The Bible Tells Me So Review: God Likes Stories
This blog post is my review of the third chapter in Peter Enn’s brilliant book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. You can find the previous two under the Bible tag.
So far, I think this has been my favorite section of the book. After deconstructing what our expectations should be when we read scripture—especially the Old Testament—Peter Enns builds on these concepts and constructs something meaningful for us as readers. He peels back another layer of these ancient stories and reveals the depths of what the writers were trying to communicate when they penned some of the greatest stories in history.
Enns begins by really tackling the hard truth: there is no such thing as “straight” history! It doesn’t exist in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone who takes pen to paper and writes out an account of something that happened in the past, whether it was yesterday, or fifty years ago, or two thousand years ago, is going to write it from a particular angle. A different person might tell the exact same bit of history in a completely different way.
To illustrate this very important point, Enns explores the four Gospels and the choices each writer made when describing various key moments in Jesus’s life, such as his birth, the miracles he performs, his death, and his resurrection. Enns writes:
“Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority. All four Gospels are connected to history, but each also tells us a lot about how these writers saw Jesus, what they believed about him, what was important to them and their communities.”
He gives a few examples of how the three synoptic Gospels especially build off each other and tell the same miracle stories, but sometimes in different sequential order, or with different details that highlight a particular point that is in line with that particular Gospel’s overarching theme. Each writer shaped their telling of Jesus’s life in a way that was tailored to their own audience.
The implications of reading the Gospels in this manner are fascinating. For example, Luke’s Jesus is very kingly. The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary that is only present in Luke’s Gospel, immediately tells the audience that this baby is a descendant of David and Israel’s rightful king. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth reveals a different goal; he is echoing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God used a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert; God used a star to guide the Magi to the infant Jesus. The historicity of some of these details may be questionable, but their implications for the significance of Jesus’ birth certainly is not!
After providing several more of these examples, Enns shifts his attention from the Gospels to the Old Testament stories and evaluates them using the exact same framework. In the Old Testament, as well, we can see plentiful examples of how the writers shaped the events of history to reinforce a particular overarching agenda. He walks through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. Just as with Jesus in each of the Gospels, we see in these books that very different images of Solomon and David are presented. In the Chronicles, David is the charismatic, brave, bold king that Israel needed most at the time. The Chronicles’ David is a symbol for Israel’s future: promising and full of hope.
In the Kings and Samuel books, however, we see a more human David; he has an affair with Bathsheba and murders Uriah, and at the end of his life he disrupts the order of succession by naming his younger son Solomon as his heir (speaking of which, the theme of younger sons being favored over their older brothers is also peppered all throughout the Old Testament). He also begins the process of building the temple despite God’s clear command to the contrary. He is, in short, a very different person from the heroic figure in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Enns rounds out the “God Likes Stories” chapter in an incredibly fascinating manner. As the final chapters of this section unfolded, I became amazed at the intricate way that so many of the Bible’s most iconic stories are interconnected. The same themes emerge again, and again, and again throughout these stories. Applying this lens of the “present shapes the past” helps to bring these themes to light.
Reading these stories in this way also helps us place them within a genre appropriate to their content. All of the connections and interplay between them point to the reality that each of these stories are myths. And before you start thinking that myths are just wild fairy tales spun out of thin air, just read Enns’ definition of a myth:
“Myths were stories that were part of ancient ways of describing ultimate reality, which is found not here and now but on a higher and more primal plane of existence, the behind-the-scenes actions of the gods in primordial time.”
The myth of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis is a perfect example of this. In this story, Adam symbolizes Israel; God creates him, makes him a promise, and fulfills that promise until Adam disobeys God, along with his wife Eve. The two are then exiled—cast out from the garden. If that doesn’t echo Israel’s own relationship with God I don’t know what does!
Likewise, in the Genesis story, there is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that the god Marduk violently murdered the goddess Tiamat, rent her body in half, and formed the waters above the firmament and below from her carcass. In Genesis, God performs the exact same creative act, except he does it by his own spoken Word; he is uncontested among gods.
Speaking of water imagery, the connection between the Genesis story, the Noah story, and the Exodus story are fascinating. By separating the waters, God is creating order out of chaos (the untamed sea was a symbol of chaos in the ancient world). And when God flooded the world in Noah’s story, he unleashed the waters to their chaotic fury, but created a vessel of safety for Noah and his family. Likewise, Moses is rescued as an infant when his mother forms a basket for him to navigate the waters of the Nile. And later, we once again see the imagery of God parting the waters when he rescues the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. The connections are endless!
Under the surface, each of these stories is declaring the sovereignty of God and his unrivaled power over the other gods of the day. The ten plagues, for example, are essentially a slap in the face to Egypt’s gods: they worshiped the Nile as a god of life; Yahweh turned its waters to blood, a symbol of death. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted as a frog; Yahweh multiplied the frogs of the land himself. And on it goes.
If we value these texts for nothing more than what we believe they can tell us about Israel’s literal history, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are overlooking the broader, deeper things that were going on when these writers immortalized these stories in writing. Enns explains this with wonderful clarity:
“The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.”
The writers were comfortable with changing, adding, erasing and exaggerating history to create meaning in their contemporary age, and the result is a Bible that doesn’t always behave how we expect it to, but is full of so much more dynamic retellings of God’s part in the history of Israel than we could imagine.