spoiler alert: stuff in the Bible happened a long, long time ago

Posted by PeteEnns on June 13, 2016 in nature of the Bible Old Testament 9 Comments

2532 years ago, in August 29, 520 BCE, according to Haggai 1:1, God gave the command to rebuild Israel’s temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC.

That’s a long time ago, is all I’m saying.

We are as far removed from that day in the past as we are from the year 4548 in the future, if that helps put it in perspective.

Think about it. Just 1/5 of this length of time takes us way back to about 1500, the days when Europeans were just staring to explore (and exploit) the known world, and people still thought the earth was the center of the cosmos.

If we were transported back to those days, only 500 years ago, many of us would probably be dead within a week, unable to negotiate the dos and don’ts of daily life.

Take just half of 2532 years and we are back in the mid-8th century. Vikings began invading Europe, the stuff of legends. Paper was introduced to the Arabs by the Chinese.

We live in a world where huge numbers are thrown around daily: trillions upon trillions of dollars of national debt, billions upon billions of galaxies each containing billions upon billions of stars, trillions of cells in the human body. We can’t wrap are heads around numbers that large, but they are part of our daily consciousness.

With numbers that large floating in our heads, we tend to forget how significant 500, 1000, or 2532 years are when seen from the point of view of our daily human experience.

So Haggai began urging his countrymen to rebuild the temple over 25 centuries ago. 100 years, 25 times.

Imagine living to be a hundred–and doing that over and over again 25 times. Frankly, I have a hard time truly “experiencing” in my minds’s eye what just one 100-year span looks like. Ken Burns’s The Civil War shows us photographs of soldiers, wives, children, slaves, buildings, and farmland a “mere” 150 years old. I am taken by the profundity of how much time has elapsed, how foreign this world is to mine.

And the Israelites began rebuilding their temple 2532 years ago.

This bit of the human drama will forever remain outside of my capacity to comprehend. The distance of it all. I cannot get inside of it. I remain a foreigner to this ancient landscape, and outsider looking in.

I guess my point is this. It seems many of us, myself included, can get a bit careless, even cavalier, about the Bible, thinking that we “get it” because we happen to read it regularly in our native tongue. Perhaps we should regain a sense of respect for the distance this book has travelled to land on our coffee tables, pulpits, and work desks.

Perhaps we should remember that in the Bible we are coming face to face with a very foreign (and small) slice of the humanENNS_BibleTellsMe drama—with customs, habits, a whole consciousness, that we do not share—and so we should be respectful enough not to claim for ourselves too great a familiarity.

We can study it and even teach it, as I do. But we kid ourselves if we think we control it.

Perhaps we can try to keep that in mind when we disagree over what it means.  We are all on foreign soil.

[The original version of this post first appeared in August 2012. I explore the theme of the nature of the Bible in Inspiration and Incarnation (2005/2015), The Evolution of Adam (2012), and The Bible Tells Me So (2014). ]


  • The sermon I listened to yesterday explained the “Elisha and the bears” story of 2 Kings as by justifying the bears’ mauling of 42 young people. If I’d listened to this sermon before I read your books, The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and The Bible and the Believer, I’d have been struggling to reconcile the grace of God and the love of Jesus with this tale of God’s harsh retribution. Your books allow me to place the story in the context of the time it was written and understand why the story makes sense during those times. So I can disagree with the pastor’s interpretation of the story without turning away from the Bible and Christianity. Thanks Pete!

  • And also in the Bible just “stuff … happened.” Unpleasant stuff. Vile stuff. Mean stuff. Bloody stuff. Bodily functions stuff. Sexual stuff — lots of that. Stuff that’s nuts to civilized humane experience. Stuff that if anyone said God told them to do it would get them put in a loony cage. Stuff that if most anyone taught from the pulpit that God endorsed/commanded/blessed such would rightly turn people against such a God forever (e.g., Ps 137:9). Yep, in the Bible “stuff happens”. Thank GOD for “The Bible Tells Me So” ! Paraphrasing – “Why did God tell them to do such horrible things? He didn’t. They just thought like that about gods and God way back then in the ancient world.” Way back then being the operative idea.

    • From a recent FB posting of mine, inspired by this blog post of yours Pete.

      A Quiz: from the Bible or from the Quran?

      Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.

      Give me any plague, but the plague of the heart; and (give me) any wickedness, but the wickedness of a woman.

      When two men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one comes to the defense of her husband, and she takes the other in her hand by his testicles: then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

      All found shall be impaled on the sword; and every one with them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives raped.

      Take all the heads of the people and hang them up before God against the sun, that the fierce anger of the God may be turned away.

      Now therefore kill every boy among the children, and kill every woman that has had sexual congress. But all the young virgin girls, keep alive for yourselves.

      And he brought out the people of Rabbah, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes.

      Go through the city, and kill: without mercy, kill them all: Slay all the old and young, both young girls, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at the temple. Then they began at the old men which were (sitting) before the house.

      But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

      When you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and trim her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.

      All from the Bible: Ps 137:9, Eccles 25:13, Dt 25:11-12, Is 13:15-16, Nu 25:3-4, Nu 31:16-18, 1 Chrn 20:3, Ezek 9:5-6, Luke 19:27, Dt 21:11-14

      • Welcome to Iron Age Semitic Tribal Culture.

        The background culture of both ha-Tanakh and al-Koran. The difference being that Judaism grew out of that original culture through 2500 years of intermittent hardship while Islam — cursed with 400 years of unbroken runaway early success — never did.

  • “and people still thought the earth was the center of the cosmos.”

    Have you seen the seemingly growing faction of geocentrists lately? And why? Ah, yes… “but the bible says……..”
    And for the big geocentric Catholic’s, they are defending ancient papal statements that affirmed geocentrism.

  • I think this blog hits something in its miss (or misses something in its hit).

    When believers speak of palpable details of conversations, emotions, and thoughts from events that may have taken place 2,532 years ago, what they’re doing is–despite how “literal” they claim to be–mythologizing.

    I remember when I first gave much consideration to the span of this timeline while listening to sermons. I think it helped me consider what and how believers actually do believe what they believe and how they tie that in to meaning making in their own lives.

    More than disagreements or even fights for soil to be stood on, this kind of reflection helps me gain insight into belief as believers believe. And I think that helps me (at times, when I’m patient at least) better understand what people feel deeply but never verbalize but through what mythologizing can offer a careful listener.

  • I am now just over 80 years of age yet healthy and strong. 80 years is not that far removed from 100 years so I often think you take 100 years 20 times and this takes us back to the time of Jesus. Not that long ago Jesus walked the earth.
    Bill Toews 

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

    I am now just over 80 years of age yet healthy and strong. 80 years is not that far removed from 100 years so I often think you take 100 years 20 times and this takes us back to the time of Jesus. Not that long ago Jesus walked the earth.
    Bill Toews 

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

  • What can make that distance in time even more astounding, to me at least, is the distance added on top of it. Do we, in this part of the world understand those half way around the planet, even though we live in the same minute and time? Travel and you will find out that we share much, but still struggle to fit in….or understand each other.

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