Reading the Bible with eyes wide open – Linda Cowan
I wonder if when you were younger, you had to learn the books of the Bible off by heart. I know I did – maybe for a Girls’ Brigade badge or perhaps Sunday School memory work. It was fine until you got to the Minor Prophets and then Paul’s Letters. But learn them we did. It was embarrassing in those days not to be able to turn directly to the right book when the reading was announced. Now they come straight up on the screen and we don’t have to do a thing!
But it is certainly worth looking at what is the library that makes up the Bible. In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures we find the story of God’s life with the Jewish people. We find the laws that were developed to regulate that life. We find the stories that came with the Jewish people’s efforts to live in God’s way, their regular failures, and their turnings back to God. We find the poetry and the stories that came out of living in relationship with God. In the New Testament we find accounts of the life of Jesus written by different people and intended for different churches. We find a history of the early church. We find letters written, some by Paul, and some by other people to the people of the early church. And we find some prophecy.
There are lots of things that we know now that shed light on our reading of the Bible. Modern scholarship allows us to read the Bible much more intelligently than we could in the past and as a result we can learn much more. For example, some of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels were written, while people were still relying on oral accounts of the life of Jesus, and these letters were directed at specific challenges those communities were facing. Imagine how hard it must have been to try to follow Jesus’ way without a written record of his life and teachings. We know too that the gospels were written for specific churches. Matthew’s gospel was written for the Jewish Christians while Luke’s gospel was directed to people outside of Israel. All the gospel writers were leaders in specific churches and wrote to address the needs of their own church communities as well as telling the story of Jesus’ life. When we know their bias, we can understand so much better why they shaped their gospels as they did.
Kathleen Rushton, an eminent New Testament scholar based here in Christchurch suggests that when we read the Bible we need to consider three things: The world behind the text – in other words, the setting, the history, the people present and what happened immediately before the section of the Bible we are reading; then we need to consider the text itself and remember that every word is carefully chosen and has significance; and then we need to consider ourselves and what we bring to the text. (Kathleen calls this the “world in front of the text”). Reading the Bible this way is challenging and is maybe something we feel should be the preserve of scholars though I must say when I have time to read the Bible this way, I find it hugely satisfying. But I think what can help us most is to read the Bible with help from daily Bible reading notes or some sort of Bible commentary. If we don’t, it’s easy to get caught up on incidentals, or to misinterpret things, or just to assume we know when we don’t. We need to read the Bible with our eyes wide open.
One danger is that we think we know what the Bible says based on our many years of reading it. But sometimes we have been misled, I think in some instances by Sunday School pictures.
Have a look at this one. We know this is the story of Jonah and the whale – but the Bible in fact tells us it was a big fish and not necessarily a whale at all.
The Bible tells us that it was the fruit of the tree of knowledge and not an apple.
The reality is that we don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us. Camels are at best an intelligent guess.
Do these things matter? Not an awful lot. But it is important to realise that if we can make assumptions about these things, we can do the same for other things that matter more, so we do always need to read the Bible with care to ensure that we hear what is being said.
Do you know a chorus that says:
Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus;
to reach out and touch him, and say that we love Him,
Open our ears, Lord, and help us to listen,
Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus.
This is what the Bible allows us to do, but we need to read responsibly so that the truth is visible.
One pitfall that we need to avoid at all costs is reading the Bible selectively. It’s possible to pick any number of verses out of the Bible that are hugely encouraging. I’m sure for many the first verse of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want” – is a source of comfort. I love the first verse of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation: who shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my arm: of whom shall I be afraid?” We all have our favourite verses and that’s great.
But there is a danger in plucking verses out of context and then saying, “Well, it’s in the Bible so it must be right.” When some of these are rules that applied to the Jewish people living in a particular context and don’t apply to us at all, we have to use our common sense. They may have been the right rule for the people living in that place and time but that doesn’t make them right for us.
We have had a widely discussed example of this in our country over the past few weeks. Israel Folau, professional sportsman and rugby player has stated on social media that God will be sending homosexuals to hell, quoting 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10. In fact this is not what the verses say. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians included a whole bunch of wrong doers ranging from idolaters and adulterers to robbers, and said that they would not inherit the kingdom of God. This does not mean they will go to hell. Susan Smith, a Roman Catholic nun and wise commentator on New Zealand life commented,” Like other professional sportsmen, Folau plays sport to make money – lots of money. I imagine this is what lies behind his earlier decisions to switch from Aussie Rules to League to Rugby with every shift meaning more income. I don’t have a problem with that but I do wonder why he can so avidly interpret the biblical text in such a fundamentalist and inherently unhelpful way when it suits him. I wonder what he, whose contract with ARU is worth $4 million, makes of Jesus’s words, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, yours is the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 6: 20).”
I think when we read the Bible, we need to keep in mind what we know ourselves – that God loves us with a love beyond our understanding; that Jesus came to show us God’s way of loving and living and charged us with loving other people as much as God loves us. If what we think we are finding in the Bible doesn’t line up with these truths that undergird our faith, then we need to look further and find out why. Are we failing to understand the situation that these words were written to address? Are we not understanding what these words actually mean? Sometimes we can’t find the answers and have to live with the questions. But there is no question about the fact that as we read the Bible, we need to read looking through the lens of the God who we know and who loves us and the world.
Like Bartimaeus, we want to see. We want to see Jesus. We want to know God’s presence in our lives. We want to know how God wants us to live. We want to live in the assurance of God’s love, loving our neighbour as God loves us. The Bible is the “best book to read” if we are to live as God’s people. It speaks to us as we read its stories, share in its prayers, and compare our own dilemmas with those of the first Christians. It spoke to them and it speaks to us too. The important thing is for us to read the Bible with our eyes wide open, not jumping to conclusions but wrestling with the questions, and working through the text so that we may come to a fuller understanding of God and God’s way for us and our world.