41: How does the bible work?
Nate and Tim open up a new series of conversations exploring how the Bible actually works. They introduce the idea of the Bible as a literary mosaic in which various texts are pieced together to form a kind of theological portrait. This episode is the first in what will be an ongoing series called How The Bible Works.
Nate: Welcome back to Almost Heretical! I am so excited because we’re starting a new series today called How the Bible Works. We had a little trouble coming up with that name because we were trying not to name it something that Pete Enns has already used, so we came up with this title, and then he came out with a manuscript literally called How the Bible Works for his next book! But it’s okay. We’re still going to go with it because it’s generic enough. But Tim, why does it matter, why do we need to think about how the Bible works? Isn’t it just—when I’m thinking about what I used to teach, which was this Bible, just get along with your Bible, you can understand it for yourself, Bible is the words of God that have been handed down, it’s exactly what He wanted people to say, they put it in this thing and now we have it. Why does it need to something different than that? Why do we need to re-look at this thing? What’s the problem here?
Tim: I mean, I think we’ll be answering that question and various pieces along the way, but I guess up front we’ve said that the Bible matters, I think to you and I, Nate, because no matter how we feel about it, whether we have been burnt out by the Bible or were never really interested in the Bible or are a die-hard inerrant-ist that spends a couple hours a day reading the Bible, whatever your relationship is, in our world, especially in American culture, the Bible and what people think it says has a massive impact on society, right? So even if you’re disinterested in it yourself, we’ve said that if you care about how the world’s going, you should be interested in how people interpret this book. So that’s just one practical piece. Secondarily, you and I have kind of shared some of our story, which I think is largely parallel to how Rachel Held Evans has told her own story in Inspired of growing up with the Bible, being inundated with approaching in particular ways, then becoming totally uncomfortable with much of that and going through a significant deconstruction process, but then learning there are whole other approaches and there’s a whole lot more in the Bible than she was taught, and then has come back to sort of a different appreciation for what it is and what it’s trying to do for how it works. So my version of that is to say that I think specifically answering the question, “How does the Bible work?” is important because those of us that have come from some sort of church or even just broadly Christian background—and I would actually say even secular people in American culture—we’ve all kind of inherited a sense of what the Bible is for just based on how the church has treated it and how everyone has watched the church treat it. And I’ll just say off the bat, I’m very nervous to start this series. It’s a humbling and nerve-wracking to claim that I know an iota about how the Bible works. I’ll share, I’m 31 years old, I’ve been studying, trying to understand how the Bible works for roughly a decade. I guarantee five years from now I will hate the way I articulated certain ideas on this series and I’ll disagree. So we’re going to go and walk real humbly and light-handed or open-handed with a lot of our conclusions and a lot of this conversation. But we have, I have, also in the last several years learned that so much about what I was taught that I was supposed to do with this book is not what the book itself is asking me to do with it. So much of what I had been led to believe about how the Bible works is not actually how the Bible works, and so much of what I’ve seen has actually led me to a new, beautiful, deeper, richer appreciation for the Bible that—you know, we’re not out here like evangelists for the Bible really. If you don’t care about this thing, our goal is not to convince you you need to care about this thing. My guess though is that, if you’re listening you probably do care, you have some level of interest and want to be able to think about this book differently. So I think that’s kind of the goal in this series.
Nate: Yeah and I’m just going to say two things before we jump in. One is that yes, it’s not going to be perfect and we’ll probably go, “Ah, we should have said this differently,” in a few years or whatever, but the reason we care enough to do this and give it our best shot at the things that we have learned and the way, the perspectives that have changed is because—and this comes back to everything we want to do with this show—we see people getting hurt by the way the Bible is being used. If it was just, “Eh, some people have some bad ideas out there”—ideas that we used to teach, honestly, as well—then we’re like, “Eh, it’s not that big of a deal.” But like Tim said, the Bible is still a very powerful book in our culture and because of that it can be used to, like Rachel Held Evans says, it can be used like a balm to heal people—not bomb, B-A-L-M, balm—or it can be used as a weapon to hurt people.
Tim: It’s either a balm or a bomb.
Nate: Exactly. So we care because of the people that are being hurt by that. And the second thing I want to say is, I’m not saying at all that I know the motives of the people that are using the Bible to hurt people, because I was I think one of those people for a while, and I had the best motives in the world, I wanted to help people. So we’re not even getting into the motives of what or why people are doing that. But I think a lot of it is just these ideas we have. We think this is what the Bible has to be and so we keep perpetuating that for whatever reason, for whatever motives. So we’re hoping to walk through a lot of that, so we can process through that, so maybe it doesn’t hurt people anymore. Or if you have been hurt, this can help you process through that hurt.
Tim: And then so just as a preface, if the question we’re asking is, “How does the Bible work?” The answer to that question could take the next twenty years of podcasts or into infinity. So this is going to be a long series, and I think what we’re going to do, you know we did a gender series that was quite long, we still didn’t feel like we got to half of what we wanted to get to, but we did that series pretty much consecutively. This at times will work that way, and at time we’ll take a break, jump into some other stuff, and then come back and add on to the How the Bible Works series. So this is almost going to be an ongoing conversation that we jump into, jump out of, that’ll take us well into next year. So with that, we’d love to gather as much of your feedback, questions, thoughts, your own experiences or stories or thinking on the subject, and we’re also going to try to answer some of the questions that we’ve been gathering over the past couple months that you all have been sending in, and letting those questions really dictate where we go and what parts of this question we focus on. So probably the best chance we have to let your questions shape the podcast conversation.
Nate: Okay, where should we start here? Seems like there’s a lot to get to. Where do you feel like we should kick this off?
Tim: Well, I’ve got a thought, but I sent you some notes that I know you perused through at least.
Tim: Where do you want to start?
Nate: This question by Brandon Rice who emailed in, listener of the show, hi Brandon! He said, “I’ve been doubting lately the ‘perfection’ of the Bible. I mean, how can all of God really be within a book in text? It’s God, after all. Is the Bible all there is when it comes to ultimate truth?” And then this question here, “Is it fully divine if written by humans? Were the humans writing exactly what God wanted?” And I don’t know, I just feel like that’s such a common question, and I feel like if you challenge that and say, it’s like this human-written/God-inspired spectrum that everyone has to peg where they fall on that line, and if you say it’s human-written, then you’re saying you don’t believe in the authority of God and that He couldn’t put His ideas into a book and that creation’s not real and all this stuff. And then if you say it’s God inspiring this book, then it’s basically comes down to tablets from heaven, He gave the exact rule for everything in this thing. Anyways, I just feel like that’s such a common question or thought people have and maybe we could start there.
Tim: Yeah and I think you’re right, that question is something I feel like has been constantly reverberating within any circles that have any connection with evangelical Christianity or even just modern protestant Christianity, because in large part, the last hundred years in western Christianity has inserted a couple ideas about the Bible such as inerrancy, that the Bible is incapable of being wrong or having any contradiction or having any error in it. That got inserted into our thinking about how the Bible works and what we’re supposed to do with it, and then everything’s been built on top of that. So thousands and thousands and thousands of people have struggled with all the questions that come up related to science and historical accounts and archaeology and what to do with Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. There’s just a litany of problems with that idea, and yet that’s been placed as the foundation. Everything we’ve been taught, what we’re supposed to do with the Bible has been built on that foundation. And at some point it leads to, for a lot of us I think, either a breaking point where you realize that idea just cannot hold, it will not hold water under scientific scrutiny, under the facts, or you go, “I will die on that hill, and I’m going defend that view of the Bible no matter what scientific discoveries are ever made, no matter what we learn about the universe, no matter what we dig out of the ground in the Middle East.” And so you just have these polarizing worlds where, I think the topic of how the Bible works is actually an incredibly triggering topic for a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum, probably. So what we’re going to explore in the series is that there’s no chapter in any one of the books in the Bible that’s like, “Hey, here’s what this thing is and here’s what to do with it!” There’s no user manual with the thing. But there actually are a lot of clues within the text and clues that were intentionally placed within the text on what is happening within the texts, and—
Nate: Okay, okay, Tim, Tim! So if, let me just interrupt. If you were on an elevator with someone, and they had no clue what this book was and you were going to hand it to them so that they could read it for the first time, what would you tell them that it is, and what kind of warning or caution would you give them about this thing? Your elevator pitch for the Bible!
Tim: Okay. All metaphors, and they all break down with the Bible. I personally believe that the best analogy for what the Bible is is a mosaic. And specifically, I think the Bible is a literary, theological mosaic, especially the Old Testament, or the Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures, I believe are a literary mosaic of other texts that have been arranged together, kind of like a library or an anthology of texts, but I think the mosaic picture is a better metaphor in the sense that they’ve been placed next to each other in specific and intentional and ingenious patterns and arrangements, to create an overall narrative literary portrait. And what we’ll explore in some future episodes is that the Hebrew Bible’s primary portrait that it’s trying to depict is actually a Jewish messianic expectation of a hero figure who would not be found within the stories of the Hebrew Bible but would have to be found outside and beyond the Hebrew Bible. And that is how Jesus was able to say that the entire Hebrew Bible was a story that was pointing forward to Him, which He was the fulfillment of. And so ironically, actually—this is now, the people are getting off the elevator, and this is me standing alone, reflecting on my life—ironically, that sounds similar to where I started my journey with the Bible, but then I left that. And so for instance, I came to faith, one of the first books I read was Lee Strobel’s A Case for Faith.
Nate: A Case for Christ.
Tim: A Case for Christ. So then I think A Case for Faith was the second one. So the first one, A Case for Christ, was literally just a list of everything that could be considered a prophecy in the Old Testament. And prophecy here meant a prediction of something to happen in the future. And then running through, checking off all the ways that Jesus fulfilled these predictions. And I remember reading that, I actually handed it to my grandma, I’m still embarrassed about this, and told her to read it because she wasn’t and still isn’t very interested in Christianity. Part of that is probably my fault, because that’s the book I handed her. Sorry, Grandma. She’s also not interested in podcasts, so I know she didn’t hear that. The elevator is now too far down in the basement of my life.
Nate: [laughing] You have another guest now, you’re going up with them now.
Tim: [laughing] Yes, other people are listening to my reflections and it got awkward.
Nate: You just keep going up and down the elevator picking up a new target.
Tim: [laughing] Okay, I bring that up because at first I was really captivated by that. Like, “Oh, yeah! Jesus like, magically fulfilled all of these things! The Old Testament was this divine message that dropped down out of heaven, and everyone just waited around for hundreds or thousands of years for someone.”—
Nate: And it happened to be right about all these.
Tim: Yeah, and Jesus is the one that all these were predicting. And then I start studying the Bible and reading the Old Testament. And eventually I just got to a point where I’m like, “That is BS!” And not just intellectually BS, but it was offensive to whittle the Old Testament and the Jewish people down to that, to proof texts basically. And I got really sick of the proof text thing. I basically started swimming in historical critical scholarship, which is largely based on undermining that kind of usage of the text. So then I started trying to read the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament as if it was just literature that was kind of historical in nature, each text was its own story. I remember thinking, “Don’t read the Song of Solomon or Song of Songs as if it’s messianic. That’s crazy. Just read it as this love poem.” And then, further on in my studies, I started seeing other pieces and going, actually, I think what’s happening is that these texts, for instance the Song of Solomon was itself just an erotic love poem. But why was it ever placed in the canon of the Tanakh, and why was it placed where it was placed? And starting to realize, actually I think it was placed there to be a part of this messianic mosaic portraiture, but not in a kind of predictive proof-texting sense. In a really complicated literary sense. And that’s where I think the mosaic metaphor works really well, and we’ll explore it. Basically what you have in the Hebrew scriptures is a collection of very different kinds of literature. You have poems, you have some really old poems; you have some newer poems where literally the variety of the Hebrew language is generations different; you have even different languages, you’ve got some Aramaic in there. And then you have narrative, what we’re used to reading in the historical accounts. Then you have weird genealogies, you have books of law, then you have songs, basically, or poetic songs. How do these things all fit together? And I think what I’ve come to terms with was actually, there was a large effort, and this is kind of a trigger word for people, there was a large redaction or editing or arranging effort, that was taking a bunch of texts and fitting them together, placing them next to each other. Kind of like a montage in a movie, like the famous Rocky montage or like the first two minutes of Up, which is like two of the best minutes of film history, where you’re just placing a bunch of stuff next to each other that create a picture—
Nate: When you said mosaic, I pictured those beautiful tile works where they’ll take a bunch of different scraps of tiles. Let’s just picture, I don’t even know what they are, five inch by five inch tiles or whatever, where someone would maybe—I remember doing this in grade school, painting some picture or something, some scape on this little five by five inch tile, and everyone did that in the class, and let’s just say bunch of schools do that, and let’s say a bunch of schools over thousands of years, and then you drop all of those and break them all up and get those little pieces from all of those tiles. And then I say, “I’m going to create this piece, and I want to make this tree, and I’m going to use these dark shades from some of these tiles that I found, and put them up there.” The original intention of that tile that the kid painted was a mountain maybe, or something completely different, but when put in this mosaic, it is now a little piece of a mountain but making up this tree, which is my work of art that I’m trying to make here. So the intention was maybe different. And if I zoom in and I’m like, “What was the original piece here?” It’s not bad to do. You’re like, “I think this was a mountain. This was clearly a mountain.” That’s really helpful to see, this is the right-hand side of a mountainscape that someone drew. But if I only see that and I don’t see that this is now a branch in this tree, then I’ve not done justice to the bigger piece of art that’s going on here, and I’ve just zoomed in on the little piece of art that’s going on here. And so I kind of, when I think of the Bible, I think of kind of what you’re saying, a large part of the work in making what the Bible actually is, was done in… editing is such a controversial word, and redacting is probably more controversial, but, this kind of clipping and framing and positioning and putting of all these pieces in this thing to tell this grand narrative of what it was trying to tell. So if I zoom in on the laws in the Old Testament and I’m trying to figure out, “Which ones of these still apply to me, which ones of these were done away with in the Old Testament and don’t apply anymore, and is it only if Jesus referenced in the New Testament?” Then I might be missing the whole point of why was Israel given these laws and what was going on there and what are they trying to tell me. I think the fear is that the Bible becomes—I get it, I get the words of editing and redacting and crafting, it sounds very, very human—I think the fear is that the Bible just becomes another special good book that we like along with a bunch of other books and it misses being this divine book from God. And that makes it less special. And where I’ve kind of come to is, I think the Bible is way more special when you read it this way and you see it this way, and it’s actually something I want to hold onto and I want to appreciate and use in my life now when I view it this way.
Tim: So the way you described the mosaic and how it can be, if the overall picture in your example’s a tree, and one piece that one kid painted was a mountain, and say the mountain fits the right color to be used as one piece of bark in the overall picture of the tree, then if you get up close—say it’s a full wall—and you’re staring at that one tile that’s a picture of a mountain, you can appreciate that mountain tile, that five by five inch piece, for what it depicts, what it might mean. But you cannot claim that the author or the overall mosaic means anything to do with what that piece means. If the piece is trying to show you a picture of a tree or present a scene of a tree, then you see what the piece is trying to do by stepping back several steps and taking in the thing as a whole. To mix metaphors here, we’re going to reference a lot in this series of a friend and my favorite Bible scholar out there, a guy named Tim Mackie, who’s out here in Oregon in Portland. He runs the Bible Project, and we’ll probably share some more info there, but he uses a very similar metaphor, he uses that of a quilt. I like mosaic a bit better, but I’ll borrow the quilt metaphor for a sec. In a quilt, basically similar, you’re taking different little patches of fabric that have different scenes stitched into them, and you’ve got all these different pieces, and then you stitch those pieces into one big blanket with a hundred different little pieces on it. Then those original little pieces are preserved. You can go look at them in one corner of the quilt, but it’s the overall picture, the new overall blanket, that is telling you the meaning. So the reason I bring in that second metaphor is, I guess in a mosaic you’re glueing or something, which I don’t think works very well?
Nate: Like grout.
Tim: Yeah, you’re using putty or something. And in a quilt you’re stitching, and I think that metaphor is actually really, really close to what we see happen literarily in the scriptures, is texts are stitched together. So if my theory holds, and the Bible is like a mosaic, then it isn’t each individual piece and the original meaning of each individual piece that actually is telling the message of the Bible as a whole, it’s the way they are stitched together and the way that the overall presentation of how they’ve all been arranged together of what that overall picture shows. So I think we could actually just jump into some examples to show you what I’m talking about, but I want to reference another question that a listener to the show asked a few weeks ago. It was coming from one of the episodes in the gender series, and Paige Suffelette—I think we’ve mentioned your name before, we probably botched then, and I’m probably botching it again—
Nate: You should just email in, Paige, with a pronunciation, so we don’t mess it up every time.
Tim: Yes. You ask great questions! So Paige’s question was pointing out that in the gender series, part of the problem in misreading Paul is that we often take passages where he is describing something happening, describing an issue in the church, describing a reality in the culture of his day, and we just take that as a divine prescription. So her question was, “What other passages have been written as description but have been taught to us in a prescriptive way?” So I know this is going to sound kind of outlandish, but I actually think the answer is almost the entire thing. Almost the entire Bible is in a sense descriptive. I’ll switch out and use the word narrative. As a mosaic, the Bible is presenting a story, a narrative story that we have taken as a kind of divine instruction manual. And this is true both of Old Testament and New Testament. And so much of the solution I think that we’re going to see to the problems with how the Bible is approached and how the Bible is used is trying to see what’s happening literarily within these texts. And we’ll realize that in a thousand different ways, the Bible is a work, a collective work or a set of works of literary genius. A mosaic, when I use that metaphor, the way we’ll see that the Bible has pieced together different texts, it is mind-blowing. And then to realize that this happened thousands of years ago in a nomadic, desert culture that didn’t have books and was an almost entirely oral culture, is just totally mind-blowing to me. You actually realize there’s nothing, especially the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, there nothing else on par with this that we know of in history in terms of the literary complexity of what’s happening here. I guess we all have to go through our season of being like, “But it’s just God’s Word, and He spoke it, and these prophets and the writers, they just let it pass through”—If that’s where you’re at, okay fine, but where I’ve come to of trying to understand, setting that way of thinking about things aside and trying to appreciate the human brains that were at work actually very quickly led me back to a much higher appreciation for the Bible than I ever had before trying to interpret this thing as a divine magical gift, like Pandora’s box that just arrives on earth without ever being truly a work of human creation. And actually I think the ways we’ll point out, seeing what humans were doing to make the Bible possible and to make the Bible exist, I actually think it’s given me a renewed sense of hope in humanity. I honestly don’t think that’s too big of a statement. It’s inspiring to see what’s happening here and, and sets us on a whole journey. I’ll spend the rest of my lifetime exploring some of the intricacies of what’s going on in these texts, and I’ll never get to the bottom of it, and that to me is a journey that’s worthwhile and fun, as compared to, “Let me just get the basic bullet point structure of God’s prescriptions for the world, for how I have to live and for what rules I have to obey and for what doctrines I have to believe. If I can get that prescription down then life will go well.” That idea just doesn’t hold, and it’s not very compelling, at least not for very long. So as we jump into this series, I’m more excited, I can feel it in my body, because the stuff we’re going to explore, it’s fun, it piques my curiosity in a way that approaching the Bible strictly as a religious text which is a set of access to doctrine points just doesn’t do that for me.
Nate: Don’t you think that—and I want to get to the examples here, and maybe this isn’t even going to be included in the show. I don’t know—but don’t you think that it’s scary to think about the Bible in a different way? Because what if it is the other thing you mentioned that we used to think it was, and it is telling us the doctrine we need to have in order to go to heaven and not go to hell? It’s not just like people want to hold onto that because they’re comfortable with it and used to it. I think that’s at the root of what it is. But I think it’s because we’re talking about eternal destination here, and people feel like, I know that’s what I used to think. “That’s cool, but too much is riding on this to rethink what the Bible is at this point.”
Tim: Yeah. I’m not trying to make light of the emotional baggage that we all feel. Religious texts carry incredible weight. I mean talk to a Muslim about changing the way they think about the Quran, or try to talk to a Mormon about changing the way they view the Book of Mormon. And honestly, talk to a conservative, patriotic, nationalist American about changing the way they view the U.S. Constitution. We live in a text-based world. It wasn’t always this way, but it is now. We live in a text-based world where all claims to religious authority are rooted in some petition to a text. And that’s true of Christianity, it’s true of Judaism, it’s true of most of religion.
Nate: I think when you get to some tribal religions and tribal spiritual experiences, it’s not that way, but yeah, I think pretty much. But that’s because they didn’t go text-based. They stayed before the text-based stuff probably. Right?
Tim: Mmhmm, yeah. This is venturing off into a different conversation. I think you can make a strong case that in large part the success—I don’t like that word—the spread, the popularity of the Judeo-Christian and include Islam in that mix, the Abrahamic religions, is that they’ve been built on a fascinating, complex, and rich set of texts that has been compelling and has been something that people could point that’s been given a lot of weight culturally. So we’re standing here literally thousands of years atop the foundation of a set of texts, or a book as we’ve construed it. Of course the way people think about that is it’s a sensitive subject. And as Christians, people go hermeneutically in circles and make themselves crazy all day long, because you’ll go like, “Well, how do we interpret the Bible? Well, we interpret it through the lens of Jesus. Okay, well, what do we know about Jesus? We know what the Bible tells us.” And you could just run yourself in circles, right? So at some point, people, a lot of us would just throw up our hands going, “I don’t even know.” And then others have just doubled down on various sets of ideas like we talked about, inerrancy or whatnot. So it is a very sensitive matter. I think people are very slow to change their minds about stuff like this. I’m not going to try to change anybody’s mind away from a divine tablet view of the Bible. I’m just going to try to show some of the stuff I’ve seen that I find really fascinating and significant, and assume that if you’re listening, you want to do the thinking, you want to do the work to actually discover stuff there. My personal experience is that what you end up getting to use the Bible for when you view it as divine prescription is pretty lame compared to what role it can play in your life personally, socially, politically, whatever, when you can start to construe it as a massively complicated literary masterpiece.
[Loud Voices, poem written and recorded by Leslie Jogi] (Listen here)
Leslie: Hello, my name is Leslie Jogi. I’m a retired high school teacher from Zimbabwe. Just a word on the tra-las in the poem. They’re ironic to begin with. How easy it is to say, “Just ignore the power structures and just believe that your small acts achieve change for the good.” But the tra-la-la at the end rings a note of hope. We tell a different story. It’s not just about us, but about us and our maker, a transforming narrative of endless possibility that requires patience, and perseverance, and each other. Be encouraged.
Ignore the loud voices
Of power and wealth
Empires atrophy and die.
In the pain of all being
Ther’s love to be doing
With your hands
And your feet
And your voice
On your knees.
Don’t expect resolution,
For good, as you see it,
My friend. But trust
That your tiny giving
Of life for the other
Starts healing and succor.
Enough to sustain you and them
Both giver and taker
In the life of the Maker
Whose rule will never end.
Tim: We’re going to take a minute to make a couple special announcements, especially for those who listen to the show regularly. We just shared that poem by Leslie, which she sent to us in response to the recent conversation we did with Lisa Sharon Harper. It’s just an awesome example of how many of the listeners to the show have actually been contributing via poetry, blog posts, and various other forms of dialogue with the conversations that we’re having on the show. So we just want you guys to know we love that, appreciate it, and we also want to share it. So we’ve built a contributions page on our website, and we’ll be placing links there to various contributions from listeners to Almost Heretical. So feel free to send us any of your stuff, any thoughts, anything you’re writing, anything you’re working on in relationship to the show.
The last thing is, and this is awkward to talk about, so we’re just going to do it, is financial support for Almost Heretical. Nate and I started the show back in January and it’s kind of a dream come true that it’s actually happening. We’re trying to take moments to be excited, to be celebratory and appreciate just this cool community that’s forming, the feedback we’ve gotten from people, the people we’ve connected to, all that we’ve gotten to learn from both listeners and those we’ve gotten to have on the show. It’s just really cool! And especially, this has affirmed for us our theory that this kind of conversation and content is something needed and desired by people, people who have been hurt by the church, people who’ve been hurt by the church’s theology. So here’s the deal. You listeners have been super generous with us, and we actually now have all of the expenses of the show covered. So that’s upkeep on the website, some of the books that I buy to support the research for the different series we do, and all the hosting web stuff. Awesome. We can do this, we are basically now producing a podcast at zero financial cost out of our pockets. So part of us wants to stop asking for money, and part of us wants to admit to you that it’s a dream of both of ours to be able to cut back on some of our paid work to be able to put more into this podcast as a vocation. As we shared, we’re piloting our first in person gathering in Portland this coming month. That’s just scratching the surface of some of the stuff we’ve been dreaming up. In terms of doing recovery retreats for those who’ve suffered spiritual abuse, would love to do trainings and gatherings for people in ministry to think about power and how we use our power. I’ve got a couple side projects that I’m working on in terms of writing. We’ve even had some dreams of doing, maybe a spin-off podcast of some long-form storytelling about spiritual abuse and those who are recovering from church trauma. So we’ve got tons of stuff we want to do. We can keep going with Almost Heretical as is, but if you would like to help us give more of our time and lives to investing in this project and the community that’s developing around this project, we invite you to do that, and we would be super honored and grateful with any of that support. Nate, how awkward do you feel right now? I don’t even see you on camera.
Nate: [laughing] I’m back! Uh, yeah, it just feels weird because we hate asking for money, and I always skip the shows that do, but yeah, we want to pour even more of our hearts into this and our time into this, and we have so many ideas. And it’s just literally a matter of time and freeing up our time to be able to do more of that. So if you do want to give, super grateful of you partnering with the show. You can do that at almostheretical.com/give or just find us on Patreon. Back to the show!
Tim: So two big examples within the Hebrew scriptures that I think actually serve as sort microcosms for what the entire Hebrew Bible is. The first one is the Torah and Leviticus specifically. Again, this is an example of what we’ve taken as prescriptive, yet the Bible is presenting as descriptive. So how many arguments or discussions have been in about the Old Testament and what to do with it and how to make sense of it? It’s a never-ending conversation. And it’s massively complex, so I don’t want to be overly reductionist with this. But one of the most groundbreaking ideas theologically in biblical scholarship was from John Sailhamer, an Old Testament scholar, who pointed out—it now seems so obvious to me. It was so groundbreaking at the time—that the law as it’s presented within the Torah, or the Pentateuch, is not just giving us the law. It’s telling a story about the law by including some of the law within the story. The book, the groundbreaking one, is called The Pentateuch as Narrative. It’s that, right there in the title, it’s literally his case. It’s that the Pentateuch, which just means the first five books of the Bible is telling a story, it’s telling a narrative arc. And Leviticus, when it’s reciting all these laws, over 600 of them, and you’re reading through how the priests were supposed to sacrifice animals; and who is unclean, and when they’re unclean, and how long they wait, and how they get back to being ritually clean again; what food you can eat and whatnot. We read those thinking that what the book of the law, or the Torah, or the Pentateuch as a book is saying is, “Here’s the law. Everyone who’s reading this, go do it.” Right? That’s what we think the book is saying.
Nate: Or at least we’re not sure, and we’re like, “Yes, kind of. At least those are good ideas to do. Let’s check with Jesus; did He change anything? He didn’t change that one? Okay, we need to keep that one.”
Tim: Yeah, but all of that question, that’s coming from a Christian perspective that is assuming that because those laws are included in the Hebrew Bible, they are active as laws, and therefore we have to ask the question, “What did Jesus do with them? Did He get rid of some, did He make others obsolete, did He uphold some?” Right?
Nate: Instead of, we’re reading a story about someone getting a law given to them.
Tim: Yes, exactly. Part of why we don’t see that, and we’ll get into some of the complexities here, is we actually don’t know how to read these kinds of texts. We’ll get into sort of the three-dimensional layering of the texts. I love this stuff. It’s fascinating. The book of Leviticus and the book of the law, or the Torah, the five books, is literally in the literary shape of a mountain where the center of it is the consecration of the tabernacle and the Day of Atonement. Literarily, structurally, there is shape to these texts, to the way they’ve been compiled and arranged. And genealogies, poems, are used as these stitching pieces to create these grids to them. So various scholars have gone through and they’ve tried to visualize this for us. So basically I’m saying we need to back up and say, what’s the difference between reading the Pentateuch as a set of texts that a large chunk of it is giving laws, versus a set of texts telling a story which includes laws and a story about laws. So for example, and we’ll touch on this real quickly. You remember the story in Leviticus of Nadab and Abihu? These priest dudes who go to make a sacrifice, and it says they used unauthorized fire? They used the wrong, and they get—
Nate: Yes. I always get them confused with the ones who touched the ark. Or the guy who touches the ark.
Tim: Uzzah. Actually, good job, Nate, actually being confused about that, because you’re supposed to be confusing those two stories together! We’ll touch on that in a second. Within Leviticus, you’re reading all these laws. It’s where everybody always drops their year long Bible reading plans.
Nate: Guilty. I’ve been there. I’ve stopped there before.
Tim: So you’re just reading through and you’re trying to make sense of it, it’s weird religious-y words, and sacrifices, and you’re like, “What’s the point? But it’s God’s word, so I’m going to read it anyway!” And then you get to this story. All of a sudden you’re done reading laws and you read a story. There were these priests, and they went up, and they offered unauthorized fire and God killed them for it. And then that story finishes out, and then you get back into a bunch of laws. Well how the heck do you make sense of either that story or the laws?! Well, part of it is that the laws that we just read through are giving you the context of what Nadab and Abihu were supposed to do when they offered their sacrifice. And it’s explaining why what they did was wrong or unauthorized. The story, the vignette, and the laws are working in tandem. If you just have that strange story of the dudes getting fried at the altar without the context of what they were supposed to be doing, the laws that they were supposed to be putting into practice—these are laws for instituting the tabernacle—then you don’t understand what’s happening here. It doesn’t make any sense narratively, and it doesn’t make any significant theological sense.
Nate: Outside of what a lot of people have used that for, the touching of the ark, and maybe we can get to Ananias and Sapphira later, causing a fear of God in you. That’s how I often used it in the church that I planted, was, “This is supposed to explain that there’s supposed to be this fear of God that you’re supposed to have.” Anyways, I think there is a little bit of a theological thing people use there.
Tim: And we can talk about whether that’s the right meaning to take away. But my point here is that the meaning of those chapters of laws is not separate from the meaning of that story. The reason they’ve been arranged next to each other, that you can just be reading laws and then you read the strange story and then you’re reading more laws! And then more strange story! And more laws, and then more strange story. These have been intentionally placed next to each other so that the laws are actually performing narrative. Those strange chapters that seem like we’re supposed to put them on our wall like our divine commandments are actually functioning as literary pieces of the mosaic. So that narrative story of course can function as a story, but it too is a piece of a larger mosaic. So I think this is where we just have to re-learn, retrain our brain that poems, for instance, throughout the Pentateuch are spliced in between narrative as ways of connecting different stories and giving meaning to the connection and why they’re being placed next to each other. So we often get confused. You’ll be reading a story, say about the exodus, and you’re reading narrative chapters and then all of a sudden there’s a poem, like Moses’ song. And then you read some more stuff, and then all of a sudden there’s Balaam, that weird guy, and the donkey. And then there’s these poems. What we have to retrain ourselves is to see that different kinds of literature can actually all play a role in presenting an overarching narrative. So here’s example number two. Is the book of Psalms. We’ve been taught that—or actually, let me ask you, Nate. So how have you thought about, or how were you taught, or how did you teach others of what the psalms are and what they’re for?
Nate: I think essentially that they’re a song book for the Hebrew people that was gather together over the course of many, many years, and they put their favorite ones in there, their favorite songs that they sung. Yeah, it’s a song book.
Tim: Totally. And at a level that’s true. Those psalms, or songs, were written by people, individuals, probably for various kinds of individual or corporate singing, prayer, worship. Some of them seem to be part of different festivals, actually. But is that why they’re there? Is that why we have a book of psalms? And I think I’ve come to the answer of just a resounding, “No.” That actually those 150 songs have been arranged within little books within the overall book of Psalms that are actually functioning to tell a story from beginning to end of the book of Psalms.
Nate: Would this be like if someone, you went to a store, one of those scrap stores, and you picked up some hymnals, and you started cutting them up? And you used those cut up portions of hymnal bits and music and song bits and all that kind of stuff and made a big piece of art out of it? I don’t even know what it would be. A big field of flowers of these things. And yes, you could look in at all the different words and see, “Oh, that was a song about this thing, and I’m going to apply that to my life.” Or you could say, “What was created here, and what was the point of what was created? What’s going on if you zoom out?”
Tim: Totally. This is another metaphor. We’ll probably use a bunch, because I think we just need as many to help us think about this as possible. The psalms, just like these old poems, the genealogies that we see throughout, the pieces of the law—and I should point out, when we’re talking about Leviticus and the law, one of the points in Sailhamer and others’ argument is that you can’t actually run the temple system on the laws that we have in the Torah. It’s not all there; there’s clearly missing pieces. These were selective bits that were used—the same is very obviously true of, say, the psalms or the book of Proverbs. This isn’t a comprehensive collection of every song that the Jewish people ever wrote. Rather, each of these little differing kinds of literary text are the ingredients that someone has used to scrape together. They are the resources, the basic elements, that someone has used to make something new out of. So it’s just not the way, you know we read books as basically top-to-bottom, left-to-right text. It all follows a chronological order, beginning to end. We have been formed by book technology. One thing we’re going to have to do in this series is try to train ourselves to think outside of book technology.
Nate: Because there’s not another book like the Bible.
Tim: No, not that I know of. There are things, again, that are similar. But some of this was developing pre-literary culture, but then the literature of the Bible was in scroll technology which, we’ll get into some of the details, just had to be construed very differently. People didn’t own a personal Bible to go home. People didn’t own the texts that make up the Bible. They were very expensive. They had to be preserved by scribes. They were precious. So most people didn’t have access to them; you would have to memorize these texts in your head. So in a culture where you have a whole set of pieces of texts that some scribes in caves and dark closets have access to, and that the general broader culture as various awareness of certain pieces of it, those pieces got used as the basic elements. Going back to the mosaic thing, they’re the little tiles that got picked up, some of them got broken to make a different shape. Some of them may even have been added to to change the shape and made to fit together in a way that tells a story. So the book of Psalms is story. It’s not primarily a song book. In other words, these are songs, and it’s a book of songs or prayers, but the point was not to get the reader to pray them. Even though that’s possible, and that may be a point of the book of Psalms.
Nate: And it might be helpful.
Tim: Sure. But the primary point was to arrange them next to each other in an ordering and in a way that would actually tell a story. In other words, it’s a narrative made up not just of sentences but of psalms. So that actually is an analogy for what we’re seeing throughout the whole Hebrew scripture, is that you can use pieces of text like pieces in a puzzle. And it’s so hard, because we see text and we think we’re supposed to read it at face value. It’s very difficult for us to think of it in terms of a piece in a greater whole.
Nate: Well the deck is stacked against us because, like you said, we feel like we know what to do when we see a text. We feel like we know what to do when we see a poem. We feel like we know what to do when we see a list of laws. And so we think we’re using the tools that we’ve been spending our whole hundreds of years of western thought and enlightenment on in the right way, and you’ve just got to approach the Bible differently. And the reason I say the Bible is, that there’s no book like this, I say that to tell you that we do think this is special, we do think the Bible is special, and we do think it’s really important because there’s not a book like this. Because there are a lot of books that claim to be divinely inspired by God. That’s actually not special, if you’re claiming that your book is divinely inspired by God. What is special, and this is where I’m still interested in the Bible and I’m actually more interested than I ever have been before, when thousands of people over the course of history put so much time and energy and spend their lives preserving and editing and crafting this thing in a certain way and keeping it going, it’s this huge tradition that is kept going because people thought, “This is important.” And we need to give it the honor that it deserves to go on that journey to pick up those clues and those hints and the trail that is left for us by these people that spent their lives doing this to understand what were they actually trying to communicate in this thing.
Tim: Totally. So in academic scholarship for the last several decades, what’s been called the historical-critical approach has dominated. So some of you may be familiar with what’s been called the documentary hypothesis. It was really in style for a while, it’s still well held within academic circles, although many have pushed back on it for various reasons. But it’s basically this: it’s scholars have combed through the Bible and they’ve seen evidence after evidence after
evidence that this thing is kind of like a mosaic. There are different pieces from different places with different writing styles that are next to each other. And some of them even contradict. There are differing stories of David within the same book; and it seems like there are two different accounts of how many animals God told Noah to bring on the ark in Genesis 6 and Genesis 7. And so scholars have noticed this, and then they’ve gone to try to understand, where did the different pieces come from? Where did the different original sources come from, and who wrote them and what was their vendetta or what was their angle? So you can literally, and I’ve got one on my desk, you can get an entire copy of the Old Testament color-coded for where every verse, which source it’s thought to come from, which of four sources. But here’s what that’s missing—it’s pointing out important things which, the conservative wing of scholarship, it’s scared of that, it’s intimated by that, so it tries to cover up all of those so-called issues, but I don’t think either of these takes are very helpful or necessary. And I actually think they’re missing the point. What I’m saying is that I think the underlying assumption within this documentary hypothesis world is that it was accidental or almost stupid the way these texts came to be arranged together. And so what you get, it’s not hard to find on the internet, is people that really don’t like religion or this religious texts or dumb religious uses of this text, and they’ll go, “Look! Genesis 6 and Genesis 7 contradict. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 contradict. This thing’s rubbish, you can’t even trust it on page 2.” But what that’s missing is saying, “Don’t you think these people were smart enough to know that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 contradict each other?” Don’t you think, if they were trying to cover their tracks—
Nate: The very first chapters of the thing that you’re putting out into the world.
Tim: Exactly! It’s like in Proverbs, you have the line, “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly,” and then right next to it is, “Answer a fool according to his folly.” If the authors thought those were contradictions, errors that needed to be dealt with—
Nate: You would hide them better than that.
Tim: You would at least put them a couple pages apart, right?! It’s actually drawing attention to the fact that those texts are in contradiction. So this is again stealing a line from Tim Mackie, but there are signs of intelligent design. And the deeper I go, the more I study, it’s ingenious. There are clues everywhere of absolute genius in how these texts were arranged and why. And part of that, we’ll find some of these clues and what we’ll see, and this is where people feel really challenged by biblical scholarship, is it challenges the mythical views of authorship. We all know a lot of people who think that believing that Moses wrote the Pentateuch is essential to Christian doctrine. And what we’ll find is that the Bible is not making that claim. And actually the Bible is intentionally leaving clues to say otherwise. For instance, the last chapter of Deuteronomy, speaking of Moses in the third person, saying he’s the most humble person who’s ever lived. Which would be really awkward if he wrote it. There are clues everywhere that the entire body of texts that have been put into this mosaic anthology or library and now for us, we see in a book, have been bound together in a book, was put together either by an individual or by a group who was living at the end of the time within which these texts were written and within the end of the story within which these texts were telling, aka post-exile. These were people living, had lived through the Assyrian exile, the Babylonian exile, had lived through the partial return to Jerusalem, and were now living under the Greek and soon to be Roman oppression that leads up to the time of Jesus where the Roman empire has taken over the Middle East. You have people who have gathered these texts together—this is where I use the word redacted—they have chosen to use some and not others; they’ve actually cut pieces of some and not others. And they’ve likely added pieces. For instance, many scholars think that all of Genesis 1-11 is added to the Torah, to Genesis, as a kind of preface or introduction added later. And we’ll see, it was added as a kind of key that helps make sense of everything that was going to happen. And pieces added to fit things together. We’ll look at seams and stitches and where the texts are grouped together is possibly where some of these additions were made. But most likely what the evidence will show is that this was done by some post exilic readers who were bundling these texts together in a way that they knew, because they were living in a state of continued oppression as basically refugees in their own land under one empire after another, they knew that the solution to their problems could not be found in the history that was included within these texts. Meaning, the story that these texts told, the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the story of the patriarchs, the story of the time of the judges and then the monarchy and the fall of the monarchy, and the divided empire; and the time of the exile. The answer to their problems couldn’t be found there because they had already lived beyond all of that and stuff still sucked. And so I think what we’ll see, and this is where we’ll get into the messianic stuff, what happens is they bundle this stuff together to take all of those pieces of literary testimony to Israel’s story, their long, tumultuous story, and they bundle it up in a way that actually is asking us readers to look beyond that story into the future for resolution to this oppression. So literally, the last verse, the last sentence of the Tanakh—so in the ordering of the Jewish Bible, it’s the book of Chronicles that’s at the end—and the last line is literally a cut off sentence. That suggests someone is going to come up to the temple in Jerusalem, going to come up to basically take Israel’s place, where they belong. And it’s kind of like an ellipsis, like a “...” of who is that someone? What we’ll see is there are literary pieces like that along the way that are trying to get us to look forward in such a way that the entire collection of fragments of literature has created this mosaic portrait, like I said, that Jesus could look at and say, “That literary craftsmanship, that whole mural the size of a wall that’s compiled of various pieces of literature that’s spanned two thousands years, that’s how that thing was pointing to me.” It’s not pointing to Him because some guy went into a trance and wrote a prediction with a date and the color of his clothes and Jesus is magically fulfilling these magical oracles. That is not what He’s saying. He’s saying this was a literary story pointing to various conclusions, and that story and those conclusions is what Jesus is stepping into. So then what we’ll look at is basically that the New Testament writers, along with Jesus, and I think there’s evidence that Paul had to go back and do his homework before he could make sense of this, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus had to go back. It says Jesus walked them through the scriptures to show that everything through the Old Testament, everything through the law and the prophets was pointing to Him. He had to teach people to read the Bible this way. So ironically, this is where, people think we’re almost heretical, and here I’m trying to advocate for us to listen to how Jesus would have taught us to read the Old Testament. So we’ll get into some of that messianic thing, but for us as modern book-inundated people, we’re going to have to learn how to read a text and not let that text be the text, if that makes sense. The psalm isn’t the psalm. It is, but it’s also a part of a story. Those weird obscure laws about how to do sacrifices of animals in the tabernacle in the Sinai wilderness are not laws for us or for any reader but are chapters in a story. So each piece of literature is a part of the story. So again to reiterate this because I think it’s a pretty massive claim: you can walk up to a mosaic and stare at any individual piece and try to understand what it means and what it’s saying and miss the entire point. You can stare at the laws and try to understand how they work and miss the entire point. Or you can read that story of Nadab and Abihu and try to understand what it means about violence and retribution and God’s wrath and miss the entire point because that story and those laws have been put there as literary fragments in a mosaic.
Nate: This is the series, and we’re going to keep doing it. And we think we might do something kind of different and fun with these. What is it, Tim?
Tim: First piece, is we’re going to do shorter episodes. Think of them as mini-chapters or mini-episodes. And we’ll try to put a lot of these out, hopefully a couple a week. It won’t quite be a series. This will almost be a separate side project we have on the podcast, so look out for the How the Bible Works episodes.
Nate: Yeah, and they’re going to kind of feel a little bit different too, but they’ll all be on this theme, and they might be mixed in amongst other episodes that we do that are kind of our normal show. But you’ll be able to find them all at almostheretical.com/bible.
Tim: So consider this first episode as a kind of introduction to us asking the question, “How does the Bible even work?” We look forward to exploring that question in various levels of depth well into the future, so glad you’re with us.
Nate: If you want to find out more about the show or get in contact with us or share you story or ask any questions, you can go to almostheretical.com. We will see you next time.