Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L 3G6
The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)
Many undergraduate students enrolled at Christian colleges and universities come into the requisite introductory Bible course with the belief that everything in the Bible, or almost everything, happened more or less as the Bible says it did. They are convinced there really was a worldwide flood, Egypt actually did suffer ten devastating plagues at the hands of God, and the walls of Jericho quite literally came crashing down after the Israelites circled the city seven times. In fact, virtually all the well-known Old Testament stories are regarded as “true” stories about real people and historical events. While they might allow for the possibility of some embellishment, and may even regard a few stories as more parabolic than historical, by and large they believe the OT contains an accurate rendering of Israel’s past.
Many factors contribute to this view of the OT. The notion that these stories are historical accounts of what actually happened is often implied by sermons, Sunday school curriculum, and a wide assortment of books, videos, and DVDs that give this impression. Our modern expectations and assumptions about history writing also contribute to this view. Today, we put a premium on historical reliability and expect a wide range of materials – history books, biographies, and newspapers – to include reasonably accurate stories about real people, places, and events. Many people expect no less of the Bible, assuming that similar standards for writing history existed then as do now.2 Expectations about the historical nature of the Bible are also reinforced by claims scholars make. When OT scholar Tremper Longman declares that “the events of the Bible are as real as what happened to you today,” many readers instinctively agree.3
Additionally, this confidence in the Bible’s historical reliability is supported by the belief that the Bible is divinely inspired. Since many conservative students believe God is the source of the Bible, and thus its ultimate “author,” they see no reason to question its trustworthiness. If God stands behind the writing of these stories, why question whether they report “what actually happened”? Certainly, they reason, God would not allow people to write things that were not “true.”
The cumulative effect of all these factors has a profound impact upon the way students view the Bible and makes it easy to understand why so many confidently believe the OT is a reliable record of the past. They are convinced the Bible is historically accurate because that is what they have been taught to believe or – at the very least – have always assumed. This results in a deeply held conviction at the core of their beliefs. Many theologically conservative students have never seriously questioned the validity of this belief or been introduced to alternate ways of understanding the biblical text. Understandably, they hesitate to relinquish this core conviction and often feel threatened when alternate perspectives are proposed.
For many students, the first real challenge to this view comes in the college classroom. Many professors who teach biblical studies do not share their students’ views about the historicity of various portions of the Bible. On the contrary, they regard such views as ill-informed and even potentially dangerous.
Those who assume everything in the Bible actually happened are often unaware of the potential dangers of maintaining this view. For example, insisting all the stories are historically reliable jeopardizes the Bible’s credibility. Some of the most embarrassing moments in the history of the church have been those in which Christians have publicly attempted to “defend” the Bible’s accuracy. One need only recall the humiliating performance of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial as case in point.4
Another significant problem resulting from assumptions about the Bible’s essential historicity is the view of God it fosters. These assumptions create severe difficulties for those wishing to use the Bible theologically, as a resource for understanding who God is and how God acts in the world. When certain texts are read as an account of what actually happened, the picture of God that emerges is deeply disturbing. Take, for instance, the divine command to exterminate the Amalekites in 1 Sam. 15:2-3. Here, the prophet Samuel reportedly relays a divine message to King Saul:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”5
For those who take this divine directive as historical fact, it follows that the annihilation of the Amalekites was the will of God. As such, it reveals at least four highly troubling propositions about God: 1) God sometimes commissions and sanctions genocide, 2) God sometimes punishes people by commanding other people to kill them, 3) God sometimes punishes one group of people for the sins of another group, and 4) God sometimes demands the death of people who apparently have little or no opportunity to repent.
These “truths” necessarily follow when reading the divine command as historical fact. But does this picture accurately represent the true nature and character of God? If so, it is certainly not the God many Christians today worship. Insisting that this narrative portrays what actually happened creates serious theological problems that are difficult to overcome.6
What are we as educators to do? How can we help students think more critically about the nature of the Bible? How can we raise the historical question without unnecessarily raising their defenses? I would like to offer five pedagogical strategies – suggestions, really – designed to enable educators to help theologically conservative students wrestle with this issue more constructively. Although my comments are especially geared toward how to raise this issue when discussing OT narratives, the approach applies to the entire Bible. In what follows, I will use the book of Jonah to illustrate how the suggested strategies might be deployed.
On the last day of summer, ten hours before fall, my grandfather took me out to the Wall. For a while we stood silent, and finally he said with a very sad shake of his very old head: “As you know, on this side of the Wall, we are Yooks. On the far other side of this Wall live the Zooks. And the things that you’ve heard about Zooks are all true, that terribly horrible thing that they do. And at every Zook house, and in every Zook town, every Zook eats his bread (shudder) with the butter side down!”
This little book is a series of surprises; it is crammed with an accumulation of hair-raising and eye-popping phenomena, one after the other. The violent seastorm, the submarinelike fish in which Jonah survives as he composes a song, the mass conversion in Nineveh, the magic plant – these are not commonplace features of OT prophetic narratives. While one or two exciting events would raise no question, the bombardment of the reader with surprise after surprise in a provocative manner suggests that the author’s intention is other than simply to describe historical facts.13
Although the five pedagogical strategies described above are no guarantee that theologically conservative students will happily engage critical questions about the historicity of OT stories, implementing these strategies should help reduce obstacles standing in their way. In addition to enabling us to demonstrate our firm commitment to Scripture, they prevent us from unnecessarily raising defenses that may keep students from seriously entertaining these ideas. Utilizing these strategies should help us facilitate this conversation in ways that encourage openness to perspectives that many students initially find quite threatening.
Still, at the end of the day, some students will inevitably feel a sense of disappointment and loss upon hearing that stories they believed to be historically accurate may not have happened. Such feelings are probably unavoidable. But, we may hope, if they can talk about this in a supportive environment, one that encourages honest inquiry and dialogue and is not hostile to the Christian faith, they will be able to consider alternative possibilities.
As we teach, we should keep in mind that students are on an intellectual journey that does not proceed at any set pace. While some may be ready to make shifts in their thinking by the end of the semester, others will require much more time. Some may need to hear these ideas multiple times in different contexts before they are ready to entertain them seriously. We should not be discouraged by this. Rather, we should see our job as being one step in a much larger process. Our task is to equip students to grapple with this topic responsibly and to help them have a positive encounter with the issues at hand. If we are able to do that, we have succeeded in raising the historical question without alienating them. Regardless of where they come out on the question at the end of the term, we can rest assured that our time and effort have been well spent.
* Adapted from Eric Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009). Reproduced by special permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers. This is a revised version of a paper I read at the 38th Annual Meeting of the Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society at Perrysville, OH, April 3, 2008.
2 These same expectations would not have been shared by our pre-modern counterparts. They had quite different expectations when reading and writing texts that utilized the past. For a general orientation to ancient Israelite historiography, see the helpful collection of essays in V. Philips Long, ed., Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999).
3 Tremper Longman III, Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), 101, emphasis in original.
4 For an excellent treatment of this event, see Edward J. Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
5 All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
6 For an extensive discussion of this issue, see my Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).
7 Dr. Seuss, The Butter Battle Book, video, directed by Ralph Bakshi (1989; Atlanta: Turner Pictures, 1995). I am indebted to Dr. Terry L. Brensinger for introducing me to this delightful pedagogical tool, which he used similarly in some of his classes.
8 Ronald S. Hendel, “The Search for Noah’s Flood,” Bible Review 19.3 (2003): 8.
9 John Barton, How the Bible Came to Be (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 32.
10 For attempts to defend the historicity of Jonah, see, e.g., T. Desmond Alexander, “Jonah: An Introduction and Commentary,” in T. Desmond Alexander, David W. Baker, and Bruce K. Waltke, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 69-77, and Douglas Stuart, Hosea-Jonah, WBC 31 (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 440-42. For a discussion of Jonah as something other than historical narrative, see Leslie C. Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 175-81, and Jack M. Sasson, Jonah: A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Interpretations (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 327-40.
11 There are no Hebrew words in the OT referring to specific species of fish. In the book of Jonah, this creature is generically referred to as “a great fish.”
12 For details about the size of Nineveh discussed in this paragraph, see Allen, The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 221.
13 Ibid., 176, emphasis mine.
14 Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism: Context, Method, and the Book of Jonah (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 224.
15 The story is conveniently located in Edward B. Davis, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 225-26.
16 Davis, “A Whale of a Tale,” 224-37. Some of the evidence that mitigates against the authenticity of this account includes the following: the absence of James Bartley on the voyage in question (233); the facts that the Star of the East was not a whaling ship and that British whalers didn’t fish off the Falklands in 1891 (233), and the personal testimony of the captain’s widow, who said, “There is not one word of truth in the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her” (232).
17 Argued, for example, by Alexander, “Jonah,” 57-58.
18 Obviously, this is difficult to do if you are teaching a class on the Pentateuch. Such a discussion can hardly wait until the end of the term!
19 Terry Brensinger, “Easing the Pain: Biblical Criticism and Undergraduate Students,” CCCU New Faculty Workshop, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, 2004. http://22.214.171.124/resourcecenter/printerfriendly.asp?resID=888 (accessed 12/7/09)
20 Ibid., under the heading “D: Malleability.”
Eric A. Seibert is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON, Canada, N2L 3G6