The Bible elicits strong emotions for almost everyone. For some, it fosters feelings of awe, reverence, and devotion. For others it brings feelings of shame, harm, and spiritual abuse.
After all, the Bible has inspired great acts of love through people like St. Francis, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But it has also inspired acts of hatred and genocide, like the crusades, witch hunts, slavery, and Christian supercessionism.
I love the Bible. That’s why I wrote an introductory ebook exploring why I love this ancient book, but also why we need to unlearn so much that we’ve been taught about it. Here are three things that I have unlearned about the Bible that have helped me on my spiritual journey. Unlearning these things has given me a richer and deeper understanding of the Bible than what I had before. I hope they help you, too!
1. The Bible Is the Word of God.
The Bible is not the Word of God. This has been the most important thing that I’ve had to unlearn about the Bible. This concept has been used to harm so many people. I frequently see it on social media from Christians who claim they don’t pick and choose Bible passages, but they pick and choose Bible passages to accuse others of living a “sinful lifestyle” because the “Word of God” says so.
If the Bible were the Word of God, you would think that it would explicitly tell us. But the Bible never calls itself the Word of God. It says that the “word is a lamp unto my feet” (Psalm 119:105). In that case, the Word of God is a lamp, or light, but it’s not a book. The Bible also says that the word of the Lord came to certain prophets who spoke the word of the Lord. But that’s not saying that the Word of God is a book. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that all scripture is God breathed, but that’s not saying the Bible is the Word of God. And do you know who else was God breathed? Adam, the first man, was God breathed, and it’s pretty clear that he didn’t always get things right!
John chapter 1 does talk specifically about the Word of God. It says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh.”
The Bible doesn’t say that the Word of God became a book. It does say that the Word of God became flesh. Jesus is the Word of God. Christians are not People of the Book. We are People of the Flesh. Jesus is our concrete revelation of who God is.
All four Gospels refer to Jesus as the “Son of God.” That phrase is complicated and means many different things to different people. But “Son of God” at least means this: if you want to know what the Father is like, look at the Son. The Son is the full representation of the Father. The four Gospels differ on some details, but they all agree on this: If you want to know what God is like, don’t look primarily to certain passages in the Bible. Rather, look primarily to Jesus.
2. Old Testament God is Wrathful. The New Testament God is Love.
There is a lot of violence in the Old Testament. In fact, if it were made into a movie, it would be rated NC-17 for violence, nudity, and sex. And God is implicated in much of it.
But the God of the Old Testament is the same God of love as the God of the New Testament.
Rene Girard calls the Bible “a text in travail.” The Bible is like a mother in labor, soon to give birth to something new in the world. When it comes to the Bible, it is laboring to give us a new understanding of God. The authors of the Bible lived in a violent world of wars, revenge, and oppression (more on that in number 3), and that violence infects much of our understanding of God.
Here’s one example. Throughout most of human history, whenever we’ve experienced droughts, famines, defeat in war, and internal strife we’ve thought it was because the gods were mad at us. And so we had to do something to appease the gods and get them back on our side.
And we had to sacrifice the thing that was most important to us. In a patriarchal culture (more on that in number 3, too!), the most important thing was probably your first-born son. Many cultures practiced child sacrifice because of these reasons.
Even the Hebrews practiced child sacrifice. Exodus 22:29 even seems to require it, “You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and you sheep: for seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.”
Many Christians will explain this passage away by saying that the firstborn would be dedicated to God as a priest or teacher, but that’s not what the text says. It says that the firstborn would be given to God in the same way you give your oxen and sheep to god, that is, through sacrifice.
But, as Girard teaches, the Bible is a text in travail. It has elements of child sacrifice because that was a human projection of our own need for violence onto God. Here’s what is important to know: The Word of God that Christians see manifested in Jesus emerges through the violent stories in the Bible.
For example, there’s a story in Genesis 22 about a man named Abraham and his son Isaac. It’s not a story you should ever read to your children. In fact, you should probably hold off on reading this one until you are 40-50 years old. It’s pretty violent and traumatic, but it also reveals what Girard meant by the Bible being a text in travail.
God, whose name a the beginning of the story is Elohim, calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on top of a mountain. Abraham hikes up the mountain with Isaac and puts him on a sacrificial altar. Abraham lifts up his dagger to kill Isaac and then God, whose name changes to YHWH, aka, “an angel of the Lord,” stops Abraham just in time to save Isaac’s life from this horrible idea.
It’s easy to miss the change that I’ve made explicit here in God’s name if you read Genesis 22 straight through, but this story is fundamentally about a change in our understanding of God. In the beginning of the story, “Elohim” tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Elohim is a generic word in the ancient Middle East that literally means “gods.” But it’s the specific God of the Jewish people, YHWH, who stops the sacrifice from occurring. That’s because humans used to think the gods wanted child sacrifice, but we’ve had a revelation from the true God. This new understanding of God is teased out in the Bible and is ultimately revealed in the prophet Hosea who says that God “desires mercy not sacrifice.”
3. The Bible Was Written by Powerful Men
I often hear two conflicting messages. First, the Bible was written by powerful men who subjugated women and owned slaves, so why should we pay any attention to the Bible?
The second message is that the Bible was written by a bunch of clueless and weak bronze age goat herders, so why should we pay attention to the Bible?
So which is it? Was the Bible written by powerful men or by a bunch of powerless goat herders?
The Bible was written largely by men, which means that it mostly represents a male perspective. And yet women play a crucial role throughout the Bible. In fact, there would be no Israel without Sarah, who gave birth in her old age. There would be no Moses without Miriam’s quick thinking to save his life. There would be no King David without a Moabite woman named Ruth. There would be no Jewish people without Esther, who saved the Jewish people from annihilation. And there would be no Jesus without Mary saying “yes” to God. Women are essential to the story that runs throughout the Bible. In fact, according to the Bible, without these women and their bold actions, there would be no Bible, no Judaism, and no Christianity.
But just as important, the Bible was written by a bunch of losers. Sorry if that sounds mean. But it’s true. And it’s one of the most important things about the Bible. Here’s why it matters: You’ve heard that history is written by the winners. That’s true, except when it comes to the Bible.
The Bible was written by people who were oppressed or conquered by the Egyptian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Greek Empire, and the Roman Empire.
These people were conquered by empire after empire. And we get to hear their story in the Bible.
And how would you feel if your people were constantly defeated by other nations? In your most honest moments, you might be bitter. You might want revenge. You might pray, as the psalmist prays, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)
But you might also move beyond a desire for revenge. And to do that, you have to move through your pain, disappointment, and trauma. That’s what the Bible models for us.
The prophet Jeremiah is known as the “Weeping Prophet.” He lived during one of the most traumatic moments in Jewish history – the Babylonian Exile. He saw Jerusalem conquered and he and his neighbors were sent into exile throughout Babylon or Egypt.
Tradition tells us that Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations. It’s bursting with all the raw emotions you might expect after such a catastrophe. But as Jeremiah works through his anger and despair, his sense of being abandoned and betrayed by God, he comes to this in chapter 3:22-23, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” The Bible was written by the losers of human history. They were raw and honest about their losses, grief, and resentments. What was true for them is also true for us: it is only by expressing our raw emotions that we are able to manage them and to see hope beyond them.
Unlearning Leads to Learning
These are three things I’ve had to unlearn about the Bible. I’m still unlearning many things. And with that unlearning, I’m learning many more things as I read the Bible. This process has given me a much deeper and more meaningful understanding of the Bible and how God works through the words of fallible humans (like me and you) to bring more love and justice in the world, even through hardships.