Thinking about the Bible: the conversation continues

June 20th, 2024 in About.

After talking about difficulties in understanding the Old Testament and how to interpret it consistently, Amy and Chris agreed they’d each spend some time researching what other people, especially Bible scholars, say.

So now, a few weeks later, they’re back sharing what they’ve found.

“How did you go thinking about the Old Testament?”

“I read quite a lot and learnt some useful stuff. So that was good…. well until last night that is.”

“Why, what happened?”

“It was my Bible strudy group again. We got talking again about God commanding the Israelites to kill entire tribes. I asked them whether God could command the same things today.”

“What did they say?”

“They said of course he wouldn’t. So I asked does that mean God has changed his mind since then. That didn’t go down so well!”

“I can imagine!

So what have you been reading?”

“Well one thing I read was that there are teachings that change as you go through the Bible. That was interesting.”

“What teachings?”

“Lots of things. I was a bit surprised. Like in one place God says that in the Passover celebration, the Israelites should roast the lamb and not boil it. Yet later it says the lamb should be boiled. But the second time the the same Hebrew word is translated as “cooked” instead of “boiled” so it doesn’t look like a contradiction. It’s not a big deal, except if you think the Bible is perfect.”

“What else?”

“Well in the Law, God says he will punish or bless children according to what their parents did. But the prophet Ezekiel says God doesn’t do that, it’s only the person who actually sins who will be punished.

Another probably more important thing is the laws about sacrifices. The early books of the Bible say they’re really important, but later the prophets say that God’s not so much interested in sacrifices as in obedience and ethical behaviour. It seems like a good development in their religion, but it really is a major change.”

“What do you make of that?”

“I got this stuff from a book by a Professor, a guy named Pete Enns, and he says the Jews liked to explore and discuss issues, so their scriptures often reflect more than one view, until they worked out which was right. So they were OK about updating older laws when it seemed good, or when God revealed new teachings.”

“Why would the old laws need to be updated?”

“Well he says the Israelites were learning more about the true God all the time. Some of the ways they previously portrayed God, like the genocide commands and God’s fierce anger sometimes, don’t sound very loving. So as they came to understand God’s love and mercy a little more, they put those new understandings into their scriptures, which weren’t written once and set in concrete, but were re-written and re-told before they reached the form we have today.”

“Are there other places where we can we see that sort of thing happening?”

“Well another example is when the prophet Elisha tells Israel’s army commander, Jehu, that he should kill the current king Jehoram and all his family, because of their sins, and he anoints Jehu as the new king. So Jehu does it, killing more than 70 people. But later the prophet Hosea says that God will punish Jehu for these murders.

Did God change his mind? Did Elisha get it wrong? Or did Hosea? I don’t really know, but it’s hard to think that God really did command the murder of 70 people!”

“Yeah, I can’t think the God of Jesus would do that …. or command genocide.

I was reading about the archaeology for the time when Joshua and two million Israelites conquered Canaan and those genocidal commands were supposed to be given. “

“So what does the archaeology say?”

“It turns out it’s pretty clear. Most of the cities that the book of Joshua says the Isrealites captured and destroyed weren’t in fact destroyed, or at least not at that time. And if you read til the end of Joshua and into the next books, they confirm that many of the cities weren’t captured. Joshua tells two different stories, and it’s the second one that fits the archaeology.”

“I didn’t know that!

That really changes things doesn’t it?”

“That’s not all. The archaeology shows that there were nowhere near two million people in Canaan at that time. More like a hundred thousand. So the numbers must have been exaggerated too.”

“So what do you think that all tells us?”

“I think there’s more than history going on here. The writers of the Jewish scriptures were interpreting history, sometimes exaggerating it, to explain what was happening to their nation. And, I guess, to explore their growing understanding of God”

“That make sense.

But do you think that way of looking at things destroys the Bible? I mean, how can it be God’s word if it has exaggeration and wrong ideas in it?”

“I’ve been thinking about that. I don’t know anywhere the Bible actually says it’s “God’s Word”. So while it claims to contain God’s words in various places, I don’t see we have to believe it was all literally the words of God. Especially when it looks more like people learning and growing as God led them along.”

“So doesn’t that mean it isn’t special at all?”

“Well Jesus treated it as special.”

“Well doesn’t that mean it really was God’s word?”

“I don’t think so. One thing I’ve noticed is that when Jesus or Paul quote their scriptures, which were our Old Testament, they don’t always treat it as fixed and sacred. Sometimes they leave bits out, change the meaning or reinterpret it. They seemed to think it was flexible like that.”

“Can you send me some examples of that so I can look them up?”


“What you’re telling me here seems to show that the process of God gradually revealing truth to the Jewish people continued on into the New Testament.”

“Yes, I think that’s so.”

“Does that mean we can’t really trust the New Testament to tell accurate history either? Like, does that mean the stories about Jesus are also exaggerated?”

“I don’t think so. From what I’ve read, the historians say that the Old Testament wasn’t written as history like we would write it. There was much more interpetation going on. But they also say the gospels were historical biographies, written to tell and explain the true and admirable things about their subject – in this case Jesus.”

“Yeah, the New Testament does say that Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation, so there’d be no need to change anything about that. What he did and said stand.

But do you think then there’s no mistakes at all in the New Testament?”

“I haven’t really figured that out yet. There seem to be a few places where the gospels contradict each other, but I don’t this affects anything important.”

“Pete Enns reckons God has left us with a Bible that is ancient, ambiguous and diverse, which means we have to apply what we read to our situation, and not assume it is fixed for all time. So maybe there are things even in the New Testament which were right for then, but not for now.”

“What sorts of things do you mean?”

“I was think of things like slavery, which Paul didn’t seem to like, but didn’t try to stop. And of course, what is really important for me, is the patriarchal way women are treated, which should be totally unacceptable today. At least I hope so!”

“I can agree with that!

So how are you going to read the Bible now? What difference does all this make?”

“I need to think about that a bit more! My brain has been in overload thinking about all this!”

“Let’s give ourselves a break and take some time to think how all this works out.”

“Yeah let’s compare notes in a couple of weeks.”

To be continued.

  • The commands about not boiling and boiling the Passover lamb are in Exodus 12:8-9 and Deuteronomy 16:7.
  • The teachings about God punishing children for their parents’ sins, or not, are in Exodus 20:4-6 and Ezekiel 18:3-4.
  • The story of Jehu is in 1 Kings 9 and Hosea 1:4.
  • Examples of places where Jesus or the apostles change the meaning of Old Testament passages include:
    • In John 10:35, Jesus quotes Psalm 86 to make a very different point to what the Psalmist was making.
    • When Paul quotes Psalm 68 in Ephesians 4:8, he changes the wording to mean the opposite of the original.
    • Matthew 27:9-10 quotes Zechariah 11:12 but changes the story into a prophecy of Judas’ betrayal.
    • In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus omits one section of an Isaiah passage, which is about vengeance;
    • Three times in Romans (Romans 15:9-10, 12:19-21 and 3:10-18) Paul omits or changes Old Testament quotes to remove references to God’s vengeance

Books referred to here are How the Bible Actually Works by Pete Enns and Beyond the Texts by William Dever.

Photos by Andrea Piacquadio and Italo Melo.

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