Evans knows firsthand how a relationship with the Bible can be as real and as complicated as a relationship with a family member or close friend. In Inspired, Evans explores contradictions and questions from her own experiences with the Bible, including:
- If the Bible was supposed to explain the mysteries of life, why does it leave the reader with so many questions?
- What does it mean to be chosen by God?
- To what degree did the Holy Spirit guide the preservation of these narratives, and is there something sacred to be uncovered beneath all these human fingerprints?
- If the Bible has given voice to the oppressed, why is it also used as justification by their oppressors?
Drawing on the best in biblical scholarship and using her well-honed literary expertise, Evans examines some of our favorite Bible stories and possible interpretations, retelling them through memoir, original poetry, short stories, and even a short screenplay.
Undaunted by the Bible's most difficult passages and unafraid to ask the hard questions, Evans wrestles through the process of doubting, imagining, and debating the mysteries surrounding Scripture. Discover alongside Evans that the Bible is not a static text, but a living, breathing, captivating, and confounding book that can equip us and inspire us to join God's loving and redemptive work in the world.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Our Bible was forged from a crisis of faith. Though many of its stories, proverbs, and poems were undoubtedly passed down through oral tradition, scholars believe the writing and compilation of most of Hebrew Scripture, also known as the Old Testament, began during the reign of King David and gained momentum during the Babylonian invasion of Judah and in the wake of the Babylonian exile, when Israel was occupied by that mighty pagan empire.
One cannot overstate the trauma of this exile. The people of Israel had once boasted a king, a temple, and a great expanse of land — all of which they believed had been given to them by God and ensured to them forever. But in the sixth century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying both the city and its temple. Many of the Jews who lived there were taken captive and forced into the empire's service. Others remained, but without a king, without a place of worship, without a national identity. This catastrophic event threw everything the people of Israel believed about themselves and about their God into question. Many assumed their collective sins were to blame and that with repentance their honor might be restored. Others feared God had abandoned them completely. Priests wondered how to conduct rituals and sacrifices without a temple or an altar, and parents worried their children would grow enamored by the wealth and power of Babylon and forget their own people's most cherished values.
The words of Psalm 137:1–6 capture the agony:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
It should come as no surprise to any writer that all this emotional suffering produced some quality literature. Jewish scribes got to work, pulling together centuries of oral and written material and adding reflections of their own as they wrestled through this national crisis of faith. If the people of Israel no longer had their own land, their own king, or their own temple, what did they have?
They had their stories. They had their songs. They had their traditions and laws. They had the promise that the God who set all of creation in order, who told Abraham his descendants would outnumber the stars, who rescued the Hebrews from slavery, who spoke to them from Mount Sinai, and who turned a shepherd boy into a king, would remain present with them no matter what. This God would be faithful.
Today we still return to our roots in times of crisis; we look to the stories of our origins to make sense of things, to remember who we are. The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned the story of how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
Contrary to what many of us are told, Israel's origin stories weren't designed to answer scientific, twenty-first-century questions about the beginning of the universe or the biological evolution of human beings, but rather were meant to answer then-pressing, ancient questions about the nature of God and God's relationship to creation. Even the story of Adam and Eve, found in Genesis 2 and 3, is thought by many scholars to be less a story about human origins and more a story about Israel's origins, a symbolic representation of Israel's pattern of habitation, disobedience, and exile, set in primeval time.
My friend Kerlin, an Episcopal priest with blue hair, once said the thing she loves most about the Bible is that it sweeps her into an epic story in which she is not the central character. As much as we may wish them to be, our present squabbles over science, politics, and public school textbooks were not on the minds of those Jewish scribes seeking to assure an oppressed and scattered people they were still beloved by God. To demand that the Bible meet our demands is to put ourselves and our own interests at the center of the story, which is one of the first traps we must learn to avoid if we are to engage the Bible with integrity or care.
Indeed, one cannot seriously engage the origin stories of the Pentateuch — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — without encountering ancient and foreign assumptions about the nature of reality. The first creation account of Genesis 1, for example, presumes the existence of a firmament, a vast dome into which the stars and moon were affixed, believed by the Hebrews and their ancient neighbors to keep great cascades of water above the earth from crashing into the land below. An entire day is devoted to the creation of this "vault between the waters" (Genesis 1:6), with no mention of the fact that modern science proves no such atmospheric contraption exists.
In addition to sharing a cosmological worldview with their neighbors, the Jewish scribes who compiled the Hebrew Scripture shared literary sensibilities with them. If, like me, you read the Epic of Gilgamesh in college, you already know there are striking similarities between that Akkadian poem, which likely predates Genesis, and the story of Noah. Both involve a worldwide flood and a noble character who builds a boat, rescues the earth's animals, releases birds to see if the waters have subsided, and eventually survives when the boat comes to rest on a mountain. Questions regarding which community borrowed from which are less important than simply acknowledging the fact that Israel shared a conceptual world with its neighbors and used similar literary genres and stories to address issues of identity and purpose.
"It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis," wrote Peter Enns, "to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview, such as whether the days were literal or figurative, or whether the days of creation can be lined up with modern science, or whether the flood was local or universal. The question that Genesis is prepared to answer is whether Yahweh, the God of Israel, is worthy of worship."
You don't have to be a biblical scholar to recognize these genre categories for what they are. In the same way we automatically adjust our expectations when a story begins with "Once upon a time" versus "The Associated Press is reporting ...," we instinctively sense upon reading the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah's ark that these tales of origin aren't meant to be straightforward recitations of historical fact. The problem isn't that liberal scholars are imposing novel interpretations on our sacred texts; the problem is that over time we've been conditioned to deny our instincts about what kinds of stories we're reading when those stories are found in the Bible. We've been instructed to reject any trace of poetry, myth, hyperbole, or symbolism even when those literary forms are virtually shouting at us from the page via talking snakes and enchanted trees. That's because there's a curious but popular notion circulating around the church these days that says God would never stoop to using ancient genre categories to communicate. Speaking to ancient people using their own language, literary structures, and cosmological assumptions would be beneath God, it is said, for only our modern categories of science and history can convey the truth in any meaningful way.
In addition to once again prioritizing modern, Western (and often uniquely American) concerns, this notion overlooks one of the most central themes of Scripture itself: God stoops. From walking with Adam and Eve through the garden of Eden, to traveling with the liberated Hebrew slaves in a pillar of cloud and fire, to slipping into flesh and eating, laughing, suffering, healing, weeping, and dying among us as part of humanity, the God of Scripture stoops and stoops and stoops and stoops. At the heart of the gospel message is the story of a God who stoops to the point of death on a cross. Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime. This is who God is. This is what God does.
While the circumstances of the exiled Israelites may seem far removed from us today, the questions raised by that national crisis of faith remain as pressing as ever: Why do bad things happen to good people? Will evil and death continue to prevail? What does it mean to be chosen by God? Is God faithful? Is God present? Is God good?
Rather than answering these questions in propositions, the Spirit spoke the language of stories, quickening the memories of prophets and the pens of scribes to call a lost and searching people to gather together and remember:
Remember how in the beginning, God put everything in order and made the whole cosmos a temple? Remember how we are created in God's image, as stewards, not slaves? Remember how Adam and Eve disobeyed, how Cain and Abel fought, how all the people of the earth grew so rebellious and cruel that God regretted creating the world in the first place? Remember how one family's faithfulness was enough to save them from the Great Flood?
Remember how God promised an elderly Abraham his descendants would outnumber the stars? Remember how Sarah laughed? Remember how God chose a peopleless nomad, a second-born son, a stuttering runaway, and a little shepherd boy to create, liberate, and rule a nation? Remember how that nation is named for a man who limped from wrestling with God?
Remember how God saw the suffering of the banished Hagar, the unloved Leah, and the oppressed Hebrew slaves? Remember how Pharaoh's mighty army drowned in the sea?
Remember the desert? Remember the manna? Remember the water from rock?
Remember how it is our God who said, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine" (Isaiah 43:1 NRSV)?
Remember how this God has been faithful?
This collective remembering produced the Bible as we know it and explains why it looks the way it does — foreign yet familiar, sacred yet indelibly smudged with human fingerprints. The Bible's original readers may not share our culture, but they share our humanity, and the God they worshipped invited them to bring that humanity to their theology, prayers, songs, and stories.
And so we have on our hands a Bible that includes psalms of praise but also psalms of complaint and anger, a Bible that poses big questions about the nature of evil and the cause of suffering without always answering them. We have a Bible that says in one place that "with much wisdom comes much sorrow" (Ecclesiastes 1:18) and in another "wisdom is supreme — so get wisdom" (Proverbs 4:7 HCSB). We have a Bible concerned with what to do when your neighbor's donkey falls into a pit and exactly how much cinnamon to add to anointing oil. We have a Bible that depicts God as aloof and in control in one moment, and vulnerable and humanlike in the next, a Bible that has frustrated even the best systematic theologians for centuries because it's a Bible that so rarely behaves.
In short, we have on our hands a Bible as complicated and dynamic as our relationship with God, one that reads less like divine monologue and more like an intimate conversation. Our most sacred stories emerged from a rift in that relationship, an intense crisis of faith. Those of us who spend as much time doubting as we do believing can take enormous comfort in that.
The Bible is for us too.
* * *
I come from mountain people. In the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, forty winding miles from the closest city and ensconced in a cold Appalachian holler, lies a graveyard where most of my extended family is buried. The dates on the tombstones stretch back to before the Civil War, and the inscriptions conjure memories of Christmases at my great-grandmother's farmhouse when a baffling mix of aunts and uncles, cousins, and neighbors told stories about my ancestors — Dewy, Buck, Wick, Ethel, Tarp, Cordi, Freddie, and Toots — whose legends were as strange as their names.
Take Uncle Wick and Aunt Ethel, for example. As the story goes, one hot July morning, Uncle Wick and a gaggle of local boys got themselves some discount fireworks from an out-of-towner's tent in Bakersville. Aunt Ethel did not approve. The daughter of a coal miner, she respected explosives too much to abide anyone horsing around with them, so she told Uncle Wick he'd have to toss all those Roman candles and bottle rockets in the creek if he expected to get any supper that night. But Uncle Wick, being stubborn, and probably a little sexist, waved her off and went about his scheming. That evening, as the moon rose and the drinks flowed, he filled the front lawn with friends and family and put on a fireworks show worthy of the National Mall.
Sure enough, not ten minutes into the revelry, Uncle Wick came charging into the kitchen, a bloody handkerchief pressed to his hand, screaming, "Ethel! Ethel! I done blowed my finger off!"
Without even looking up from her sink of dishes, Aunt Ethel replied, "Well goody, goody."
That response became so enshrined in our family parlance, I heard it every time I fought my mother on wearing a jacket to school only to come home complaining about the cold bus, or looked for sympathy after flunking a test for which I refused to study, or spent a weekend nursing a sunburn, having lied about wearing sunblock. Mom would give me a wry smile and say, "Well goody, goody," just like her mother and her mother's mother before that. I rolled my eyes, but the joke reminded me I belong to a long line of unflappable southern women.
Even my middle name, Grace, harks back to my great-grandmother, a woman whose dry wit charmed all but the crustiest farmhands, and whose picture in the family photo album shows her frowning in front of the smokehouse, holding a hog's head by the ears. Grace was the first woman in Mitchell County to drive a car, and her daughter, my grandmother, was one of the first to go to college. I once scaled a small boulder to get a picture of a dewy leaf for Instagram, so clearly the legacy of valor continues.
Origin stories take all sorts of forms, from the story of why the women of my family say "goody, goody," to the explanation for why there's a rusty toilet seat hanging from your grandfather's barn door, to the legends that urge us to idealize our nation's founders, to the reason your Jewish neighbors dip celery in salt water at their Passover meal each year. So ubiquitous they can blend into the scenery, origin stories permeate our language, our assumptions, our routines.
An eighteenth-century English naval officer once raised a telescope to his blind eye to ensure he'd miss the signal from his superior ordering him to withdraw from battle, and two hundred years later, we still talk about politicians "turning a blind eye" to corruption. My friends and I drink at a place called Monkey Town Brewery because eighty years ago our town prosecuted a substitute teacher for presenting the theory of evolution to a biology class, bringing the "Trial of the Century" to Dayton, Tennessee. The ghosts of old gods haunt our calendars — Thursday marking "Thor's Day" — and the heroes of centuries past still hunt and battle and dance across our night sky. Cultures worldwide treasure their creation myths, those passed-down tales that orient a people in the universe and explain how it all began, whether it was from a lotus risen from the navel of Vishnu (Hindu), or out of the belly of the Rainbow Serpent (Aboriginal), or from the Spider Woman guiding the lost to a new world (Hopi). Americans love stories about billion-dollar companies that started in garages and superheroes bitten by radioactive insects.
Origin stories sometimes serve to protect us from uncomfortable truths, like the way nostalgia for the first Thanksgiving tends to charm white folks out of confronting our ancestors' mistreatment of indigenous people. Or they can offer dignity and hope to the suffering the way recounting Israel's deliverance from Egypt has comforted the Jews through exiles and diasporas and African Americans through slavery and the civil rights movement. Good therapists encourage clients to engage their "storied selves," as research shows people who can construct the events of their lives into redemptive narratives have healthier outcomes. You can pay a consultant several thousand dollars to help your organization determine its "guiding story."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Inspired"
Copyright © 2018 Rachel Held Evans.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Temple 1
1 Origin Stories 7
The Well 29
2 Deliverance Stories 35
The Walls 59
3 War Stories 61
The Debate 81
4 Wisdom Stories 91
The Beast 113
5 Resistance Stories 115
The Water 141
6 Gospel Stories 147
The Sea 165
7 Fish Stories 175
The Letter 191
8 Church Stories 199
About the Author 227