Three weeks ago we had a guest post by Kristin Swenson about her new book A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible. Here’s the link if you haven’t read it yet: https://ehrmanblog.org/an-intriguing-but-most-peculiar-book-guest-post-by-kristin-swenson/ Her post raised a lot of interest, and so now we are fortunate to have her back for a second, related post.
Kristen has PhD in biblical studies from Boston University and is an associate professor of religious studies (affiliate) at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has written other books as well, including God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity and Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.
One of the things about writing is how frequently the process of writing itself reveals something new. In the case of A Most Peculiar Book, I set out to discuss some of the Bible’s many weirdnesses. It quickly became clear that the topic has two, general parts – what’s weird about the Bible, and what’s weird in it. So that’s how I continued (and what finally defines the book’s organization). But a couple of other things became clearer to me, too.
I had aimed to give curious non-specialists, people who may not have had the opportunity for formal, academic study of the Bible, some tools for managing what any discerning reader inevitably find to be true: the Bible does not read like a modern narrative. It doesn’t even read like other anthologies with which we may be familiar. What’s more, it has gaps (Jesus’s childhood, anyone?), disagrees with itself (how many animals did Noah take on the ark), assumes outlandish happenings (the reluctant prophet Jonah singing songs for three days inside of a fish), and even seems here and there to promote some pretty questionable ethics (genocide comes to mind, or the enslavement of persons).
What I didn’t fully appreciate until quite late in the process is that understanding the first category of strangeness – understanding how the Bible as a book is strange – actually equips people to make sense of (or peace with) what’s weird in the Bible. In other words, understanding the first is itself a tool for the second.
Here’s what I mean, by way of a case study. Read the first few pages of the Bible – any Bible. Yours probably has books, chapters, and verses. The first few pages will take you through Genesis chapter three. Go ahead.
Done? Okay, now close the Bible, and tell me: what is God’s name, or by what moniker does the Bible refer to God? “God,” yes. But also “the LORD God,” right? In the beginning, before God really got cranking on the whole creation thing, was it wet or dry – wet first, dry later; or dry first, waiting for water? Does God speak the world into being from a disembodied out-there; or get down and dirty, walking around, crafting stuff with God’s hands, breathing and conversing, and such? Were men and women created at the same time or at different times? And how about the animals – before or after humans? Is God finally pleased with things, or maybe a little bit miffed? There’s more, of course, more ways those chapters don’t read straight through in a single, consistent or even linear narrative.
Remember, I proposed that by understanding how the Bible as a book is strange, we gain tools that help make sense of what’s strange in it. Well, one of the things that’s strange about the Bible is that it developed over a very long period of time, over centuries. For another thing, it’s a composite – of books, yes, but also of different sources of material within those books; and they come to us in languages few people today are able to read. Yet another strange thing about the Bible is that its collection of literatures is diverse. All of these things (and yet more that make the Bible a strange book to our modern sensibilities) are true in the case of these first few pages of Genesis.
Biblical scholars are confident that within those first few chapters of Genesis is material from at least two different sources – indeed they are two, distinct creation stories. What’s more, those sources likely came from different times and furthermore from different places and they themselves may have undergone revisions in transmission before reaching the forms that we have. To be specific, the first story, the creation of the world in seven days, is probably the later of the two, originating in Babylonia (where flooding was the norm) during a crisis period of exile (sixth century BCE). The other story, the Garden of Eden creation story likely came from earlier times (perhaps by centuries, in some form anyway) in the land of Israel/Canaan (where agriculture required irrigation). And of course it’s important to recognize that the stories themselves are not eyewitness accounts or scientific treatises of planetary origins. (Type of literature affects how we read it – within the Bible as well as in modern texts.) Understanding even these, bare bones facts about the Bible help us to understand why the first three chapters of Genesis don’t conform to modern expectations.
My point is not to poke holes in the Word of God but to make space to reckon with what we’ve really got here. Because another thing that became clearer and clearer to me in working on this book is that the very things that strike us as odd – the Bible’s gaps, disagreements, bewilderments, and even appalling texts – may be its greatest gift. That is, precisely through its strangenesses, the Bible issues an energetic invitation to be in relationship to it, to engage as independent-thinking conversation partners rather than as a passive recipients to one-sided dictates.
I hope that by learning even just a little bit about the Bible, people will recognize how much more there is to know and commit to learning more (more about why scholars concluded these things, more about the Babylonian exile and the conditions of life in “the land,” more about the Bible’s original languages, more about the different types of literatures within the Bible, and more about the process of writing and assembling the texts that came to be the Bible that we hold,…) At the least, I hope that by learning even this little bit, readers might exercise restraint before making absolutist declarations about who God is and what God “says,” especially when some such conclusions weaponize the Bible to despoil the planet, dehumanize the “other,” or promote the kind of arrogant ignorance that just plain hurts.
The Bible is full of the kinds of insights, instruction, and encouragement that make us better – that champion generosity and the quest for wisdom, that offer comfort to the suffering and hope when times are hard. But that’s not all. The ways in which the Bible challenges our expectations of it, confounds us, or even disturbs can also elevate by eliciting energetic engagement (with mind and heart) in relationship to it.