note. (He repeats this theme in chapter six in the section “Jesus is bigger than the Bible.) Enns notes that “Jesus didn’t read his Bible the way we today might expect him to” (169). Jesus was a Jew and the way he read the Torah demonstrated his understanding of legalistic Judaism. And, “from the point of view of Jesus’s first-century Jewish world, creative handling of scripture is what you do” (178).
Chapter six (No One Saw this Coming), focusses on “how the reality of Jesus necessarily transforms Israel’s story” and is not simply a “ collection of unchanging information about God” (195). We don’t find Jesus in the OT but we can understand him as the starting point for understanding Israel’s story (202). An example is in the genealogies presented by Matthew and Luke. Whereas Matthew presents Jesus as the long-awaited deliverer, descended from David, Luke is more concerned about Jesus as the end of the exile.
Paul emerges on the scene as the central writer of the NT and winds up “declaring parts of Israel’s story null and void” (214), again upsetting our expectations. He transforms a local story into one that is universal and centers around Jesus. So was the Torah “temporary” because the Gentiles no longer are required to keep the Torah, for example being circumcised or not eating pork? The Torah is not God’s final word and Paul “reads the Bible through the lens of Jesus, God’s final word” (220).
Jesus is bigger than the Bible because his story shows us that the only way to God is through him. The Bible is “an ancient book and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it act like one” (231). In other words, we will see variation in story and Jesus interpreting the Bible creatively, drawing attention to the points that he wished to make. “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” (232).
Enns concludes with several observations about the Bible: 1) it is God’s word and has been around a long time; 2) it is not the center of Christian faith—Jesus is; 3) it is not a weapon with which to clobber people. Rather, it encourages us to have a maturing faith, to let go of our fear that we can’t trust God and that he doesn’t have new things to teach us. So, we must read the Bible on its own terms and not simply from our cultural perspective.
I found Enns book stimulating, reiterating much of what I have learned as a translator: the absolute literalness of the Bible is not my focus; rather it is on what God has told me about Jesus, both in the Old Testament and the New.
Enns style is casual, not theological or overly academic—although he is obviously a competent Biblical scholar and a good writer. He tells his stories naturally and with conviction, yet with enough humor and everyday language to make them interesting and engaging. I recommend it, in particular, for anyone who wishes to examine how the Jews thought about Scripture and how this influenced their interpretations of it.