>Inspiration and Literary Genre in the Bible

>(This post is one in a series of questions I’m asking about how to read the Bible. If you haven’t already, please start with What is the Bible? Some Introductory Questions)

Questions around the meaning of the Bible begin (and end) for many Christians with the issue of inspiration; many Christians claim that the Bible is the “inspired Word of God”. Therefore, it’s prima facie to be accepted as true in a literal sense. Non-Christians, and even many Christians, of course, question this reasoning. What does it mean to say that the Bible in inspired? How can we prove a text is inspired? Isn’t there plenty of evidence that the Bible isn’t inerrant?

Discussions of these questions could fill (and have filled, in fact!) many volumes, so my goal here is to really outline the nature of the questions rather than to attempt any real substantial answer. I don’t think we can begin to make any headway to a valid and useful answer unless we really know what we’re asking.

Questions of inspiration could be subdivided into a number of categories. For one thing, we could ask questions about theology–what or Who is God? If we talk about God inspiring something, what does that mean? We would need to really flesh out a set of ideas describing how exactly God interacts with the universe, and that leads us to more in-depth questions about the nature of God–transcendence, immanence, omnipresence. Really, asking questions about how God might inspire a people or a document leads us down a metaphysical rabbit hole. The very fabric of the ideas we are trying to discuss starts to fray.

First off, if we consider God the creator of everything, couldn’t we say that everything is “inspired” by God? Claiming a special status for the Bible (or any other book) is an implicit claim that God is more involved in certain actions than others. This leads to all sorts of questions about God’s agency–how God “makes decisions” and how God executes God’s “will”. Some would say that just in framing questions about God’s agency, will, or plan, we are anthropomorphizing God–casting God in a human image–and that the very categories we use to discuss these topics lead us to problematic answers. In other words, is God even the sort of “thing” that we can describe like other concepts? Can humans say anything relevant about God?

We might also want to ask how inspiration might work, metaphysically speaking. Even if we step away from some of the really weighty questions above, we might wonder about how inspiration would interact with the personality of a writer, the cultural context they live in, the political and economic events that shaped their life, and so on. Even if we accept that a text can be inspired, do these forces influence the record of that inspiration? All of the major prophets wrote from a perspective that conforms well to our understanding of Jewish cultural, religious, and political norms–norms God certainly must transcend. So even if inspiration can occur in a literal and direct way, to what extent could that inspiration be hidden, or complicated, by all the personal baggage of the writer of a given book?

There are other questions relating to humanity to explore here: did God only speak through the Israelite and Jewish people? If so, why? If not, are there other books of valid scripture? Certainly many Christians would deny that any text outside of the Bible can be considered scripture, so these questions are significant. We might also want to explore that history of the formation of the canon. The Bible didn’t drop, completed, from the sky in 200 CE. Some of the texts were likely extant as oral traditions, hundreds of years old, and were first written down in the eight century (the 700s) BCE. The major prophetic books were begun in this time, but not finished for centuries. The New Testament is a compilation of stories and letters written over the course of at least 100 years. Who decided which books to include? And what of books that some communities ultimately decided not to include? Is there evidence that many of these decisions were politically, culturally, or personally motivated? If so, what does that say about the nature of inspiration?

There aren’t any easy or obvious answers to these questions; these are the big “what is the meaning of it all” sort of theological questions that have occupied humans since we began writing. So I’m not trying to suggest that we have to have all of these issues ironed out in order to have an understanding of how to read the Bible, but I do think we should have these questions in mind as we consider the nature of inspiration.

There are plenty of more mundane questions to be considered as well. As I mentioned in the previous post, there are plenty of contradictions in the Bible. Some people will simply deny this, but anyone who actually reads the Bible will find them, and pretending they aren’t there doesn’t change anything. I’m not going to spend much time proving my position on this; if you don’t accept that there are contradictions, just open up Genesis. Read chapter 1, and then read chapter 2. In chapter one, humankind is the last form of life created, while in chapter 2 humans come first, and then plant life and animal life is formed. For anyone claiming that the Bible is literally true, this is an irresolvable problem. A–>B is not the same as B–>A. There are, of course, plenty of other examples. But showing one in the first 2 pages of the Bible seems sufficient to me.

It also leads nicely into the obvious solution for Christians who do hold the Bible as scripture–as holy, inspired, as True. The fact that the writers and redactors of Genesis would put two stories, back to back, that gave markedly different accounts of creation makes it absolutely obvious that they didn’t hold these stories to be literally, historically true. But does that mean that the Bible is false? This really isn’t a question of truth or falsity in the same way that we would ask if a journalist’s account of an event is true or false. We expect that a journalist will report facts that they can verify, and that the record of events they present is consistent with historical events.

And there are plenty of books in the Bible that read like, and should be treated as, history. Both first and second Kings, as well as first and second Chronicles, fall into this category. They basically record the history of Israel and Judah from Saul to the Babylonian captivity. They give the names of kings, the places of importance, they talk about military, political, and religious events. But the first few chapters of Genesis are probably not meant as history. They are presented as allegory–a fictional story that captures a deep truth. The focus of the story of Adam and Eve is not the development of life on Earth–Genesis isn’t presenting a natural history of our planet that can be contrasted with evolutionary theory. The story illustrates how God–the source of all existence–became estranged from creation, and that it is this estrangement that is the ground of all suffering. Reading Genesis 1 as a narrative about the development of life on Earth is to completely miss the point of the book.

In short, we have to be careful to consider the genre of what we are reading as we read the Bible. Is it history? Is it poetry? Is it a prayer? Is it a lawbook? Is it political polemic? The Bible is all of these and more. Each book, and in fact different sections of each book, need to be carefully read, and not interpreted as something they clearly are not. And of course, there will be plenty of books which may fall into many genre categories. I’ve picked a pretty easy example with Genesis. Many other books are much more confusing and complex. How do we read Isaiah? Should his writing be seen as a prescient prophecy, warning of future events? Or is he rehashing history to make a theological and ethical point? Or does Isaiah contain both of these genres?

What’s important to remember is that there are not just two options–that the Bible is either inerrantly and literally true, or worthless drivel. In fact, limiting our reading of the Bible to either of these polarized perspectives will only guarantee that we miss the truth and beauty of the book. The deepest points made are not made on the surface in literal statements. The real significance can only be teased out by faithful, humble, and open-minded reading. Instead of unquestioningly seeing the Bible as the revealed word of God, what if we understand the Bible as a record of the Israelites’ (and later, the Jews’ and early Christians’) struggle to define, understand, and serve God. In other words, instead of God’s monologue, the Bible becomes a dialogue between God and humanity.

As I suggested at the beginning of this post, accepting this approach doesn’t line up a set of answers for us, but instead prompts us to ask many new questions, some of them unsettling, many of them fundamental to how we see ourselves and our faith. If the Bible has many genres, how do we read it? Is it easy to misinterpret? Who decides what readings are valid? How do we apply these various texts to our lives? This approach is far more challenging, but also holds the possibility of bearing much more fruit than an insistence on a literal/historical reading of the entirety of the Bible.

The next post deals with the Significance of the Bible in the 21st Century


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