One of the most foundational elements of an intelligent and thoughtful engagement with biblical texts is calibrating one’s expectations. If one truly desires to try to begin the task of understanding the messages of the biblical authors then he or she must ask the appropriate questions from the text and expect it’s ancient authors to address particular issues in ways that make sense within their circumstances. Furthermore, a thoughtful student of the Bible should have a firm enough grasp of the history of thought to understand where modern expectations, assumptions, and perspectives differ from ancient ones. If we don’t calibrate our expectations then our observations concerning the Bible are likely to be little more than assertions of our own belief structures and opinions and in many areas we will misunderstand the unique messages of biblical texts.
Calibrating expectations is an ongoing task for us all; no one ever does this perfectly and individuals from every ideological position do it badly or not at all. Yet, a recent blogger kerfuffle provides me with an opportunity to illustrate two ways in which we can calibrate our expectations of biblical texts in order to avoid gross misinterpretations and hopefully understand the Bible better.
Now to the kerfuffle: Kevin deYoung wrote a post in which he outlined “10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam” which generated responses from T. Michael Law and Christopher M. Hays (Chris Tilling purred approvingly) and, taking a respite from Dr. Who and Star Trek postings, James McGrath. There are many elements to this discussion but let me reflect on two aspects in particular which relate most acutely to calibrating expectations. We could address several misconceptions in point number two of deYoung’s list but he reveals at least two ways in which he has failed to properly calibrate his expectations:
- Our expectations of biblical texts must be calibrated in accord with ancient conventions. deYoung states: “The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God’s people ‘this is how things really happened.’” The first sentence is little more than an unsupported opinion but I guess to some extent that is what you get with top ten lists. The very last idea, though, reveals that deYoung really doesn’t know how ancient cosmology worked. In fact, at this point he is guilty of his own point number one, that is, of importing post-Enlightenment thought onto the Bible but I digress. A while back, almost a year ago, I wrote a post which I titled “Was an Ancient Israelite Dumber than a Swede?” in which I tried to recalibrate expectations that we bring to biblical cosmologies but it appears that large segments of the world population didn’t read it (then why do I blog…?). You can read the whole thing but what I persuasively demonstrated, I think, is that ancient peoples never intended their cosmologies to state “how things really happened” in scientific or historically accurate ways.
- Our expectations of biblical texts must be calibrated in accord with the narrative world of the Bible. The last two sentences from point number two reveals that deYoung did not do this either: “The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.” Again, much to critique here but why would he think that it is surprising for the Bible to condemn paganism yet describe–and even prescribe–things similar to what pagans do? There are many examples I could give to illustrate why this is incredibly unsurprising but let’s pick just one of the most prominent examples of this very thing. In many places the Bible forbids divination yet at the same time it authorizes measures that under most circumstances are exactly what “pagans” did in divinatory rituals. The Ummim and Thummim are likely little more than “yes or no” query devices which were extremely common all throughout the ANE. The only difference between how they are described within biblical texts and their use in cognate cultures was that outside of the Bible “yes or no” queries were generally directed toward the sun-god Shamash while the Bible tells Israel to direct them to Yahweh. Therefore, it is not surprising in the least if Genesis started out with “one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE” (I’m not comfortable with this phraseology but since they are deYoung’s words I’ll let it stand for the sake of this discussion). Furthermore, how else would they start it? Does deYoung expect that in a pre-scientific world it would make sense for someone to break all conventions of how people understood and described the universe and say: hey, I know it will take a few thousand years for people to adopt a hyper-scientific expectation of how cosmologies must work and I know that you have no categories for this kind of thinking but here it goes anyway–this is ‘how it really happened.’?