Variation in Old Testament teachings


I’ve blogged about Peter Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation, and about his first topic, The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature. Now I want to look at his second topic.

There are variations in teaching within the Old Testament. What do these tell us about God and his revelation to us?

Examples of variations

Some variations are deliberate

Proverbs 26:4-5 gives contradictory advice:

4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

Obviously the writer and compiler, by placing these two proverbs side by side, wasn’t making a mistake, but was making a point – different situations require different responses. There are many other examples, though generally not so close together and hence not so obvious.

So this should teach believers and sceptics alike a lesson. The book of Proverbs isn’t giving fixed rules to be either followed by rote or criticised for being inconsistent, but seems aimed at being food for thought. It seems likely that other wisdom literature in the Old Testament – e.g. Ecclesiastes and Job – should be seen similarly.

Historical variation

The books of Chronicles sometimes present a different history to that written in the books of Samuel and Kings. Both cover similar periods in the history of Israel, up to the end of the two kingdoms, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the exile into Babylon. But the two have different emphases, for example:

  • Chronicles doesn’t mention many of David’s sins (e.g. no mention of adultery with Bathsheba and its consequences), and so presents him and Solomon as idealised kings.
  • Chronicles doesn’t delve into the power struggles at the end of David’s reign as Kings does, for similar reasons.
  • Chronicles emphasises the importance of the temple and Solomon’s role in building it.
  • Samuel-Kings stresses national sins and responsibility whereas Chronicles emphasises personal responsibility.

Scholars believe that Samuel-Kings were compiled into their present form during the exile, and the compilers were attempting to explain why the nation was being punished by God, whereas Chronicles was compiled after the return from exile and emphasised the importance of re-establishing the nation and temple.

Differences in laws

You would expect God’s laws to be consistently the same, but this isn’t always so. For example:

  • The two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5) have the same commands, but the wording varies slightly, with more detail in the later version – reflecting perhaps that the Deuteronomy version has Moses recalling the giving of the Law 40 years previously.
  • Sometimes the prophets seem to correct or contradict teachings in the law, even in the Ten Commandments – e.g. Exodus 20:5-6 says God punishes the children of sinners, whereas Ezekiel 18:4 says God only punishes the sinner.
  • The laws on freeing slaves and the regulations on the Passover and sacrifices differ from Exodus to Deuteronomy, reflecting the different circumstances at the time of writing.

Different teachings about God?

There seems to be a progression in the Old Testament understanding of God. Early on he is the God that Israel should worship rather than any other god because he is greater than they (e.g. Psalm 86:8: “Among the gods there is none like you, Lord; no deeds can compare with yours.”). But later on, it is made clear that Yahweh is the only God (e.g. Isaiah 65:16 refers to “the one true God”).

This seems to suggest that God revealed himself gradually, within the limits of the understanding of people at the time.

What does all this tell us about scripture?

As I suggested before, it seems to me (and to Peter Enns) that there are two inappropriate ways to respond to these facts, and one historically responsible way.

The Bible is true, we must explain these anomalies?

Christians with a pre-determined view that the Old Testament must inerrantly teach us truths that are still applicable today will find some of these facts difficult, and will be forced to try to re-interpet these and other examples to fit their view of the OT.

But this approach seems wrong. It distorts the revelation we are given and it misses what we might otherwise learn from how God has revealed himself. This approach would mean the Bible is no longer our authority, but rather a theological doctrine not found in the Bible.

The Bible is inconsistent, it can’t be from God?

Some sceptics, and some doubting christians, reject the Old Testament because it doesn’t fit their expectation of what God’s revelation ‘should’ be like. But this surely is the wrong approach also. As Enns outlines, we should accept the OT for what it is, and then ask the question: Is it possible God could have revealed himself in this way, despite my expectations?

I’m not saying the sceptic should now accept the OT as ‘God’s word’, but I suggest it does mean that this objection should be reconsidered, and either dropped or reformulated.

What do we learn from these facts?

So I believe the historically and culturally responsible way to understand the Old Testament is to try to learn lessons about the God revealed in it, from the nature and content of the text. Enns suggests we can learn the following:

  1. Diversity is integral to the OT – it is not all the same. We should try to understand why this is rather than try to explain it away.
  2. It seems that God is willing to allow us to understand him via the culture of the day (which of course is always changing). In Enns’ words, God “incarnates himself”, he “accommodates himself” to us. He doesn’t stand aloof and expect us to reach up to him, but gets involved, expressing himself in different ways through and to different people and situations. Ultimately, he becomes one of us in Jesus.
  3. There is progression in God’s self-revelation, similar to how a teacher or a parent gradually educates a child.
  4. The unity of the Bible doesn’t consist in everything being the same, or teaching exactly the same, but in the whole transcending its diverse parts to tell a story which culminates in Jesus.

I think that is an exciting way to see the Old Testament.

Why did God do it this way?

Explaining God’s actions (called a ‘theodicy’) seems to me to be rather futile and hubristic – how can we expect to know? But if I had to answer this question, I’d guess that it reflects God’s wish not to create living robots who worship and obey him out of fear, coercion or lack of choice, but rather to create autonomous beings who choose to follow him out of our heart’s desire.

The whole creation seems to be given autonomy – from the big bang and human evolution, to the development of human societies and religions and the revelation in the Bible, God is often a ‘hands-off’ God, intervening on occasions, but so often working through natural processes.

I don’t pretend to have it all worked out, but I think I can see hints of this.

But what about …. ?

Enns doesn’t address in this book what many would see as the ultimate inconsistencies in the OT – the sometimes barbarous commands which God is said to give, and the lack of archeological evidence for some of the early history. There isn’t space to address these issues now, though I have had a brief look in Believing the Bible: the Old Testament Part 1 and Part 2.

But I believe Enns’ concept of incarnation will help understand these difficulties also. More on that some other time.

Photo Credit: Rachel-Esther via Compfight cc

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  1. Nice job on this post. Of course, I disagree with the conclusions you and Enns come to, but I definitely appreciate your treatment of the data.

  2. Thanks for this post. It was enjoyable to read it. As you know, we both agree in broad lines about the inspiration of the Bible. It was interesting to read how Enns’s thoughts are along similar lines.

  3. Thanks guys. I think many people naturally conclude that either the OT is inerrant or it’s not from God in any way (more or less as you thought as a christian, Nate, and still think), but this was never part of my thinking. I grew up on CS Lewis, and as an academic familiar with ancient texts, he took a view very similar to Enns. And so reading Enns was like familiar territory for me, but giving me more detail than Lewis did.

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