I ran across the following in the Letters section of the LA Times many years ago:
Every couple of years, in search of spiritual enlightenment, I gird my loins and vow to read the Bible from cover to cover. Unfortunately, starting with Adam and Eve, I encounter tedious tales of dysfunctional families, bloodthirsty tribalism, a bullying and cruel deity, childish miracles and moralistic harangues. God help me, but my eyes glaze over.
Trying to wade through the Bible always recalls what Mark Twain said of a Henry James novel: “Once you put it down, it’s almost impossible to pick up again.
(Los Angeles Times, Letter to the Editor, August, 1999)
Al Ramrus’ experiences are not unique. Countless people have similar feelings. Many make good-faith efforts to read through the Bible in a year as one of their resolutions in January. Most are able to keep it (if they are really determined) only through the end of January or so. But usually, about the time they begin hitting the genealogies in Genesis 10, they begin to lose focus. Some valiant souls may hang on until they get to Leviticus, but invariably, the details of the sacrificial system unwind their resolve. Meanwhile, if they skip ahead, they may become bogged down in the bloody messes in Judges and eventually go back to getting their scriptural fix from sermons, since most of what they read on their own was just too confusing anyhow.
If so many people have such negative experiences with the Bible, why is the Bible held in such high regard? Why has it had such an impact on Western civilization?
Is it really as bad as Al Ramrus and those who fall asleep in Numbers present it?
Of course not. But sometimes we have some false assumptions when we start reading the Bible.
For instance people get confused by the fact that they find people in the Bible doing reprehensible things. Instead of simply accepting the idea that there is bad behavior in the Bible, they tie themselves in knots, like the little girl in Sunday school one morning. The teacher described an animal that ate nuts, had a bushy tail, and climbed in trees. Then she asked her class, “what am I talking about?”
After a long silence, one brave little girl lifted her hand and sheepishly said, “It sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer has to be Jesus.”
The narrative, story-like parts of the Bible do not need to be read naively as: “What we are seeing here is all righteous behavior that we should emulate in our lives.” That’s just silly. Do we read George Orwell’s 1984 as a description of how life should be—or as a warning of how the world might turn out if we aren’t careful? If we read a fable, do we imagine that there really are talking lions and bears? Do we think, when watching the Wizard of Oz, that apple trees get mad if you pick their fruit and can be goaded into tossing it at us if we make them mad enough?
So why is it that when we read the Bible, we lose all our common sense and forget everything we know about reading literature (or for our more video age, what we know about watching TV or movies)?
The Bible is not a list of does and don’ts, it is not a philosophic treatise designed to teach enlightenment or wisdom—though it has those things in there, on occasion. But much of the book is simply stories: the lives of people making good and bad choices and how God worked with them, despite the fact that they were quite ordinary individuals, or even (shocking but true) really despicable people. God did not seem (despite what the puritanical would have us believe) to be limited in who he could make use of. How bad a person was didn’t stop God from using him or her and possibly making them better people at the end as a consequence of that. Other people serve as warnings: beware, don’t let this happen to you!
Why do we imagine we can read the Bible without paying attention to the context, whether it is the point that the author is trying to make on the page, or the historical and cultural setting in which it was written? If we read Gulliver’s Travels without looking at the historical setting, we may find ourselves entertained by the fantasy, but we’ll miss the whole satiric point. Or, to take a more contemporary example, if we don’t know what’s happening in the world, how funny is Jimmy Fallon or Saturday Night Live (well, okay, Saturday Night Live hasn’t been funny for a long time—but you get my point)? Do we always make sense of Doonsbury? If we’re up on the news, we should—otherwise, we miss most of what’s going on.
The same thing happens with the Bible. Divorcing it from its place, ignoring the nature of literature and literary presentation, treating it like a book of runes or magic incantations, or aphorisms to put on the pages of a calendar or to fill a Chicken Soup for the Soul poster is to miss most (if not all) of what is going on in the Bible. People do to the Bible, and ask of the Bible, things they would never do or ask of any other piece of literature. And then they wonder why they don’t understand it or wonder why it seems so irrelevant and boring.
People generally recognize that when they read Paul's first letter to Timothy in the New Testament, they are reading a letter written by Paul to a specific first century
Christian, focused on issues and concerns that mattered to them. We are reading someone else’s mail and so we approach the epistle accordingly.
And yet, when people read a book in the Hebrew Bible like Genesis, there is a tendency to forget that it was written by someone to a particular audience, and that said author and audience had concerns and issues of their own that were being addressed. In order to make sense of Genesis, it would probably be helpful to pay attention to the questions that it is trying to answer, rather than imposing our questions upon it. The questions might be important to us, but it doesn’t mean that the book is actually trying to answer them.
When I listen to some interpretations of the Bible, I’m reminded of my oldest daughter when she was four years old. One day we were singing the Little Bunny Fu-fu song. As we were going along, she suddenly stopped and asked me, quite seriously: “Is Little Bunny Fu-fu a boy or a girl?”
Given that the song never addresses that question, and given that the entire point of the silly lyrics is the really bad pun at the end of the whole thing, I had no answer for her and told her as much. She was unsatisfied. “Well which is it?” Until I made up an answer for her, she was unwilling to go on with the song.
We need to be careful in doing our Bible studies to make certain that we aren’t trying to impose an answer on the text that the text was never trying to address. Remember, the Bible is answering the questions and dealing with the issues that were important to God. Remarkably, they may not be the same questions and issues that are important to us.
As to Genesis, the author—and through him, God—was focused on countering the prevailing ancient and popular Babylonian myth known as Enuma Elish. Where the Babylonian tale had the Great Deep, the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, among other items as protagonists—the gods and goddesses involved in a great battle that would result in the creation of the world—the author of Genesis removes both personality and divinity from them. Where the Babylonians have human beings created to be the slaves of lazy deities who don’t want to work so hard, the biblical story makes humanity lords of creation and puts everything under their dominion. Where the ancient myth was polytheistic, the Genesis account is explicitly monotheistic.
To give a simple example of how we can put our own ideas where they don’t belong, consider: when you read the word “earth” in Genesis do you picture a blue ball spinning in space? Do you really think the author or readers of the Bible had that image in their heads?
So we must learn to listen to the stories. We must pay attention to the points that God is trying to make. And we must beware of approaching the Bible the same way a lawyer would look at a deposition. God expected the Bible to be read by people, not dissected by attorneys.