Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It

For the last decade Pete Enns has foddered the flames of Evangelical controversy with his theology of biblical interpretation. In many ways, I am grateful for the example of a scholar who holds to the inspiration and authority of scripture, while at the same time holding some of our most cherished Evangelical propositions up to the light of those same scriptures.

It is inspiring, as well, to see a scholar stand up for his convictions, even when they hurt his personal and professional life. For all the ways in which I may disagree with Enns, I believe his voice is a valuable and needed one. And his example is one we all have a lot to learn from.

His latest log in the fire of controversy is his book, The Bible Tells Me So: How Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Though written on a lay level, The Bible Tells Me So is hardly at the level of Your Best Life Now. It is not, nevertheless, a scholar’s book. Reflective lay people and beginning Bible students appear to be the audience of this text.

For me, as a pastor, Enns’s lay-orientation means this book – even when I disagree with Enns’s arguments – provides a great model for how to communicate the complexities of biblical interpretation on a popular level. I’m always looking for ways to help people access the scriptures and Enns makes a valiant effort in this direction.

Of course, the point of this book lies in providing Bible readers with an alternative interpretive scheme not laden with Fundamentalist assumptions. By-and-large Enns accomplishes this goal, showing throughout his text that Scripture is not a rule book, nor is it an objective history text, nor did the writers of scripture exist in a historical vacuum.

Even more importantly, Enns deals nicely with the “contradictions” in scripture. He does not take the critical and dismissive route of saying, “There are contradictions in the Bible, therefore the Bible must not be true.” Nor does he take the Fundamentalist route and say, “There are no contradictions in the Bible, so we must find a way to force everything into a nice clean package.”

Rather, Enns lets each text speak for itself, even while placing them within a canonical context. Arguing that each text is inspired, and written specifically for a certain historical audience, the kinds of things a given audience may need to hear might appear contradictory with other biblical texts.

For example, Enns examines the differences between Chronicles and Kings and shows why the “contradictions”  between the two matter to the overall message of each given book, and therefore these books should not be forced to conform to each other, but taken on their own merits. Each book speaks for itself. Each has a place in the canon of scripture (Chronicles, actually, at the end of the OT). And each spoke to a given audience in a particular time and social atmosphere.


The so-called “contradictions” are not unknown to God. God inspired them.

Enns goes on to argue in the exact same way with his discussion of the four gospels. The “contradictions” between the gospels have been noted for nearly 2,000 years. The only reason these contradictions should be a problem for anyone is if you don’t understand that these texts can still be inspired by God and yet also speak to and be reflective of real human experience.

This is, indeed, the scandalous nature of the Bible: It is not the Koran. We do not believe the Bible is the very words of God, written by God, and handed to a prophet exactly as-is.

Rather, we believe the Bible is a product of human writers who wrote as they were moved along and inspired by God. There is a necessary human component to the Bible. And this human component shines through in the messy and beautiful aspects of scripture. Therefore, this humanness ought to be embraced and celebrated. God uses human language, experience, history, weakness, and even mishaps to communicate his enduring message.

Now, with all of that said, and having shown that I agree with much of what Enns is trying to do in this work, here is the significant place where I disagree:

The Canaanite Conquests

Let me say before I begin this section that many of Enns’s secondary arguments in this chapter are spot-on. When it comes to the conquest stories in Joshua and Judges, the fact is, Christians have taken far too calloused a view on the subject, and we’ve often settled for answers that are too easy in an attempt to preserve the dignity of scripture, as we define “dignity.”

Further, Enns does a great job of showing how complicated biblical interpretation can be: how it should be compared with similar ancient texts from the same period and geographic location, how a given text is written from a certain historical perspective, how archeological evidence helps  or hinders our biblical interpretation, how our modern assumptions sometimes get in the way of truly understanding these ancient texts, and how it may be possible to read a given story as “not historical,” yet at the same time understand it as “inspired” and “God-breathed.”

Holding these tensions together is difficult, and I commend Enns’s effort.

Now, with all that praise in place, this is the segment of his book where I find myself find myself in disagreement. Enns argues that the Canaanite Genocide narratives – particularly in Joshua – convey a specifically ancient and tribal understanding of God that later texts (particularly the gospels) overturn. Enns does not criticize Joshua or the writer of Joshua in a cynical way. Rather, he argues that these stories do have a valuable place in scripture, but that they should be understood differently than many conservative Christians understand them.

In short, Enns argues that God was working with a tribal people who only had a tribal, warfare-worldview available to them. For Enns, it is completely understandable, then, why the God they describe in these texts is a tribal, warfare deity.

Enns goes on to show that, by the time we get to Jesus (who is the full expression of divine will), we see a completely different perspective on the Canaanites. It was Jesus, after all, who healed the “Canaanite woman” (there were no, real, ethnic Canaanites in the time of Jesus – this title is Matthew’s way of communicating a theological truth) in order to show God’s true affection for the Canaanites.


Combine the gospel evidence with the fact that there is little to no archeological evidence for a violent conquest of Canaan by the ancient Israelites, and Enns argues that the Canaanite conquest is probably not a historical event.

Again, for Enns, these stories are inspired by God, but they are not historical. They are valuable in that they reveal the people of God trying to wrestle with the nature of God, given the cultural categories that were available to them. For Enns, this is a good thing.

But I’m not sure I can follow him to his conclusion.

Honestly, I’d like to just “do away” with parts of scripture that seem to contradict my understanding of God. Really. I would. When I’m being honest, there are parts of God that just offend me.

But that doesn’t mean I get to redefine those parts of God.

I say that full-well understanding that Enns’s argument is more complicated than, “I don’t like the view of God presented in Joshua, so Joshua must not be historical.” And I respect that argument. I don’t think he’s not a Christian because I disagree.

But here’s my problem with where this argument leads us:

First, A historically situated writer doesn’t invalidate that writer’s theology.

Yes, the writers and readers of Joshua were ancient tribal peoples. And this fact needs to be understood in order to understand this text. But God teaches us both because of an in spite of their tribalistic, warfare worldview.

More importantly, I think the argument could be turned around this way: If people’s understanding of God are to be invalidated simply because of their own historical perspective, then by all means, let’s reject my understanding of God, and Enns’ understanding of God. At least the democracy of tradition has confirmed and affirmed the theological testimony of Joshua. My theology is flimsy and tentative compared to his.

Enns attempts to preserve the biblical writer’s dignity and process (situated as these both are), but invalidate the writer’s conclusion. I’m not sure this is either necessary or desirable.

Second, even if we agree with Enns that Joshua is not primarily intended to be a historical book, that then places an even greater emphasis on understanding the theology of the text.

The theology of the text matters even more if the historical aspects are to be set aside. The theology of the text is, in fact, the only thing that matters in this scenario. If we do away with the text’s historicity and its theology, then there is no purpose for Joshua’s existence within the canon except as an antiquated museum piece meant to be looked at, but certainly not touched or used. 

Third, if the theology of Joshua should merely be understood, but not adopted,  what else in the Bible must be merely understood but not adopted?

I understand this is more of a “slippery-slope” kind of question. But the stories of the Canaanite conquest are not the only violent texts in the Bible. Yes, they are some of the most extreme, but throughout the prophets, Kings, Chronicles, Torah, etc. we run against the grain of numerous narratives if we say, “God wouldn’t act the way he acted in Joshua.” God destroys the entire world in the Flood narrative (even if you read it as non-historical, the theology is still the same). God kills Onan for far less than the idolatries of the Canaanites. God’s spirit falls on the judges (who are morally ambiguous at best) and the kings of Israel to defend the land and the people. The prophets pronounce unapologetic doom and destruction on Israel and the gentile nations. Even Jesus announces eschatological judgment on unrepentant oppressors and the wicked.

Maybe the Canaanites weren’t worse than others in the area. Maybe their main problem was simply their geographic location. But that God doesn’t destroy everyone else may merely be because of his mercy. After all, he gave the Canaanites over 400 years, according to Genesis 17, to turn things around. Not to be calloused, but could it be that the more surprising thing is that God let people who sacrifice their children to idols live that long without consequences?

Fourth, the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman doesn’t undo the Conquest stories.

The difference between the texts is clear. When Jesus has the conversation with the Canaanite woman, she is a person who recognizes her need for him. She argues with him, yes, but she is ultimately there as a person who recognizes his identity.

This is not the case, by-and-large, when Israel goes into Canaan. This is a group of people who do not recognize the God of Israel, neither do they know his character. They are not largely interested (with the exception of Rahab) in the God of Israel’s claim on the land, nor that this land is the place from which God will restore Eden.

Further, the point must also be made that these nations are probably vassals of Egpyt. The Canaanite conquest stories are likely a continuation of the Exodus narrative.

In other words, whereas the Canaanite woman in Matthew is a person in need, the Canaanites in Joshua are not pliable souls looking to Yahweh to meet their needs, ready to repent, and willing to turn from their injustices. Yes, of course the main point is where they sinned, not just that they sinned. Yes, of course, they are comparatively equal sinners with the nations around them. But my point is, with the exception of Rahab, there is little in Joshua that reveals a people willing to turn to Yahweh.

These four previous points lead me to my final thought…

Fifth, I think assumed his conclusion before he started.

peter enns

That is, I think Enns was uncomfortable with the view of God presented in the conquest narratives and he determined, based on his discomfort, to set out to find a way out of that discomfort.

I completely understand the desire to do this. All of us who are honest with ourselves about our hermeneutical lenses understand the desire to do this. By disagreeing with Enns, I am still left with the discomfort of this discussion. I don’t like the thought of babies being killed. I don’t like the thought of pregnant woman being ripped apart. And I, like Enns, refuse to callous my heart with cheap answers. So, yes, I still struggle with these passages.

But I just don’t know that Enns provides the way out. We don’t get to start with what we think God is like and then impose that on the text. Joshua’s theology is still there, even if the narratives aren’t historical. Cosmic warfare among the deities always leads to military action amongst the nations who worship those deities. Politics and religion are practical reflections of a view of God. So, regardless of the historicity of Joshua, the theology of the text still stands as in some way reflective of the character of the God of the Bible.

Maybe the best way I can explain this is that I think these texts need to stand in tension with our more comfortable understandings of God. Enns is right that “balance” isn’t the right word. But tension might be. And I’m okay with the tension until a better answer comes along. But what I’m not okay with is when Enns argues that we shouldn’t try to force the Bible to behave the way we want it to, and then he does just that with a text that doesn’t behave the way he wants it to. I like Enns’s scholarship and thoughtfulness, but here he falls victim to the very thing he is criticizing.

A Final Word on the Tone of the Text*

When reading through The Bible Tells Me So, I think readers may be thrown-off by the tone of the writing. Enns is quite often sarcastic, cynical (not of the Bible, but of interpreters), and snarky.

I appreciated this. I even Tweeted at him while reading the book to tell him that I was laughing out loud in several different places.

However, as I progressed into his argument, while I could appreciate the humor, I think I might have felt different if I were one of the people who he argued against. That is, while I disagreed with him in places, I didn’t feel offended when he used sarcasm in those sections. But I didn’t disagree with Enns throughout. If I did, by the end of the book, I may have not been able to hear his arguments anymore because of how much I would have felt insulted.

On some level, I think the book’s tone is a great attempt to discuss serious scholarly subjects in an engaging way. I appreciate this attempt.

But I wonder, given Enns’s general pacifistic view (which I think drives his interpretation of the Canaanite Conquest narratives), I wonder if he does more verbal and emotional violence to those who disagree with him than he intends. I won’t assume he was trying to be a jerk. But if you’re going to argue that God is not violent, even in rhetoric, then your rhetoric ought to model that theology.

Again, I personally found much of this text to be really funny. But I’m not sure others wouldn’t feel insulted.

In the end, I appreciate the scholarship and ministry of Pete Enns. I especially enjoy his contributions to Bio-Logos and his willingness to think through complicated subjects. For the most part, I enjoyed and benefited greatly from this book. 

Your Turn: Have you read The Bible Tells Me So? What did you think? How much have you thought about the Canaanite Conquest stories and how they represent the character of God? Does this make you uncomfortable? What did you think of my argument against Enns?

*I have placed this criticism at the end precisely because I think that, though people will get distracted by his tone, such an excuse will too quickly serve to distract them from some of his other thoughtful arguments. The end of this review is exactly where this criticism belongs.*