“God Lets His Children Tell the Story”: An Angle on God’s Violence in the Old Testament

My seminary Hebrew professor, former colleague, and friend, Al Groves, who is of blessed memory, was a wonderful, honest, and pastoral man. When dealing with the theological difficulties that arise in the course of reading the Bible, Al would say, “God lets his children tell the story.”

That is a great way of putting it. The Bible is what happens when God allows his children to tell his story–which means the biblical writers told the story from their point of view, with their limitations, within the cultural context in which they wrote.

When children tell the story of their father or mother, parents are typically delighted by how much they get and the childlike way that they see the world. But they are also well aware that children miss a lot when they tell the story, and invariably refract the complexities of family life through their own youthful vision.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but roll with it: Think of how young boys talk in the schoolyard about how great their father is. They are ways of telling the story to make sure everyone knows they have the best dad around.

I remember telling my middle school mates that my father was an engineer who left a promising academic career before coming to America. He also knew a lot about guns, since he was in World War 2, and killed bad guys left and right.

That story was genuinely connected to my real father, but honor was at stake. How I told the story was dictated, unwittingly, by rules of the schoolyard.

My father was a blue-collar machinist (not engineer) who wanted to be a school teacher (not academic), but World War 2 got in the way. He was in the war, but I didn’t dare let on that he did not fight for our side. He was born in Russia, was captured by the Germans, and was forced to be a German-Russian translator (and therefore a German soldier). He also hated guns, since his community in Russia was pacifist Mennonite. But he won a turkey shoot when I was young, a fact I exaggerated and incorporated into my narrative.

But I never mentioned the many things my father did that were also heroic but not quite as exciting—like coming to all my little league games, working long hours to make sure we kept a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and cars to get around in even though money was very tight. Had I talked like that, it would have fallen on deaf ears.

When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.

That is how people thought, and this “rule” is stamped all over the Old Testament. This is a way of understanding why the Bible behaves the way that it does. It bears the marks of the limitations of the cultures.

Bear in mind this is only an analogy, but if we want to extend this to the New Testament, we can think of the teachings of Jesus as a more “mature” telling of God’s story. Jesus tells the story in a way that is more in line with who God is (“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”). Such things as land acquisition and killing and enslaving enemies is no longer part of God’s narrative.

It’s like a boy who grows up to be an adult, gets a job, and has a family of his own. Now ask him to tell his father’s story. The son’s life experiences have brought him to a deeper knowledge and appreciation of his father’s experiences, and the story will reflect that.

Now he will talk about seeing his father get up at the crack of quarter before light to trudge off to work, come home late in smelly and filthy machinist clothes, and then on the weekends build his son a fort, or renovate the basement, or sometimes just crash on the couch.

Both narratives, the child’s and the adult’s, are expressions of love. But now the less heroic acts become the more heroic and dominate story, the things the grown son is truly proud of and wants to tell others. And this story reflects the real thing more closely, with greater three-dimensional depth.

Anyway, the analogy is Al’s, and I put my own details to it. Personally, I think Al hit on a great way of expressing the problem of the Bible.

 

  • Jeff Frazier

    Thanks, my friend.

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  • Jason Brannan

    What a wonderfully easy and insightful way to make sense of many difficulties. Thanks for passing it on!

  • Brent

    Great post! Greg Boyd’s most recent sermon is on this topic and takes a similar approach. Highly recommend a listen. http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/shadow-of-the-cross

  • http://larrytanner.blogspot.com/ Larry Tanner

    I appreciate the analogy, but surely it raises at least as many questions as it purports to solve?
    * Is the entire Bible a re-telling by “God’s children”? If not, which parts are by God and which by His children, and what techniques do we use to tell the difference? Or does the analogy only apply when we are morally troubled by something God seemingly sanctions?
    * Are other holy books from the world’s many cultures also re-tellings by God’s children? When re-tellings contradict, how do we adjudicate between them?
    * The teachings of Jesus are themselves re-told by the gospel writers. Are these to be viewed also by schoolyard rules?
    * Does the schoolyard rules approach really mitigate the awfulness of a passage such as Joshua 6:20-21? Is the intent of the approach to say, “Yes, God sanctioned the bloodshed and genocide, but the really important part of what God did wasn’t actually relayed by His children’s re-telling”?

    Your final paragraphs remind me of a favorite poem, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden:

    Sundays too my father got up early
    and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
    then with cracked hands that ached
    from labor in the weekday weather made
    banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

    I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
    When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
    and slowly I would rise and dress,
    fearing the chronic angers of that house,

    Speaking indifferently to him,
    who had driven out the cold
    and polished my good shoes as well.
    What did I know, what did I know
    of love’s austere and lonely offices?

  • PJ Anderson

    Though I certainly understand your articulation my questions about this ultimately end up:

    1. Does this mean that these parts of the Scripture are unnecessary, or even misleading, embellishments?
    2. Where does inspiration play a role? (Not dication here, but inspiration)
    3. At what point does embellishment become apocryphal? or even error-laden?

    Ultimately what we end up with is that the testimony of the Scriptures is only isolated to the context of the original editors and is not nearly as transcendent as we are led to be believe. Also here we run into an issue of what becomes our identifying tool for distinguishing which parts of uncomfortable narratives are embellished and what parts maintain fidelity to the actual events?

    Granted I’ve articulated this point as part of a survey of understanding of biblical inspiration for undergraduates and laity in our churches (they really aren’t much different.) Most evangelicals have a problem with it because they fear it undermines the Scriptures and forces the stories to be understood through our context instead of in their own.

    Finally, I’ll toss this out there: I don’t believe the OT (or even the NT) stories about genocide and military campaigns make God a moral monster. There is, imho, a better solution and it isn’t by going to Dr Piper’s perspective either. There seems to be a middle ground too many of us are overlooking.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    I just love this post. Thank you. It is quite beautiful.

  • brad

    I like the analogy. But, I’m curious as to whether you would apply it differently to the gospels than you would to Old Testament narratives. I do want there to be an acknowledgment of human agency in writing the gospels. But, does employing this analogy also make it possible to say that Jesus’ healings (or even resurrection) didn’t really happen?

    • Jason

      I echo this concern as well.

  • Jon G

    Dr. Enns,

    I really appreciate this post. One question for you: if the NT is telling a more mature version of the OT’s story, then are we telling a more mature version of the NT’s story?

    Thanks,
    Jon

  • Don Johnson

    This post is helpful. I can accept that God accomodated to the current cultural understandings of Israel as part of the ANE in terms of EXPRESSING things. What is harder to accept is that God did this in terms of DOING things by Israel.

    How does one put Gen 18:18 where ALL nations will be blessed thru Abraham together with the total annihilation of the Amalekites?

  • Marg Miller

    Hmmmm. To me, the perspective of this analogy deals too simply with this important issue. Have you read “God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?” by David T. Lamb (IVP Books, 2011)? It’s a wonderfully readable and honest book. As the book cover says: “Without minimizing the sometimes harsh realities of the biblical record, [David] Lamb assembles an overall portrait that gives coherence to our understanding of God in both the Old and New Testaments.” It is very helpful — well worth reading.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Pete,

    Unfortunately this analogy contains no metaphor for the role of the Holy Spirit. I’m a big fan of what you and Kent Sparks and others are attempting to do – it is long past due and you are courageous to jump into the deep end. However, we have lots of approaches to Scripture and theology that downplay or even ignore the Holy Spirit. Not that you and Sparks are doing this, but this analogy does. The Holy Spirit’s role has to be a foundational part of our understanding of Scripture’s origin.

    It is a pity that the analogy misses this aspect because it really is otherwise very good and helpful, if handled with care.

    • peteenns

      OK…..the HS is the spirit of intimacy shared by the child and the parent. How’s that?

      • Mark Erickson

        Just as contrived and trite as the child-adult analogy above.

  • Bev Mitchell

    That certainly works for the relationship. Does it work for “telling the Father’s story” ? In trying to answer my own question, the metaphor has to be pushed too far I’m afraid. The human father was present but is no longer present when the story is told. The heavenly Father was present when the story was told (and read). But metaphors are not meant to explain everything, after all. 

    I’ll certainly use this one, cautiously.  :)

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    Pete, interesting analogy. I like its simplicity and the ease with which it can be communicated. I sense that people will bring up the “inspiration” angle when hearing it. N.T. Wright said that “’Inspiration,’is a shorthand way of talking about the belief that by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were books God intended his people to have.” Dads often overhear what their children are saying about them — sometimes they are pleased and sometimes not. If Wright’s perspective has credence, then God must be OK with his story being told like this, at least as part of the overall story. When we present these stories today in preaching and teaching, then, I’m assuming we should say something like, “When we were children, I used to think of my Dad as the big strong guy who could beat everyone else up and protect me from the bad people. Now that I’ve grown up and begun to understand our Father through Jesus, I know that the bad guys are really the spiritual powers of evil and that Jesus has indeed defeated them. However, he did so by the cross and not by the sword.” Does that approach how you might preach these stories, Pete?

  • Leonard D. Nicoletti III

    Thanks for this article and all of you for this book honoring Al. I don’t know of any more personal and intimate way of honoring him. We have at best two or three generations of memories, and stories passed on to us from generation to generation. Some are fortunate enough to have memoirs and diaries given to us going farther back. I’m sure this book will help the reader see and hear better how God works in this process in their own lives, and in the Bible and be able to communicate this to others as well. What a wealth of information our great grand kids will have on us with face book and Twitter.

  • James

    I like this way of looking at the OT story, but we need to be careful not to distance the NT story too far from the narrative style. The story of Jesus, after all, is told by fishermen, a tax collector, a medical doctor and later a Pharisee who saw a light and heard a voice. We need to let all of these tell the story too–good thing there are four gospel writers so we get a clearer picture. Yet, at a critical point we must plant our flag and declare: Christ died for our sins…was buried, and was raised on the third day…

  • Andy

    I love this.

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  • Tim S

    So, by your schoolyard rule analogy…. the story that the child tells can be completely, utterly distorted and we’re still supposed to hold it as the inerrant word of the father? And what about the fact that the narrative of Jesus wasn’t written until nearly 100 years after his death? ….thats a schoolyard of not the child, but of the great great grandchild…. lots of room for distortion, exaggeration, and outright fabrication if you ask me.

    • peteenns

      Tim, in inerrant your word or a word you think I am using? I did not use the word in my analogy.

      Remember, too, that analogies, like Jesus’ parables, are meant to cast a general vision, not be parsed.

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  • http://thecolourofsojourn.wordpress.com Elizabeth

    Hi Peter! I’ve been reading your blog since Rachel Held Evans started her series. I think we have some mutual connections through GCU at Oxford. I really appreciate your perspective and am grateful for this series. I grew up in a very “inerrant” atmosphere (although my family is more open minded), and I’ve been trying to process how I would communicate these sorts of approaches to the people I grew up with.

    I’m still working through this, so apologies for rambling, but I think saying that the Bible is “fallen” would be hard for them to swallow. The idea of diversity, however, could be a very powerful inroad. Even people I grew up with recognize that not every story in the Bible reflects God’s will (plenty of adultery/thieving/murdering), and they already use discretion or common sense to differentiate between “good” and “bad” examples. Evans’s analysis of the Evanglical use of the term “biblical womanhood” highlights this very well – just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean that even Conservatives would accept it as “biblical.”

    From there, it’s not much of a stretch to recognize different genres, different authors, and different time periods in addition to the range of human experience (both positive and negative) related in biblical texts. If we’re OK with using discernment in one case, why should the others cause such a problem?

  • Haldol

    Thank you for this explanation. It is in agreement with the conclusion I made a few years ago:

    Why should anyone study the Bible if they are looking for divine inspiration. The Bible is just the stories and values, mostly evil values, of a group of 2000-3000 year old men. How do they get the people to follow these values ? They just mention that they came from God. Still works today.

  • Dan

    Maybe the last few posts on the issue of “evil in the OT” theme are not meant to be a “defense” at all, but if they are I do not find them helpful.

    I’ve posted on here before, so there is no doubt you may know i’m conservative leaning theologically speaking. But I’m trying-really trying-to give this “liberal theology” side of things a fair shake. I would love to say “I disagree, but I get it, and its holds water.” But I cannot.

    I cannot find any semblance of real reasoning (or answers) in any of these posts-that if I accepted the reasoning and conclusions-to remain a follower of Christ. I should stress I get that reason alone is not what it means to be a “christ-follower”

    What i see in these, if I can be blunt, non-answers is justification of every arguement from the so called new atheists. this all sounds like defenses of the bible that would get laughed out of serious debate. It feels like if i were to divert to these half-answers, I would merely be grasping on to “Christianity” because I want to try and find some semblance in the wreckage.

    If the bible is in fact broken, if it is in fact jam-packed with evil-no different from other numerous holy books, if it cannot make up its mind, if jesus was in fact “wrong” about things (as I have seen a few liberal christians say in writing), if it is not describing anything historical while it purports to (even granting its based on their cultural and limited perspective), if book of the “bible” have no more justification than apocryphal books, if prophecies are after the fact…why is christianity “right?”

    It sounds to me like man made god with some far-fetched semblance of “inspiration” tacked on to convince ourselves their is still something divine about being a christian…which is exactly what atheists accuse.

    I get where some liberal theology people are coming from. I agree sometimes factions -like the YEC group-muzzle the bible from proper understanding. I hate that so many are against doing simple things like using ANE comparative studies. I even have found many of your blog posts (and others blogs, books, etc) helpful from the “liberal” camp, but for all the justified anger, I see lots of reasonfor disbelief.

    both camps (liberal/conservative) get arogant and sacastic to be sure. But Its difficult to find much of the liberal sides “agrivation” with things like poor exegesis from conservatives when the liberal side offers non-answers in return.

    Maybe a illustration can clarify my rant here: recently read Paul Copans book “Is God a Moral Monster?” I agreed with much of his arguements, I am an “inerrantist” to a degree, but found some parts wanting. I did some research for myself on top of his book, became at peace with the Old testament stuff. Then I found, and must admit and still currently reading through, Thom Starks review of the book…he says he’s a christian wanting to set the record straight from poor arguements. It seems he, like you, rejects inerrancy and offers similar line thinking as you on the issue of OT evil. His offering consists of arguing against Copans arguements and finding them faulty (fair enough) and defending that the Bible is in fact evil…and at that I am supposed t be comforted? Huh? Maybe I’m placing my expectations on the bible, or maybe we’re all trying to cling to a dying faith no different than any other. I hate to create a false dichtonomy, but i feel its one or the other. I dont get how I’m supposed to be comforted when atheists say ” the bible is evil and we should discard the aufulness” and christians reply “yep it is pretty evil (*something about how its the closest thing we have to experiencing God-as if that makes it all ok*).” good answer…

    I do not get it. I’m really trying. you’ve said that Christianities validity is not based in inerrancy or historicity, fine. Ironically though I feel like I’m dealing with the ID movement with such answers, “ok, so whats your alternative model?”

    I dont mean to be offensive or mean, apologies if it comes accross that way. But I cannot wrap my head around this. none of your posts of the violence in the OT have even remotely been comforting.

    *end rant*

    if I cannot even rely

    • peteenns

      I appreciate you’re honesty, Dan, but I think you are working from some caricatures.

      I am not saying the “Bible is evil.”

      “Inerrancy” is not the default position on Scripture. I know that it is an evangelical meme to say that the church has always believed this, but that isn’t true. It needs to be defended, and the data of Scripture do not support it and many Christians throughout history and today do not work from the fundamentalist and evangelical paradigm of inerrancy.

      “So what’s the alternate model?” That is a valid question, but it again assumes that inerrancy is right by default.

      I don’t take what you are saying as offensive at all and feel free to rant. I also acknowledge your right to think through things at your own pace and in your own way.

      • Dan

        Thank you for the response,

        I guess when it comes down to it my problem is that It is difficult to find a consistent “model” that makes sense to me.

        I know what I’m about to say may also be an evangelical “meme,” but where do we sift what we should and should not preach or teach as true if there is no semblance of consistency we can expect from scripture? I’m not saying because an “inerrancy” model would be easier that its therefor correct; but alternatives leave so much up for grabs.

        For instance, if the depictions of God in the OT are simply Israel’s ideas of their god being “bigger and badder” than the others (a theme admittedly in some of the conquest narratives), then it seems people shouldn’t preach on them. Because the depictions are man’s, not an actual attribute of God that should apply to him. What would be a criteria or model for saying “this is probably authentic depiction of God, but that is not.” Because at the end of the day It feels like we are deciding “I am uncomfortable with God’s seeming aproval of ‘the ban’, so clearly that part is a human projection we arent to take to heart.” It feels like our projection of our time on what we would like for the text to require or not require.

        I guess my problem, or what I am trying to say is, it seems for pastors the model you or others propose seem to trely make the bible impossible. Anything preached on is potentially a landmine for exegesis, and ultimately up to what the pastor feels is or is not really in the text; or is or is not authentic

        Again i realize just because inerrancy model is “easier” in many respects than an alternative, it doesn’t make it “right.” But I have yet to see a modern equivelant to a model that can be used, that has been used at any other point in church history. Maybe I’m uneducated on the issue (which is likely), but it seems it would be more difficult to make a “non-inerrantist” case in church history than for the “inerrantist” case. If you know of any scholarly treatment on the issue I am willing to research it. I’m open minded.

        My other issue with what seems to be the liberal aproach is that it seems to be difficult to differentiate between Christianity and other religions. Of course many are universalists.

        I have read a few of your books, but have not read “the one” (I&I), so I am still going to attempt understanding that. I’m also vaguely interested in Sparks stuff since you have been posting on him. Are there any other resources you can point to that would give me a better grasp of how you reason through this stuff or work off a “model?”

        • peteenns

          Dan, you raise an age old problem and a good one: how do we know how to “sift” through the Bible, which is exactly the question Kent Sparks is also addressing.

          Martin Luther’s standard of sifting was “was Christum treibet,” which means something like “whatever advances Christ.” Jesus is our hermeneutical criterion. You see a similar standard among some Anabaptists. Now, such a hermeneutic does not guarantee unified results, but that is not what we talking about here.

          All of the Bible is not “equally ultimate.”

          • Parasum

            Not wanting to interrupt – not too much anyway: but, isn’t Christian faith based on Christ ? The Bible is not supreme in Christian faith – He is (& no-one & nothing else). To give the Bible attention or status it does not deserve, so that we forget Christ, is to make it an idolatrous object.

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