From the New Testament, we learn that Jesus’s favorite mode of teaching was through fiction; he taught parables. Although the characters and events may not be historical, few Christians question the truth in the messages.
Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. Biblical scholar Ben Spackman points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact. This thinking, Ben points out, causes many readers to jettison common sense and plain readings of the scriptural text.
Often times when reading scripture, the assumption is made that the text is either literal or figurative, but these two categories are insufficient to describe the different genres of scriptures.
It would be more helpful to approach the Bible as if it were a library that contained books of many different genres instead of being all the
same type of writing. No Christian would presume to label all scripture as a parable. Likewise, all scripture should not be labeled as history. The Bible contains books of satire, law codes, poetry, parables, myth, conquest narratives, and prophetic revelation among other things.
The type of “thing” or genre of a given book is indicated by genre markers. For instance, Americans can tell a book is a fairy tale if it begins with “Once upon a time.” Genre markers in the Bible can be identified similarly by biblical scholars familiar with the culture.
Readers should also keep in mind that ancient Israelites approached the use of history in scripture differently than modern authors. Historical accuracy is actually a modern concept. Biblical writers often fashioned history to teach a higher purpose. If some of the historical details were fudged, then that was regarded as acceptable if done to make a point.
Join Amanda Brown as she interviews biblical scholar Ben Spackman about the different genres of literature found in the Bible.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 45: Genre in the Bible with Ben Spackman
(Released July 19, 2017)
This is not a verbatim transcript.
Some wording and grammar has been modified for clarity.
Amanda Brown: Hi, Ben.
Ben Spackman: Hello.
Amanda Brown: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’re studying?
Ben Spackman: Sure. It’s kind of a long story. I graduated from BYU in Near Eastern studies a long time ago and promptly went off to the University of Chicago where I did what’s called comparative semitics, which is a heavy language focus on the ancient Near East. I studied a little bit of history, a little bit of linguistics, but mostly I studied Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic, Acadian, and other dead languages that people really haven’t heard of that are behind the Old Testament and the various cultures connected with it.
I am now doing American religious history and Mormon studies, and my focus is actually kind of the same. When I was at Chicago, I focused on the book of Genesis, and my interest at Claremont has really been on the conflict between science and religion, specifically between interpretations of Genesis and evolution.
Amanda Brown: Could you tell us a little bit about our topic today?
Ben Spackman: I’ve spent a lot of time teaching the Bible in various forms. I’ve done New Testament and Old Testament. I’ve taught a class on the book of Genesis twice. One of the things that we always have to talk about is distinguishing different kinds of things within the Bible. A lot of times Mormons approach the Bible and indeed all scripture as if it’s all the same kind of thing. This is not really a justified assumption, but it’s a long one that we’ve had. We’ve kind of inherited it from others. But when we get into the Bible, it’s a lot like a library. When you go to your library today or when you get onto Netflix, you notice that there are categories of things. Go to the library, and you have fiction versus nonfiction. If you get onto Netflix, you can go documentary, you can go sci-fi, you can go mystery, or you can go foreign film. These are all different genres — different kinds of things. When it comes to the Bible, the Bible also contains different kinds of things. In fact, the word Bible itself comes from a Greek word biblia, which means the books. The Bible was originally known as a collection of books; it was a library. Within that library, just like our libraries, there are different kinds of things.
We haven’t always historically done a good job recognizing that there are different kinds of things within the covers of our quad and that leads to some misunderstandings and confusion and conflict. That’s kind of an overview that the Bible is a library, or a collection. Learning how to recognize the different things within it is a first step towards understanding it better. That’s something I spend time on in my Institute classes — learning to recognize what we call genre.
Amanda Brown: What’s the thinking behind the idea of different genres within the Bible that we consider one book sometimes?
Ben Spackman: I’ve actually done some introductory work on that in my coursework at Claremont. A lot of it has to do with Enlightenment assumptions that we have inherited and never looked at very closely. I think some of the unconscious reasoning goes like this: a revelation is truth from God and truth and enlightenment is fact — that means science and that means history. That means that when we approach scripture, which is the word of God, we kind of run through this little chain where we assume that it must be scientific and historical or else it’s somehow not really the word of God because that’s what the word of God is. The word of God is truth, truth is fact, fact is science and history. The problem with that is that it jettisons both a lot of common sense as well as some plain readings in the Bible.
Amanda Brown: Ben, what are some different genres of scripture and how do they change our opinion about this as a cohesive book?
Ben Spackman: Using genre very loosely, we can recognize that our scriptures contain both things like gospels as well as letters in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, you get legal material as well as what scholars call cultic material; that is, most of Exodus and Leviticus is instructions about how to build the temple, how to carry out sacrifices we consider inspired. Then you get to Psalms and Proverbs, which are poetry and songs. Those are also inspired. But one of the ones that I like to focus on is Jesus and parables because it’s such a great way to introduce this idea. Most of the time when I raise this, I start off by saying, “Are Jesus’s parables true?” And it’s pretty unanimous that people say, “Yes.” I say, “Okay, when Jesus talks about the man who went down to Jericho and got robbed and the Good Samaritan came by, is he describing a historical event that actually happened?” Most people will say, “No.” “So Jesus, when he tells parables, he’s telling us stories that didn’t happen.” “Well, yeah.” “Okay, but we still say they’re true.” “Well yeah.”
What we have with parable is a genre where its truth is not dependent upon its historical value. We recognize that, and that’s okay. Here I’m kind of quoting a Protestant scholar named Kenton Sparks. Jesus’s favorite method of teaching truth was fiction. It’s easy for us to recognize parables in the New Testament because they appear in the gospels, and a lot of times they say, “hear this parable” or “then Jesus told this parable.” We know those well enough that even when Jesus doesn’t introduce a parable by saying, “here’s a parable for you,” we recognize that it’s a parable, and we can do that because of a thing call genre markers. Every genre has its own little things that say, “Here’s the category I belong to.”
Amanda Brown: Like “once upon a time” in German fairytales.
Ben Spackman: Exactly. If I were to get up in sacrament meeting and say, “I want to tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a boy named Joseph Smith,” that would throw people for a little bit of a loop because Joseph Smith is historical, but “once upon a time” is a genre marker of fairytales, maybe Aesop’s fables or things like that. That’s kind of a genre mashup, which is something that people love to do now. Sometimes people are completely unaware of genre markers. Shortly after the Harry Potter books started coming out and were getting very popular, the Onion, which is a satirical news site, which is a common genre now, ran an article about how Harry Potter had been instrumental in turning children to Satanism, and they even had some photos of kids with pentagrams and witch hats and things. Apparently a good number of evangelical Christians cited this as evidence that Harry Potter was actually Satanic. The problem was they did not recognize that this was satirical newspaper genre and thought it was real newspaper genre. When you’re not paying close attention to genre markers or when you don’t know them well, it’s easy to mix genres and get confused, which leads to misinterpretation.
Amanda Brown: In reference to these genre markers, are they easy to pick up? Do you have to have training? Can anybody do this?
Ben Spackman: Anybody can. Again, if you think about the way genre and genre markers work in a modern context. No one ever sits you down and explains this is what indicates you’re reading a fairytale. This is what indicates you’re watching a documentary. We learn those by cultural osmosis, just by growing up in a society and being saturated by seeing so many of these. When you open a newspaper, you instinctively understand that a Doonesbury comic about the Iraq war is different than an article about the Iraq war, which is different than an opinion piece about the Iraq war. We are attuned to the different genre markers. In this case, they could be location within the newspaper, whether they’re signed or not, whether they come with pictures, what kind of pictures — that tells us this is a cartoon, this is an editorial, this is a more neutral reporting piece. When it comes to getting outside of our own culture, you can learn those genre markers, but you have to immerse yourself in it. It’s not something that leaps out at you instantly any more than you would go to Japan and instantly pick up on the cultural significance of things. Those genre markers have to be either absorbed culturally over years and years of exposure or else pointed out explicitly.
When it comes to reading the Bible, there are explicit genre markers in there, but none of us is a native Israelite anymore; there aren’t any. Even native Israelis today are not living in a biblical culture from two thousand years ago. Generally, you have to rely on scholars who have tried to immerse themselves in the ancient Near Eastern cultures and read and read and re-read both in the Bible and in the non-biblical literature, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, so on. In reading all of these, these genre markers start coming out. You start being able to say this is a lot like this. Genre isn’t for pigeon-holing things as much as being able to identify like with like. Once you’ve started putting things in similar piles, you can start looking at how they relate to each other.
There’s actually an interesting citation from Elder John Widtsoe who was really attuned to some of this stuff. He wrote a book in which he said, “As in all good books, every literary device is used in the Bible that will drive the lesson home. It contains history, poetry and allegory. I would expand the genres far beyond those three. These are not always distinguishable now that the centuries have passed away since the original writing.” He says there are all kind of genres in there, and we don’t always pick up on it anymore because we’re not in that culture anymore. We’re not natives culturally or any other way. We kind of have to be taught to recognize those. That’s not something that happens when you simply pick up your Bible in English, flip to something, and start reading.
Getting back to Enlightenment assumptions again, our operating assumption with scripture with rare occasions like parables is to simply assume that everything is history, and moreover we kind of assume that everything is modern history. There also we run into problems because the writing of history has radically changed in the last one hundred years. Even History of the Church was written in a way that would cause problems for lots of people today. If you pick it up, it’s written first person by Joseph Smith, but what actually happened is they didn’t have much first person by Joseph Smith, so they took writings from other people’s journals that would say Joseph said this, Joseph did that, they put them in first person, and that became History of the Church. That was standard history writing practice in the 19th century.
Go back 2500 years, and you’re going to find even more radically different history writing, and you can kind of see this in two places in particular: in the New Testament with the gospels where we assume that they’re more or less kind of clerks writing-as-it-happened documentaries, and then you get to the gospel of John that reshuffles all of this stuff around. For example, Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus cleansing the temple at the end of his ministry, and he dies shortly thereafter. John has Jesus cleansing the temple at the beginning of his ministry and never again, so people have said, “Well, clearly he must’ve cleansed it twice.” And the assumption is that John is writing following chronological order. John’s probably doing something very different than chronological order and realistically if Jesus had cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry, it would’ve been very short.
We see this in the gospels with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but we also see this in the Old Testament when we compare Samuel and Kings with the book of Chronicles. In our order today, it goes Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, but if you look at Chronicles 1:1, it actually starts over with Adam and retells through genealogies in the first nine chapters a lot of things down until you get to Saul and David. Then it tells the same stories that are found in Samuel and Kings and a lot of times it tells them in a different way. Sometimes in a contradictory way. These are both written by Israelites roughly contemporary from our perspective.
Amanda Brown: When we as LDS members look at the scriptures and are reading for our personal study in light of genre and including those aspects into our interpretation of what we’re reading, is there an effective way to use our understanding of genre in order to understand what the text is trying to tell us theologically?
Ben Spackman: I think very much so. Let me break that into two parts. Short of reading extensively in ancient Near Eastern literature, you’re going to be dependent upon someone else to tell you what the genre probably is. For that, I would just suggest a study Bible because most of those will, in the preface, give kind of the general options. You can’t really interpret something or understand it fully without knowing what kind of thing it is. Knowing what kind of thing it is tells you what kind of questions you should be asking. In my experience, in some wards when we teach about Jonah, people have assumed that it’s history, and so they get very hung up on defending the idea of someone surviving in the belly of a big fish for several days and that is kind of the focus of the lesson.
Consequently, you never get to the last verses of the last chapter, even though it’s only four chapters long, which is where the entire point of the book is. The point of the book is not: “Guy survives fish!” That’s a great headline, but it’s not really edifying in any way. At the end of the book of Jonah, Jonah is up on a hill watching the city of Nineveh waiting for God to destroy it. It’s quite hot. It is the Middle East, and God causes a plant to grow over Jonah and give him shade, and he kind of relaxes. The next day he causes the plant to disappear, and he’s back in the sun, and he’s mad because he’s hot. God says to Jonah, “Why are you so mad?” and he says, “This plant’s not giving me shade anymore. I’m so mad I could die.” “He says, “if you’re mad about shade, there are hundreds and thousands of people here in Nineveh and animals who don’t yet have the gospel and if you care about the plant shouldn’t I care about them?”
This is kind of the whole book of Jonah. This is what it builds to. Jonah just wants them all killed, and God says, “I care. I care about these people and their animals even.” It’s really interesting, but if you get hung up on the whale, which is not a whale by the way, then you never get to the actual point of the book of Jonah, which is deep and ethical and has import for the gospel. If you approach Jonah assuming it’s a history, as we typically do, that’s what you’re going to focus on.
Amanda Brown: How would an interpretation of Jonah change when viewing it in its proper context?
Ben Spackman: I tend to side with those who see Jonah as something of a satirical parable in Israel. To be clear, that means it’s not a history or a historical book. My accepting of that position is not based on disbelief. Before you believe something, you have to know what it is. I believe Jesus’s parables, that doesn’t make them historical, if that makes sense. Understanding Jonah as a satirical parable allows you to focus on a couple of details that are probably meant to contrast Israel with non-Israelites. It’s a little bit universalist. That is, Jonah is supposedly God’s prophet, but he is the only thing in the book that disobeys God. The pagan sailors offer sacrifice to the God of Israel, the winds and the waves obey the God of Israel, the great fish obeys the God of Israel, the king of Nineveh and all the people and even the animals as soon as they hear about the God of Israel, they fast and repent in sack cloth and ashes. There is deep irony in the fact that the only person who is not responsive to God in the book of Jonah is God’s prophet Jonah. This is one of those kind of ironic, satirical contrasts that’s set up.
Another one that sticks out in the book is how exaggerated everything is. If you go through and look at how often the adjective gadol appears — great or huge — it’s in there all over the place. Everything is huge. The city of Nineveh is described as being a three days’ walk across, which is a massive, massive city, completely ridiculous size-wise. Everything is made larger-than-life in Jonah, for example. But again, if you instead read Jonah starting off thinking this is a satirical parable — “What am I supposed to take away from this?” — you may get more from it. When we hear “parable,” our minds are automatically attuned to what’s the moral at the end of the story. History doesn’t always have morals, parables are supposed to. That means we’re not kneejerk defensive of the whole swallowed-by-a-whale thing, and it also means we’re more inclined to read to the end of the book and look for the implicit moral at the end of the book. As Jonah’s sitting there and God says there are people here that I care about. Understanding what the genre is, while you can read something without it, it tends to twist it a little bit, and it’s much easier to get things out of it, especially the things that the author apparently intended you to get out of it when you understand the genre.
There is something called genre confusion and this is something I think is really fun to talk about because it gets me into one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Galaxy Quest, but it’s a spoof on Star Trek, and it’s basically about these washed up quasi-Star Trek actors who have no lives but showing up at conventions. One day these aliens show up and say, “We’ve seen your historical documents, and we built your ship. We need you to come use your ship and save us from this other aggressive, military alien.” The problem is these aliens have no concept of fiction, so they keep referring to the historical documents. Eventually it dawns on the actors that they’re talking about the show. By misunderstanding and confusing the genre, which is the whole premise of the film, they really get into trouble.
Amanda Brown: Most LDS, I think, would recoil a bit from Jonah not being completely historical. How do you answer that?
Ben Spackman: Two ways. First of all, what I’m really getting at is it’s not like Jonah is historical, and I disbelieve that so I’m interpreting it figuratively. What I’m suggesting is that Jonah was originally a satirical parable and understanding it historically is actually wresting the scriptures. Back in 1922, which was following about fifteen years of real controversy outside of the church, there was a First Presidency letter to an apostle. When I say there was controversy outside the church, there were a lot of things going on. Darwin was getting very big. There was a big push in German Protestant scholarship that was starting to spill over into the United States. There were a lot of things like that going on that were raising questions about the Bible, and how they read it.
In 1910, there was a California businessman who sponsored a collection of books responding to a lot of these ideas. He paid money to have them printed and distributed all over. The series was called the “Fundamentals,” and that’s where we get fundamentalists from. Kind of on the heels of this in 1922, the First Presidency sends a response to an apostle who was, I believe, on the East Coast and was asking about this. He had asked them about genres and all this stuff that was going on and what they said to him was, “It may well be that Jonah and Job are both parables, what really matters is whether the doctrine is correct.” What you have to ask at the end of any kind of genre questions is, “Does genre matter? …Yes.” Ultimately though, everything is kind of like a parable. What is it trying to teach us regardless of what kind of thing it is? This isn’t to say that what kind of thing it is isn’t important, but ultimately there is a takeaway from everything. Whether it is history, poetry, parable, legal material, what have you.
So there is at least some LDS support in the past, and it kind of acknowledges these ideas and says, “We don’t really know … But what ultimately matters is whether the doctrine is correct.” This should lead you to the question of what is the doctrine of Jonah. Is it you can survive in a whale for three days? It’s really not. It’s about God’s love for a non-covenant people, the Assyrians.
Amanda Brown: How do people respond to that when you teach it?
Ben Spackman: Usually the very first question I get is what do you think of the Book of Mormon? This is an understandable question because for a lot of people the idea of non-historical scripture, setting parables aside, is really kind of a new one. They assume that it’s kind of a slippery slope that if you accept non-historical scripture then pretty soon you’ll assume that all scripture is non-historical and that bleeds over into the Book of Mormon, which is kind of foundational. There are all kinds of questions about it. The way I respond to this is by saying, “How have I decided that Jonah is not historical?” Is it by saying it’s obviously ridiculous that no one could survive in a whale, that can’t be a historical detail, so I’m just going to kind of decide the whole thing is non-historical? That’s not the basis that I operate from or most other scholars who are believers operate from. Rather, it’s a scholarly question of what are the genre markers here and what do they indicate to us.
If God wants to preserve someone in a whale for three days, he can totally do that. But just because he can, doesn’t mean he does. To expand on this, on my bookshelf at home, if I’m being cluttered, I may have my Bible next to Les Mis next to a cookbook next to Harry Potter. Putting Harry Potter next to the Bible doesn’t mean that the Bible is fictional, fantasy, magic waving, and likewise the Bible doesn’t turn Harry Potter into a religious history book. Genres are separate things, and they have to be established for separate books just like a library. If we had taken … I don’t know why you would do this, but … if you wanted to bind Harry Potter, a cookbook, Ender’s Game, and a History of Medieval France all within one cover, all of those books would still retain their own genre and their own character. That doesn’t bleed over. You have to establish it separately for each book and sometimes subsections of books. Parts of say Genesis may be completely non-historical. Some of them may have historical kernels. Some of them are poetry. There are different things even within that one book within the Bible. What you really have to do is pay attention to when things seem to shift.
In movies, we can tell when there’s a flashback because there might be kind of a wavy thing, and then it’ll be black and white and a little bit of a hazy filter. Similarly, in the Bible where all of a sudden we seem to change tone or genre completely … You can tell when you shift from poetry into prose or into song all of a sudden when there’s a genre shift. We need to be looking for those and paying attention to them. We don’t want to accidentally include … I don’t know … If Jesus’ baptism were next to a parable, we wouldn’t want to extend the parable genre into Jesus’s baptism. You would have to be watching for the genre scene between those and identifying where the parable seems to end and we get into a different kind of thing.
Amanda Brown: Switching tracks a little bit, I want to talk about audience. In the Book of Mormon, there’s a lot of sentiment among members that the message is meant for us, for our day, and this is perpetuated by the book itself, I think, and by Joseph Smith. I think this can bleed over into the Bible. How do you distinguish different audiences within the corpus of Mormon scripture?
Ben Spackman: Good question. It is pretty clear that the Book of Mormon was written for our day as Mormon says and President Benson emphasized. It’s not entirely clear what “our day” means. When Mormon says, “I have seen you,” is he talking about 1830, 1900, 2015, or 2515? We’re pretty different than 1830 was in a lot of ways, so there’s some open-endedness there. Mormon is clear that he’s editing generally for a future audience, not for a contemporary one. By contrast, I think the vast majority of the Bible was contemporary, and there are a couple of ways that you can see this. The main one that I’ll focus on is that you don’t explain things to people who share your culture. That is, there are a lot of things that go without being said. If I say I’m going to France in a few weeks, I don’t bother to explain I’m traveling by plane, which, by the way, is something that flies in the air and moves very quickly. I don’t explain that because I assume that sharing my culture, and so on, you know that I would go to France by plane; you know what a plane is and so on.
When scriptures explain things to their audience, that’s showing an awareness on the part of the writer that their audience doesn’t share the knowledge that the scripture writer has. This sometimes happens in the New Testament. Matthew will give a Hebrew name, and then he’ll explain what that means because he understood that his audience didn’t know Hebrew. Occasionally in the Old Testament on very rare occasions they will do something like that. At the end of the book of Ruth, there is a contract made and the one guy takes his shoes off and hands it to the other guy. Then the text says, “And in ancient days in Israel this was the way that you would conclude a contract.” That’s one of a handful of times in the Old Testament when they explain a custom. Most of the time the Old Testament doesn’t do that because they were simply recording contemporary stuff for contemporary people. Isaiah was primarily talking to Israelites of the 8th century. Consequently he doesn’t bother to tell us all these people and places. He just throws the names out because he assumes everyone knows them and everyone did.
Amanda Brown: Which is why Isaiah’s so frustrating for so many of us.
Ben Spackman: Isaiah might be called a high-context book. There is a lot of context and cultural knowledge that is assumed on the part of the author. For us, that assumption doesn’t hold, we don’t know that stuff. Certainly his original audience did.
Amanda Brown: How do you think this plays into how we read genre? How do you think audience plays into that?
Ben Spackman: I think that gets back a little into what Elder Widtsoe said that the audience today, unless they’re made aware, isn’t really aware of the genre confusion that’s going on. We naturally read things as a history, and then we’re confused when they don’t act like histories. In the early chapters of Genesis, for example, people get really thrown for a loop by the fact that the first three days have light and day and night, but the sun, moon, and stars aren’t created until day four. Approaching that as a history and a scientific thing, causes people real problems. There’s a genre issue here.
When someone other than the original audience reads or encounters one of these things, and they don’t have that cultural knowledge, they did not grow up with that osmosis just kind of figuring out genre markers, they will naturally fit it into the genres they know best to expect. For the modern audience, that tends to be history, and that leads to genre confusion.
Amanda Brown: A lot of LDS people are a little bit uncomfortable with the Bible because they read it as historical in genre and all of a sudden these characters that we revere as prophets aren’t doing what we think prophets should be doing. How does a different reading of genre affect the comfort level that we can experience?
Ben Spackman: On the one hand, I think genre can help a lot. Again, to draw kind of a modern analogy, we see things in movies that we would be horrified if they were actually happening if they were histories. Yet, we can make sense of them, we can tolerate them, primarily because they are fiction and we understand that fiction is doing different things. When it comes to the Old Testament, I think understanding what genre various difficult things are written in can help us make sense of them. To draw one loose example, in the book of Joshua, Israelites invade the land of Canaan, and there’s kind of genocide and destruction and killing all over. The book of Joshua makes it seem glorious. Some scholars have put that into a genre of conquest narrative, which is historical in a sense.
But what a conquest narrative is intending to do is to say, “Look how glorious, and awesome we are.” And by extension … “look how awesome our God is.” When there were earthly battles that was a reflection of a heavenly reality. So when the Israelites fight someone else, it’s the Israelite God fighting the other God or the Israelites to gloriously conquer and destroy everyone is kind of praising God in a sense and obviously it has to be amazing and glorious and butt-kicking all over the place. There is a genre reason why they are portraying themselves as absolutely destroying everybody and wiping them out. Genre helps with that a little bit. It helps explain why they would characterize things that way.
You can undermine it a little when you get into the book of Judges because Joshua talks about them just destroying and wiping out everything. Then you get into the book of Judges, and it immediately talks about all the people they didn’t kill, all the cities they didn’t destroy, and if you’re reading these strictly as histories, modern quasi-neutral, which doesn’t exist, histories, then there’s a real problem. If you understand that Judges is more of a conquest narrative, and Joshua is a slightly different kind of historical genre, then that makes a little more sense in comparing them. That doesn’t solve everything, but it does help.
On the other hand, we can’t take everything that is uncomfortable in the Bible and get around it by writing it off to a different kind of genre. I think that has more to do with our expectations of what prophets are and how they should act. In that case, I think we should let the Bible be a bit more controlling on us instead of us trying to rewrite the Bible to meet our expectations. When, for example, Jacob deceives his father for a blessing, there’s nothing genre-oriented there that can really say, “He’s not really deceiving his father.” The text is pretty clear that he’s deceiving his father. We just need to wrestle better with what the Old Testament is trying to do. There’s an assumption that the stories in the Old Testament as scriptural stories are meant to be uplifting and edifying, and that’s not always the case.
A genre kind of gets into what something was intended to do. If you look at the genre of Leviticus, it’s not intending to edify. It’s kind of like the church handbook of instructions. The point is to tell the priest how to do sacrifices and under what circumstances. We wouldn’t pick up the phone book and expect to read it for chicken cacciatore recipes. You would be really frustrated if you tried to do that because you would be misusing the genre. When you approach Leviticus looking for uplifting, spiritual, warm-fuzzy stories, they’re not there. But that’s not because Leviticus is flawed. It’s because we’re trying to use Leviticus as a hammer, and really it’s a screwdriver.
Amanda Brown: What then do we do with genres like Leviticus? How do we gain personal, spiritual application from law codes and the like?
Ben Spackman: That’s a good question. I’m kind of two minds. On the one hand, again, no one suggests you go read the phone book for inspiration. That’s not what the phone book is for. It kind of gets into the question of canonization and why certain things were included in scripture. On the Mormon side, this is the question with the war chapters. What are the war chapters doing in the Book of Mormon? What are we supposed to get out of them? Leviticus and genres like that are more difficult to see personal application or spiritual application or something like that. A lot of times it does take a talented scholar to bring things out that are significant to us in our modern-day context. A creative reader and a good scholar can extract spiritual insights from just about anything, especially under the influence of the spirit. On the other hand, a reader, their kids are asleep, and they’ve got fifteen minutes before bed. It’s probably going to be easier to turn to something that doesn’t require as much work or thought, which I think is what most LDS do.
I think we tend to read the Book of Mormon and the gospels because the spiritual insights in those are the most easily accessible. But as is so often the case, what something is worth is often what you pay for it. So a lot of times for me, some of the most valuable things I’ve discovered have not been things that have come easily, but things that have come through serious digging — through thought and prayer and study and returning to a text like Genesis or Leviticus over and over. The Old Testament is my favorite of the standard works, which is not a normal thing. But it’s because it rewards close reading and attention. On the surface, it’s a pretty frightening thing, and there are some pretty horrific things in it, and I’m not saying that we can undo or counter all of those, but there’re also some really amazing things in it, and things that we tend not to recognize.
For example, when Jesus in Matthew 22:37–39 says that the two great commandments are love God and love your neighbor, what most people don’t know and what our LDS King James Version does not footnote is that he is quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus. That’s where those come from. They are straight out of Jewish law that we tend to think is not this great inspiring thing, but this terrible thing that they had to get because they were wicked, and it was such a pain, and it’s good we’re rid of it. It had so many amazing enlightened things in it. Work is rewarded, but we don’t always have the time or the desire or the capability to put that kind of work in, and there we depend on others who can do it and synthesize it for us.
Amanda Brown: You mentioned Kings and Chronicles and how they have different perspectives due to when they were written and their audience and their purpose as books, but sometimes they’re contradictory in the details they’re giving us. How do we then as LDS people reading this as a scriptural text synthesize the two books?
Ben Spackman: If by synthesize you mean make sense of, I think we can do that. If by synthesize you mean harmonize, we can’t do that. We’re not meant to.
Amanda Brown: How do we navigate it then?
Ben Spackman: Right. That’s a great framing. I think to go back further than perhaps is necessary, once we recognize that all scripture, whether modern scripture or ancient scripture, is written by inspired humans, and once we recognize that all scripture is written by humans from a human perspective, albeit an inspired one, then we can start asking questions. What is the author trying to say here? How does this differ and why might it differ? Kings and Chronicles is a little bit harder to pull apart. I’m actually going to go to the gospel of John again. With John versus the three synoptic gospels. To take one example, Matthew, Mark and Luke have the Last Supper being a Passover supper and the next day Jesus is crucified. John, on the other hand, has the Last Supper, not as a Passover supper, but the day before Passover. You can’t reconcile these two. There’s no way the Last Supper happened twice. It undermines the whole idea of the Last Supper.
But when you realize that in John’s gospel, the Last Supper is the day before Passover, which means that Jesus is crucified at the same time as the Passover lamb, all of a sudden you say, “John is not strictly trying to be historical here.” He is using the history to convey a message. And what message is that? Jesus is the Passover lamb. When you can step back and say these are inspired, but the human authors are trying to demonstrate different things. They have different purposes. They are using history not strictly to simply say what happened but to teach a higher purpose even if that means playing with the chronology or details. That didn’t bother them at all in ancient historiography.
The humans who wrote Kings have a very different purpose and goal than the humans who wrote Chronicles. If Kings was written before the exile and Chronicles is written after, what Chronicles is trying to do is say our temple’s been destroyed, the Holy Land is defiled, and this was supposed to last forever, so what is our status still with God’s covenant? So they retell the story a different way to answer that question. If you think that they’re simply trying to set out the history, then you’ve got a serious problem. If on the other hand, you realize that ancients used history to make larger points, that doesn’t mean it’s not historical, it just means they’re playing a little loose, which again was fine for them. It’s not so much for us, but it’s fine for them. The question then becomes what are the different points they’re trying to make. How are they making those points? Why do they make this change?
Again, with John, why does John put the Last Supper a day before? Is he trying to correct Matthew, Mark, and Luke historically? Probably not. What does it do for us? It puts Jesus’s crucifixion at the same time as the killing of the Passover lamb, which creates a symbolic resonance and teaches us something about Christ through history, even if it’s not strictly historically accurate. Historical accuracy is really a modern concern, they didn’t worry about it so much back then.
Amanda Brown: What are some ways that I can incorporate what we’ve talked about here in order to get more out of my study and understand more about the Bible?
Ben Spackman: I think the number one thing — and I recommend this as a response to all kinds of questions — is pick up a modern translation of the Bible and if you want to get into genre, especially pick up one that is a study Bible. There are lots of people who are kind of hesitant to do that, but I would point out that LDS apostles have quoted other translations in general conference and the Ensign. BYU professors can require other Bible translations in their religion courses. I did that when I taught New Testament here. The King James Bible is our official Bible for English speaking Mormons, but it doesn’t need to be our only Bible. Among all of my friends and students, everyone who picks up a new translation of the Bible finds much greater appreciation and understanding for it. That’s always my number one suggestion.
The follow up would be to learn to ask questions. When you get into something, especially something confusing, pause and ask yourself: what am I missing about this? Try to put yourself into the shoes of the people who wrote it 5000 years ago. There’s actually a great quote from Brigham Young whose then quoted and expanded on by Widtsoe, where he says, “Brothers and sisters, do you read the scriptures as though you were in the place of those writing them 5000 years ago? If not, you need to try doing that.” Widtsoe calls this reading intelligently. Pause and ask yourself questions. What does the author assume that I know that I don’t know? What genre might this be and how does that affect it? As you go through, look for clues, look for notes. Second, take advantage of, to quote the Book of Mormon, the means that God has given us.
That is, BYU has plenty of scholars who have written lots of stuff. There is stuff written on just about every book of the Bible that at least approaches some of these questions. Sometimes less than others. Sometimes not quite as thoroughly as I would like, but at least in the last couple of years there is a lot of good LDS scholarship coming out — whether in journals like BYU Studies or the Religious Educator, symposia, or books. There is a lot of good, faithful, academic information coming out, particularly about the Bible. It’s a very exciting time, so take advantage of what exists that is out there.
Number one, get a modern translation. Number two, learn to ask good questions, and if you have trouble coming up with good questions, you should go look for either Julie Smith’s book on the gospels called Search, Ponder, and Pray, which is a collection of questions or you can get Jim Falconer’s books. He’s a BYU philosophy professor. It’s a series called The Book of Mormon Made Harder, The Old Testament Made Harder, The New Testament Made Harder. It’s about 95% thought questions, and they’re not boring, back of the manual questions, either. They’re thought- provoking, and they will get you going on things to ask and things to look for.
Between getting a new translation and learning to ask questions, a third one logically follows. Write down what you’re learning. Write down the questions you have, write down the information and the answers you find. If you don’t write down what you’re learning, the next time you return to that text it’s probably gone, and you’re starting from scratch again. Whether you want to use the church’s new system where you log in, and it keeps your notes on individual scriptures or whether you want to use an app like Evernote or Notes for iOS or even something like a Microsoft Word file or a paper binder, the important thing is to keep note of what you’re learning and the questions that you haven’t answered, so that you can build on that knowledge and collect it and save it and grow with it.
Amanda Brown: That’s great. Thanks for talking with us today, Ben.
Ben Spackman: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.