The Art of Reading the Bible #2

A few months back I offered the first in what was to be a series of blogs on reading the bible, bouncing off an approach outlined by Richard Hays. Hays suggested that interpretation is a fourfold task:

  1. Descriptive: what a particular book of the bible meant to its original audience;
  2. Synthesis: how the ideas, themes, injunctions of each book/text fit within the bible as a whole;
  3. Hermeneutics: how the themes and patterns of the synthesis task speak to our lives;
  4. Pragmatic: how the conclusions of the hermeneutic stage are given effect in our lives.

I have found Hays stage 2 very helpful to remember. In the academy this step is well recognised and scholars debate the ways the texts are put together. But in popular discussion we easily forget that whenever we move from a single text or group of texts to the declaration that “the bible says…” we are assuming a particular understanding of how the texts we cite fit together with the rest of the Bible.

A good example of this is found in Matthew 19.1-12. The Pharisees question Jesus about divorce. The Law of Israel said:

Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession

Deuteronomy 24

The Pharisees concluded from this that God approved of a man divorcing a wife if he “found something objectionable about her”. They disagreed however on what was meant by “something objectionable.” The rabbinic traditions preserved by generations after Jesus suggest that some took the phrase to mean anything objectionable, such as the way a wife spoke to her husband or served his food, while others argued that the reference was to things far weightier, such as sexual infidelity.

Jesus’s response was that the Pharisees had not synthesised the biblical texts correctly. He gave primacy to the description of marriage in the creation accounts (Genesis 1-2) to conclude that God’s intention was that husbands would not divorce their wives but respect that God had put husband and wife together. Deuteronomy 24 should not be read as God’s approval of them severing their marriage but as a concession to their “hardness of heart”. Jesus did not elaborate, but I take it he identified Deuteronomy 24 as something akin to “harm minimisation.” In the patriarchal culture of the ancient world, wives were subject to the whims of their husband and if divorced could be batted back and forth between men. Rather than approving of this, Jesus suggests Deuteronomy 24 recognises that it happens and seeks to minimise the damage it caused. One gets a sense of just how deeply ingrained was the assumed privilege of men that Jesus’s male disciples conclude that if they were not free to divorce a wife they found objectionable that it would be better not to marry!

We like to pillory the Pharisees but they were not theological lightweights. They were dedicated to understanding the Scriptures, spent long hours discussing and debating the meaning of the Scriptures, and sought to live by them. Where they appear to have been derailed was in the way they put the texts together.

How do we avoid the same error? I’m not sure we can. My life has been a long journey of learning, unlearning and relearning. I have revisited and revised my reading of Scripture on many things and assume I will continue to do so. I have however found the following things helpful.

  1. Read myself. I try to remain aware that my reading of Scripture is socially conditioned. We have all learned to read the texts in particular ways and these tend to justify our values, beliefs, and practises. Sometimes this will not be problematic because our values, beliefs and practises are headed in the right direction. But there are also times they are misguided. I therefore need to be brutally honest with myself and interrogate my reading and conclusions.
  2. Read with others and particularly with those who read differently. I have found that while reading the text with people who think the same as me is affirming, it is reading and engaging with people who read it differently that has often helped me see things in new ways.
  3. Read as narrative. The biblical documents narrate a story that moves from creation to new creation with Jesus as the pivot. I have found that gaining a sense of the flow of the biblical story helps me make sense of how its many moments fit together.
  4. Read outcomes. For a long time I read the Bible with the goal of being right (and still do) but saw the goal of being good as the application of being right rather than part of the process of synthesising and applying the texts. I no longer think being right and being good can be so neatly separated. If my reading of Scripture is not shaping me towards being good – ie towards compassion, grace, kindness, generosity, and the other things that characterised Jesus – then it’s probably not right. Similarly, if my reading of Scripture does not promote “shalom” – ie blessing, wholeness, wellbeing – then it’s probably not right. And again, if my reading of Scripture paints God as anything other than like Jesus, it’s probably not right.
  5. Read without anxiety. God has not given us a bible that enables us to be right and certain about beliefs and ethics. We have a bible that invites discussion, disagreement, learning and unlearning. It took me a long time to be able to admit this. It no longer bothers me. Rather I find it liberating. (Jesus didn’t say that right doctrine and unswavering certainty is the sum of the law and the prophets. Rather, he claimed that the sum of the law and the prophets is to love God and love each other. Likewise, he didn’t say people would know us by our unchanging beliefs and universal agreement but by our love. The apostle Paul taught us that it is faith, not an impeccable belief and ethic that puts us right with God and that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”. If I am seeking to love God and love others and putting my trust in Jesus I figure I’m headed in the right direction.)

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Denis Lennox
Denis Lennox
4 years ago

Yes indeed on all points Scott! Those of us who’ve ‘grown up’ in a Christian tradition do particularly need to observe your first discipline. In my experience, this has required repeated reading e.g., of an Epistle to enable it to penetrate the conditioned perspective I so otherwise automatically bring to it. To your second discipline I’d contribute reading the Scripture also with those who’ve not read it before. Their perspectives and questions are often enormously enlightening. I learned your third disciple too slowly and unfortunately some forty decades into my Christian experience. It is an enormous blessing. Gaining a sense… Read more »

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