It helps to remember that the Bible was written by men, a very long time ago

The woman’s guide to reading the Bible and staying sane: Part Four

Catherine Cowell
12 min readMay 8

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Photo by Antonino Visalli on Unsplash

Much of the pain that I experienced in facing the sexism in the Bible and its unrelentingly male focus was because I had been taught to assume that the primary voice speaking in the Bible was God’s voice and that God decided what the Bible would be like. If I believe that God chose every word and wrote it as a love letter to his precious children, including me, then the sexism becomes pretty personal. And very hurtful.

The more I’ve learnt about the Bible, the more convinced I have become that seeing the Bible as being written by God in this way doesn’t actually make sense. That realisation helped me to step away from the assumptions and contradictions of biblical inerrancy (discussed in part three of this series), into a clear space, where I could be honest about what we actually read in the Bible. Where I could be honest about the fact that it was written by human beings, more specifically by men, who lived an extremely long time ago in cultures very different from our own.

I never quite signed on the dotted line as biblical inerrantist. Increasingly, though, I realise that I have carried the DNA of that doctrine in my spiritual assumptions and practices. And it really hasn’t been very helpful.

Recognising the humanity of the Bible does not, in my experience, diminish its usefulness and power as a sacred text. It doesn’t stop me encountering God when I read it prayerfully. Rather, it opens up the possibility of discovering added depth and meaning as I start to explore who wrote various parts of it and when and why. And God can speak through that too.

It turns out you can admit the humanity of the Bible and still expect to hear God speak to you through it. Only now, you don’t have to pretend that the gruesome bits either don’t exist or aren’t really gruesome. Instead, you can ask questions about who wrote them and in what context and for what reasons. What was it about those stories that made them worth remembering and repeating to one another? What did they mean for the people at the time? What does this new understanding teach us?

Of course, by now, you might be panicking that I seem to be suggesting we can pick and choose from the Bible, ignoring the bits we don’t like as it suits us. But the truth is, common sense leads us to do that already. Nobody, these days, thinks that it’s a good idea to stone your children to death if they’re disobedient, or to protest outside guest houses that serve black pudding with their breakfasts. Very few churches still tell women that they can’t attend a service without a hat. We all bring wisdom to our reading of the Bible. All I’m suggesting is that we should admit that we’re doing it and embrace the process rather than pretend it isn’t happening.

I am finding this different perspective on the Bible actually quite exciting. I can still read the Bible and see what God might want to say through its pages to me, now, in my cultural context. But new vistas have also opened up. I can also discover more about when it was written and why. I can look at how our understanding has changed over the centuries and the impact that previous understandings might have had. I can see more clearly the impact that my cultural understanding might have on my reading, because I am no longer trying to pretend that I am objectively reading God’s Word without the lenses of my own cultural perspective. That was always a myth anyway. Best of all, I no longer have to make excuses for a patriarchal, violent, tribal, wrathful, misogynistic God. I can look at God through the lens of Jesus. And oh my goodness that’s a relief.

So here are some things about the humanity of the Bible that can illuminate our understanding.

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1. The Bible was written by blokes looking at the world through a male-centric, patriarchal lens

The Bible was written by people. Men, in fact, who lived an extremely long time ago, in cultures very different from our own. Once we admit that the Bible was written by men, living in an ancient patriarchal culture, much of the pain involved in reading it dissipates. It is of its time. It’s still not good that women were ignored and treated appallingly, but we don’t need to imagine that the views reflected by the authors are giving us a window into the character of God.

2. The Bible wasn’t written for us

One of the tragedies of the influence of the concept of biblical inerrancy is that it has tended to make us default to viewing the bible as written for us now. In doing that, we deprive ourselves of a wealth of understanding and scholarship. Trying to read the bible as if it was primarily written for benefit of twenty first century western Christians and ignoring the fact that it’s a diverse collection of writings written over centuries, a very long time ago, leaves you trying to extricate yourself from various awkward tangles that don’t arise if you take into account the fact that the bible was written by real men, living as long ago as the iron age, of imperfect understanding and morals, who were recording their growing understanding of their lives, their culture and their God.

We so easily forget how different our perspective is on the world to that of the Biblical authors. We forget that the Bible is really ancient. Opinions vary, but the oldest writings of the Old Testament probably date from around 1200 BC and are based on oral traditions that are far older than that. So the Bible was written between two and three thousand years ago.

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That’s a very long time. Our understanding of just about everything has changed since then. When we have arguments about whether or not the world was really created in seven days, we are speaking as the inhabitants of a round world, orbiting an average star on one of the arms of a smallish spiral galaxy in a vast, 15 billion year old cosmos.

The Mesopotamians who first told the story, inhabited a disc like world, underneath a sky dome that protected the earth and the sun and the moon and the stars from the raging seas above and around them. They lived in the iron age. They didn’t have DNA or atoms or Starbucks.

They didn’t — and this is important — have the same notion of truth. We are used to the idea of research and investigation. Of being able to use scientific enquiry to work out the physical facts of the world around us. We are used to police investigations that use forensic evidence to help uncover the truth of what exactly happened, double blind trials to work out whether a medicine works or not, the Hubble Telescope sending us pictures of the cosmos, almost every significant event in our recent history being recorded on film.

This modern outlook feeds our obsession with wanting to know the literal truth of the exact events recorded in the Bible. I’m not saying that the writers of the Bible didn’t care about historical facts. They obviously did. They were recording their history. But they didn’t share the modern obsession that makes it so important for biblical inerrantists to find ways of accounting for anything that looks like a factual discrepancy.

How do we know that the compilers of the Biblical texts didn’t have the same obsession with whether or not every detail of every story was actually, literally true or not? We know, because they would have done their editing differently. They would have sorted out the discrepancies and left us in no doubt. But they didn’t. Instead, they frequently chose to include differing accounts of the same events. They made sure that the various traditions and stories from different communities all found a place. Inclusion and kinship trumped literalism.

Stories are great. You can come back to a story time and again and find different truth within it. Its narrative meaning isn’t diminished by whether or not it literally happened. You can derive moral meaning from The Lord of the Rings. It doesn’t matter that Middle Earth doesn’t actually exist. That’s the power of story.

Take the gospels. You can tell the story of something Jesus did or you can tell a story that Jesus told and you can find a rich seam of meaning in either. This power of story was understood by the writers of the Biblical texts.

And this is the genius of the Bible. It tells its truth largely through poetry and story. And poetry and story are timeless.

So we have two horizons through which we can view what we’re . We can learn about when a story was written and what it meant to the people at the time. That gives us one horizon. But then we can look again through our own eyes, from our perspective, and find fresh meaning. And that gives us a second horizon. We might live in a different cosmos to the ancient Mesopotamians, but we walk the same earth. Our hearts work the same. We love and hate and laugh and grieve. We are awed by creation and we yearn for transcendence.

This means that I can read the stories of the women in the Bible, for example, and see them from the perspective of the time, as far as my historical knowledge and imagination allows. Then I can look with my own 21st Century eyes and find ideas and resonances that are still true for me and for now. I can see universal themes about what it is like to be a woman, in a male centric society, seeking to walk with God.

3. The Bible points forward but it isn’t pointing from here

The texts of the Bible are deeply rooted in their own time and context, while also pointing forwards towards something better. The revelation within the Bible is progressive and ongoing. Remember God asking Abraham to take his only son, Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice him? What kind of God would ask someone to take their child onto a mountain and sacrifice them? But Abraham lived in a culture where child sacrifice was expected. If you read the story in Genesis, you will notice that Abraham didn’t argue with God about this at all. In his world, a god expecting sacrifices was entirely normal. For us, reading the story now, the shocking part is that God should make such as request of someone. For Abraham, the shocking part was that God didn’t actually allow him to go through with it. He got to the top of the mountain and God has provided a ram to be slaughtered instead.

On that day, Abraham learnt that sacrificing your kids was not something God wanted. This gruesome incident helped Abraham’s people to move away from child sacrifice towards something better. For us, looking back, it’s a horrible story. Truly gruesome. For Abraham, it was grace-filled, revolutionary move forwards. Imagine the relief of knowing that your religion is never again going to demand of you that your offspring are slaughtered to appease your god.

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To use an analogy, think, for a moment, about locally produced, organic, outdoor reared pork. If you’re a meat eater, you can feel virtuous about seeking out a local farm shop that will provide you with such a thing. Factory farming, after all, is horrible and cruel. You might even visit the farm and smile at the happy pigs in their field.

Now imagine you are a teenager living in the year 2430. Your society moved away from the consumption of meat about two hundred years ago believing the slaughter of animals for food to be deeply immoral. Your diet, like everyone else’s, is exclusively vegan. While doing some research for school, you find the blog of a twenty first century organic pig farmer. The farmer proudly describes his fields and his happy pigs, and even includes a picture of the hog roast he kindly did for the local summer fayre. Outraged and revulsed, you go and find your mother and say, “You won’t believe this! People used to keep pigs locked up in fields, so that they could kill them and eat them!” You are not remotely impressed by the happy pigs in the lovely field. You are disgusted and appalled.

Often, when we’re reading the Bible, we are the religious equivalent of our imaginary 25th century vegan. To understand what a huge step forward organic free range pork represents, she needs to imagine herself back in our time. If she does that, she can see that there is a progression from factory farming, where animal welfare isn’t even on the radar, to outdoor reared pork, where it is. She can see that this is a good step forward. She can also see that this greater empathy for animals points towards choosing not to eat them at all. She can stand, in her imagination, with the pig farmer, and look forward to her own time when eating meat has stopped.

Sometimes we can see where the Bible writers were moving towards a new understanding, but hadn’t quite got there before the canon was decided and the Bible declared ‘finished’. Slavery is a good example of this. We know that slavery is wrong. But the biblical writers, even in the New Testament, hadn’t got to that understanding. Paul did not definitively condemn slavery. But he did see slaves as being equal to their masters in God’s eyes. He encouraged slave owners to treat slaves well and he himself treated them with dignity. If you’re looking for a specific biblical passage condemning slavery, you won’t find one. The Christians whose faith led them to fight the institution of slavery were doing so based on the principles that they could see in the Bible and the direction in which it was pointing.

Similarly, to understand what the Bible says about women, we need to stand in the time of the Biblical writers, in our imagination, and see the direction in which the texts are pointing. Sometimes it’s surprisingly progressive for its time. Sometimes it’s lamentably unreconstructed and there is a very long way to go.

So the Bible is both human and inspired. Both beautiful and timeless and grotesque and ancient. All those things are true at once, which can be a bit frustrating. Women tend to get the sharp end of its humanness, which, as we’ve seen, can be incredibly painful.

When we pick up a Bible, we hold in our hands a diverse collection of ancient writings, masterfully woven together. It is primitive. It comes from times and places very unlike our own. And yet its stories and poetry and wisdom still touch our hearts. Even its most ancient, foreign, unreconstructed texts often point towards something bigger and truer and continue to speak to us in quite profound ways all these millennia later.

Is the Bible a collection of very human, ancient documents? Yes. Does the Bible bear the hallmarks of divine inspiration? Yes. Absolutely. Does it make sense to believe that God would take the risk of allowing something as important as the scriptures to be written by real people without sending an angel to dictate every single word or edit out the awkward bits? To use a very first century metaphor, I would simply observe that God seems to be in the habit of entrusting treasure to jars of clay.

A couple of other series that might pique your interest. First, one about facing the sexism in the Bible honestly:

And secondly, a series looking at the ways in which the Bible shows us the Divine Feminine:

If you enjoyed this, you might like my Loved Called Gifted podcast, available on most podcast platforms, or you can find it here.

I offer spiritual direction and coaching. The Loved Called Gifted course, available online and in person, will help you to discover your life calling. Discover these things and other bits and pieces on my website.

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Catherine Cowell

Adoptive parent, follower of Jesus, spiritual director, coach, writer. Lover of coffee shops, conversations and scenery