#2 The Bible is literature and should thus be read as law, poetry, narrative, theological history, apocalyptic, etc.
Welcome to week 2 of our 10-part series on reading the Bible as God intended. Since last week we looked at how not to read the Bible, I thought it would be nice this week to focus on how we should be reading the Bible. The short answer to that question is that we should be reading it the way God gave it to us. The way God gave it to us is as literature! And dare I say it, God spoke to us primarily through story. Stories capture the heart! There was even a famous Rabbi in the New Testament who used stories as His primary teaching method. That’s right Jesus didn’t primarily speak to the crowds on doctrinal issues (though we can probably draw some conclusions about what He believed about God the Father, Himself, humanity, the devil, etc.) – instead He spoke to them in parables: stories intended to make a point or teach some lesson. Yeah, the Pentateuch contains a significant amount of legal material, but there is woven throughout – from Genesis to Deuteronomy – a story of God and His people (from creation, to slavery & exodus, and entrance into the promised land). From Joshua-2Kings we have the story of the nation of Israel (God’s chosen people through whom He would fulfill the Abrahamic covenant – “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”). The story is amplified in the prophets and continues with exile and return. In the New Testament we see the story come to its crescendo with the appearance of long awaited Messiah. At this point we can begin to identify an overarching story woven throughout scripture of God’s mission of redemption to restore all of creation back into right relationship with Himself. But let’s talk about literary genre for a moment, shall we?
Why does it really matter that I understand what kind of literature I am reading when I sit down to read the Bible “devotionally” – Can’t God still speak to me? Let me illustrate by giving a ridiculous example. If I read Ps. 137:9 in the same way that I read the legal codes of Leviticus and Numbers (and portions of Exodus), then I may immediately go out looking for some little Babylonian babies so that I can dash their heads “against the rock” in my quest to apply this scripture to my life. Anybody seen any Babylonians lately? Yes, understanding what genre of literature you are reading makes a difference! By not reading this Psalm as poetry, by ignoring the context (the exiles in Babylon), I have missed the beauty that God chose to include this exile’s cry out to God (even with all its raw emotion of anger & rage) in holy scripture. Of course none of us has ever felt that kind of emotion, because we’re all good Christians, right? If you have ever asked God why, how long, or have ever had a bad day, a bad month, a tough year, an unbearable decade, you may learn to appreciate the Psalms of Lament and even the Imprecatory Psalms. Could it be that a life lived in relationship with God includes sticking with Him through even the most difficult times, struggling with doubt, anger, hopelessness? Can God handle our anger, our doubts, our struggle with faith? Would He rather we come to Him with these struggles or that we turn our backs on Him and choose to live a life without Him, far from His loving arms?
Did you know that almost a third of the Old Testament is poetry? And the Writing Prophets are loaded with Hebrew Poetry (some of the prophets wrote exclusively in poetic form). Dare I say that when many of us sit down to read through the Prophets we are not thinking: “I’m reading poetry!” Learning a little bit about how Parallelism works in Hebrew Poetry could go a long way toward better understanding the next time you read through the prophets. Most good Bible translations (hey even the NIV does it) will lay out the poetic sections as verse. Try thumbing through the OT prophets in your Bible and you should be able to pretty easily identify the shifts between prose and poetry. If you’re not sure, look at Isaiah 41 for a good example of how the poetic verse layout looks (note where the line breaks are – it looks like poetry, huh?)
While I haven’t said much thus far about it, the Bible is loaded with lots of prose too: Genesis, Exodus, the Historical books. But much of the Historical Narrative in the Bible is more than just rote recording of historical facts, dates, and who did what to who. It is Theological History! Was He a good king? Did he follow in the ways of Yahweh? How did this effect the people, the nation of Israel? Even the gospels are a unique lietrary form blending historical narrative with story. If they were a mere reporting of the facts of Jesus’ life we would hardly need four of them. But instead each presents a distinct picture of who Jesus was, what he did, and the significance thereof.
A couple more cautions/examples: 1) The creation narratives in Genesis were not intended to provide an account about how the world came into being in scientifically accurate terms terms that would be understood by modern/post-modern 21st century North Americans. Reading these stories with scientific questions at the forefront of our minds may cause us to miss the intended message for humanity from their divine author. 2) Failure to read John’s Revelation in light of its literary form as apocalyptic has caused us to miss the symbolism behind its powerful imagery and had led to all manner of outlandish interpretation, date-setting, and the identification of everyone from Mussolini to the Pope and Henry Kissinger as the anti-Christ!
By reading the Bible as the literature that it is, we show greater reverence for God and His word by accepting it in the form that God choose to reveal Himself to us in. A commitment to a particular understanding of inerrancy (especially if that understanding is based in assumptions of 17th century rationalism) may lead us to conclusions about what the Bible must be that are not reflected in what it actually is. We may find that radical Biblicism is not such a good thing after all (more on this in week 4).
Until next time, you can read more here for my top 3 recommendations of Bibles that will actually help you to read the Bible as the literature that it is!