In Praise for Making Sense of the Bible…

“When I think about how many people have been turned off to the Christian faith because of how they mis-read and mis-understand the Bible, I can only say, ‘Thank you Jesus for this book!’ It’s going to help a lot of people.” — Tony Campolo, Founder and President, Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education “In these pages Adam Hamilton exhibits his wise, generous pastoral heart. His exposition of the Bible is wondrously accessible. He combines good scholarship with a light touch and a reassuring sense of humor. The result is a discussion that will permit readers to think again and faithfully about the Bible. Hamilton does not let us forget that he bears witness to the gospel, but gives readers lots of room in which to grapple with the challenge of the Bible as he has grappled with it.” —Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary “Clear, straightforward, lucid, faithful, helpful: this book is a great gift to believers, seekers and anyone who has ever wondered if they would ever be able to understand the Bible. Highly recommended.” —James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. “There are so many books on the Bible. And many of them are terrible -- boring, old, and dry. Adam Hamilton has managed to write a book on the Bible that is honest, relevant, and actually interesting... even captivating. He asks taboo questions and refuses cliche' answers. He invites you to join him on a quest for truth, and even if you don't arrive at the same destination, you will sure enjoy the ride.” —Shane Claiborne, author and activist “Anyone who has ever tried to read the Bible knows that it is a confusing book that raises more questions than it seems to answer. Pastor Adam Hamilton takes the problems of this ancient text seriously, acting as friend and guide to those who seek to read the Bible intelligently and with spiritual insight. With humor and common sense, he walks readers through the pitfalls of fundamentalism and dry scholarship, opening up both the Bible's profound humanity and its wisdom for living.” —Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity After Religion “The Christian Bible has some of the richest and most inspiring passages of all of literature, and we Christians believe it’s where we find the Word of God. But our Scriptures also contain some of the most challenging and confusing texts of all the written word. I can think of no one more adept at bringing out the beauty and authority of Scripture, while also shedding light on the Bible’s most controversial teachings than Adam Hamilton. Making Sense of the Bible is a must read for anyone who is looking for a fuller understanding of the Bible.” —Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners and author of On God’s Side “Too many committed Christians are given only two unacceptable options regarding the Bible: accept it in the fundamentalist way or discard it entirely. If you hope there's a better way to read, live by, and value the Bible, Adam Hamilton has written the book that will help you—and people you know and love. It's understandable. It's honest. It's wise. And it's so, so needed.” —Brian D. McLaren, author of We Make the Road by Walking


Making Sense of the Bible



Love to Stay: Sex, Grace and Commitment When Christians Get It Wrong The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus Forgiveness: Finding Peace through Letting Go Final Words The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem Why: Making Sense of God’s Will 24 Hours That Changed the World Enough: Discovering Joy through Simplicity and Generosity Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White Christianity’s Family Tree Christianity and World Religions Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic Making Love Last a Lifetime Unleashing the Word Leading Beyond the Walls Confronting the Controversies

Making Sense of the Bible
R E D I s COV E r I N G T H E P OW E r O F S C r I p T U r E TO DAY

Adam Hamilton

All Bible quotations from the New Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted. making sense of the bible : Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. Copyright © 2014 by Adam Hamilton. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Harper­ Collins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007. Harper­ Collins books may be purchased for educational, business, or sales promotional use. For information please e-­ mail the Special Markets Department at Harper­Collins website: Harper­Collins®, Publishers. first edition Maps by Beehive Mapping Library of Congress Cataloging-­ in-­ Publication Data Hamilton, Adam. Making sense of the Bible : rediscovering the power of scripture today / Adam Hamilton. — first edition. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. isbn 978–0–06–223496–4 1. Bible—Introductions. I. Title. BS475.3.H3185 2014 220.6'1—dc23 2013047578 14 15 16 17 18  RRD (H)  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

, and HarperOne™ are trademarks of HarperCollins

To my first grandchild, whose birth will occur about the day this book is published, in the hope that she will come to love the Bible, and that in it she will find her defining story.


Section One: The Nature of Scripture
Introduction:  A Disturbing, Wonderful, Perplexing, and Inspiring Book  3 One: What the Bible Is Not  7 Two: A Biblical Geography and Timeline  11  The Old Testament Three: The Old Testament in Fifteen Minutes  23 Four:  Who Wrote the Old Testament, When, and Why  31 Five:  Which Books Made It Into the Old Testament and Why  39 Six: Jesus and the Old Testament  49 Seven:  P rophecy, the Old Testament, and the Early Church  55

 The New Testament Eight: The New Testament in Fifteen Minutes  65 Nine: Reading Someone Else’s Letters  73 Ten: Who Really Wrote Paul’s Letters?  85 Eleven:  How, When, and Why the Gospels Were Written 91 Twelve:  The Perplexing, Puzzling, and Profound John  103 Thirteen:  Which Books Made It into the New Testament and Why  109  Questions About the Nature of Scripture Fourteen: Is the Bible Inspired?  129 Fifteen: Is the Bible the Word of God?  145 Sixteen: How Does God Speak to and Through Us?  153 Seventeen: Is the Bible Inerrant and Infallible?  157 Eighteen: A High View of Scripture?  171

Section Two: M  aking Sense of the Bible’s Challenging Passages
Nineteen:  Science, the Bible, and the Creation Stories  185 Twenty: Were Adam and Eve Real P ­ eople?  195 Twenty-­One: Were There Dinosaurs on the Ark?  199 Twenty-­Two: God’s Violence in the Old Testament  207

Twenty-­Three:  Suffering, Divine Providence, and the Bible  219 Twenty-­Four:  Can We Trust the Gospel Accounts of Jesus?  231 Twenty-­Five: Did Jesus Really Say That?  243 Twenty-­Six:  “No One Comes to the Father Except Through Me”?  247 Twenty-­Seven: Women Need Not Apply  255 Twenty-­E ight: Is It Okay to Get a Tattoo?  261 Twenty-­Nine: Homosexuality and the Bible  265 Thirty: Making Sense of the Book of Revelation  281 Thirty-­One:  Toward an Honest and Reverent View of Scripture  291 Thirty-­Two:  Postscript: Reading the Bible for All Its Worth  301 Bibliography  311 Acknowledgments  313 Notes  315

chapter 21

Were There Dinosaurs on the Ark?

hildren often ask questions about the Bible, forcing their parents to think. A woman wrote me recently with a question put to her by her daughter: “Mommy,” her daughter asked, “were there dinosaurs on Noah’s ark?” Now, this child was reading the Bible, as we would expect. There was the Creation story, and then, a few chapters later, was the Flood. Though Genesis doesn’t mention dinosaurs, science does, and we can visit their fossilized remains at any museum of natural history. Noah takes two of every kind of animal on the ark. The child reasons that this must have included dinosaurs. But the five-­ year-­ old continues to think about this: “How did they fit on the ark?” “Wouldn’t the dinosaurs have eaten all the other animals, and even the p ­ eople, who were on the ark?” As someone who accepts the scientific consensus on the age of the earth and the timeline of various life-­ forms on our planet, the answer is simple: Dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago.



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Homo sapiens did not come on the scene until around 200,000 years ago. No, there were no dinosaurs on the ark. But let’s consider the story of Noah’s ark for a moment more, because other questions have been raised, not by children but by thoughtful adults, that might lead us to reconsider how the story should be read. Here are a few of those questions: Is the story historical? Was there a Noah? Did flood waters really cover the whole earth and destroy every living thing except what was on the ark? How do we reckon with the morality of God sending universal destruction such that every terrestrial creature, including every human being, was destroyed? This story seems harsh and unjust to many who read it. And what do we make of the connection between the story of Noah and flood stories that appear in other ancient cultures, including one in the Epic of Gilgamesh (a story found among many groups in the ancient Near East that is very similar to the Noah story, though dating possibly to several hundred years before Moses)? Before answering these questions, let’s take a look at the story of Noah and the ark found in Genesis 6–9. Grab a Bible and turn to Genesis 6:5–6, where a foundation is laid for the story of the flood. God looks upon the earth and sees that humanity has become evil, their hearts filled with evil thoughts. Verse 11 expands upon this indictment: “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” There is a moving statement in verse 6 that captures God’s response to the violence human beings were committing on the earth: “And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This verse is a profound statement about God and the way our behavior and thoughts affect God. In the New International Version, verse 6b says God’s “heart was filled with pain.”

Were There Dinosaurs on the Ark?  201

I’m reminded of the comments of Susan Klebold, whose son Dylan, along with Eric Harris, took the lives of twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School in April 1999. Ten years after the crime, she wrote a powerful essay titled, “I Will Never Know Why,” in which she said, “In the weeks and months that followed the killings, I was nearly insane with sorrow for the suffering my son had caused. . . . It was impossible to believe that someone I had raised could cause so much suffering.”1 This is the backdrop for the story of God’s sending a deluge to destroy the earth: human beings doing horribly violent things to one another—­ horribly evil things—­ and God being grieved that he had created the race at all. This story leads me to think about what paleoanthropologists believe happened after the advent of the human spirit, with its expansion of language, culture, higher-­ level reasoning, music, and more complex tools. With these advances came more sophisticated weapons. It was not long after this time that the Neanderthals, a close but less advanced cousin of modern humans, began the long road toward extinction. There are various theories about why the Neanderthals became extinct—­ from climate change to interbreeding with modern humans. But many believe it was the result of violence committed by the more intelligent and better armed modern humans. I don’t think the story of Noah and the Flood was written to teach us ancient history. It was intended to teach us something about God and about ourselves. But I do think this story is anchored in history, that its occurrence across multiple ancient cultures testifies to a period of massive flooding, and that it is possible these floods came at the end of the last Ice Age. At the close of the last Ice Age, geologists tell us that major flooding occurred across the Northern Hemisphere. Ice sheets


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melted, creating shallow inland seas. In certain places, ice dams created massive bodies of water. When the dams eventually broke, the force of the water destroyed everything in its path. An example in the United States is the Columbia River Gorge in Washington and Oregon. There were as many as forty, perhaps more, massive floods during a two-­ thousand-­ year period, which released massive amounts of water, as much as three hundred feet deep, with a force that carved out major gorges, created the Scablands of Washington, and destroyed all life in their path. These floodwaters did not cover all the earth as the Noah story suggests, but the magnitude of the flooding was so great and destructive that it was remembered as a flood that covered the entire earth. Similar phenomena happened in various parts of the world at the end of the last Ice Age. It seems likely that these events were remembered and passed on by humans living during these times but only written down long afterward, with the advent of written language around 3200 BC in the ancient Near East and 600 BC in the Americas. The flooding from the last Ice Age seems mostly to have occurred during the period from around 15,000 BC to 10,000 BC. This would explain why ­ people around the world seem to share a common story about a massive flood. Hence, to answer one of the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter, the Epic of Gilgamesh and Noah’s ark reflect the same common story, retold in the light of differing theologies. Many Chris­ tians would ask, “Why not simply accept that the story of Noah was literally true, rather than deferring to the geologist’s account of flooding from the last Ice Age?” If you research Noah’s ark and geology online, you’ll find hundreds of websites sponsored by Young Earth Creationists who seek to make the geological evidence support their view of a literal worldwide flood that covered all the earth for a short period of time. If you don’t read the

Were There Dinosaurs on the Ark?  203

arguments on the other side of the issue, it is easy to find the YEC explanations compelling. But in my opinion, the evidence in favor of an old earth and against complete flooding of our earth in recent history seems overwhelming. 2 So, is the Noah story true or not? Great question. As many ask it—­ meaning, did it happen exactly as recorded in the Bible?—­ the answer is “sort of.” Did Noah bring two of each of the millions of species of animals that otherwise would not have survived a global flood onto an ark? No, I don’t believe so. Did water cover the earth to twenty feet above the highest mountains? Again, I don’t think so. But were there localized floods that humans remembered and which were survived by some? Could there have been a Noah who built a boat and brought his family and some animals on the boat as an ice dam was preparing to break? Maybe. Did God destroy every animal and every human being on the planet except Noah and those on his boat 4,300 years ago, or ever? I don’t think so. The story seems to me to be anchored in historical events that happened at the end of the last Ice Age but is not entirely historically accurate. That’s one way to answer the question, “Is the story of Noah’s ark true?” But in a more important sense the answer is “Yes, the story is absolutely true!” Like the Creation story, this story teaches profound truths. The point of its being recorded in the Bible wasn’t to give us an account of ancient history. Earlier in this book, I mentioned Paul’s words concerning the point of what was written in scripture. He notes in 1 Corinthians 10:11, speaking of other Old Testament stories, “These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.” And in Romans 15:4, he writes regarding a passage from the Psalms, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”


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Paul’s words substantiate the idea that the point of Noah’s story was not to teach history, or geology, but to teach us about God and God’s will for our lives. So, what truths does this story intend to teach us? I’ll mention a few, and then encourage you to reread it for yourself and see what you think. As I noted earlier, I am touched by Genesis 6:6, where we read that God’s “heart was filled with pain” as he looked at the violence human beings committed against one another. “The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth” as a result of their violence and corruption. How this story still speaks of God’s grief over the violence we human beings commit against one another, sometimes in God’s name! When I read Genesis 6, I can’t help but think about the fact that in the last century, when humanity reached the apex of technological development (to that point), over 100 million ­ people died by war and genocide.3 I’m reminded of President Eisenhower’s famous speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1953, shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin. It was a gutsy speech calling for reining in the Cold War:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 ­ people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life

Were There Dinosaurs on the Ark?  205

to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.4

Perhaps the author of the story of Noah and the Flood was trying to make a similar point about violence and war in his time. In addition to seeing ourselves and our society in Noah’s story, we might also see in Noah an exemplar of how we are meant to live, for as the writer of Genesis notes in chapter 6 verse 9, “Noah was a righ­ teous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” The story goes on to illustrate Noah’s righ­ teous­ ness with these words: “Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him” (6:22, 7:5, and 7:9). Many a preacher and Sunday School teacher has noted that Noah teaches us to listen for God’s commands and follow them. The element of this story that children love speaks to God’s character and God’s concern for the animals. The ark was not only meant to save humanity; it was meant to save the animals as well. God cares about saving the animals and not just the p ­ eople on this ark of salvation. In a day and time when so many nonreligious people care so deeply about their animals, the story might be an ­ interesting way to connect with them, demonstrating God’s love and concern for their animals. My point is that this story is filled with truth that is relevant for us today, but the important truth found in this story has little to do with the size of Noah’s ship, the number of animals it could contain, or whether the floodwaters literally covered the entire earth. Once more we find in Genesis an archetypal story that reveals who God is and who God calls us to be. There’s one final word I’d leave you with related to the stories in Genesis: The stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are


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typically seen by mainline scholars as the foundational stories of the scripture. They are told less to inform us of ancient history than to teach us about the human condition and about God who created us. As we read them, we are meant to worry less about whether they really happened in exactly the way they are described, and more about the truths God intends us to see in them. Am I suggesting that none of the Old Testament stories are historically accurate? Of course not. There is much in the Old Testament that describes Israel’s story and God’s dealings with his p ­ eople. But the point of the ancient stories preserved in Genesis is less about offering history than about teaching us about God, about ourselves, and about God’s will for our lives. As Paul wrote, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

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