Does God let his kids lie about him? That’s the question I found myself asking after reading this interview of Pete Enns by Rob Bell. Enns has a new book on the Bible coming out, and it promises to be the new progressive-Evangelical handbook for scrapping your old doctrine of Scripture, so, of course, Bell pulled him onto the blog to chat. Unsurprisingly the issue of ancient science and Old Testament violence came up. I’ll quote Enns said about it at length, because why not?:
OK, so can we focus on one specific issue here that troubles a lot of people? In your book you do a spectacular job of explaining those violent passages in the Old Testament. Can you give my readers a bit on that?
I spend a chapter on in my book on God’s commend to the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, and child and take over their land. This is the go-to example many point to of God acting more like Megatron than a God of love.
This is a huge issue that has bothered people ever since there’s been a Bible. It’s nothing new. It’s hard to find Christians or Jews that don’t have at least some problem with this. When we hear of modern genocides, where perpetrators claim that God is on their side, we just call that ethnic cleansing at the hands of crazy people. So how can Christians say God opposes genocide today when he commanded it yesterday? That’s what we call a real theological problem.
Well, that and the fact that Jesus said, “Love your enemies” and “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “Let’s kill all the Gentiles [Romans] and take back our land.” So, on top of the moral problem, Jesus doesn’t seem to be on the same page with what God says in the Old Testament.
This issue is involved enough that you can’t Tweet an answer. You really need to walk through the paces of discovering the Bible’s ancient voice. We take a step back and try to understand the Israelites as ancient people with ancient ways of thinking. They weren’t like the “nice Christians” we meet at church picnics and who listen to gospel quartets.
The Israelites lived at a rough time, the Iron Age, when nations fought tooth and nail over land and resources and the gods fought right along side of them, leading the charge.
The nations that won had the mightier gods, and victory (slaughter, pillaging) gave gods honor. Losing meant your god was either a wimp or he was mad at your people for some reason and wanted to teach them a lesson in obedience.
The Israelites were part of this ancient Iron Age world of warring, land acquisition, and destroying the enemy. They fit right in, and to expect their God-talk to be on a totally different page is to start off on the wrong foot.
We shouldn’t cheer the Israelites and emulate them, which is what Christians with a violent streak throughout history have done—Spanish conquerors of the “West Indies” or European settlers of “America” treat the “new world” like it was Canaan and take over. And neither can we sidestep or minimize the violence, which is another strategy Christians have had for handling these passages.
They are what they are, and the Bible looks the way it does because God lets his children tell the story.
Children tell stories of their parents from their point of view as children, which is not the whole story. Think of boys bragging about their dads on the playground. I loved my father and I defended his honor. He was a mighty man who could lift heavy objects, was a sharpshooter, brilliantly smart, and as strong as any man anywhere.
Not everything I said about my dad was fully and objectively true, but this is how I saw my father, a description born of love, from my youthful perspective, that followed the “rules of the playground.”
Eventually, looking back from a later vantage point, I realized how much my dad-talk actually limited my father, but that was how we talked and I wasn’t able, obviously, to take a step back and tell my father’s story some other way.
And even if I could, if I had said things back then like how hard he worked to support us, how he stayed up when I was throwing up at night, and how he never missed my Little League games, I wouldn’t have gotten across to the other guys how awesome my dad was, how much better he was than all the others.
The Israelites described God according to their “rules,” how they and the people around them understood gods in general. And here’s a huge lesson in there for us today.
We always perceive God from our vantage point, according to ways of thinking we aren’t even aware of most of the time. In these stories, the Bible gives us a glimpse of ancient Israelites doing that very same thing.
So, when we read these stories, we don’t read them as absolute rules to live by or the final word about what God is like. Christians believe that in the Gospels, we get a deeper understanding about God from Jesus. The Gospels don’t allow us to remain where the Iron Age Israelites were in their understanding of God.
In other words, the Bible isn’t a rulebook for Christian living. It is a narrative that has movement and a trajectory.
And while we’re at it, archaeologists are about as sure as you can be that the mass extermination of Canaanites that the Bible talks about didn’t happen—which is good news, I think. This helps us see these stories are stories that tell us how the ancient Israelites, at least at some point in their history, understood God.
And that, I realize, is a very long answer, but it’s as short as I can make it.
Alright, there’s a lot going on in there, some of it good and some of it bad. It’s kind of a variation on the Jesus-Tea-Strainer theme we’ve chatted about before. But like I said, the main question I’m left with is, “Does God allow his kids to lie about him?” Because that’s the basic thrust of Enns’ answer, right? The Israelites are young kids, excited about their dad, who told tall, pretty violent, tales about him in terms their kid conceptions of reality could grasp. And God looked on smilingly, letting it go because they meant well.
Now, to some degree I go along with a theology of accommodation in revelation. Most Reformed do. Calvin used to say that God used a sort of baby-talk to tell his children about himself, using terms they would understand to communicate. Bavinck developed this way of thinking at length. Isn’t what Enns saying kind of like that? Kind of, but where they part ways is the issue of truth. Does divine accommodation mean that well-meaning lies are okay about God? Calvin, Bavinck, and most of the Christian tradition would probably say no.
Indeed, looking at the thrust of the Old Testament revelation, God doesn’t seem to take lying about him too well. What are the first few commands?
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:1-7)
- Don’t worship other gods.
- Don’t make idols or false representations of me.
- Don’t misuse my name and cheapen it.
Well, it seems to me that making up stories about God, saying he did a bunch of stuff he didn’t really do, like commanding a bunch of stuff he would never command because it’s clearly abhorrent to him, would probably fall afoul of 2 and 3, don’t you think? I mean, if Enns’ reading of the New Testament is right, and Jesus really is uber-pacifistic to the degree that all judgment or violence is just completely foreign to the nature of God, then these stories aren’t just tall tales, but pretty big whoppers. In fact, they’d seem to be blasphemous.
Now that would be odd wouldn’t it? For God to deliver commands to us about not falsely representing him and taking his name in vain, through narratives that falsely represent him and take his name in vain? What kind of confusing father is that? A little exaggeration here and there is one thing, but to fundamentally miss a key component like that is kind of a big deal. I mean, especially when God seems particularly picky about the “no false images” thing (Ex. 32-33).
In fact, in his helpful little work Against the Gods, John D. Currid has argued that when the OT picks up images from the surrounding culture, there’s usually a polemical edge. In other words, the OT revelation is often-times taking up cultural ideas and then subverting them, or explicitly opposing them through ironic use. I’m not that convinced, then, that God would inspire, or semi-inspire, or even simply ‘tolerate’ texts remaining in Scripture, his covenant documents, that grossly misrepresent him to his covenant people, the nations, and future generations of believers. It’s not just about inerrancy, but about having a trustworthy God. Accommodation is one thing, but if your accommodation includes aggressive falsehood, it’s actually not accommodation but misrepresentation.
Beyond that, the issue of culture and chronological snobbery pops up again. Enns makes the point that we always view God from our vantage point, thinking of God in terms that our culture finds amenable and understandable. But if that’s the case, then shouldn’t we slow the train down on judging the stories the Israelites told? Shouldn’t we be careful about our own modern, therapeutic ideas of parenting, democracy and such creeping in to our theology? Why is our culture’s judgment about the divine, or violence, or whatever, obviously more trustworthy? Because it’s ours? I don’t think Enns wants to go there.
Finally, yes, the passages in question can be pretty troubling. Still, I think there are answers that are helpful. I’ve got my own article on the issue of the conquest of the Canaanites trying to treat the issue in historical and theological context. But again, I’d point people to the work of Paul Copan in Is God a Moral Monster?, or this helpful piece by Alastair Roberts. I’d also argue that even if Jesus does point us to a pacifistic ethic (which I doubt), there are ways of relating the Old and New Testaments in such a fashion that you don’t have to argue the OT was false in certain ways.
Because I’m lazy, I’ll quote myself from a post on a related subject:
So what do we say instead? I…would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.
Well, there’s more to say, but I suppose I’ll end my ramble here. Do I think God accommodates himself to be understood by his children? Yup. Do I think that includes lies about him? Nope. And neither should you.
Soli Deo Gloria
P.S. I like Pete Enns. He seems like a fun guy and I’d love to consume a sandwich and beverage with him at some point. So, though we disagree, please don’t be a jerk in the comments.