By Joshua Penduck
Over the next few months we’ll be looking at the Book of Genesis. But in order to understand it and understand what God is saying to us about himself and us as humans, we have to look at the context in which it was written. The Bible didn’t simply drop out of the sky. Christians, unlike Muslims, don’t believe that God dictated the words of the Bible to the writers. For a Muslim, Mohammed actually wrote out the words that Allah prescribed through the Angel Gabriel. Christians however have a more indistinct notion, one that is hard to put down into words (though one we could spend years exploring) that God inspires, or ‘breathes out’ Scripture. He doesn’t override the personalities of the writers of the Bible, making them say words which were uncharacteristic for them. Instead, he mysteriously speaks through them. It’s the writers who are speaking (their words, their characteristics, their virtues and vices, their understanding of the world), but God inspires them in such a way that it is his Word as well which is spoken.
Which means, don’t expect the writers to sound like 21st Century thinkers. They were of their time. They thought in the ways that people in that time thought. They were diverse and different even from one another. The writers of the Psalms sound very different to St Paul who in turn sounds very different from Isaiah. Nevertheless, because God was speaking through these writers they have a deeper unity, which is God’s timeless voice. This mystery, inspiring writers to witness to Jesus (often without them knowing it) through the Holy Spirit, is the hidden element which brings all those other voices into a rich coherence. Though the Bible is made of many ‘words’ it is still ultimately one single ‘word’ of God. When we remember this – that God’s word was written through the human words of many different writers – it helps solved a few problems that have emerged over the last few centuries.
Years ago, it was believed that the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, was written in chunks by particular authors. So, Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, Ezra the historical books, David the Psalms, Solomon the Wisdom literature (like Proverbs and the Song of Songs), and each individual prophet wrote their individual books. Over the last two centuries however, as historians and experts in ancient literature began to study the Scriptures in its historical context, they realised that this simply couldn’t be the case. They’ve discovered more documents from the ancient world that makes that understanding a little shaky, and they’ve understood the nature of the ancient languages much more. For instance, the Book of Genesis seems to use different kinds of phrases from which would be uncharacteristic of the phrases found in the Book of Leviticus. It would be unusual for the same writer to write in such a diverse style. Unless, of course, Genesis and Leviticus weren’t written by one author, Moses, but by different authors. This makes sense of a few things. After all, I’ve always had doubts about how Moses could have written the whole Book of Deuteronomy when he dies at the end of it! Or, in Numbers 12.3, it says, ‘Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.’ I’d have reservations about the humility of a person who’d say they were the humblest person on the planet. Unless, of course, Moses didn’t write that about himself and someone else wrote it about him.
Also, different stories seemed to be written in different eras of Israel’s history. Things that were later innovations seem to be retroactively included in earlier times. So, for instance, in I Samuel 30.24-5, we hear David say to his men after a battle in which they collected lots of spoil, ‘The share of the one who goes down into the battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.’ Then it says, ‘From that day forward he made it a statute and an ordinance for Israel; it continues to the present day.’ In other words, a plain reading of the Bible would say that David instituted this law. But what do we find in Number 31.27 (traditionally understood to be written by Moses and given by God on Mount Sinai) but this: ‘Divide the booty into two parts, between the warriors who went out into battle and all the congregation.’ It seems as if David’s law had been retroactively listed as part of Moses’ Law in the Book of Numbers. Does this mean that this Law isn’t divinely given? No. It’s still God speaking through the ancient authors, just not directly to Moses. This raises big questions about the historical reliability of these ancient books (questions we can’t go into now), and can be difficult at first to deal with, but we can still affirm that nevertheless that the Bible is fully God’s Word – and nothing’s going to take that away.
What historians have realised is that these Biblical books hadn’t been written by a single author, but had been gradually edited over the centuries. So, for instance, Moses may have written part of the first five books of the Bible, but it was edited later on, with things added and things taken away. This ‘edition’ was in turn edited, with things added by a different editor, and things taken away. This happened for centuries. The point is that this doesn’t mean that this is any less God’s Word than if only Moses had written the first five books. When we say that God inspired the Bible, he can inspire a lowly but holy editor just as much as he can inspire a great figure like Moses.