encyclopedia – noun. a book or set of books giving information on many subjects or on many aspects of one subject and typically arranged alphabetically.
When I was a child, my parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias. I remember the ivory cover with the green edging (to match our hideous green living room, I suppose). I occasionally enjoyed flipping through their pages, and found them indispensable for my 6th grade magnum opus on the country of Switzerland. And in my opinion, World Book was FAR better than the suspect Encyclopedia Britannica.
In the mid-1990s, long before Wikipedia and Google as we know it, I purchased a current set of World Book Encyclopedias for my family. It’s still on the built-in bookshelves in our living room to this day. This collection is not the same as the one my parents purchased 30 years prior. Some subjects are added, some modified, some completely gone. Because the encyclopedia merely provides the current understanding as it relates to its subjects, and knowledge is a moving target.
If a friend came to me with the question “what is the plot of the encyclopedia? What is its over-arching story?”, I’d furrow my brows and think my friend had lost his mind. And if – by body language, tone, or spoken word – my friend indicated that he knew the “right” answer to that question already… I’d have to just shake my head and laugh, because he’s my friend. But if he wasn’t a friend but rather a stranger, I’d think him an even stranger stranger for it.
Whenever I hear people talk about the plot of the Bible, or its over-arching story, I likewise cringe. Because if the Bible is anything, it is an encyclopedia. It is a collection of writings across millennia that represents the current understanding as it relates to its subjects…and as knowledge is a moving target (as I said above).
The reason the “God of the Old Testament” sounds different from the “God of the New Testament” is not because God has changed or that there are different Gods or that you need to have some man teach you the one right way of harmonizing all of that. No. It’s because each book reflects the current understanding of God at that time, in that culture, for that author. And sometimes, in hindsight, we see how far off base they were in their understanding, just like comparing my 1990s World Book with my old 1960s World Book.
If you want a clearer understanding of who God is, then jump all the way to the books written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Listen to what Jesus has to say about God…because his view of God trumps all the prior views expressed in the earlier writings. I’d even argue that they trump the understanding of people who came along later like Paul, Clement, Irenaeus, Augustine, Francis, and every pope, bishop, and pastor who followed afterward.
There is no plot or over-arching theme to an encyclopedia other than what men FORCE upon it according to their system and perspective. But that doesn’t mean they are right; in fact, they simply are NOT right because it was never intended to be viewed that way. Same goes for the Bible. We must take it for what it IS, not what we wish it to be and not what men have fashioned it to be.
I don’t need to harmonize the God who ordered the slaughter of every Canaanite man, woman, child, and animal with the loving, merciful, compassionate, patient father of whom Jesus spoke. Moses and Joshua simply got God wrong. He was never a vengeful tribal God, and any mention of God telling them to kill every thing that breathes is about as authentic as a radical Muslim crying for jihad because “God told him so”. It’s poppycock, a human projection onto God that isn’t consistent with the God presented by Jesus.
The whole need for a religious system of sacrifices, special clothing, dietary restrictions, etc. is a human invention, probably adapted by Moses from that which he learned in Egypt. It was a way to unify and control this new nomadic nation, and to a certain extent it worked. But from another perspective, it kept the people enslaved – in this case, spiritually – living in fear of a distortion of the Creator. And as that perspective was propagated for centuries, it took on a life of its own that was far removed from the “spirit of the law” that Jesus later embodied.
Out of Order
Now, while an encyclopedia lays things out alphabetically, the Bible appears to be more chronological. However, while there are portions of the Bible in chronological order within certain groupings, other books are actually listed in order of decreasing size or seeming importance. There isn’t a clean sequence to it all the way through, just like there isn’t a plot.
You can’t even count on words meaning the same thing from one part of the Bible to another because words change over time within and across cultures. Idiomatic use of words makes it even more challenging because you have to understand the cultural meta-narrative to know what the author intended the reader to understand.
Just like you can’t take a World Book encyclopedia from 1920 and put your own interpretation on it, you can’t do that with the Bible either, because things have changed, words have changed, the world has changed. The best we can do is say “this is how they viewed things in 1920 in the World Book” or “this is how Joshua viewed things in his day”… and then do our best to match it up with what we know now about creation and its Creator.
Such a view makes the Bible a lot more challenging to actually understand and make strong assertions about… but that’s actually a GOOD thing. There are too many arrogant people speaking with seeming authority based on a flawed premise – that their perspective of the plot of the encyclopedia known as the Bible is the only right one. Cringe if you must. Laugh if you can. But don’t cave in to their desire to control you. It’s OK to not have all the answers. Sometimes it’s even more “right”.