What do we say to some of the hard questions skeptics raise about the Bible? Some of the Bible is hard to understand and gives us pretty tough questions to answer. Dan Kimball, author of How Not to Read the Bible, goes through some of these hard questions and gives answers that make sense. Join Scott and Sean for this insightful interview about his new book.

Dan Kimball is Pastor for Mission and Theology at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California and professor at George Fox University. He also hosts The Bible Project podcast

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics.

Scott Rae: I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics.

Sean McDowell: Today we have with us a first time guest by the name of Dan Kimball. He's an author. He is on staff at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California. He's also on faculty at Western Seminary and he's written a great new book that is so in line with what we do on the Think Biblically podcast because the title is How (Not) to Read the Bible. Catchy, important title. And let me just read the subtitle. It's says, Making Sense of the Anti-Women, Anti-science, Pro-violence, Pro-slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture. Dan, we're glad you're on the show. Why would you write a book dealing with so many controversial topics like this?

Dan Kimball: Yep. Well, you mentioned that I am on church staff and I have been in Santa Cruz, California, which is a pretty progressive town, a beach town up north, where you are, and I almost can't help but write this book because being in 31 years of ministry, youth leader and young adult leader, then we planted Vintage Faith Church right near the university, these are the very questions that keep coming up over and over and over and over again from both Christians and non-Christians. And they're just... It's like flooding the conversations. And the saddest part, it's not just Bible trivia, it is because it is causing people to doubt faith, leave faith, and not be interested in faith because of these very topics that are coming out of the Bible. So that was my main motivation was like, I almost couldn't help write it because so many people are asking these kind of questions.

Scott Rae: So Dan, I too really appreciate you tackling all these subjects and putting them in one place for people to have as a resource. For our listeners, the book is just all about those things that are in the Bible, a lot of them are in the Mosaic Law that just sound to the average modern person in the 21st century to be just plain weird. Some of these I think you explain really well as misreadings of the biblical text. Some you explain as not so much misreadings, but misapplications of the text, but some of these they're just really tough to explain. So what I think we'd like to do if we could is just sort of start tackling the ones that you raise and some of them are really hard. So let me ask you just the first one, Exodus 21:7 allows a man to sell his daughter into slavery. How can that possibly be moral? I think is the question that's often raised.

Dan Kimball: I think before I get into that with a response, I think what's so important and why I appreciate what Biola does and other Bible teaching schools is behind all of these questions, you got to ask yourself like why are these questions coming up now? Right? Because to me, if we start understanding why these questions are being asked, then we can even answer them in a way that will be more understandable and listenable, I guess, would be the answer.

Dan Kimball: And I want to just read a Bible verse that just popped up in Bible when thinking about this. There's the story in Judges 2 when Israel was brought into the new land and there was a change of leadership and there's a verse that's so haunting to me because I think it's the reason these kind of questions are being asked is that it says after Moses, then Joshua, they knew the Lord and what he had done. And then it gets to verse 10. After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who neither knew the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. And then it says, as a result, then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and then they forsook the God of their ancestors and started worshiping other gods.

Dan Kimball: And I do think I'd almost want to rephrase this verse. And it's like after that whole generation, that was church-attending, Bible-believing Christians, another generation grew up who neither knew the Lord, but they knew lyric songs, worship songs, they knew church attendance, they knew types of church activities, but I don't think they really understand the truths of the scriptures and we're in a like... That's why I keep saying almost like a crisis because without knowing the story of God in the scriptures, you see something like the slavery question that you just asked or the shrimp or all of these other [inaudible 00:05:07] God, anti-shrimp and different things.

Dan Kimball: It's really the underneath part is my biggest concern is that churches and Christian leaders and parents and grandparents have to be more concerned about making sure their kids are getting educated in love earlier on because I think these questions have always been in the Bible. They're just surfacing now for a bunch of different reasons. So I do think that Judges 2 really kind of explains a lot what's going on today. I'd like to, if I could slip this back, what do you two think being at Biola Talbot and working with younger students?

Scott Rae: I thought we were supposed to ask the questions here.

Dan Kimball: No, I know.

Scott Rae: I think that what you point out from Judges I think certainly is a factor. And I think in general, I think there is in past generations that had more of a Judeo-Christian consensus in the culture, there was much more trust in the Bible than there is today. I think there's just been a general greater skepticism about the Bible. I think some of that has to do with where the culture has moved on sexuality. I think that's been a flashpoint that has caused people to look a little bit more carefully at some of the things the Bible teaches and to think, "Hey, that's weird. That doesn't make sense. That's counterintuitive." So that'd be my take on it.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, I'm with you that there's underlying issues that are often not dealt with. And the way you organize this book is that these memes that are passed around on social media, they simplify these complex issues and they bring disservice the lack of biblical understanding, the lack of the ability to interpret the scriptures and understand God's story and then hijacks these kids' faith. So I loved it in the book. You've tackled some of these. So let me swing it back. I'm dying to know now what you think about Exodus 21:7 because this is a passage I've been asked. I wouldn't sell my daughter into slavery almost no matter what and yet this is held up as a model in Exodus 21:7. What say you?

Dan Kimball: Yep. Well, at the beginning of the book, I go through some basic Bible study principles and one of them is like never read a Bible verse, that's Greg Koukl, our friend, out of context. Always examine what's going on. John Walton, a professor at Wheaton, has a phrase, "The Bible was not written to us but for us," which means we have to go into the original recipients of who this was written for, look at their world, look at their culture, look at the Bible verse, but then expand it out to the rest of that section of the Bible.

Dan Kimball: And the answer about the slavery question, which we could spend 45 minutes just talking on this alone. So I don't want to cheapen the topic of slavery in a 90-second answer. But when you go into that culture, it wasn't selling daughter into slavery. Like we think of the English term slavery. We automatically read into the Bible our definitions through our modern lens. And slavery is evil. It always has been evil. It always will be evil. This isn't in defense of slavery at all. It's going into that world, they didn't have the systems of care for people. There was no welfare and all of these things.

Dan Kimball: And most likely what's going on here, which would've been more common at the time is a family would sell a family member into like the servanthood of another family or a person to work as their servant. And it was actually placing more of a safety net for the child so they wouldn't end up in prostitution or on the street or other types of things. So when you're looking at it, the verse itself certainly sounds horrible and it is a unfortunate situation and I'm glad we have laws and safety things in place so that that doesn't have to happen in today's world. But back then it wasn't slavery like we think of. It wasn't a father like selling his daughter into a van or selling his daughter into all the wicked stuff out there today. It was an entirely different situation. And that's why these memes certainly look convincing, but you got to look deeper into it. That was a very quick answer to an hour-long discussion.

Scott Rae: Well, I think that's helpful to recognize that we have to read the biblical text with the socioeconomic realities of the time foremost in our minds. And that a man selling his daughter into slavery in the biblical world was not the same thing as somebody in another part of the world who might sell a child into human trafficking, something like that. It was different because there was no safety net that existed at the time. A lot of these things that are weird that you described in the scripture come from the Old Testament Law of Moses. So are there some general guidelines that we ought to think about in reading the Mosaic Law that we might read that a little differently than the rest of scripture?

Dan Kimball: Yeah. Like I was just saying, the Bible is a library. It's a collection of books. It was written to different people over 1,500 different years and different genres for different purposes. So we can't just open up the Bible, which I will say a lot of Christians do and we extract things for our own liking and we can create false understanding of God in the other way, like in the positive way sometimes. We can use the Bible incorrectly that way, but in these cases, it's looking at Bible verses that are then used to try to discredit Christianity, discredit the scriptures, discredit God as either fictitious or angry or bizarre with all of these different laws.

Dan Kimball: But to your question, it's going into the world of the ancient Israelites as they were being moved out of Egypt into the promised land and what was going on there. What were the surrounding people groups? There were surrounding people groups that Israel was moving into that were worshiping different gods, false gods in all types of crazy different ways and God was laying down restrictions so that they would not be compromising their faith and start worshiping other false deities in their ways.

Dan Kimball: Now, most of these Mosaic Laws, they sound so bizarre to us, but they wouldn't have sounded bizarre to the original recipients. Like I gave the illustration of in United States law books, there are still laws that are in place. Like there's one that says, it's illegal in Arizona, and allegedly on a lawyer site in Arizona, I read this, it is illegal for anyone in Arizona to this day to keep a donkey and a bathtub, right? That sounds very bizarre to us. But if you go back to what that law was about, you go back to the 1920s I believe it was, there was a flood that occurred, a farmer in a certain part of Arizona had a donkey that he would keep in a bathtub, the flood moved it into some sort of mud basin and they had a very difficult time getting it out. And they were telling the farmer no more keeping the donkey in the bathtub and they actually made a law.

Dan Kimball: So we hear it today with our modern ears and be like, "That's such a bizarre thing." You go back in time, back to Arizona in the 1920s, they've had been, "Oh, farmer Jim, of course, don't keep a donkey in a bathtub." It's things like that. There's a lot in, I think it was Kentucky where it's illegal to this day to keep an ice cream cone in your back pocket. You read that and it sounds absolutely crazy and bizarre to us. You go back to Kentucky at that particular time and you find out that horse thieves were luring horses away from people using ice cream. So then they made a law not to able to do that to prevent horse theft.

Sean McDowell: Amazing.

Dan Kimball: Again, back then, it would've made perfect sense. Today it sounds so bizarre. And that's what's underneath all of these... Most of these laws, they had purpose and meaning and they would've been known as God was instructing the original people group. Today they sound so crazy and it certainly makes good mocking of Christianity in the Bible pulling these things out because the assumption is then you're supposed to still be doing these things today. And it's such a misunderstanding of the Bible and it's... When I talk about this, I can feel my body reacting because it's like madness. Like that's not true. You're using the text of scripture wrong. Don't get fooled.

Dan Kimball: And unfortunately, many people are getting fooled seeing these memes or TikToks. Like that's the difference. There's education going on. I'm old enough now that I've watched this happen. In before, there's always atheists, there's always people that were criticizing scripture and pulling out these verses that are all well-known about, the odd ones and the weird ones, but today there's education happening that has access to every junior hire. Anyone that has TikTok, you go on there, you type in exvangelical and you'll see floods of education saying the Bible is incorrect. That is what's going on today and that's actually the bigger concern than even figuring out some of these verses is we have to be educating earlier what the Bible is so they're not getting their education from TikTok versus their parents, grandparents, and churches.

Sean McDowell: Well, two things on this. Number one, that's why I'm actually on TikTok trying to counter some of these false ideas, but second, that's actually why I loved your book so much is we share an importance of scripture, interpret and write and for the next generation. Now, the first part of this book, before you get into some of these memes you respond to, you do exactly what you've done for us so far. What is the background to the Old Testament law? How do we read the Bible? Sometimes in conversation, people ask me these tough questions and I just have one or two moments to give a response back. So let's go through some of the big issues that you address, some of these tough passages. And admittedly, you're not able to go into the depth that you do in the book and that is required, but maybe give us just one or two points that would help bring the context out of this. So for example, why not cook a goat in its mother's milk?

Dan Kimball: Okay. And there's a great illustration. You'll see that with a... There's seethed goat head graphically or a goat in Exodus 23:19. That is what it says. There's a couple times it says it do not cook a goat in its mother's milk. Why would that be in the Bible? What's going on? So again, it's easy to mock, look at these strange things, but if you were to go back in that time period, you know it was probably one of these two or three things. It was either the Canaanite customs of boiling a kid, a baby goat, in its mother's milk to appease the Canaanite gods to have a bountiful livestock like the next year. So one thought it was a Canaanite practice of worship that then God was instructing do not pattern yourself and do these worship rites that the Canaanites are doing to false gods. So that would've been, that's what they do. Don't do.

Dan Kimball: There's another thought that it possibly could be God instructing that because life and death are distinct and to use mother's milk which is life-sustaining and then using it for death would've been a contradiction and God did not want that to be patterned if they were patterning after the Canaanites. And the other thought about it was that God was also... The goat was used in the sacred act of atonement practice that the Israelites were then doing. So one of these reasons is why. We're not sure which one, but whichever one it was for sure, if you were living back then, if you heard the instruction, don't cook a goat in its mother's milk, you would've been like, "Of course, I see why God doesn't want us to do it because of these reasons." In our world today, it sounds bizarre. It is bizarre sounding, but you got to go back and look at it. And then there's three reasonable reasons I just gave. It's most likely one of those reasons that would've made total sense back at that time period.

Scott Rae: Yeah. And let me ask you about another one that I think is very, very troubling even if we understand the Old Testament background. And that is if a woman's raped, she marries her rapist from Deuteronomy 22:28-29. How do we make sense out of that?

Dan Kimball: Yeah. Again, rape is evil, horrible, wicked absolutely. And they were, once again, they didn't have the laws that we have in place. Violence and... I mean, it's hard for us to think of what it must have been like living in that culture in that time period. And so what this was interestingly was God was actually giving some instruction for the caring of a woman who was raped and it was not a just like, right, you rape her, you get to keep her.

Dan Kimball: You go back into that and you start looking at things more and you compare it to other writings that are out there and there's so much information about this, but again, it sounds just so horrible from just looking at a verse, but when you look at it, it was actually setting up a way for that woman to be cared for and responsibility be taken. And again, I keep saying could be 45 minutes, but there's so much more going on to it than that. There's actually an establishment for care, not for giving in to the will of the rapist. And there's actually, the whole family could get involved and there was even an out to it. So it was a caring system, not a punishment or giving the rapist what he wanted.

Scott Rae: So this was more about the rapist actually taking financial responsibility for the woman he's raped for the rest of her life. Is that basically what you're suggesting?

Dan Kimball: Yes. Absolutely.

Scott Rae: And marriage was the only institution available at the time to ensure that he would be responsible for her. So that's sort of the point?

Dan Kimball: Yeah. And again, even like listening to, it still sounds horrible and it was horrible. And I think of this back then, the living conditions, limited knowledge of things where there was no... Scripture was just being written. So for the Israelites, they were just having these new laws when they're in a whole different understanding of how to treat other human beings before. So yes, as strange as it sounds to us, it was a good caring system that was put in place with the woman then being cared for financially and looked out. And it's hard to understand, but it is the best way that could be worked out in a system of that time period.

Sean McDowell: Let's stick on the issue of the treatment of women, but shift to the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 14, don't we get the message that women should remain silent and let men talk? Isn't that misogynistic would claim the meme?

Scott Rae: Let me give you an example of this. I was in a church not long ago where a woman was just reading the biblical text that the pastor was going to preach from. And all of a sudden in the back of this church, this older gentleman gets up and bellows out. He said, "Women should be silent in the churches." Right in the middle. And the pastor was sort of flummoxed as to what to do about that.

Sean McDowell: Oh my goodness.

Scott Rae: But I started to think of what his reaction would've been had the woman actually been preaching that day. So Dan, what about that?

Dan Kimball: Yeah. Well, again, all right, when you read that passage, who was it written to like going through basic Bible study methods? It was written to the Corinthian church in Corinth, which was a crazy, very... So many different religions that were there worshiping different ways. The church was new being birthed into a polytheistic, very pagan hedonistic culture was going on. So you read a verse like that and you have to say, all right, it says be silent. The word actually says it's a disgrace for a woman to speak in church. That is what the text says. You can pull that out and then slap it on a meme with a woman like it's happened, a woman with her mouth tape shut or worse kind of images, mocking the scriptures looking at it. Something really easy to...

Dan Kimball: Look at this. As Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthian church, three chapters earlier in chapter 11, he's encouraging women to be praying and prophesying in the church meeting. So he can't be literally meaning do not speak up in the church. So like even to take that verse from simply saying, there's more going on to it three chapters earlier when women are talking in the church and it's encouraged, what else could be going on? And then you start looking about possibilities of what were women in that particular time period, city and culture? What was going on? What was the learning posture at the time? Was it to be learning... Were they coming in not knowing how to learn because they might have been treated differently? Sadly, women were not educated as much back then and the posture of learning was to not be outspoken and be asking questions in a teaching environment until you were learned more. That's a possibility.

Dan Kimball: There's a lot of different ways scholars will look at this, but it is not talking about women be silent and just go home and ask your husband something. It can't possibly mean that because that'd be contradicting the rest of the New Testament and Jesus' treatment of women. So much more is going on here. Again, quick answer to a long discussion, but this is why people are getting fooled. They're reading little bit of Bible verses that are all spicy sounding and look good on graphics and saying, look at this, look at this. And then thinking Christianity is anti-women and it's the opposite. It's the absolute opposite.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Dan, let me go back to the Old Testament for a moment. Just one more of these that sounds particularly egregious. It has to do with just the level of violence that is sanctioned in the Old Testament. I'm thinking particularly about Psalm 137, which is a lament against Babylon. Daughter of Babylon doomed to destruction. Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. And then here's the punchline. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. That's a tough one. Now I recognize that I just did exactly what you cautioned us against doing, which is just reading a verse, but help us put that in context.

Dan Kimball: Okay. Well, your first sense, actually, you were doing what we're supposed to be doing. You then said, who was it written to? When was it written? You remember? Like you mentioned that. So Psalm 137:9, when it says happy to those that take little, depending on what translation, little ones and dash them against the rocks, or infants. What you got to say is, all right, who's speaking there? The way it comes across is that God is pleased with smashing infants against the rocks. One, though the spirit of God wrote every word in the original documents through people, this was a human being. This isn't God speaking. It was a person writing out their anguish and their pain after the Babylonians came in and destroyed Jerusalem. And a soldier back at that time to kill children and these soldiers did kill children, they would fling them against the ground and kill them.

Dan Kimball: So this was someone going through the horror of watching their, it could have been their personal children or their friend's children when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and they're writing a Psalm. Psalm, what is it? They are songs, they're poetry, there's persons expressing the angst and the anger and crying out for revenge. So it's not God saying smash babies against rocks. And there's like mocking by atheist, pulling this verse out, putting it on a billboard and saying, "God hates babies," and then quoting this verse. Again, it's missing the entire basics of Bible study methods like I just described. It's not God himself saying those words. It's a poetic expression by someone who experienced this very same thing who was crying out for revenge. To say it was God saying it and make it a billboard is just... But it fools people. Again, it fools people over and over again. It's fooling people.

Sean McDowell: Dan, you talk about a ton of verses in here that we didn't get to. Questions like is Christianity anti-science? Questions even like... That intersects with questions like evolution. There's a range of other ones. Does God really hate shrimp? We didn't actually tackle that one. But I'm curious in your study of these tough verses, was there any one or two that were the toughest for you? And I ask because I think there's very plausible responses for the vast majority verses, but to be honest, sometimes we just don't know and we have to guess and do our best. And overall I'm fine with a faith that has those handful of outliers. It doesn't take away from the majority for me. So in your estimation, was there one or two you're like, "I just don't quite know what to do with this. Still working on it."

Dan Kimball: Oh yeah, there's 50 of them.

Sean McDowell: Oh, okay.

Dan Kimball: Well, I'm not trying to say 50 to... Here's what I know. Studying these, if I was coming in as an agnostic, I would actually have gained more confidence in the scriptures and the God of the scriptures if I was studying it with an open mind as an agnostic, actually putting the time into Bible study methods to read these things. We don't live back then. We have limited understanding and knowledge of some of the situations and some of the cultural settings, but we can do our best and have a pretty good response to most of the difficult ones or these odd ones. Some of them we just don't know for sure, but we can have a good guess, but it's not a blind faith guess.

Dan Kimball: When you understand God of the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation and you see compassion, love, forgiveness, all of the things he talks about himself and you'll see in the storyline, you gain confidence and you start knowing who this God is. So when you see these odd things that come up and the overwhelming abundance of all of the things that you can know for sure, those ones then don't affect you as much. So they don't catch you off guard like, oh, no, my faith is ruined because I have such confidence in the entire scriptures. If I don't have confidence in the entire scriptures or I don't know the entire scriptures, then I might be starting to have my faith undermined or not be interested.

Dan Kimball: But back to your question, the toughest one by far is the violence passages. Absolutely. We can explain some of them like where you can't metaphor away or he was using the hyperbolic war language, like all of these things, which are true, and actually I talk about it in the violence section, but God did use violence at times. God did instruct armies to attack. And it's hard to understand like couldn't God have done it in another way? Or couldn't they have... And what I do is that is the most difficult part for me or some of those stories, but because I know the God of the whole Bible and I know the whole story of who he is and his compassion and love and saw his patience over and over again and forgiveness and all of the warnings that he gave to people before violence was used, I trust this God. And that's not a cheap answer. It's a very thoughtful answer.

Dan Kimball: Sean, I think I might have told you this another time that I wasn't raised a Christian and I was in college and I just started wondering, I actually had a really fun life and God I believe was just causing me to question is Christianity true? And I still don't know exactly why, but it started happening. And I had some good friends of mine that actually, they saw me get a Bible. They saw me buy a couple... In fact, I bought Josh McDowell books. I can still remember bringing this home.

Sean McDowell: Nice.

Dan Kimball: And they saw these in my house. And I came home one day and there's like a... Like you know when you can tell like they're talking about you. I'm like, "What?" And they all sat around this group like four or five of them and they're like, "We're worried about you." And I'm like, "What?" He's like, "We see that you're reading a Bible and you're buying these books and we're worried you're joining a cult." But here's what I remember. How do I know I wasn't? They were saying this out of concern. We believe in a man that died and rose again three days later. That sounds like a cult, right? And Christianity in the early days was thought of a cult.

Dan Kimball: And the word cult is now being used more and more in TikTok if you're watching,. Like I grew up in a cult, a cult, a cult. Evangelical church is a cult, a cult. And so it made me early on, forced myself to like, I don't want to be in a cult if this is true. And that motivation was I've never been let down and I've constant... I would be the first one to say, "Don't believe this stuff. It's not true." I would be saying that. I'd be screaming it from the rooftops. I'd be on TikTok writing exvangelical, it's not true. It's not true. The Bible's wrong. But the more I have studied it over my life, the more I have more confidence in it and the more God is loving, compassionate, forgiving he is.

Dan Kimball: So I'm taking that just a sidetrack because that's sort of the culture of what's happening out there. And I think we got to pay a lot of, like you are Sean, for sure, a lot of attention to this because that's what's underneath these questions today. So I'm so thankful for what you do and that you're on TikTok, just like we need to be doing this. So yes, I'll have questions for sure, but I know I have confidence and none of the questions cause me to doubt into any type of turmoil, understanding of faith or anything.

Sean McDowell: Dan, we sure appreciate you coming on. From the moment I met you probably a couple decades ago, I knew this guy was sharp and he's a thinker and a scholar, but just have such a pastoral heart. And that comes through in this book that myself and my co-host, Scott, and at Biola, this is the kind of resource we want to get into people's hands because you're right. At its core, so many of the issues going on today within the church is biblical illiteracy and people are getting taken in by bad ideas. So I hope our listeners will pick up a copy. Yes, you got the title right, How (Not) to Read the Bible by our guest today, Dan Kimball. Dan, appreciate your friendship and appreciate you coming on the show today.

Dan Kimball: Well, thank you both for what you do. I'm just so thankful for Biola, Talbot, again, training leaders who are going to be reaching the next generation. So thank you for all that you do too.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and fully online, including our masters in Christian apologetics where I teach classes on the resurrection, the problem of evil and beyond, now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.