A Controversial Take on the Bible: How Many Gods Are There?

So we’re about halfway through Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation. So far we’ve discussed what it means for Scripture to be of both God and man and what it means for Scripture to be unique—as for this week, we’re looking at diversity in the Bible.

Enns begins with a comparison of Jewish and Christian approaches to the Bible. Quoting a teacher of his, he suggests, “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved. For Christians, it is a message to be proclaimed.” To be sure, for both Scripture is a word from God, but in the Christian approach, tensions are to be harmonized while in the Jewish they are to be explored. Clearly favoring the Jewish perspective, Enns launches into four discussions of diversity: Diversity in Wisdom Literature, Diversity in Chronicles, Diversity in Law, and Diversity and God.

Diversity in Wisdom Literature

If you haven’t heard it before, “Wisdom Literature” refers to those books of poetry in the middle of the Old Testament that reflect on God and the human condition—they include Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon (but we won’t deal with that last one here).

Enns identifies in these books multiple levels of conflict. Beginning in Proverbs he offers the example (among several others) of 26:4 and 26:5:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

The verses immediately contradict each other. Do you answer a fool according to his folly or not? This premier book of wisdom is filled with ideas and slogans, like these, that do not neatly mesh. But Enns is not an idiot, and he doesn’t think the author of Proverbs is either. Instead, he acknowledges that Proverbs is written to require discernment. Readers cannot read its words flatly; they must employ wisdom to glean the wisdom of the book.

In Ecclesiastes, Enns notes similar contradictions as in Proverbs, small issues on the verse-level that require discernment to interpret. However in this darker book of wisdom, we see another level of tension—Ecclesiastes as a whole says something completely different than Proverbs as a whole. Proverbs (and much of the Old Testament) is built around the premise that wisdom works. Yet in Ecclesiastes, the teacher is not so sure; the books suggests that while wisdom is good to a point, ultimately even it fails.

Lastly in the Book of Job, we again see this critique of the other wisdom literature. Proverbs operates under an assumption found in Deuteronomy and most of the books of history, the assumption of retribution theology, that those who are wicked are cursed and those who are cursed have been wicked. Job, through its narrative and the laments of its protagonist, directly defies this belief. And it suggests, instead, that the Bible is just as complex as life is.

Diversity in Chronicles

Building off of this discussion of retribution theology, Enns explains that scholars of the Bible have identified what they call the “Deuteronomistic history.” This title applies to all the books of history in the Old Testament that seem to be written by the same author with the theology of the Book of Deuteronomy in mind: Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings. These books, among other connective themes, are concerned with centralized worship (i.e. worshiping in Jerusalem rather than those other heathen towns) and grading kings based on how well they do that. These histories seem to be written to answer a pressing question for the Israelites while they’re in exile: Why did God abandon us?

In the midst of the destruction of their homes and their being dragged off into captivity, the Israelites reflect on their history and see that this is happening because they did not follow the law, worshiping where they were supposed to worship.

None of this would be terribly remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that most of this history is repeated immediately after it has just been presented. As soon as you finish the last verse of the Book of Kings, you turn the page to Chronicles and find it written all over again. Except this time, it’s just a little bit different.

That difference you might detect while reading the Book of Chronicles is not just because it was written many years afterward; it is because it is trying to answer a new question: Are we still God’s people?

Chronicles answers this question through the development of some distinctive themes and emphases: it diminishes the sin of David; it emphasizes the unity of the people (completely skipping over the Civil War); it emphasizes the temple; and it emphasizes “immediate retribution” (i.e. that you’re only punished for your sin rather than your ancestors’ sin). Chronicles gives everything a positive spin and encourages the Israelites returning from exile to try again.

Because these histories are answering different questions, they present different histories. They’re slightly different, but they’re different nonetheless. And the Bible seems to be OK with that.

Diversity in Law

Enns next turns to the Law. For him, this is the place where you would least expect there to be any differences, any contradictions. This is the law delivered from heaven that separates the Israelites from all the other peoples.

But as I’m sure you guessed, he finds some differences. Looking first at the Ten Commandments, the foremost of Israel’s law, he compares its presentation in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. The two versions look basically the same, nothing of real consequence is different, but they are still different (namely commandments four, five, and ten). A longer discussion could be had for why these commandments are different, but on the base level of the story, it appears that Moses is misquoting the commandments when he recites them to the people forty years later.

Enns gives a few more, certainly not exhaustive, examples: the laws surrounding slavery are different in Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15 (as well as Leviticus though he doesn’t discuss that); conflicting instructions are given for preparing the Passover lamb—boiling versus roasting (and the NIV translates both words as roasting to avoid confusion); and over the scope of the Old (and New) Testament there is considerable disagreement regarding the practice of sacrifice.

He ends this section with a discussion of Gentiles. In the Deuteronomy 23 and elsewhere, gentiles (specifically Moabites) are rejected from Israel as being unclean. Yet in other books, they are accepted (see Ruth the Moabite). Enns is careful to acknowledge that we understand what is happening. By looking over the entire scope of Judaism and even Christianity, we know what the end goal is—to bring all people in. But in Deuteronomy that is not the case; at the face value of the statements, which is what we are interpreting, we don’t have the whole spectrum in mind.

Diversity and God

Enns’s final section deals with the diverse portrayal of God in the Bible. Representing the popular scholarly consensus, Enns claims that most of the Old Testament is not truly monotheistic. For those of us who hold monotheism as the central claim of Scripture, this can be shocking. Enns explains his point by again looking at the Ten Commandments:

You shall have no other gods before me.

It is important to note that the first commandment does not state that there are no other gods besides Yahweh; rather it demands that no other God be worshipped over Yahweh. It’s also important to note that the first commandment would have made sense to its original audience, so it’s silly to claim that the Israelites just would have known how to interpret the verse.

According to Enns, what we see in most of the Old Testament is actually something called “henotheism” (one god is above all other gods) or “monolatry” (only one god is worshiped) rather than pure monotheism. This is why in the Hebrew Bible we get epithets like “God of gods” and we see God speak in the plural, mirroring the ancient belief in a divine council.

Now, undoubtedly, this view changes over the course of Israel’s history. They begin in Egypt where God must show them he is greater than the gods of the Egyptians through the ten plagues, but then they move into the Promised Land and they are still tempted to follow after other gods even though they know they’re only supposed to worship their god. It is not until later with the prophets (think Elijah and Isaiah) that we start to see the concept of other gods begin to be mocked. Again, we understand the reality of things better from our position, but these statements at face value do not.

Enns ends this section with a discussion of God changing his mind. We see this more in the Old than in the New Testament, but it can be found in both. In the Bible, God is seen as, what is often called, anthropomorphized—displaying the attributes of humans. God reacts, is surprised, makes decisions out of passion and is later talked out of them. This is not the monolithic God of Plato or later Christian religion, this is a God of diverse human emotion.

Section Break

So what is the point of all this for Enns? He believes that we are too defensive when reading Scripture, too quick to smooth over the tensions. He thinks we need to deal more sympathetically with these issues.

Now, it’s worth noting that Enns also recommends that we have a safe starting point, that we start by confessing Scripture as God’s word and that we’re not taking that off the table in this discussion. But from there, we build.

We realize that there is a unity to Scripture, but it is not superficial unity. It is a deep unity in its desire to see God, but the surface level is far more complex.

Enns again returns to his discussion of inspiration and incarnation as Christ for our model of how God communicates to humanity. He states, “The Bible is God’s word in written form; Christ is God’s word in human form.” He’ll continue to press that claim in the next-to-last chapter.

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