a brief word on how to handle shocking things we read in the Bible (or, “Go, Rowan”)

Posted by PeteEnns on January 3, 2017 in violence of God 51 Comments

conquest-of-canaanThe Bible is, you might say, God telling us a parable or a whole sequence of parables.

God is saying, ‘This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made . . . Where are you in this?’

If in that story we find accounts of the responses of Israel to God that are shocking or hard to accept, we do not have to work on the assumption that God likes those responses.

For example: many of the early Israelites in the Old Testament clearly thought it was God’s will that they should engage in ‘ethnic cleansing’—that they should slaughter without mercy the inhabitants of the Promised Land into which they had been led. And for centuries, millennia even, people have asked, ‘Does that mean that God orders or approves of genocide?’ If he did, that would be so hideously at odds with what the biblical story as a whole seems to say about God.

But if we understand that response as simply part of the story, we see that this is how people thought they were carrying out God’s will at that time. The point is to look at God, look at yourself, and to ask where you are in the story. Are you capable in the light of the Bible as a whole—of responding more lovingly or faithfully than ancient Israel.*

Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, pp. 27-28
(slightly reformatted; my emphasis in bold)

Williams’s brief book Being Christian is, like anything he writes, theologically deep, pastorally engaged, andbeing-christian commonsensical about a number of things, especially his chapter on the Bible.

For Williams, the Bible is not a book where all parts have equal validity for us today for what God is like and how we should live. Some portions, as we read in the quote above, tell us more about what the Israelites thought God was like, how they in their contextual moment responded to the voice of God as they understood it.

Concerning violence in the Old Testament, in The Bible Tells Me So I put it this way: “God never told the Israelites to kill Canaanites. The Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites” (p. 54) or “God Let’s His Children Tell the Story” (p. 61).

To approach matters the way Williams suggests here is not to pick and choose arbitrarily what parts of the Bible to keep or toss away based on our own preferences. I hear that rebuke a lot but it is shallow. By contrast, I find William’s approach to give careful and necessary attention to 3 related and unavoidable matters when we engage in biblical interpretation:

(1) all theology is contextual (including the theology we find in the Bible),
(2) the Bible is not a book of timeless propositions to accept at face-value but reflects an ongoing journey of spiritual discernment, and
(3) our own continued discernment of how the Bible informs our faith is the very stuff of careful, ongoing theological reflection.

Go, Rowan.

*Williams is not antisemitic in contrasting the Gospel with the Old Testament. In a subsequent post I’ll get into that a bit more.

[Comments are moderated and I often need 6-24 hours to post them, so please be patient. Baiting and other comments intended simply to be belligerent are deleted. I love you, too.]


  • This is so good. These points are more clear when talking about genocide in the OT. I struggle more with the NT and how to take some things Paul said seriously without being an asshat. Recently InterVarsity “clarified” their policy about what staff must believe about sexuality. I heard their VP say over and over again that he wished the bible didn’t condemn same sex relationships, but that it’s the opinion that you have to hold if you take the bible seriously. It bothers me that many think this is what you need to believe to have a “high” view is scripture (my use of quotation marks indicates the cynicism I currently feel.) I strongly disagree and would not feel welcome at my school’s chapter anymore. We’ve seen how “love the sinner, hate the sin” doesn’t work and leads to higher rates of depression, which I can’t accept is godly. Do you have any insight on how you apply these points to he portion of the bible written after Jesus? Does that change anything?

    • The way that I always handle the issue of same-sex relationships when it arises in discussions with other Christians is to suggest that the Bible instructs us to concentrate on our own sins rather than those of others, E.g. “Resist not evil”, “Let he who hath not sinned cast the first stone.” “Do not condemn and you will not be condemned.” and I am sure many others. Christians have one way and one way only to confront evil and that is by bringing people to Christ. It seems clear to me that by confronting evil the way many Christians have chosen to do so on this issue, they have made it impossible (or at least very difficult) to reach many potential converts. One does not persuade by hurling insults.

      Another possible line of discussion in this regard is to inquire why Christians have focused so much on this issue instead of other clear commandments many of which are far more widely disobeyed, for instance, “Keep holy the Sabbath” or “Seek ye not treasures on earth.” I’ve found that one can make some headway with some Christians with arguments such as these, though attempting to convince that same-sex relationships may not be sinful at all is generally a bridge too far.

      BTW Dietrich Bonhoeffer has an illuminating discussion of the general issue of confronting evil in his remarkable book, The Cost of Discipleship. The first chapter and the one on the Disciple and the Unbeliever are the relevant sections of the book.

  • It’s hard to see how God is part of this construct if He doesn’t necessarily approve of a particular activity, yet these narratives makes it in there because, ultimately, it’s men, not God, writing the book. When there are so many Christians that think the Bible is authored by God himself, these kinds of ideas will be dismissed. I’m not saying I disagree with Rowan.

  • “God never told the Israelites to kill Canaanites”
    Can you explain this? What about Deuteronomy 20:16-18? There are many good explanations to such passages, but to say that they don’t exist seems dishonest.

    • I understand what you’re asking, Carter. In the interest of time (namely mine), I’d point you to my chapter on violence in The Bible Tells Me So and various posts on this blog (categorized in the footer). I certainly know the passages, and I explain them as Williams does. I would also argue strongly that neither of us is being “dishonest.”

  • Hi Dr. Enns,

    I am currently reading your book ‘The Bible Tells Me So…’ recommended by my friend & mentor. I’ve found it a bit hard to stomach or swallow right now (and I’m assuming you’d find that a good thing?). The looming question in my mind as I read it- which you also alluded to in this blog in your description of some of the critiques of Mr. Williams’ book is that to pick & choose arbitrarily which parts of the Bible we want to believe or not is a ‘shallow’ charge. Let me first say that I am a nubile Christian, converted only a year ago or so and I’ve only read the Bible in its entirety once! So obviously I am not in any way a scholar by any means of course! But what would you say to someone like me who looks at God as more righteous beyond my understanding even to the point of ‘genocide’ on filthy sinners like myself who deserve death for all of my infidelity but yet for whatever reason has been given grace beyond belief! Is it ridiculous for me to believe in a God like that or are you saying I should be ‘open’ to looking at the genocide stories differently? And again- I do think it’s a fair question to ask… If one thinks the genocide story was written through ancient lens and hence not truly what God commanded, then what other ‘commands’ in the Bible should we not take literally and yet look at through more ancient lens?? Sorry- but I sincerely don’t see the shallowness in that question? Or are you just simply suggesting that the same gospel narrative will be there in all its beauty as we sort out some of the ancient commands versus literal commands? Maybe my question in itself demonstrates my inability to grasp your challenge to me as a Christian. I just can’t see that right now. But I’ve learned in just over a year that I can be completely wrong about pretty much everything so I will hold out, although reluctantly :), on the notion that I can’t be wrong here also. I respect your pedigree so I am anticipating your response. Please reply. And again, I apologize for only getting about 80 pages through your book right now but I’ll finish it.

    • Leroy, thanks for your honest and good question(s). One thing struck me: “If one thinks the genocide story was written through ancient lens and hence not truly what God commanded, then what other ‘commands’ in the Bible should we not take literally and yet look at through more ancient lens??” Let me say that this dilemma is the very stuff of Christian theology! “What IS the Bible, anyway, and what do we DO with it?” Those are questions that arise the more we study it. I think your instincts are very good and I encourage you to keep pursuing them down the path you are walking. What I have found is not so much that our “nubile” questions always get answered but that they get absorbed, reframed, and spit out the other side as different sorts of questions, deeper ones, which when pursued have a way of answering the earlier ones.

      • Ok maybe I’m way too hung up on the genocide point (as everyone else on the blog seems to be) and hence missing your overall point of the book which my friend has suggested to me is about how we should read the Bible. I’ve been attacking your book through him and he is trying to help me see that I’m approaching my frustrations very narrowly… maybe he’s right but I just can’t see that right now if that’s true. I loved the Jackie Robinson story example which helps give plausible explanations as to why the four gospels differ on facts as well as possibly motives. So as a result, I can better understand how I may be reading the Bible in general through the wrong lens. I’ll keep reading.

        But out of curiousity, what is your personal opinion on what did or didn’t happen to the Canaanites. Or rather- what do you feel the Bible is teaching us with that ‘genocide’ story?

        • It’s hard to boil down in a comment. I explain that over a few pages in my book. Pretty standard scholarly stuff boiled down.

  • Tim, I see you point, but I would not handle any of those prooftexts the way you do, and neither would most people I know. Is Mark’s Gospel talking about damnation? Is Romans about individual “damnation” or is Paul illustrating something about corporate (Jew/Gentile) solidarity? And OT genocide (to take wipe out people living in a land so others could take it) is quite a different sort of violence, I think.

    • For Williams, the Bible is not a book where all parts have equal validity for us today for what God is like and how we should live. Some portions, as we read in the quote above, tell us more about what the Israelites thought God was like, how they in their contextual moment responded to the voice of God as they understood it.

      This passage seems to take Actual God out of the narrative and replace him with some Brazen Idol of Joshua’s fashioning. Do you think the words put in the LORD’s mouth represent God’s actual speech or not? Your book goes on with some very valid commentary about the historical anthropological situation which shows that the incidents described could not reasonably be literal history, so no it’s not God’s actual speech, just some redactor’s projection. All very well, but this is Scripture, so in addition … people like me, whoever we are … have to take into account God’s Authorial Intent. So when God writes himself into the text and says, “I said that”, we have to take it seriously. ‘Pologies if I am defaming you.

      So maybe God doesn’t feel entirely the same way we do about the Canaanite situation. Since you believe in evolution, recall that in soberest fact there’s been a whole heap of slaughter to get us chosen people into position. (… in position to stop slaughtering, if we would choose to …)

    • Yes, I do. God has every right to exercise his wrath and vengeance as he sees fit. He, as the author of life, has the prerogative to take life when he chooses.

        • Yes, I did. And as you are most certainly aware there is a larger context to the incident, and the only wise & good God has good reasons for what he commands. For those who wish to dig deeper into the context, a good article can be found here: http://christianthinktank.com/midian.html Also, Paul Copan and Richard Hess have done some good work on this topic as well. It would be good to see Dr. Enns interact with some of that material possibly in a future post.

          Thank-you Dr. Enns for your blog and facilitating these important discussions.

            • Perhaps, but I think it would be great to eventually see your rationale for stating that. Also, on the flip-side, I’m sure another could equally accuse you of the same – namely, the contortions you employ to preserve the bible as something more than a purely human document(s).

              • I’ll drop you right there. None of that clever about face stuff. These are argument that ONLY inerrantists make and that only serve to convince inerrantists. Other scholars wouldn’t give it the time of day. The link dumps on us a long list of conjecture that then amount to a point proved. If you or they read a story like Numbers 31 in any other ancient text you wouldn’t blink at what the point was.

                • I’m not trying to be snarky here. My tone is one of gentle push back sans any malice or ill will. Thanks for engaging me in a rather lively fashion (lol). Have a great night, Pete!

                  • I know you’re not being snarky, Derek! (But I do wish you’d change your profile pic.) Also I really need to stop typing comments on my iPhone. I meant to say “I’ll STOP you” not “drop”!! My deep apologies for that one.

                    • I really enjoy the color and shape of my avatar, just try and see it from a playful perspective. This was the only facial expression he came in – so can I keep him Pete!? PLEEEEASE!!

                • May I add the point though that I think inerrantists tend to dig a little deeper when reading the bible as opposed to purely human texts is precisely because we believe the bible is uniquely God-breathed. Therefore, the “contortions” are borne out of a desire to understand why God does what he does. Of course many scholars will not support such an endeavor…

                  • No you may not add that point . I know both of those worlds, Derek. What you call “digging deeper” isn’t that at all but an “oh crap” moment that elicits creative maneuvers to fix.

                  • Oh brother, the opposite is actually true. Fundamentals/evangelicals or whatever they are called give a lot of lip service to studying the Bible and may spent more time actually engaging it superficially, but they abhor at all costs actually trying to understand the text.

                    As Pete notes in his comment, trying to deal with all the apparent contradictions creates a whole field of theology, known as hermeneutics. And some of the explanations might make sense, up to a point. But when you need hermeneutical maneuvers to answer questions on every page, at some point people who seriously study the texts have to throw up their hands and honestly admit that there is a better and more simple way to understand texts that doesn’t need a phD in theology.

      • God clearly had a right in his creating to creat things his way, but how does beating a slave to death square with the Father described by Jesus in the Prodigal son, or the story of the woman caught in adultery, or the parable of the ungrateful servant, or….
        It is obvious to me that Jesus was setting things right, so something must have been taken the wrong way…. No?

  • I agree with this article but I think the real crux of the matter is the place the bible has in our lives. If we believe that it is the inspired word of God then disagreeing with any of it would seem to cause huge problems. I’m not sure though, how it ever came to assume such epic proportions and I can’t see why the old testament is given the status it is, it’s a Jewish book about their history which creates more problems than it solves. Don’t you think it slightly odd as well that Jesus chose illiterate men to follow Him, making the point that you don’t have to be literate or learned to see just what God our father has done for us. In some circles the bible has the status of the 4th member of the Godhead but why?

    • I’ve never understood the argument that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and inquiries to those who do usually illicit no more than a shrug and something like “You have to have faith.”. To me, it appears the book was written by individuals who took very seriously their attempt to understand God, and in that regard study of the Bible can be very useful in furthering one’s own understanding of Him. Perhaps someone here can explain why my understanding is in error.

      • Hi Steve, I don’t believe your understanding is in error. What you believe is what you believe, we are all individuals and God is big enough to ensure that we each have an individual and specially tailored relationship with Him.

    • Am I wrong in assuming that your second sentence concludes that “believing the Bible is the inspired word of God” requires a person to not disagree with any of it? If not, then I would pose three questions: 1) What does it mean to believe a body of work is inspired? 2) How is re-classifying a narrative from history to myth the same as disagreeing with it? 3) While it’s wonderful, and incredibly comforting, that Jesus chose illiterate men for his disciples, does that necessarily mean that we don’t have to educate ourselves on a text we use to set the standards for our faith tradition and, in doing so, set boundaries on who does/doesn’t belong, what behavior is/isn’t appropriate (because, believe me, that’s what we’re doing with the Bible in the US)?

      • Hi Marcus, good questions. 1. I think that an inspired text has to be factually accurate and non contradictory. 2. Based on the assumption that the historical account is inspired and therefore factually accurate, to classify it as myth would necessarily classify it as unisnspired. 3. I don’t agree with using the bible as a set of rules by which to live as it seems that if we do that we are mixing the gospel of grace with the law, a mish mash. I also don’t think we have to set standards by which we have to conform or live. Each individuals walk is just that an individual relationship between the person and God and doesn’t have to conform to anybody elses ideas about what a christian walk should be. God is well able to lead us and keep us but we need always to keep in mind that we conform to Him not the other way around and that His love is transforming, to accept that love will change us.
        There’s another point as well in that whilst I enjoy studying, there is a division between men and women who study and those who don’t. If a person has studied the bible, gone to bible college maybe, then that person is seen as a leader, a pastor, someone who has authority over the others. What a load of rubbish. That’s the reason I made the remark about the disciples being unlearned. It’s because we don’t need a certain level of intelligence or education to have a relationship with God and all that involves and we certainly don’t need a person between us and our Father. Mental ability is mental ability, faith is faith and sometimes both aren’t found within a person.
        Hope this goes some way as an explanation.

        • If an inspired text must be factually accurate, is Job factually accurate?
          Jesus, the “Word” of God incarnate, spoke in parables. These are clearly not meant to be “factually” accurate but spiritually accurate. So, if the word of God incarnate speaks in parable to convey a spiritual truth, why is it not assumed the the word of God inspired by the spirit of God, not also use parable?

          Clearly a course of study and degree from a bible college is not needed for a relationship with God, it may even be a hindrance as it was to many scribes and Pharisees, but it can also be dangerous not to understand the context of what one reads, as it was a danger for many to hear the original Orson Wells radio broadcast of War of the Worlds.

          • Hi Veritas, well when facts are given then, as I said, I think inspiration implies factual accuracy and no contradiction. In the case of Job I have known people who do consider it to be factually accurate. As regards the parables when Jesus spoke in parables we are told most times that he was speaking in a parable but when it’s not clear some people take things as factual, quite literally and others take it as a type of a spiritual truth. I think the point I’m really getting at here is that our relationship with God was never intended to be based upon a series of writings.
            As regards your last point, some people are unable to study to the degree that they will be able to understand the context and in fact it’s really only in comparitively recent times that the ordinary person had access to a printed bible. I hope I don’t cause any offence here but I think that’s quite an elitist view of God. Why should there be danger for people who are unable to study? Why should they be unable to receive the truth or be misled because they haven’t had the schooling that others have had? Each individual is as precious to God as another and each is equally in His hands.

            • No offense taken. Our relationship with God is not an individual experience in following Christ. There is a necessary community that we belong to.
              It is not elitist to think one can be mislead by misunderstanding context any more than it would be elitist to think that someone barely literate should expect to understand what the bible is teaching them. ( i have had several barely literate and illiterate friends who would agree on that) God doesn’t discriminate against us if we are illiterate and I agree that our relationship does not depend on us reading these words, the generations before the printing press are not lost to God (the most spiritually connected, wisest person I have ever known was one of those illiterate friends) but if we are interpreting what these words say, what they mean, etc then it is important to know how to read and to understand the context.

              • Hi Veritas, I would say that our relationship with God is absolutely an individual experience, it’s not something the established church would agree with because it’s much easier for them if people are denied their individuality and then they conform much more easily. Having said that, this is of course in the context that spiritually we are part of the same body. I don’t understand where the lack of individuality comes from, we are all created as individuals why would God not deal with us on an individual basis.
                I really don’t think that intelligence or an ability to understand the scriptures is a prerequisite for knowing God and following Him after all He is alive and well able to illuminate the most unlearned mind.

                • I have come to the conclusion that individuality is good and is how God created us. It’s when we turn it into an “ism” is where we get into trouble.

        • I think you are conflating “inspired” with “perfect/without error.” If I say “that composer’s work was inspired by God” it doesn’t confer a declaration of perfection onto that composer’s work.

      • More questions on top of each answer:

        1. What does it mean for a text to be “inspired?” The phrase only appears five times in the English translation, less times in the Greek, and is never used to describe the Bible itself (2 Tim 3:16’s statement that “All Scripture is God-breathed” doesn’t count). In the other five times, nowhere is the criteria of “factually accurate and non-contradictory” present.

        2. I’m still trying to understand this premise that “once we classify a narrative as myth, it ceases to be inspired.” Inspiration, by definition, has to do with how something is created, not with how it is interpreted or classified. Beethoven’s compositions were inspired; if someone comes along centuries later and reclassifies his work from classical to folk or country, that doesn’t negate the fact that the work was inspired.

        3. You’re going to need to talk a little more about why you “don’t think we have to set standards by which we have to conform or live.” Even atheists would agree that we have to live by some sort of moral code, both as individuals and as a collective society. I’m not saying that we have to “use the Bible” (whatever that means), but I wouldn’t assume that we don’t have to agree to live together under a certain set of standards for behavior. In addition, nothing in the Bible seems to justify the idea that a person’s relationship with God is strictly or primarily individual, that the individual relationship with God is the only thing that matters. That’s actually a very recent fabrication, probably just within the past 150 years or so, and it can get pretty dangerous, as it tends to justify not just a person’s personal ideas of who God is, but how that person is justified within themselves to live in the world among people.

        • Hi Marcus, I found this statement about biblical inspiration “Inspiration establishes that the Bible is a divine product. In other words, Scripture is divinely inspired in that God actively worked through the process and had his hand in the outcome of what Scripture would say. Inspired Scripture is simply written revelation. ”
          Let me get the the heart of the problem. If the OT writers state that God told a group of people to go and utterly destroy every man woman and child that statement is for me, impossible to be classified as inspired. If I’m wrong about this then I have every confidence that God will show me but for now that’s where I stand.
          To continue,of course we all have standards or morals that we live by and they are completely necessary if we are to live in a society and within the vast majority of humans is the capacity and need for love and the capacity for that love to be self sacrificing (parents and children for example) but there seems to me to be extra requiremnts within christian churches for people to conform to further sets of rules in order to be “christian”. This is what I was alluding to and I must disagree with you in that I believe that we are absolutely called to have an individual relationship with God. No-one can have the relationship that I have with God because no-one else is me. That relationship is of course in the context of each of us being part of the same spiritual body but individulas joined together none the less. Surely the Bible reinforces that point, look at all the different people God had a relationship with and how that relationship differed because of their particular circumstances. Adam, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses etc.

    • I’m curious why you believe the disciples were illiterate. Levi, for instance, was a tax collector. I assume that required a level of literacy.

  • Archaeologists say that Jericho had been abandoned many years before this story allegedly happened, so not only can we safely say that God didn’t order genocide, I think the question is why the people who wrote the book thought it made their religion look attractive by creating this tale. Are those the type of values we should emulate?

    On another note, it is ironic that modern Christians accuse the unbelievers of moral relativism, yet nobody practices it more than those who claim inerrancy. Because they have to say that genocide is sometimes acceptable. What could be more relativistic than that?

  • This phrase of Williams’s (should I add “Most Rev.” for a former Archbishop of Canterbury?) catches my eye: “simply part of the story…”. I’m sure his wording is deliberate, for these texts are just that — stories written by Jewish scribes many centuries after the period depicted, for an audience trying to find its identity and its God in a land invaded and occupied over and over since time immemorial. Although it is mainly Israel’s side of the story that survives for us to read, I think Christians would benefit from putting themselves in the shoes of the other side as well.

  • Thanks, Prof. Enns. Appreciate your regular exploration of our understanding of the bible. I have always been taught that the poor interpretation of God’s love by to ancients was the prime reason for sending Jesus.

  • Doesn’t your understanding of what the Bible is make you think about questions of what the fate of mankind is? If people are hanging in the balance of eternal salvation vs eternal damnation, it would seem cruel to give us a kinda confusing book whose purpose and nature is hard to even understand as our principal tool to avoid the flames? Does that not force you to something closer to universalism in order to make God even remotely lovable? If you were about to die and I had the key out, I would hope that I would not give you confusing instructions on how to use the key.

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