two issues in the Bible that are really really important and really really not clear at all

Posted by PeteEnns on February 13, 2017 in nature of the Bible 28 Comments

exodusThis is no official word from above (unlike most of my blog posts). Just my opinion.

Here are the two issues that I think are very important for how we think about Christian faith and how the Bible fits into that. Many would like absolute clarity on these issues, but that clarity does not exist.

The two issues, one from each Testament, are (cue dramatic music):

Israelite origins and the meaning of the cross (atonement).

Israelite origins

The question is, historically speaking, Where did the historical group of people called “Israelites” come from?

That question is not answered by biblical scholars and historians with, “Just read the Bible.” The biblical story, which begins with one person Abraham and leads through Egypt to the Promised Land and a monarchy, is fraught with many well-known and often insurmountable historical problems.

It seems that the biblical account of Israelite origins is not so much a history as it is a story, with historical echoes of various sorts, but a story nonetheless.

The further back in time we go in Israel’s history, the more complex and mysterious the matter becomes. Certain events in the Old Testament are ones we can, generally speaking, hang our historical hat on. They include (working backwards):

  • the Babylonian exile and return (586-539 BCE),
  • the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians (701),
  • and the fall of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians (722),
  • the division of the monarchy into north and south (around 930),

Similarly, the existence and reigns of David and Solomon (10th century BCE) can (and I think should) be assumed as generally echoing historical events, even if the details of the biblical accounts raise some significant questions for historians.

But if we continue pressing backward in time, before the monarchy, the historical nature of the biblical accounts is either utterly unclear or in direct tension with the general outline of history that has come to light in the past century or so. Historically speaking, we really don’t know where the Israelites came from, and the exodus and conquest stories, which are so central to the biblical account, are particularly problematic.

And, of course, here’s the real problem and why I am singling out this issue above all others: Israelite origins is sort of a big deal in the Old Testament. You know, Abraham, Moses, Mt. Sinai, and all that.

Engaging the historical study of Israelite origins from a position of faith in the God of Israel is a challenge, and not one that I am going to solve in this post, other than to say, “Welcome to the journey; it’s really no that bad once you get used to it.”

The Cross

If Israelite origins is a core Old Testament issue for Christian faith, the meaning of the cross is überimportant.OL_Crucifixion

“Why did Jesus die? What is the significance of Jesus’s death?” Christian theologians have been discussing these questions for as long as there have been Christian theologians, beginning with the New Testament writers themselves, and I suppose we should take some comfort in that.

Yes, Jesus died on the cross, and yes, that changed everything. But exactly what the cross changed and how it changed it can easily begin barroom fights (assuming that biblical scholars and theologians hang out in bars, which most of them do and if not they probably should).

There have been in fact a number of “atonement theories” out there for centuries that try to explain the significance of Jesus’s death on a Roman cross. And the reason why these theories abound isn’t because theologians are looking for attention or have daddy issues they are taking out on God, but the fact that the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice on the matter.

Actually, when reading the New Testament, you get the impression that the writers were actually trying to work it out themselves. “Why did the Messiah die as a Roman criminal?” can’t be answered with a few Old Testament prooftexts—as if, “Oh yeah, duh. Obviously.” The matter of a suffering and executed Messiah was a surprise that posed a deep theological challenge for the early Christians, but one they took up with gusto.

The crucifixion of Jesus is of central importance to the Christian faith, but the nature of its significance is very hard to pin down. What, exactly, did Jesus’s execution do? Did it appease God’s wrath? Was it like a legal transaction to satisfy God’s justice? Was Jesus’s death a ransom of some sort to free captives (see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)? Was it Jesus’s victory over the power of death? Was it a moral exemplar for Christians to follow?

These theories exist because they can be found in (or perhaps inferred from) the New Testament. And so when someone asks you what seems to be that most basic of questions about Christianity, “Why did Jesus die?”, the answer actually isn’t obvious but strikes at the heart of the mystery of faith. And maybe all the atonement theories are right in their own way.

Anyway, this post isn’t about solving Israelite origins or atonement theory. It’s about how untended and even uncooperative the Bible can be if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically. The Bible doesn’t work well that way.

But perhaps better, the Bible as is, not as we might like it to be, drives us to work together by faith in thinking through the nature of the Christian story and its implications.

 

28 Comments

  • Prof. Enns: please help us all and write a book about Israelite origins! Nice hardcover, moderately priced, aimed at intelligent nonspecialists. You can do it! :)

    • There are books like that out there already, you know. :) “Israel’s History and the History of Israel” by Mario Liverani, “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman, and “Who were the Early Israelites and Where did they come from?” by William Dever come to mind.

    • I agree. It’s important to understand this, because the Jewish citizens in Israel have had an enormous impact on the Middle East since obtaining statehood in 1948. I’d love a lay person’s history of all the players.

  • Or maybe the temple authorities were just pissed at him for distilling Judaism down to two simple commandments, which undermined their authority, and so they took some popular terms used to describe Jesus–“King of the Jews,” “Lord,” “Savior,” “Son of God”–to the Roman authorities and accused him of sedition. And maybe, in the end, Jesus saves us from sin by giving us a few simple tools to avoid it.

  • Answer to question one: the Israelis are direct descendants of Adam and Eve the created by God. Abraham who obiediantly was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to God and Isaac who did not rebel against his father showed the loyalty and devotion to God he desires. Being the blood of Able cried out from the ground for justice blood became the only thing that could conquer sin and death. As God promised Abraham that he would provide the perfect lamb for sacrifice he did. Only Christ is born of God and woman leaving man out of it. Being that Christ is the passover lamb that was slain for all mankind on passover which reunited mankind nolonger Jew and gentile but all able to claim being a child of God’s. Fullfiling the prophecies of the prophets.

    • Well you just pulled the rug out from under all the book proposals in the works! Please don’t also prove anything about time travellers and Egyptian civilization or I will have nothing left to believe in.

  • Dr. Enns (or Pete),
    I’ve been a Christian for almost 40 years. Names like Bultmann, Hengel, Von Rad, and Bruggemann (to mention a few) fill my book shelf. You really hit on two key questions. Israel’s origin is a complicated issue (see comments above). Christ’s death is a complicated issue. I used to know the answers to both questions, but the more I learned, the more I interacted with the Bible, and the more questions I asked, the more I’ve realized there’s a lot of things I simply don’t know. Maybe this afternoon I’ll figure it all out.

    • I just love your comment “I used to know”. You are discovering the beauty of life–searching. I wish you success in your endeavor!

  • Pete –

    I recently finished The Evolution of Adam, and the Sin of Uncertainty. The latter made me feel normal again. Thanks.

    You raise two questions that indeed make us go “Hmmm?” I often wonder whether that accounts of Israel that take us up to the “historical” monarchy are mythical with the same intended purpose as humanity’s mythical origins account in earlier Genesis (1-3, 6-8 and on). If, as you’ve theorized, that the garden story is Israel’s story in mythical terms, then it is plausible that the generational accounts are mythical stories that become “historical myths.” In other words, the Noah to Abram to Egypt to David accounts are the national myth of Israel written as history. It is history that serves as national myth.

    On the one hand, it establishes Israel as the nation that is like Adam; their own national origin parallels exactly what was presented in human origins and Adam. This gives authority and validity to them as the distinct nation of the one God Yahweh among the nations. As John Walton suggests, Adam was placed in the garden; from where? He theorizes that there were other humans and that Adam was chosen by God and placed in his sacred space for his purposes (expanding order from within to encompass the chaos of the world outside). Of course this fits nicely with Israel’s election from among the nations of the earth as the distinct (holy) nation for the sake of the nations. Thus arising essentially out of the nations, taken literally out of the mix of the nations, Abram becomes the “Adam” of the nation who would be “Adam.”

    Ironically, the origin of Israel from the midst of the chaos of humanity on Shinar becomes evident when they later return their in exile; “from Babylon you were formed, and to Babylon you will return.” The exile seen in this way then becomes the “flood account” for Israel. The waters of chaos once again covered the earth. Israel was no longer the distinct nation in the midst of the world but had been incorporated right back into the primordial nation/land from which they arose. And just as Yahweh cleansed the earth of man’s wickedness in the flood, so He worked to purify Israel back in their primordial birthplace. But just as God reaffirmed his creation promises to Noah, he affirms his enduring covenant faithfulness to Israel returning them to the land.

    I’m a pastor of a small church in Virginia and I strongly affirm the inspiration (and incarnation!) of the Scriptures. I accept what is written as revelation of God; his wisdom. I see the accounts you refer to, the hard-to-validate details, as possibly national myth written as history. The purpose, if I were to keep theorizing, is to assure Israel that like their primordial ancestor Adam, they too were taken from amidst the common for distinct (holy) purposes in the world, and their origins affirm that linkage for them. It serves not only to support their trust in God and thus their purpose for being faithful to him, but it serves as a witness to the nations that this nation must serve a worship-worthy God (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

    If Genesis and Exodus were set to written form during the exile, the purpose of such history would be much the same as Samuel-Kings and Chronicles…how did we get here? Are we still God’s people? Given the parallels between the human origins myth and the story of Israel, there are strong reasons for Israel to persevere because they MUST by the elect of God for there to be so many points in common with their primordial ancestor. Just as God restored the land from the flood waters, he would restore Israel from exile.

  • As for the Cross, Jesus died because he was incarnate. The big question of the cross is part of an even bigger question of why God became incarnate. Once God became incarnate, death was inevitable, only the manner of dying was left to be determined. The reality of the Cross does not necessarily mean that it is the sole meaning of the incarnation, nor that it has only a finite number of meanings, does it? Why limit God with such thinking?
    So, should it instead be the issue of the incarnation?
    ( as for Isrealite origins, it seems safe to say that the tribes were named for their founding patriarchs, no?)

  • I’ve been looking for answer to the 2nd question for a long time. None of the atonement theories satisfied me. They all sounded made up excuses to take away from the horrible, horrible ordeal.

  • OK, so regarding the cross. This one I’ve spent a lot of time (past two years) wrestling with. The first time this became a crisis issue for me was after reading Kenneth Bailey’s book Jacob and the Prodigal. Actually it was that book along with a number of questions I’d been struggling with for a LONG time. First, Jesus says on the cross “Father forgive them.” If Jesus asked God to forgive, are we to assume that God didn’t? If the cross, and by extension all those who collectively would have stood at the base of that cross in agreement, forgave then what is there left for God to be wrathful about? Second, passages like “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Does this mean that God won’t forgive us until we forgive? Also the call to be reconciled to your offended brother prior to offering your sacrifice; is the implication that your sacrifice will not be received until you have worked out reconciliation at the human level? Third, if we do not forgive, neither will our father in heaven forgive us. Fourth, the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant; why after being forgiven was the servant punished? Fifth, the Parable of the Compassionate Employer. And back again to the Parable of the Prodigal Son (I call it the Parable of the Compassionate Father).

    I was left to conclude that Jesus would tell a parable using real, cultural and traditional issues to an audience who understood and was shocked by his account that he either 1) told a parable about a fictional father (who clearly represents God) who was even more compassionate and forgiving than the real Father or 2) That God is more forgiving then we think. If you read Bailey’s books like the Cross and the Prodigal it will be more meaningful, but the two points that I didn’t know were first, patriarchs did not run in that culture (it’s embarrassing and humiliating to the family, the community, and especially for the person), and second, the son’s return was not his act of repentance; his seeing the self-emptying behavior of his father changed him. Prior to that his speech was the same speech Pharaoh had spoken to Moses (Ex 10:16) to escape further plagues (and which the audience would’ve recognized as insincere). His plan was to pay off his debt to his father, not be reconciled. When he saw the self-emptying, publicly humiliating behavior of the father, all he did was receive restoration to sonship recognizing that he wasn’t worth; no longer is there mention of the scheme to repay. He thought the problem separating him from his father was the huge debt which he couldn’t repay. What he saw from the father was not the desire for payment or disappointment over the lost estate funds; the father loved his son and wanted to be reconciled

    Seen in this light, Paul’s comment in Romans 5 makes sense “God demonstrates his LOVE toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” So what is the sacrifice? God sacrifices his own right to restitution and forgives the debt. This is the same thing that Paul teaches in many places. Why take your neighbor to court? If you love him forgive him. Or that getting what is legally yours according to your rights under the law is perfectly legal; if you’ve been defrauded then under the law you are entitled to restitution. But, oh by the way, love and forgiveness of the debt aren’t in violation of any laws either. As legal as it is for you to seek rightful restitution, it is equally legal to forgive the debt. Love does what? Covers a multitude of sins.

    And of course this answered the question in the parable of the unmerciful servant; why did the Lord take back his forgiveness? The reason is because the servant, by his own unmerciful behavior, had not received the forgiveness. It had not moved him. The costly demonstration of grace by his master had not affected him.

    So I have come to believe that what Jesus teaches, and which Paul affirms, is that in Jesus God is saying “As the offended party I am entitled to restitution, but I have chosen instead to absorb the insult and forgive the debt.” The only thing required of any man is to believe that God has done this, has made this unexpected costly demonstration of public love at his own expense, and receive it. We have never ceased being sons and all we must do is believe and receive our clothing marking us as sons. What is covered over, or wiped clean? What gives us a clear, guiltless conscience? God’s forgiveness which he publicly displayed in Jesus. Jesus on the cross was for God what the running father was in the parable; it was a personally humiliating act done in love for the purpose of reconciling and restoring his son. What was atoned? Our sin. What made atonement? God’s forgiveness.

    Why is this so hard to believe? Because as humans it’s foolish to us; scandalous. This is not the way humans would do it if they were God. “Well if I was God I’d be real angry. If you hung my son on a cross I’d blast you out of existence. But you better believe you’d have to pay a lot for me to even think about forgiving you; even then it would be grudgingly.” That’s the problem. We’d never do that. We don’t even forgive one another. How in the world would we ever believe it was as simple as God forgiving us and us just accepting the forgiveness? I mean does God expect us to forgive our debtors the debts they owe us as a model of his behavior, and believe that he doesn’t forgive? That he wants us to be more forgiving than him? The expectation is that if you have seen this display of love and you have received it, you then will offer yourself as a sacrifice in self-sacrificial ways towards others. If you don’t you haven’t seen, understood and received the forgiveness God gives freely. If God has so loved us, how then should we love one another?

      • I can’t take credit for the thought as it originated with teaching by Ken Bailey and his 40 year experience in Middle Eastern culture, hence his unpacking of the Prodigal’s significance to an eastern audience. The argument he received from his Muslim friends was that the Prodigal Son contained no cross, and thus to Jesus there was no need for a cross. However Bailey replied in his book The Cross and the Prodigal that the cross WAS in the parable: the Father sacrificed his own reputation and his own right to restitution and forgave. This is what, in Bailey’s understanding (and mine now) is the power of the cross; it is the scandalous pubic demonstration spoken of in Romans 3. It is the demonstration of God’s love which is completely counter to man’s way in Romans 5. It is Paul’s teaching (and Jesus’) to set aside one’s right in love for the sake of the other person.

  • Another excellent post. A pleasure to read. The rigorous historical approach to scripture is the missing dimension in so many people’s faith that I have observed. It can render Christian faith anemic or patently absurd, I think. The issues that arise as a result of embarking on this journey can be challenging . But as you say, it’s not that bad, and as Christian’s, we ought not let fear control us (or cause us to hide from that which is true!).

    Anyway, I think you hit the nail on the head when you state that all the atonement theories are right in their own way. The scriptures do indeed present a multifaceted portrait of the cross and each theory is part of the whole picture.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rv3Nl-Od9YU

  • We think of Scripture as it is: divine inspiration expressed in human context. We have this same understanding of Jesus: God who is spirit in the midst of the human context. But we often forget that Adam, the man of flesh, had God’s Spirit breathed into him. He was (as we all are) a marriage of divinity and humanity.

    The Jewish sages, including Paul in Romans 7, teach about the presence in each person of the good inclination and evil inclination. Both inclinations are good in their respective purposes, but there is a balance between them, we are to be guided in our relationship to God and others by the good inclination and, like Cain, when the evil inclination seeks to master us we must master it. The result is an eventual slide into a state where the inclination of our hearts is evil continuously; we are mastered by our evil inclination.

    When Adam was warned of the tree’s consequences he was being taught to heed the good inclination. He was warned that in the day he ate, “a dying he would die.” And he did. The voice of the good inclination died and he was mastered by evil.

    When God and his wisdom come into the presence of men who are guided by the evil inclination and it’s covetous desires, it has (like Cain) a murderous response. When the wisdom from above encounters human wisdom, the response of man mastered by his evil inclination is to put the good inclination (incarnated by Jesus) to death.

    Jesus represented the man guided by the good inclination. In his complete faithfulness to the Father (I say and do what I hear my Father say and do) he was raised; righteousness was vindicated in plain view. Paul knows he must put the evil inclination to death, but how? His answer: God. Trusting God as the source of wisdom restores the tree of life, or access to the true source of wisdom. We have two lines of humanity in which we can stand: the man guided by his evil inclination/human nature or the one guided by the good inclination/instruction of the spirit.

    In a public demonstration, Jesus showed that when encountered by wisdom humanity would murder it. They would not choose the good. It is in believing the truth, word/teaching/wisdom from God and acknowledging him as the sole source of wisdom in our lives that restores us to our source of wisdom for living, and thus life. My two cents at least.

  • My question to all you folks is this: can the sayings of Jesus be taken as real or are they somehow embellished by later writers? Take for example the 40 days of temptation in the dessert. Only Jesus was on this journey guided by the Holy Spirit to be temped by the Devil. After Jesus came out of the dessert, did he gave an interview about his ordeal? Then how were his temptations were so accurately written down when no one was there to witnessed?

    • Why do you say Jesus went into the wilderness alone? Read John 4 1-26. Without verse 27 you’d never know he wasn’t alone. Was Jesus alone in his temptation? I don’t know. The text doesn’t say probably because what took place was probably of greater significance than who was there. What do you think?

  • I find myself a little perturbed that you can so swiftly dismiss the doctrine of perspicuity, considering how long and hard I had to work to learn how to spell it and pronounce it.

  • I have begun to think that God never had a problem with us, we are the ones who have a problem with Him in that we always see ourselves as unworthy and falling short of all He demands This seems to be a universal attitude in every religion, gods have to be appeased and kept sweet.

    What if the purpose of the cross was so that we would be able to believe that Gods justice, judgment wrath ( all of which I believe are man made notions of God) were appeased and we could at last begin to have a relationship with Him? He dealt with our imagined idea of Him so that we could get rid of our fear and let Him love us.

    • What did the Prodigal Son have to do in order to be fully restored? He just received the forgiveness. The behavior of the father in the parable was completely counter-cultural and counter-traditional; so much so that his audience would’ve been shocked to the point of saying that no father would let his son have the inheritance like that, and no father would ever receive such an insulting and embarrassing son like that back; even with a repayment of the inheritance it would’ve have been grudgingly and like the older son.

      I looked at the garden story in light of this parable and began to see the grace of God which allowed the man to go out into the world with his share of the “bios” (inheritance). Further, if the primary purpose and message of the garden was not presence with the glory of God — since God is Spirit (not some white bearded Zeus up in heaven) was also “out there” with Cain, Noah, Abram, Jacob, and Ezekiel in Babylon — then what was the real purpose of the garden, especially if it symbolized what later became the tabernacle, temple, the human body, and an eventual return to the REAL garden? Was the purpose in order that we would leave in order to return and be restored? Is the only work we need to do really only as Jesus says in John 6: believe God and the one he has sent? Is it really that easy and we’ve made it hard because that’s what we would do?

    • Isn’t that exactly what most occupied Jesus during his lifetime?

      St Athanasius made the point that when Adam and Eve turned their backs on the true good, God, to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they no longer could see good, and we have been unable to recognize good since then. The face of Jesus is the face of God, and all that Jesus did in his lifetime was to remind us that nothing we can do will separate us from his love, including torturing and killing him. At least that is how I read it.

  • Once again, Pete, you have allowed lots of interesting conversations to flow. I do believe that you’re making more sense these days–or am I admitting you knew my thinking better than I did? I’ve changed a bit in how I hear what you say. Maybe I’m just paying better attention.

    • ^^ Very, very good question. My guess is that only God knows why….or only the people making the sacrifice knows why…I do have a similar question, if everything in the whole universe (earth, humans, animals, land, air, trees, everything!) belong to God already, would it be absurd to “take” what was already God’s and offered it back to God as a sacrifice (gift)?

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