Understanding the Bible: Part 1

“‘A poor old half-starved creature it is,’ said Bob; ‘but he won’t part with it for less than thrice its worth, seeing how you’re placed, not if I knows Bill Ferny.’”

– JRR Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

“Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Get up! Do not reject us forever.”

-Psalm 44:23

What makes these two quotes so different? What makes one the stuff of folk lore and the other the stuff of two of the worlds more prominent religions? The most important question of all is can you tell me what they mean? What are they trying to say, and why does it matter? 

The biggest difference is that the second quote comes from the bible, and for those of us who hold certain beliefs about the bible we take very seriously the idea that it can help us make sense of the most important questions in life. Why then, is a book this important, this beloved by so many, so blasted difficult to read? The answer lies in what kind of book we think we are reading. When we understand what we have in our hands we can be better equipped to read it in a way that makes sense and impacts our lives.

The book is a library.

Imagine that you took all the books of the bible and printed them in independent volumes. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus all the way to Revelation, printed in its own leather bound cover and set side by side in order on the shelf. Arranged in this way, you can begin to see the great diversity in the bible. You pull Genesis down and find a story about the beginning of a people, and as you get to the end of it we wonder what will happen next. Setting that book back on the shelf you reach for the large book of Psalms and read page after page of poetry and prayer. You find ourselves engulfed in worship that has withstood centuries of practice in both Jewish and Christian faiths. Next you pick up Luke and read about Jesus, and then pull down the letter Paul wrote to Philemon; a letter so small that binding it was an exercise in futility so you put it in an envelope and set it in place.

This is the bible. It is an assortment of all sorts of styles and genres of writing. Narrative, poetry, prophecy, Jewish apocalyptic, gospel, letter, sermon, all find their way into the library of the bible and all demand to be read differently. And yet, so often we read the verses from one book and the verses from another book in exactly the same way.

Tip #1: The next time you are reading your bible ask yourself, “What KIND of writing is this, and how does that kind of writing want me to read it?”

The bible is a man-made document.

This can be a scary statement to make, but its true. The books of the bible did not descend from heaven as golden tablets. For some reason, God has chosen throughout all of history to work through humankind, and the creation of the bible was no exception. It is of critical importance to remember that the bible was written in two primary languages, Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) with some Aramaic sprinkled here and there. The various books were created out of very specific cultures. When you read the word “love” which has been used to translate the Greek word “agapé” if you rely solely on the English word “love” you will not understand what the verse says.

For this reason, our bible study must take place in a community setting. Unless you are a monk or a nun and have all the time in the world to devote to studying the original languages, you will need help. God has called and gifted some of us nerds to go out and do that sort of work for the very purpose of serving the church in this capacity. That way as we study the scriptures we can work together to build a bridge across the cultural gap to find the richer meaning the author intended however long ago.

Tip #2: Study the bible in community. Whether its with friends or in your church, lean on others to make better sense of the text.

Tip #3: Get a translation that makes sense to you. No English translation exists that does not add or modify words to make sense of the original language, so get a translation that you will actually read and then see tip #2 for help bridging the gap.

The bible is a God-breathed document.

This can be an even scarier statement. This is what sets the passage in Psalm 44 apart from Tolkein’s dialogue in The Fellowship of the Ring. As a God-breathed document, it calls us to submit ourselves to its shaping of reality. The very fact that God had such a creative role in the creating of our scripture ought to call us to approach its words with awe and wonder. The very God who created all things and who made a way through Christ for us to know life, has chosen to involve himself in our lives by inspiring these books to be written.

For this reason, we must continue to work when there seems to be disunity among passages. For this reason, we must be willing to set aside our cultural assumptions and admit that we might well need reshaping.

Tip #4: Pray before you read. The same spirit who inspired the writing of the text, is with you as you study, guiding you into a deeper understanding of the heart of God.

This study could be so immense that this post hardly seems sufficient. For more a more detailed approach, check out the following books:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart

Bible Study that Works, by David L. Thompson

The Blue Parakeet, by Scot McKnight (this is a different sort of book from the others, but still quite helpful.)


5 Replies to “Understanding the Bible: Part 1”

  1. “Unless you are a monk or a nun and have all the time in the world to devote to studying the original languages, you will need help.” – Even monks and nuns lived and studied in community!

    1. What a great point – it seems to make the point sharper to consider that the people who would be the most free to study the scriptures on their own in their own time would still live in a community where study was done together.

      Thanks David!

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