Bible Scholar Pete Enns Says Scripture Shows Us a Better Way of Reading in New Book

Biblical scholar Peter Enns. Photo credit: Shelby Kuchenbrod.

The Bible isn’t a rule book, an instruction manual, or a road map, says Peter Enns, a Hebrew Bible scholar and the host of the popular podcast The Bible for Normal People.

So what is it?

Something more complicated but infinitely better, as he explains in his thought-provoking new book How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News.

I thought this book was fascinating (not to mention quite funny) and hope you’ll check it out. — JKR

RNS: I loved this book, which seems to be about the importance of honest wrestling with the Bible. You focus here on the Bible as a model of situational wisdom: what it teaches is not always consistent from one situation to another, and our job is to figure out how to navigate that.

Enns: In this book I take a more constructive approach than in my other books, which focused on deconstructing some points of view about the Bible that are very problematic. I’m trying show what the Bible’s antiquity, ambiguity, and diversity tell us positively how the life of faith is more like a quest for wisdom than following a road map or book of instructions.

The Bible doesn’t work well as an owner’s manual that lays out for us what to do or think at every turn. It is holding out to us the invitation to accept the sacred responsibility going forward and working things out.

RNS: Early in the book you look at an example of how the laws about slavery change from one part of the Torah/Pentateuch to another. Slavery was a given in that world, but the specifics changed quite a lot.

Enns: Torah has diversity in its laws, and that’s been a fact of life for people of faith from the beginning, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we run into them. One example concerns Hebrew slaves. In Exodus, a male Hebrew slave, if he wishes to, can go free in the seventh year. Hebrew slaves who are women, however, are not given the option of going free.

In Deuteronomy, which clearly mirrors this law in Exodus, both male and female Hebrew slaves have the option to go free in the seventh year. One way to explain this change in this later version of the law is that Israelites thought it more consistent with God’s nature. But whatever the reason, it is clearly different and more humane. Leviticus contains probably the most recent version of the law, and now no Hebrew slaves are allowed at all. They can work for you for hire, and you can own non-Hebrew slaves, but you can’t own Hebrew slaves.

RNS: You say that this kind of contradiction is not a mistake but a model: the Bible itself is modeling for us how people need to reinterpret the law with every passing generation in a changing society.

Enns: Right. These changes in laws—all believed to have been given by God on Mt. Sinai, mind you—demonstrate that obeying God isn’t simply a matter of “obeying the law” but of thinking through what it means to obey God as circumstances change. More than simply being about changing views on slavery, we are seeing here different ways of thinking about what God is like, and what God expects from us in treating others.

These laws are not meant to be awkwardly reconciled, as if deep down they are actually saying the same thing, but respected as telling us something about how the Bible works. These laws contradict, and saying so is not an attack on the Bible but an acknowledgment of what is there. These contradictions are characteristics I embrace, and I actually think they are what make the Bible worth reading because they push us to think for ourselves, “Okay, what does it mean to obey God here and now?”

RNS: Is that idea threatening for conservative Christians? That the contradictions in the Bible are a feature, not a bug?

EnnsIt is, and I get it. Many Christians are taught to think from the outset, before they really have a chance to read the Bible carefully as adults, that the Bible by definition cannot contain contradictions. That is a hard position to maintain even within the first five books of the Bible. Rather than avoid the contradictions or explain them away, we should listen to what they are telling us.

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Source: Religion News Service