The Erosion of Inerrancy
- Thursday, January 01, 2009
"What would have spoken to these Israelites—what would have met them where they were—was not a declaration of monotheism (belief that only one God exists), out of the blue. Their ears would not have been prepared to hear that. What we read in Exodus is perhaps less satisfying for us, but it would have set the ancient world on its head: this god Yahweh . . . meets these powerful Egyptian gods . . . and . . . beats them up. (p. 101)
"They [Israel] were taking their first baby steps toward a knowledge of God that later generations came to understand and we perhaps take for granted. At this point in the progress of redemption, however, the gods of the surrounding nations are treated as real. God shows his absolute supremacy over them by declaring not that "they don't exist" but that "they cannot stand up against me." (p. 102)
I have quoted Enns as fully as space allows, since his full views should be clearly seen, and my attempt is to present them as accurately as possible within limited space and despite some of Enns's ambiguity. First, he affirms a developmental view (some would call it "evolutionary"), asserting that early on Israel believed in the reality of many mythical gods but was to worship only the one God, Yahweh, and that it was only later that Israel came to have a monotheistic faith.
Part of the problem with Enns's developmental view is that he sees the same non-monotheistic view expressed in some of the psalms, all of which were written after the patriarchal and early Israelite periods (e.g., Psalm 86 is presented as "a Prayer of David"). Enns says that unless these other "gods" are "presumed to be real," then the biblical comparisons of God with the other "gods" lacks "punch."
Therefore, he is espousing that early parts of the Old Testament held to henotheism, belief in one god without asserting that this god is the only god. Is this a necessary deduction from the evidence that he has presented? There are other viable interpretative options for understanding the biblical view of these other gods.
Some scholars see that there are real spiritual realities behind pagan idols but that they are demonic rather than divine realities. For example, the view is testified to early on in the Old Testament that demons were behind idols (see Lev. 17:7;11 Deut. 32:17). Others would understand that though the Old Testament writers refer to "gods," sometimes using the very word elohîm in Hebrew, they are not divine realities at all but a lie or deception.12 Both these alternatives have just as much punch, indeed, probably more punch, than making the assumption that these "gods" are really divine realities.
In fact, early on in Israel's history, there are clear statements against the existence of any gods besides the God of Israel: in the directly following context after the statement in Deuteronomy 4:28 that Israel "will serve gods, the work of men's hands," twice God is said to be the only truly existing God (Deut. 4:39, "the LORD, He is God in heaven above and on the earth below; there is no other"; Deut. 4:35, "He is God; there is no other besides Him").13 This Deuteronomistic affirmation is developed later in the Old Testament (2 Kings 19:18; Jer. 2:11; 5:7). Hence, when Moses calls God "the God of gods" in Deuteronomy 10:17 he is not assenting to the existence of other deities but affirming "Yahweh's supremacy over all spiritual and heavenly powers."14 In this light, there is no need to compare God's relationship with early Israelites to parents who allow their children to believe in the boogeyman.
However one evaluates Enns's positive approach to myth, what should be kept separate are the notions of history and scientific precision. Recall that he acknowledges elsewhere in the book that modern views of history are very comparable to the historical consciousness of Israel's scriptural historians beginning around the tenth century BC. Thus, his apparent equation of a modern historiography and modern science in the preceding quotation should be qualified: could there not be "history" as we understand it in the Old Testament, including Genesis, but not an expectation that these same writers would intend to write with scientific precision?
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