Christine Hayes’ 5 Common Misconceptions About the Bible

Christine Hayes, writing in the Huffington Post, laments the following:

When it comes to the Bible, modern Americans are at a distinct disadvantage. They know both too much and too little.

They know too much because they live in a society in which references to the Bible — positive and negative — are frequent, creating a false sense of familiarity. They know too little because they have not read it, or have read only selected portions of it, or have allowed others to read it for them through the filtering lens of later theological doctrines or political opportunism. And that’s a pity because the Bible, by which I mean the 24 basic books common to all Bibles (equivalent to the Jewish Tanakh or Hebrew Bible and to the Protestant Old Testament) is deserving of the same careful attention and close reading that we regularly bestow upon other classic texts.

It has been my experience teaching a university course on the Bible, that a close reading of the Bible is often hampered by several misconceptions. I ask my students — as I ask readers of the book based on the course — to correct five common misconceptions in order to encounter the Bible as if for the first time.

Of course, the problem is that any self-critical examination of one’s methodology will point out that there is more than one “theological doctrine” or “politically opportunistic” way of reading the scriptures. You can have a liberal theological bias, just as much as you can have a conservative theological bias. If you begin with the presupposition that God cannot speak, that his conception developed over time, and that the book which is the foundation of the Christian worldview could never be consistent, then you will come to certain theological conclusions consistent with this kind of postmodern epistemology. Also, if you are a liberal writing for the Huffington Post, then such a political agenda will be painfully evident as well.

The problem is, you cannot read the Bible without a “filtering lens.” When you study anything, whether it be the Bible, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, etc., you must have a lens in terms of which you are going to understand the things you are studying. Over and over again, we will see naturalistic, and sometimes downright postmodern assumptions coming from Christine Hays concerning the origin of the Bible, the composition of the Bible, the transmission of the Bible, and even the background of the Bible. The problem is, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander when it comes to assumptions about the Bible.

Correction #1

The Hebrew Bible is not a book. It was not produced by a single author in one time and place. It is a small library of books composed and edited over nearly a millennium by people responding to a wide range of issues and historical circumstances. Because it is not a book (the name “Bible” derives from the plural Greek form ta biblia, meaning “the books”) it does not have a uniform style or message.

This is one of the things that is so dangerous about this article. True things are said about the Bible, but these things are filtered through the afore mentioned lens of naturalism and postmodernism. For example, it is true that the Bible is not one book, and it is also true that it was composed by many authors for many different situations, and it is true that it covers many diverse topics.

However, when we talk about it not having a uniform “style or message,” we get on slippery ground. If you mean that the Bible contains different messages and different styles, just like a rainbow contains different colors, then obviously, this is correct. However, if what is meant is that the Bible contains *contradictory* messages, then Hayes’ presuppositions are showing. Ultimately, for some reason [political and theological maybe], she thinks that you cannot bring unity to the diversity of scripture. However, we must ask the simple question: why would anyone make that assumption? You see, in order to prove that assumption, you would not only have to point out alleged contradictions in the Biblical text, but you would also have to show that those contradictions could never be harmonized by anyone. Such is an impossible task for anyone to accomplish, since it forces the objectioner to prove a universal negative. Hence, it is not a matter of “scholarship” per se; it is a matter of your philosophy. And as if on cue, we find the ultimate presupposition she is going to be using in this article:

From narrative texts to legal texts, from cultic instruction to erotic love poetry, this library contains works of diverse genres each of which sounds its own distinctive note in the symphony of reflection that we call the Bible. As is true of any collection of books by different authors in different centuries, the books in this collection contradict one another. Indeed, they sometimes contradict themselves because multiple strands of tradition were woven together in the creation of some of the books.

In other words, diversity must equal contradiction. You cannot have a rainbow of many diverse colors that nonetheless forms one bow of color. You cannot have a bed that has the diversity of mattresses, mattress pads, blankets, and pillows. If there is diversity, it must entail a contradiction. This is postmodern thinking at its worst. There is no way to bring unity out of anything that is diverse. Yes, the Bible is presenting a worldview, and because the world is multifaceted, one can expect the Bible itself to be multifaceted. Still, only if you accept postmodern assumptions would you ever assume that no unity can be brought out of such diversity. In other words, only if you reject a priori the notion that the God in the Bible is real, and that he has spoken in a consistent fashion would you ever come to this conclusion.

The compiler of Genesis placed, side by side, two creation stories that differ dramatically in vocabulary, literary style and detail (who is created first — humans or animals?).

Actually, it depends upon whether you read the two creation narratives side by side. The reason they differ dramatically is because of their purposes. As discourse analysts have shown, when you have different purposes [to give a general story of creation in the first narrative, and to focus specifically on the creation of man in the second], you are going to have differences in discourse.

Furthermore, the issue of who was created first is a hotly debated issue, because the Hebrew language does not have a pluperfect verbal form. The issue of temporal deixis in Biblical Hebrew is a little more involved, but suffice it to say that many grammarians have suggested the notion of a pluperfect wayyiqtol form at Genesis 2:19. While I don’t think that the wayyiqtol as a pluperfect is common, I think a case can be made for it here. The reason I would argue for the pluperfect here is because of the juxtaposing of these two narratives next to each other. In fact, note the language of Genesis 2:4:

Genesis 2:4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.

Sounds very much like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Hence, it seems like these narratives are meant to be read together. Hence, it is only by assuming different authors over different periods of time due to differences in discourse that you end up with some alleged contradiction.

A few chapters later, two flood stories are interwoven into a single story despite their many contradictions and tensions (does Noah really take the animals on board two by two?).

Of course, the notion of repetition has been covered even by unbelievers such as Robert Alter, and it is well known that, when people would pass along stories in the Ancient Near East, they would use repetition as the mechanism of memory.

Consider the first passage of this alleged contradiction:

Genesis 6:19-20 “And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20 “Of the birds after their kind, and of the animals after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every kind will come to you to keep them alive.

The emphasis here seems to be on procreation. If this is the case, then the reason why “two” is included, is not to give a maximum number, but to give the minimal amount necessary for procreation. Thus, it would seem that the intent of the passage would be something like: You are to bring *at least* [not at most] two of each kind of animal so that there will be procreation after the flood. If this is the case, then the next chapter would simply be giving more specifics:

Genesis 7:2-3 “You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of the animals that are not clean two, a male and his female; 3 also of the birds of the sky, by sevens, male and female, to keep offspring alive on the face of all the earth.

Now, we have the introduction of the concept of clean and unclean. Why would that be significant? One would need clean animals for sacrifice and for food. Hence, you have more specifics given in chapter 7, again, because of a different purpose. Here the procreation is combined with the differences in number due to the differences in the human need for clean and unclean animals.

Proverbs extols wisdom, but Ecclesiastes scoffs at its folly and urges existential pleasure.

Of course, the book of Ecclesiastes is being butchered here. The Book of Ecclesiastes differs between what is “under the sun” and what is done by “fearing God and keeping his commandments.” Yes, the pursuit of wisdom without the foundation of the fear of the Lord is vanity of vanities. Secondly, it is hard to understand how the book of Ecclesiastes urges existential pleasure, when the book itself says that the author sought these things out, and concluded that this too was vanity, and chasing after the wind [Ecclesiastes 2:1-11].

Deuteronomy harps on God’s retributive justice, but Job arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that despite the lack of divine justice (in this world or any other), we are not excused from the thankless and perhaps ultimately meaningless task of moral living.

Of course, this is a gross distortion of the book of Job. The point of the book of Job is not some moralistic “moral living” as some thankless task. The point, as summed up in the Yahweh speech at the end of the book, is that we are simply not large enough to question God’s purposes. The point is that God is using evil for his own *purposes,* and our puny minds cannot comprehend the final result of all that God is doing in this world, because we simply are not God. Hence, we need to give up trusting in ourselves, and trust in him.

If that is the case, then the justice in another world is something that can be looked forward too, and it is consistent with the entirety of Biblical revelation. Again, it is only through naturalistic and postmodern assumptions that you can come to this conclusion.

That such dissonant voices were preserved in the canon of the Bible, their tensions and contradictions unresolved, says something important about the conception of canon in antiquity. Ancient readers viewed this anthology as a collection of culturally significant writings worthy of preservation without the expectation or requirement that they agree with one another. Just as an attempt to impose harmony and consistency on the short stories collected in the Norton Anthology of English Literature would do great violence to those stories, any attempt to impose harmony and consistency on the diverse books collected in the Bible — to extract a single message or truth — does great violence to those books.

Again, one sees the presuppositions coming through loud and clear. Perhaps they didn’t resolve these things because they didn’t believe they were contradictory. Let us say that I am totally wrong on my harmonizations above. If that were the case, someone could be digging in a rubbish dump tomorrow, and discover an ancient custom, literary form, or even second hand account that will explain the alleged contradiction. Again, Hayes would have to be omniscient to rule this possibility out.

Of course, the Biblical worldview, as has been expressed by the Christian church, is the foundation for reason, logic, science, and all of our understanding of reality. What Hayes is doing is taking a perfectly consistent story, and imposing contradictions on the text, on the basis of the imposition of a naturalistic and postmodern worldview upon the text. One could take a discourse such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, and make it self-contradictory by ignoring the context and ignoring the satirical intention of the piece. Also, even more important, the ancient near easterners simply were not modernists, nor where they postmodernists. Hence, to impose this notion of contradiction upon *their* worldview is what does great violence to the text.

The Hebrew Bible is not a book of systematic theology (i.e., an account of the divine) delivering eternally true pronouncements on theological issues, despite the fact that at a much later time, complex systems of theology would be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. Its narrative materials provide an account of the odyssey of a people, the ancient Israelites, as they struggled to make sense of their history and their relationship to their deity. Certainly the Bible sometimes addresses moral and existential questions that would become central to the later discipline of theology but then so do Shakespeare and Frost and that doesn’t make them theologians. The Bible’s treatment of these questions is often indirect and implicit, conducted in the language of story and song, poetry, paradox and metaphor quite distinct from the language and tenets of the post-biblical discipline of theology. To impose the theological doctrines of a later time that not only do not appear in the Bible but are contradicted by it — creation ex nihilo, the doctrine of original sin, the belief in life after death — does another kind of violence to the text.

Again, truth that is interpreted through the wrong presuppositions will still give you error. It is true that the Bible is not a systematic theology textbook. Systematic Theology is a discipline that seeks to take the Biblical data, and make a consistent whole out of it. It is does not, in any way shape or form, seek to change the literary *form* in which these truths are expressed.

Also, I would be interested in seeing where these doctrines are “contradicted” by the text. I have an idea of where liberals like to go, but, if it is as bad as her understanding of Job and Ecclesiastes, then we can simply say that she is mishandling the text, and imposing her own naturalism upon the text. Assertions that contradictions exist are very easy to make. Proof that they are true is another thing altogether.

Correction #3

The Hebrew Bible is not a timeless or eternal work that stands outside the normal processes of literary production. Its books emerged from specific times and places. Reading the Bible alongside parallel materials from the many cultures of the Ancient Near East shows the deep indebtedness of the biblical authors to the literary heritage of the Ancient Near East. The ancient Israelites borrowed and adapted literary motifs and conventions from their larger cultural context and an awareness of those motifs and conventions produces richer, more coherent readings of the biblical text than are otherwise possible.

Again, truth mixed with error. It is true that the Biblical authors knew the literature of the ancient near east, but is it true that they are “indebted” to them? What precisely is the relationship between the literature of the ancient near east and the Bible? And what is the methodology we should be using, therefore, in interpreting the parallels between the two bodies of literature? Again, these are questions Hayes simply assumes the answer to, but never asks.

Correction #4

The narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not pious parables about saints, nor are they G-rated tales easily understood by children. Biblical narratives are psychologically real stories about very human beings whose behavior can be scandalous, violent, rebellious, outrageous, lewd and vicious. At the same time, like real people, biblical characters can change and act with justice and compassion. Nevertheless, many readers are shocked and disgusted to discover that Jacob is a deceiver, Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat and Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she is disguised as a prostitute!

The unfounded expectation that biblical characters are perfectly pious models for our own conduct causes many readers to work to vindicate biblical characters, just because they are biblical characters. But if we attribute to these characters the reputation for piety manufactured by later religious traditions, if we whitewash their flaws, then we miss the moral complexities and the deep psychological insights that have made these (often R-rated) stories of timeless interest. Biblical narratives place serious demands on their readers. The stories rarely moralize. They explore moral issues and situations by placing biblical characters in moral dilemmas — but they usually leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

While it is true that the Biblical characters are not always role models [think of David and Solomon for example] it is, again, untrue that the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. Not only do you have the Torah against which the historical books are written, but you also have strong patterns such as “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” in the book of Judges which clearly have the intent of pointing you away from certain behavior.

Correction #5

The character “Yahweh” in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as “God”). The attributes assigned to “God” by post-biblical theologians — such as omniscience and immutability — are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category “God.”

First of all, the Bible never describes God as “changing his mind.” That is a bad translation of נחם. To “relent” might be a better gloss, as might “be grieved” in passages such as Genesis 6:6. And, of course, this has nothing to do with orthodox theology, since orthodox theology has always held that God can change in his dealings with man. We don’t take sacrifices to the temple, for example, nor do we engage in ritual washings. God does change the way in which he deals with his people, and can decide not to punish someone on the basis of intercession [something that he certainly has done in the death of Christ]. Immutability deals with his *nature* and his *character,* not with his dealings with man.

Also, I would point out that, far from saying that man has this kind of autonomy that Hayes wants to point out, the book of Genesis, for example, teaches just the opposite:

Genesis 50:20 “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.

Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, and yet God says that he meant this to happen in the same way Joseph’s brothers did. Also, this whole concept of good and evil forms an inclusio around the book of Genesis at this point [think, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil]. Therefore, the message of the book of Genesis is actually that God ordains and controls all events, whether good or evil, to bring about his purposes. What a stark contrast to the mangling of the text that we find in Hayes’ article!

Setting aside these misconceptions enables readers to encounter and struggle with the biblical text in all its rich complexity — its grandeur and its banality, its sophistication and its self-contradiction, its pathos and its humor — and to arrive at a more profound appreciation of its multi-faceted and multi-vocal messiness.

Did you notice how “self-contradiction” got tossed in there. Again, for Hayes, for the text to be sophisticated and complex, it must also be contradictory. Why? Yes, there are many grossly simplistic views of scripture, and we have dealt with them on this blog. However, the assumption that we cannot appreciate the diversity of scripture without entailing a contradiction can only come from a mindset completely set on postmodernism. It is really sad to see someone so in bondage to that kind of sinful thinking that, not only do they make nonsense out of reality [how does one know that there is such a thing as the law of non-self-contradiction in a naturalistic and humanistic universe], but is also keeps them from seeing the other side of the great beauty of scripture-its incredible consistency. I would argue that when you see both the diversity and the consistency of scripture, you have a far more profound appreciation for the scriptures than does someone who simply has no way to unify the message.

Just like the rest of the world in which we live, the scriptures exhibit both unity and diversity. The problem is, in humanism, you can’t make sense of the unity, and the diversity ends up swallowing up the unity. Unfortunately, it does so in every other area of epistemology as well. It is ultimately this problem that ends up destroying knowledge. Hence, if you reject the consistency of the scriptures, you cannot make sense of reality. Is that not exactly what Van Til, Bahnsen, Schaeffer, and others said? Well, unfortunately, that is the other side that is completely left out of this article.


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