Eric J. Bargerhuff. The Most Misused Stories in the Bible: Surprising Ways Popular Bible Stories Are Misunderstood. Bethany House, 2017. See here to buy the book.
Eric J. Bargerhuff has a doctorate in biblical and systematic theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, was a pastor for over two decades, and teaches in the Bible and Theology department at Trinity College in Florida. Bagerhuff in this book discusses biblical stories, explains how he believes that they have been misunderstood, and offers his interpretation.
In this review, I will comment on each chapter, except for the Introduction and Conclusion.
Chapter 1 is about the David and Goliath story. According to Bargerhuff, the popular misunderstanding here is that the story is a lesson about how we should overcome our fears and face our giants. But Bargerhuff observes that David is not actually afraid in this story. David challenges Goliath because he is jealous for the glory of God, whom Goliath has mocked. These are good observations. At the same time, there are times in the Bible in which David was disturbed and sought refuge in God, and that should be appreciated.
Chapter 2 is entitled “Gideon and His Fleece.” According to Bargerhuff, the misunderstanding here is that the story is about how we should determine the will of God. As Bargerhuff notes, however, Gideon already knew the will of God when he performed the test. Bargerhuff mostly spent this chapter on the topic of how we can discern the will of God, and he seemed to regard Gideon as unnecessarily insecure. In my opinion, though, the story is a beautiful example of how God is patient with us in our insecurities.
Chapter 3 is about Cain and Abel. Bargerhuff attempts to explain why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s sacrifice, and he resorts to appealing to Hebrews 11:4 to find an explanation. Ordinarily, I prefer for scholars to focus on the Hebrew Bible in explaining the Hebrew Bible, but I did not mind Bargerhuff’s approach in this case. The reason is that Bargerhuff tried to get whatever he could from the context of Genesis 4, as he interacted with the proposal that Abel offered the firstlings of his flock, whereas Cain did not offer the firstfruits of the soil.
Chapter 4 is entitled “Jonah and the Big Fish.” One feature of this chapter that stood out to me was when Bargerhuff noted that Jonah seemed really proud to be a Hebrew in Jonah 1:9-10, even as he was disobeying the God of the Hebrews!
Chapter 5 is entitled “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” He points out that Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. Bargerhuff disagrees with those who appeal to the story to undermine criticisms of sin. Throughout the book, Bargerhuff stresses the importance of repentance in salvation. In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff discusses the text critical issues surrounding this passage, as well as its controversial status among Christians in the time of Augustine.
Chapter 6 is entitled “Jesus Could Not Do Miracles in His Hometown.” Bargerhuff spends this chapter criticizing health-and-wealth Gospels that claim that people who are not healed lacked faith. He appeals to Paul as one who was not healed (assuming his thorn in the flesh was a physical malady), and he makes the wise statement that life in this fallen world entails suffering. These are fine points, but I thought that Bargerhuff was dodging what the biblical passage said: Jesus could not do miracles in his hometown. Bargerhuff was trying to argue that Jesus could perform miracles but chose not to do so. Perhaps Bargerhuff would have done well to have done a word study on the Greek word dunamai to see if it always means “to be able to.” The chapter also would have been better had it explored the question of why Jesus emphasized faith when it came to healing.
Chapter 7 is about Zacchaeus. Bargerhuff argues that this story is not about Zacchaeus seeking Jesus but rather Jesus seeking Zacchaeus. Bargerhuff interacted with a scholarly view that Zacchaeus was already doing the right thing before meeting Jesus, and, lest you wonder who in the world would think that, he quotes scholars who make that argument. (Now I am interested in reading their rationale!) Bargerhuff resorts to Paul’s writings in an attempt to explain why Jesus emphasizes that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. I think that, instead, he should have based his explanation on the significance of Abraham in Luke/Acts.
Chapter 8 is entitled “Sowing Your Seed.” In this chapter, Bargerhuff criticizes prosperity preachers who claim that people can prosper by sowing seeds (money) into the preachers’ ministry. According to Bargerhuff, the Parable of the Sower is not about that. I am open to correction on this, but I doubt that prosperity preachers appeal specifically to the Parable of the Sower to defend that teaching. There are other passages that they can cite to make their point, such as Luke 6:38 and II Corinthians 9:6.
Chapter 9 is about the “three” wise men. As Bargerhuff notes, the Bible never says that there were only three wise men. Bargerhuff makes interesting points as he tries to harmonize the stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: he states that the magi brought Jesus the gifts a while after his infancy. After all, if Mary and Joseph had that wealth when Jesus was a baby, why did they offer a poor-person’s offering at the Temple in the Gospel of Luke?
Chapter 10 is about Judas. Bargerhuff argues that the example of Judas does not demonstrate that a Christian can lose his or her salvation. According to Bargerhuff, Judas was never a believer, and Bargerhuff astutely appeals to John 6:61-64 to support this point. Is that true of everyone who leaves the Christian faith, though? Bargerhuff appears to think so, on the basis of I John 2:19. But, in reading this book, I wonder if he is completely persuaded by this, for he seems to manifest a sensitivity towards the reasons that people leave the faith. Moreover, while Bargerhuff finds comfort in once-saved-always-saved, he appears to believe that believers should look to subjective criteria (are they bearing the fruit of the Spirit?), among other things, for assurance of salvation. Can that offer assurance, since we are imperfect?
Chapter 11 is entitled “The Samaritan Pentecost.” In Acts 8, there is a gap of time between when the Samaritans believed in Jesus and when they received the Holy Spirit. Bargerhoff argues against the idea that all Christians who are baptized with the Holy Spirit speak in tongues, experiencing a “second baptism” sometime after their conversion. Bargerhuff argues on the basis of I Corinthians 12:13 that all Christians are baptized with the Holy Spirit right when they believe, and it does not necessarily entail speaking in tongues. The early chapters of Acts, according to him, portray a different scenario because it was a time of transition between the Old and New Covenants. Bargerhuff’s argues that God in Acts 8 was showing that God accepted the Samaritans as God accepted the Jews by giving them a similar experience, like the Jews had in Acts 2. That makes a degree of sense: after all, in Acts 10, the Gentile Christians spoke in tongues like the Jewish Christians did in Acts 2, for that very reason! Bargerhuff should have attempted to account for the people in Acts 19 who speak in tongues, but perhaps he can tweak his explanation about the Samaritans who receive the Holy Spirit, such that it accounts for the people in Acts 19. In an interesting endnote, Bargerhuff quotes a statement by D.A. Carson offering a grammatical reason that the baptism with fire that John the Baptist mentions is the purifying Holy Spirit, not hell or divine wrath.
Chapter 12 is about the rich fool in Luke 12. This was a level-headed chapter. It said that God is not against people being rich, but God does not want people to be greedy: God wants them to be generous to those in need!
Chapter 13 is about Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper that “This is my body.” Bargerhuff critiques the doctrine of transubstantiation and provides a lucid explanation of consubstantiation, referring to a sponge analogy (quoting Wayne Grudem). Bargerhuff critiques Roman Catholicism for believing that the mass is a literal sacrifice of Christ, as he appeals to the Epistle to the Hebrews to argue that Jesus died once and for all. I wondered how Catholics get around that. From the Council of Trent, I can see that Catholicism does regard the mass as a propitiatory sacrifice. Do they reconcile that with Hebrews in a manner that makes sense, or is the fit rather awkward?
Chapter 14 is about “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit.” Essentially, Bargerhuff argues that it is rejecting Christ, to whom the Holy Spirit testifies. But Jesus said that speaking against the Son will be forgiven. How does Bargerhuff account for that in his argument?
This is a thoughtful book. I was hoping for a little more depth, considering Bargerhuff’s scholarly credentials, but it was an informative, edifying read.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!