Smart people saying smart things about the Bible

Scot McKnight: “Misreading the Bible because we are Western”

Ah-ha moments in Bible reading come to all of us, and perhaps you can remember one and tells us about it, but I can remember a few: when I realized the Bible’s writers and characters were ancient Jews and not modern American (Baptists), that they spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek and Latin, that contemporary Jewish texts shed light constantly all over the Bible,  that Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, that the Gospels grew over time, that Isaiah was not written by the same author all at once … and then there was the colossal realization that Western senses of self, freedom, and individualism just don’t compute with ancient Jewish, Greek or Roman perceptions. That our theological issues are not theirs. That those folks cared lots about purity — and purity doesn’t mean to us what it meant then. That capitalism was unknown to the Bible. That young adults didn’t fall in love, date, and then choose the one they wanted to marry. That marriage itself didn’t mean to them quite what it means to us. I could go on…

Westerners see things in the Bible not there and we miss things that are there.

Richard Beck: “From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart”

In Chris [Haws’] case he was working through the “nondenominationalism” of Willow Creek. What Chris came to realize was that Willow did have a creed and a tradition, that there were regulating traditions and beliefs. I came to realize the same about my own tradition. We claimed that our only guide to faith and practice was “the bible.” But the more you poked around and questioned things the more you realized that “the bible” was simply a cipher for “the way we interpret the bible.” In short, there is no such thing as “nondenominationalism.” Nondenominationalism is an impossibility. You always have a bias, a stance, a hermeneutic, a regulating tradition, a stated or unstated creed. There is no “view from nowhere.”

Peter Enns: “Inerrancy: I think someone forgot to tell the Bible”

“Inerrancy,” regardless of how the term is defined, does not capture the Bible’s character complex dynamics. Inerrancy sells the Bible — and God — short.

Inerrancy is a high-maintenance doctrine. It takes much energy to “hold on to” and produces much cognitive dissonance. … Over the last twenty years or so, I have crossed paths with more than a few biblical scholars with evangelical roots, even teaching in inerrantist schools, who nervously tread delicate paths re-defining, nuancing, and adjusting their definition of inerrancy to accommodate the complicating factors that greet us at every turn in the historical study of Scripture.

For many other evangelicals (scholars of other disciplines, pastors, and laypeople), inerrancy is likewise no longer a paradigm of explanatory power, but a fragile theory in need of constant care and tending to survive.

RJS: “Job Is Innocent — And He Proves Faithful”

Job is not a sinner in the hands of an angry God. In the book of Job we see no hint of Job as a sinner in the hands of an angry God. He is not portrayed as intrinsically guilty through the sin of Adam. The message of the book is not that Job, and the rest of us, should rejoice in God’s mercy, marveling that he/we occasionally get blessings instead of the destruction, punishment, and devastation we all deserve from the depravity of our very being.

Job is portrayed at the beginning of the book, and from the very mouth of God, as righteous.

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  • AnonaMiss

    I love a good discussion of Job, but RJS cuts out just at the climax of the story! It’s like discussing the fable of the boy who cries wolf and leaving out the time when there actually is a wolf there.

  • Jessica_R

    And God still sits on his hands and lets Satan destroy everything Job has. And no, giving a replacement refill pack of kids at the end doesn’t make it okay. Sorry, I really hate the story of Job. 

  • Carstonio

    Although the Epistles were written before the Gospels, shouldn’t the latter be viewed as primary because they purport to contain the actual words of Jesus? If Paul didn’t know Jesus before the Crucifixion and wasn’t an apostle, I don’t see why his own philosophy as reflected in the Epistles should be regarded as authoritative. For clarification, that’s not a pro-Peter argument, because that passage could just as easily have been written to to bolster a rival faction in the very early Church.

    That those folks cared lots about purity — and purity doesn’t mean to us what it meant then.

    While I’m curious to know what purity meant to those folks, my real concern is with using the modern concept of purity to define sexual morality. Using consent instead is a far better principle.

  • Wingedwyrm

    “destruction, punishment, and devastation we all deserve from the depravity of our very being.”

    What was just said here, and I don’t see anything in the quote provided to suggest that it was intended ironically, that mere existence as you are makes you deserving of destruction, punishment, and devestation.  What’s more, it says that this understanding makes God’s actions in the story of Job morally acceptable, even displaying moral perfection.

    I took a skim over the article and found that the writer says that asking if God was cruel is the wrong question to ask.

    No, it isn’t.  Not even if this is merely a thought experiment.  Especially if this is a thought experiment!  The question of “Is God cruel” or “Is God morally justified in taking these actions?” is a question too often refused for the possibilty that the answer might be uncomfortable.

  • Carstonio

    “Depravity of our very being” would just as easily apply to a baby as it would to Job. Since the former isn’t capable of understanding the consequences of its actions, there would be no way it would deserve destruction and punishment. Even if the baby was somehow causing grievous harm to others, destroying it would be simply necessary to prevent further harm, almost like euthanasia. “Deserving” and “punishment” are criminal justice terms, and they don’t belong in a discussion of innate traits. The whole concept sounds suspiciously like a Just World version of theodicy, where a god’s actions that cause death and suffering are always morally justified, and the concept only works if one assumes that there is a reason or purpose behind everything that happens.

  • Tricksterson

    I like Bill Safire’s take on it who basically saw it as history’s first lawsuit.  God fucks over Job and Job essentially hauls him in and demands an accounting. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    That fits with the etymology of ‘Satan’. Adversary. Loyal opposition. Defense attorney, doing the job of defending the client even, especially, when everyone knows the client did the appalling thing and did it on purpose and doesn’t regret it.

    …that made more sense in my head.

  • vsm

    Whoever added the framing device of God and Satan’s friendly little wager did not get the story. Without it, it’s the story of a good man stuck by senseless tragedy and trying to make sense of it, with his supposed friends insisting it’s totally his fault. Then God appears and says he had a purpose for what he did but that it’s something Job wouldn’t understand; the world is an unjust place and we’ll never find out why. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

    Then some dumbass came along and decided the story should explain Job’s unexplainable loss, and decided it should be because God is an easily goaded dick. Then there’s the final insult where Job gets a new and improved family. Turns out the world is just, after all, and one child is very much like another.

  • Carstonio


    Then God appears and says he had a purpose for what he did but that it’s
    something Job wouldn’t understand; the world is an unjust place and
    we’ll never find out why.

    The former undermines the latter. Events in the universe happen through combinations and sequences of billions of preceding events large and small, and some cause far more suffering than others. Attributing these to a sentient being makes the being’s reasons and motivations fair game for challenge. If one causes others to suffer, one shouldn’t expect to be let off the hook from simply saying “I have my reasons.” Sure, the action might have been necessary to prevent much greater suffering, but one should explain this.

    And with a being that’s defined as all-powerful, that type of tradeoff wouldn’t be necessary. Theodicy assumes an all-powerful being and then tries to explain the world based on the assumption, instead of looking at the world and then forming hypotheses about what types of gods may exist.

  • Carstonio

     I realize that my post might sound like Job himself. Instead, if those things happened to me, I hope I would simply acknowledge that death and suffering are part of life and build the strength to persevere. And then someone would come along and insist that there’s a purpose behind suffering, that it’s caused by a all-powerful being whose existence cannot be detected. I might be focused on the lack of proof for the assertion at the expense of the morality of the premise.

  • vsm

    The Book of Job has four premises: 1 God exists, 2. He’s promised to look after us, 3. bad stuff keeps happening to us, 4. when bad stuff happens, he doesn’t show up to explain why. If you won’t accept those assumptions, even for the duration of the story, you probably won’t get much out of it.

  • Carstonio

     Valid point. My argument wasn’t about making assumptions in the context of the story, but about being expected or urged to make those assumptions in real life.

    It may or may not be fair to the story to treat it as though it’s doing the latter, and certainly most believers don’t make that expectation or urging on everyone else. Still, premises 2 through 4 suggest that all of life is a test of humans’ willingness to trust the god to keep his promises. Since I don’t know if gods exist or not, by extension I don’t know if there are any promises to either take care of me or make me suffer.

    An interesting retelling would involve the god being simply a powerful human monarch who never comes out of the castle, and all of Job’s suffering was caused by the monarch’s minions.

  • Tricksterson

    Have heard that the “happy ending” was tacked on later to make Yahweh look like less of an asshole.  I believe the first part was original to the story.

  • Tricksterson

    To me Yahweh’s “explanation” just comes off as a bully saying”Because I’m bigger than you!”, albeit in an impressively poetic way.

  • Tricksterson

    Exceopt he did show up didn’t he?  And the promise isn’t made explicit, it’s just something Job assumes and calls Yahweh on it.

  • vsm

    Exceopt he did show up didn’t he?  And the promise isn’t made explicit, it’s just something Job assumes and calls Yahweh on it.

    It isn’t made explicit because it’s something a good Hebrew of the time would have assumed, and while God shows up, he still doesn’t tell Job why he had to suffer.

    In general, the book doesn’t seem all that interested in showing God as good, at least in any way a human would define the word. He just is, and the world he created works like this. He tells us it all has a point, and we can believe him on that if we want. We can also call him a bastard, like Job pretty much does, but that’s about as useless as an ant cursing us. It’s a delightful little book like that.

    As for the prologue, there are several scholars who think it too is a later addition. It certainly doesn’t fit in with the rest of the text.

  • Wingedwyrm

    Okay, take the story without the framing of the bet.

    It goes as follows.  Suffering happens to Job.  Intense suffering happens to Job, to his propperty, to his health, to the loss of all ten of his sons.  Job’s friends and Job’s wife all tell Job that God must be punishing him for something.  Job says that he’s not being punished, that God’s doing something according to God’s reasons and he’s not going to curse God in order to die and end his suffering.  Eventually, God answers Job for his pains… with a litany of reasons that he (God) is so much better and he (Job) is so lowly.

    Quite frankly, it still doesn’t make God look that good.  The framing of a bet at least says that Job merited some attention prior to the belittling screed.

  • vsm

    I’ve never understood how someone could take “Job doesn’t curse God” as the main point of his speeches. They’re a devastating accusation to God, a lamentation of an unjust world. Job may not literally curse God, but boy does he ever come close. I don’t think God really claims to be better than Job either. That would imply they can be compared to each other in a meaningful way. God is quite simply beyond humans. I find this an interesting view.

    My problem with the prologue is not that it makes God seem like an ass, but that it subverts the point of God’s answer. It turns out God is totally knowable and that third-world children are probably dying of dysentery because God is drinking with Satan again.

  • Wingedwyrm

    In my interpretation the whole “were you there when…” is a belittling screed in which God asserts superiority to Job. And, quite frankly, when it comes to breaking promises, a bet is as good a reason for the omnipotent as any other.  Even if omnipotence isn’t at issue the whole “I have my reasons” and leaving it at that doesn’t yield an unkowable God so far beyond humans so much as a vain and uncaring God.

    I realize that this story, along with so many others, was written in a different ethic, one in which the son has no right to challenge the father, the wife no right to challenge the husband, the man no right to challenge the king and the king no right to challenge God.  But, no matter how you try to spin it, the story of Job illustaraits the failure of that ethic that it tries to support.

  • vsm

    Well, of course he’s superior, he’s the goddamn God. When he says he knows these things better, he’s not belittling Job, he’s stating a fact. Maybe he could explain his reasons, but Job probably wouldn’t be able to understand it. Yes, he created Job like that. Why? We wouldn’t understand.

    We’re free to find God’s argument unpersuasive (I do, too), but so what? At the end of the day, he’s still God and we might as well be worms. It’s not a very humanistic idea, and I disagree with it, but it is interesting.

  • Wingedwyrm

    Interesting is an interesting word.  It can either mean “I have nothing to say but I want to seem like I’m saying something” or it can mean “this generates interest through creating some insight.”

    Neither, however, addresses the concern brought up when one posits that this shows a deficient God and/or a deficient ethic.  And, considering that the article we’re responding to is about the ethic and moral of the story of Job… sure, interesting, but still deficient.

    And, a side note.  Godhood does not necessarily attribute superiority, either morally or intellectually.

  • vsm

    Morally deficient by whose standards? Mine, yours, Job’s? He probably is. Why should he care?

    That’s one of the parts I find *interesting* here. This story allows us *insight* into what is at least to me an alien view point. The writer of Job probably understood being mad at God perfectly well (you don’t write ten speeches that good if all you’re doing is illustrating what you consider a false idea), but in the end all he could do was accept that argument* and hope for the best. Job’s God was previously compared to a king and a bully in this thread. The difference is, bullies and kings will eventually disappear, but God won’t (according to this belief system). Humanity is stuck with God and all we can do is hope he isn’t really a cosmic sadist, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    *Or maybe not. A scholar by the name of Curtis translates Job’s last line as “Therefore I feel loathing contempt and revulsion (toward you, O God); and I am sorry for frail man”. That would be pretty badass but ultimately useless.

  • Carstonio

    The Job story is evidence that any explanation for suffering that involves an all-powerful being doesn’t really explain anything, and raises far more ethical and moral questions that it purports to solve. Ultimately such an explanation is really an appendage, something proposed after the fact. That’s different from saying that there are no gods, since I don’t have the knowledge to say that there are or there aren’t. The existence of suffering doesn’t need to be explained.

  • Wingedwyrm

    Morally deficient by any standard that views emotional abuse as a bad thing.  As to the question of why God should care, I’m an atheist.  I don’t believe God exists.  I do, however, believe that people exist who believe that this ethic marks a good way to live their lives, a good ethic to enforce on others, a good way to treat their own families.

    King and bully, no mortality is not inherent to the definition of either.  If God is a bully, the whole infinite thing doesn’t debullify him.  It just makes God a bully without end.

    You can be as interested as you want in the ethic, but the problems remain and merely being interesting doesn’t brush them asside.