The Bible is (mostly) a book for grown-ups

While I disagree with much of what she sayabout the Bible and theology in the opening paragraphs of this HuffPost piece, I mostly liked Yale religious studies professor Christine Hayes’s “five common misconceptions about the Bible.”

She overstates misconception #5. No surprise there: anyone who refers to the God of Christianity as “the god of western theological speculation” is obviously prone to overstatement. (It would come as a surprise to our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, among others, that the triune God of the Nicene Creed is a product of western theological reflection!)

She writes, “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.” Really? Beware of any Bible scholar who uses the word “simply not,” because you can be sure that what he or she is saying is highly disputed and far from simple. Little about the Bible is simple—and isn’t that the main point of her blog post? Oh, well…

Needless to say, at times Yahweh possesses the attributes of omniscience and immutability (among others). The Old Testament speaks with multiple voices on the subject of God and God’s attributes, and it is the legitimate task of theology to synthesize or make sense of these voices.

Still, I strongly agree with her misconception #4—that the stories of the Old Testament are “pious parables about saints” or “G-rated tales easily understood by children.” They are, instead,

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.

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