The Genesis of Scripture (Part 1): The Words of Men

There was a time when the Bible was not.

Can we all agree on that?  Sometimes I wonder whether we forget that when the LORD appeared to Abram, he did not have a Bible to learn about God.  When Moses was sent to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he had no external text to hand to his weary brothers and sisters.  He wasn’t able to plop down Genesis and say, “Here.  This explains everything.”  The people followed Moses out of Egypt, through the parted sea, and into the wilderness on the basis of a name: Yahweh (“I Am”).  They trusted that this Yahweh was the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–men they only knew about through tradition and folklore.

When they got into the wilderness, they needed to know more about the God who had just wrought a mighty salvation to an insignificant people.  Their worldview needed to be completely reset.  For four hundred years they had been trained to acknowledge the power and control of the Egyptian gods over the universe.  Through the ten plagues, Yahweh strategically embarrassed every god they once honored.  Everything they thought they knew was now completely turned upside down.  This God of their forefather Abraham was intent on establishing a covenant with a band of freed slaves.  However, they didn’t know anything about Him.

How then did the first books of the Bible come into existence?  Was it Moses or another group of individuals who took initiative in writing Genesis and the first books of the Bible?  Should we approach the Bible as first and foremost the work of men?

It’s Man’s Word.

To the non-believing community, this question is a no-brainer.  Of course the Bible is the work of men–merely the work of men.  In his song “To All the Lights in the Windows”, Conor Oberst sings, “Moses up on the mountainside–what a place to meet.  He brought his pad and his pencil, poured himself some gypsy tea.  And all the world’s multiplicity had turned his brain and his soul to stone. He drew his face on a tablet and carried it back home.”  To Oberst and others, the Bible is merely an expression of what Moses and other religious leaders believed about God.  Genesis, Exodus, and the whole lot are the attempt of leaders to force religious beliefs on the populace under the guise of “divine inspiration”.

This jaded approach to the Bible allows for critical engagement with the text, studying the beliefs of ‘primitive’ men in an age of superstition and carnage, but it does not acknowledge much spiritual value in the text of the Bible–especially the Old Testament.  It is treated as a mythical chronicle of an archaic and backward people.  It is a historical record of no greater spiritual value than those from other cultures like the Greeks’ Iliad or Bablyonians’ Enuma Elish.

It’s Man’s Word about God.

There is also a faction of the Christian community who insist the only way to properly understand Scripture is by first entering into the books of the Bible as the works of men; once we see the imperfections and the strivings of men seeking to comprehend God, then we come to knowledge of God through their sometimes ignorant and misguided gropings toward the Divine.

science_Caroline-NormanProponents of this view encourage us to enter into the evolution of mankind’s understanding of God.  We become the latest chapter in the continual development of spiritual enlightenment.  As we read the books of the Bible, we identify with the characters and authors as they struggle to comprehend who God is, and we continue their effort in seeking to know God better.

On the surface, this sounds very open-minded.  It fits the progressive and tolerant mood of today’s culture, but for the following reasons we must find it wanting:

chronological snobbery.

This view inevitably falls into the trap of chronological snobbery.  As one reads the Old Testament from this perspective, the constant commentary becomes: “How quaint!  They used to believe the world was created in seven days.  Isn’t that sweet?”  “Oh, look at how these people used to think God wanted sacrifices and blood all of the time.  Isn’t that so cute?”  “They actually believed in people being swallowed by a whale.  Awww!”

Just because men didn’t have IPads and smartphones does not mean they were illogical or stupid.  In a generation that has been told that anything can be conquered by science in the span of ten years, we have come to think that we are somehow more intelligent than people who lived 3,000 years ago.  That is patently false.  If you approach the Bible with the perspective that you are smarter by leaps and bounds than the writers of Scripture, you need to take a big bite of humble pie.  Your perspective will become a stumbling block to you in interpreting the words of Scripture.

I believe it is written somewhere that “pride goeth before a fall” [citation pending].  The truth is, when you really sit down and read the Bible, the characters of Scripture are not below us.  We are just like them.  The entire book of Ecclesiastes was written to contradict the notion that we are somehow beyond the problems, sins, and unbelief of past cultures.  There is nothing new under the sun.  We are more like the characters of Scripture than we would ever like to believe.

man is the initiator.

This view sees men as the ones taking the initiative in seeking to understand God.  Men wrote the Scriptures as part of their journey toward God.  As I will argue in tomorrow’s post, this is not the testimony of the Bible about itself.  The Scripture is full of a proactive God and a passive and rebellious people.  God is the one in continual pursuit, not man.  If this camp wants to claim that the Bible has value in communicating truth, they have to be willing to listen to what the Bible’s testimony about itself.  The testimony of the text points not to man as the initiator in writing the Bible, but to God.

the word is flawed.

The premise of this perspective is that through the thousands of years of man’s existence, we have moved from a primitive and deeply flawed view of God to a more evolved and enlightened view.  Animal sacrifice slowly gave way to mercy and love.  Genocide slowly gave way to international tolerance.  Oppressive societal constructs slowly gave way to gender egalitarianism.  The problem in their view is that the men who wrote the older parts of the Bible had not yet come to fuller knowledge of God, and thus wrote books that advocated a religion that still needed further evolution.  As each author moved beyond his predecessors, he corrected the errors of the past and took fallibly shaky steps toward a better understanding of God.

In all of this, there is open admission of errors and flaws in the books of the Bible.  “But the flaws and false truths are not the point,” they claim.  “The point is to see how the people of God are on a journey toward a better understanding of God.”  We as readers of Scripture are encouraged to look beyond the archaism and ignorance of those who went before, to see the progress they were making, and to allow that propel us even further in our understanding of God.

This sounds great…but we just admitted there were many errors, flaws, half-truths, and blatant misconceptions in the Bible.  Are you comfortable with building your foundation of belief on that kind of a book?  Is that hermeneutic even a sustainable rubric for interpretation?

the main character is upstaged.

This is a common problem with humanity: we think everything is about us.  When we make the Bible primarily the word of men, we upstage the main character of Scripture: God.  This view acknowledges the fact that God is the primary goal of the characters and writers of Scripture, but the emphasis is on the journey of men and women, their discoveries, and their notions about belief.

God’s people are presented as salmon swimming upstream.  The Bible is a picture of each individual making their best leap up the waterfall.  Some make progress, others flop back downstream, others propel themselves beyond the rocks and into the next set of ascending pools.  We are encouraged to treasure the efforts of those who leaped before us, seeing their attempts in the books they left behind for us.

Unfortunately, the unifying theme of the Bible is not mankind’s attempts at knowing God, but God’s continual effort to make Himself known to mankind.  It is true that God’s revelation was done little by little.  But in Scripture what we witness is not the gradual improvement of God’s people.  No, we see a people in the Old Testament who continually break the covenant, while a remnant few actually express belief and trust in God.  The Old Testament is primarily concerned with what God will do with this unfaithful people.  The New Testament shows us what God had planned all along: to send his faithful Son to redeem his unfaithful people.  The Bible is about first about God, and second about man, and this view denies that truth.

Conclusion (for now)

Tomorrow, in Part 2 we will investigate a third option: The Bible is God’s Word through Man.  We will look at how the Bible describes the origins of the first written words of Scripture in Exodus.  We will consider what the apostles have to say about how the Bible came into existence, and we will investigate further why it is essential to believe that God himself initiated the writing of Scripture rather than man.

(photo credit)

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