“The Old Testament and Ancient Near Eastern Literature”
In this chapter, Peter Enns offers a very helpful summary of some of the more significant and relevant ANE literature like the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. In doing so, he quite correctly notes that these discoveries and their relevance for biblical interpretation have not been adequately addressed by Evangelicals.
As I re-read this chapter, I was struck by the challenge that Evangelical Scholars face in conveying their academic findings to their evangelical community. Sadly, as Enns himself has experienced and frankly most of us in academia have experienced at one time or another, presenting new discoveries and talking about Israelite writing and thought in its historical context is frequently met with suspiscion and defensiveness. Many Evangelicals have been taught explicitly or implicitly to see engagement with extra-biblical material as somehow compromising “biblical” faith and as a relativizing movement. Part of the problem for Evangelicals is that we believe that God can speak to anyone through Scripture. I affirm this belief because I believe that God speaks to us where we are at the moment. In fact, in his analogy of the incarnation and his insistence that we take Israel’s historical context seriously, Enns is affirming this idea as well. To me, it says something about the nature and character of God that He can still speak to me through my limited understanding or even a misinterpretation of Scripture. However, that God has spoken to me through Scripture when I first read through the Bible at age 19 does not entail that I must not grow in my understanding of Scripture in the future.
In fact, I hope even without completing a graduate degree in Biblical studies that someone who has read Scripture for twenty years has a richer understanding of the text than when they first began reading it. I pray that the children I teach in Sunday School are able to understand the politics in the Bible better than they do now. If God has called some to give their time, talent, and attention to the study of Scripture, why are Evangelicals so unwilling to draw on this expertise? Yet, at the same time, accept with great credulity the self-proclaimed expert because he or she appears on TV or has sold (or printed) 1,000,000 books. (Beware those who flaunt their Doctoral Designation — what are they doctors of? where did they get this degree? how did they get this degree?, etc.)
What Enns highlights in this chapter are the ways in which seeing other texts of the ANE help us to see the truly distinct features of the Israelite message and teaching that have been passed down to us in Scripture. He also highlights the way in which God communicates and reveals Himself. The Old Testament is neither the Qu’ran nor the Book of Mormon.
Another part of this chapter focuses on Israelite historiography which helps us attend to the overall message and purpose of the stories we are told rather than getting caught up with mere facts. As most historians now understand, the mere reporting of historical events is rarely done. Rather we select and report events with a purpose and that purpose shapes how we tell and understand history.
In order to get this idea across to my students, I ask them to think about writing four letters about their time at Baylor. I tell them that I assume that all their letters are truthful but who they are writing to will shape how they tell their story. The four recipients are their best friend, their boyfriend or girlfriend, their mother and a prospective employer. You are not going to tell your employer or your boyfriend about the cute guy who sits beside you in Calculus.
As Enns notes in a recent blog post, we need to begin reading the Bible like adults. We need to start eating meat instead of drinking milk. This chapter will aid you in reading the Bible as an adult. The Bible is a collection of sophisticated and often complicated texts that take some serious work to understand. Nevertheless, God will continue to speak to you where you are but He might be telling you that you are stuck.
For more resources, see my How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth page.