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God reveals. The biblical writers interpret God’s revelation.

Those interpretations eventually become the Bible.

The fact that different writers are interpreting God’s revelation at different times, for different reasons, and for different circumstances accounts for why the Bible contains diverse and contradictory points of view.

In a nutshell, that is one of the core points Benjamin D. Sommer makes in his recent book Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (see also here and here).

I’m on spring break this week and trying to do fun things. But I keep coming back to this book. I’m having trouble putting it down.

The book is scholarly but quite readable, and, of course, it is loaded with long, learned citations of the Bible, the history of interpretation, and contemporary scholarship (so please, no simple refutations on the comments section). But one example he turns to, and somewhat briefly because it speaks for itself, is how the Bible handles the Passover meal.

I first came across this issue in graduate school and in reading another important book, Michael Fishbane’s Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel. This issue is one of several that made me realize I had some thinking to do about “What the Bible Is” that would take me well beyond my evangelical/Calvinist training up to that point. (I talk about this for a few pages, too, in The Bible Tells Me So.) 

The issue is that the Passover law is given twice: in Exodus 12 and then in Deuteronomy 16. But they do not agree in details—in fact they contradict each other, and that contradiction is “resolved” in a third passage, 2 Chronicles 35:13.

As Sommer explains it,

Both Exodus 12 and Deuteronomy 16 require all Israelite families to slaughter and consume an animal as a Passover ritual. But they differ on details: Exodus 12.5 stipulates that the offering must be a lamb or kid, while Deuteronomy 16.2 allows one to bring the offering from the flock of the heard—that is, in addition to sheep and goats, large cattle are permissible. Whereas  Exodus 12.8 directs Israelites to roast the offering [and explicitly NOT to boil it or eat it raw], Deuteronomy 16.6-7 require that the offering be boiled. (p. 136)

I would add that Exodus presents the Passover as a family meal whereas Deuteronomy presents it as a pilgrimage meal held in only one place, namely the Temple in Jerusalem.

To sum up:

Exodus 12: roast the lamb or kid (do not boil it) and eat it at home.
Deuteronomy 16boil an animal from the herd and eat it in Jerusalem.

No matter what you do, you’re going to disobey one of these laws.

And then along comes the book of Chronicles, which attempts (somewhat awkwardly but still ingeniously) to harmonize at least one aspect of the two laws: “They boiled the Passover offering in fire, in accordance with the law,” the underlined phrase alerting us to the fact that this author feels some obligation to account for both laws in order to be “in accordance with the law.”

Sommer’s point is that biblical authors, though they believed that legal obligations were central, nevertheless adapted—interpreted—God’s revelation as they saw fit. But—and this is Sommer’s point—we should not think of the later text of Deuteronomy messing with the original, authoritative Passover law in Exodus.

Rather, both Exodus and Deuteronomy—and then 2 Chronicles to follow—are interpreting an original revelation by God uttered on Mt. Sinai that needed to be interpreted because it was flexible and even ambiguous, not a final draft of a constitution, so to speak, as many Christians think of it, but an “utterance” of God that required human engagement to flesh out.

Exodus 12 is not the original that Deuteronomy 16 changed. Exodus is already a needed interpretation of revelation, to which Deuteronomy and Chronicles add their interpretations.

This need to interpret revelation (see the other blog posts linked above) Sommer calls a “participatory” model of revelation. The biblical writers, to put it another way, contribute to the content of revelation by faithfully trying to articulate God’s revelation.

I know this concept can sound a bit abstract (although, we ARE dealing with God, after all). But for my tastes, a “participatory” model of the Bible beats inerrantist models hands down because it does what inerrantist models routinely do not and cannot do: account for how the Bible behaves rather than wishing it were behaving some other way or relying on a few prooftexts to maintain an inerrantist model.

And what is extra-fascinating here is that our biblical authors—while knowing full well these laws cannot be simultaneously obeyed—nevertheless place them all squarely as commands of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai: all 3 are extensions of the original utterance of God and therefore all three are the “Law of Moses.”

If revelation is understood as “participatory,” then accounting for this diversity is not a problem but an invitation.

It is not God speaking in diverse voices, but humans hearing God’s voice differently. And it’s all good.

Make what you will of the Passover laws and the many other similar issues, but how we view the Bible as God’s word, revelatory, authoritative, etc., cannot be ignorant or dismissive of how this Bible actually behaves.

This blog was first posted in February 2017.

Did you enjoy this blog? Curious about the book of Exodus?

Read Pete’s newest book: Exodus for Normal People

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • David Fields says:

    I wonder if the either/or dichotomy, in regards to the Bible as revelation or an interpretation of revelation, is a false one? I’m wrestling with that, since the example of Passover here is likely difficult to accommodate under (at least certain) inerrancy schemas. Could it not be said that God has chosen to reveal God’s-self through this text (that the Spirit superintendents), and this is accomplished precisely by the very human authors who are interpreting for their unique situations? It seems to me this is what the Gospel writers are each doing with the Jesus’ life, yet I would want to maintain that although the writings are not Jesus (and therefore not “the Word” of God in the sense that Jesus is perfectly, perhaps finally, revelatory- Heb 1:1-3), they function in a truly revelatory way for those who will hear/see what God is saying (ie. revealing). For example, when in the Gospel of Mark we read “those who have ears, let them hear”, Mark’s audience is expected- from the written text- to hear and respond to God’s revelation of Jesus even though it now comes through Mark’s retelling of the Jesus story. Don’t know if this makes sense, but it reminds me of the 7 fold witness motif in John’s Gospel and Bauckham’s work on that (can’t remember the reference off the top of my head). The point is only that it seems too hard a statement to me to claim the Bible as an interpretation of revelation (only?).

    • PeteEnns says:

      Sommer is focusing on the Pentateuch where the revelation of Sinai seems to be devoid of specific content. Of course, you’d have to read the book to get the gist. He also engages the history of Jewish interpretation where similar thoughts have been expressed.

  • Leonie says:

    Very interesting passage reference. Had not noticed that discrepancy before .

  • Donald Johnson says:

    I really do not see what the concern is.

    God told the Israelites at Sinai to do X while they were wandering around the Wilderness and God told the Israelites in Moab about 40 years later just before entering the promised land to settle down (and cease wandering) to do Y. X and Y are related but not identical and both cannot be done as stated. What is an Israelite to do some time after Moab? I think this is obvious, do Y and perhaps some X as feasible.

    • PeteEnns says:

      Exod 12:24 stipulates the previous ritual as a “perpetual ordinance” upon entering the land. If it were as easy as you say, Donald, no one would be talking about it.

  • David Chumney says:

    Pete, am now well into Revelation & Authority, and as you’ve observed in several posts, the book is excellent. Some may find the price tag prohibitive, but I think the book is well worth it.
    On what is not an entirely different note, I wonder if you’ve read Daniel Kirk’s new book A Man Attested by God? His thesis that “everything that [the Synoptic] Jesus is and does he does as a human being” (580) could & should have significant implications for those who consider themselves followers of Jesus.

  • Antoine says:

    Thanks for this article Pete!
    I fail to see “boil” in Dt 16.7. For example, the NIV reads “Roast it and eat it…”. Is there an issue of translation?
    Thanks!

    • PeteEnns says:

      Yeah. The NIV blew it. They are avoiding the contradiction.

      • Peter Wolfe says:

        So which versions show the contradiction then? I have checked NIV (roast), NLT (roast), ESV (cook), NASB (cook), KJV (roast), HCSB (cook), ISV (boil)

        • PeteEnns says:

          Hebrew. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that gets obscured in English translations, sometimes for apologetic purposes. See the Jewish Study Bible (JPS) note to Deuteronomy 16:7. Their translation has “cook” but explains that it is really “boil” and that this is “at odds with the earlier stipulation” [in Exodus].

      • Gabriel says:

        Is there a translation that you would recommend that doesn’t ignore contradictions in order to hold the doctrine of Inerrancy?

        • PeteEnns says:

          I think all translations have issues and the very notion of “translation” is tricky. But given that, I have fewer problems with the NRSV.

        • Neil Short says:

          NET Bible notes admit that their translation “cook” in Deuteronomy 16:7 is given in light of Exodus 12 and 2 Chronicles 35:13. They also admit that the same word is translated as “boil” in Exodus 23:19 and 1 Samuel 2:13-15.

    • Teresa says:

      HI there, if you have a look at Strongs concordance the word is translated in several places as seethe and the context makes it clear that it means cooked in a liquid not roasted. Without knowing Hebrew I think this a concordance is the best we can do.
      Teresa

  • Tommy Tso says:

    I also do not see the contradiction in Deut 16:7 in several translations. What is the source material for which Sommer is using?

  • Paul says:

    Why would God care how they cook an animal, or even what animal to cook? Does he like the taste? How does any of that have to do with the quality of human behavior or his capacity to forgive?

    And why can’t the creator of the universe give simple instructions or explain why?

    There is a simple explanation.

  • Neil Short says:

    You didn’t cite the 2 Chronicles passage. Is it 2 Chronicles 35:13?

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