How To Read The Holy Bible

photo by iStockphoto
photo by iStockphoto

How shall we read the Bible? In the many ways to read the Bible today, it seems there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Christians all over the world read the Bible in different ways. My hope is to consider the different contexts and different readings that have shaped how the Bible has been interpreted in recent years. The variety is indeed part of my point—variety makes a world of difference!

I will explore the biblical text from several angles—what lies “behind” the text, what lies “in” the text, and what lies “in front of” the text. So first we will look at the text in its ancient social location, that is, what lies behind the text. Then we will take a look at what’s in the text. In particular, my focus is Deuteronomy and the “family” of books related to it theologically (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings) that tell the covenant history of Israel and Judah. Then I will consider those who read these ancient texts today, that is, what lies in front of the text. This approach might differ from your usual Bible study, but by looking at ancient writers and contemporary readers, we can think about how we might read and interpret responsibly amidst multiple voices in the contemporary world.

Behind The Text

So what lies “behind” a text? Can we locate this family of books within their ancient social context in order to understand how the theology and literature of the authors fit into that context? The writers and preservers of these books are of course invisible to us—we can only make educated guesses about them. One good possibility is that Deuteronomy’s covenant theology, including early forms of Deuteronomy and the covenant history, emerged in the seventh century BCE.

To describe the context of the Bible, sociological methods help us explain the social structures of ancient agrarian (farming) societies. Like other agrarian states, Judah was a highly stratified society in which a few elite groups dominated the mass of farmers and peasants. Judah’s upper classes were organized into factions, forming coalitions so necessary for power in the politics of monarchic states. In the seventh century, the Deuteronomy faction was associated with King Josiah’s religious renewal program (2 Kings 22-23). As religious leaders, the covenant history writers expressed understandings of God’s revelation in themes like loyalty with God, faithful worship of the Lord alone, the centrality of the temple in Jerusalem, and the keeping of the law (Deuteronomy 11).

It’s also important to examine how Judah’s external relations influenced its literature. Throughout the seventh century BCE, Judah was a vassal of the Assyrian empire which controlled its provinces and vassals through warfare, conquest, deportation, and administrative and economic structures. Throughout history, peoples that have been conquered react to empire through both assimilation and resistance. For the covenant history writers, it is not surprising to find that various accommodations to or resistance against the empire were written into what it meant to be faithful to their God. For example, Deuteronomy’s insistence in some texts that foreigners who threatened the land and who worshipped other gods were to be annihilated may reflect resistance against the Assyrians. In contrast, one type of assimilation is direct borrowing of Assyrian forms in covenant literature. Both Deuteronomy 13 and 28 borrow language directly from curses in the treaties that Assyria forced on its vassals. Apparently, Deuteronomy’s writers used Assyrian curse forms to express the consequences that would follow if someone broke the covenant with God. The idea of loyalty to God also seems to have been influenced by the imperial context. Through a process of resistance to the empire, the loyalty the Assyrian king demanded was subverted to become an ideal of loyalty to the Lord and thus reinforced that theological commitment.

photo by iStockphoto
photo by iStockphoto

In The Text

When we go on to ask about what lies in the text of this part of the Bible, a close reading shows that these authors were also willing to include a variety views and voices from their blending of ancient tradition and current insight. Biblical scholar Robert Polzin (Moses and the Deuteronomists) shows how the covenant history writers include multiple interpretations as a way to understand God’s interventions with humanity. For example, what at first appears in Deuteronomy as the voice of God speaking through Moses with an authority that is final becomes, in the artistry of the writers, an exploration of continual and open-ended interpretation and application of divine commands. In spite of the warning from Moses in Deuteronomy 12:32 not to add to or take anything from everything that he commands, all the characters, Moses, Joshua, the narrator and even God, are shown to engage in interpretation, application, and extension of the commands. Another example occurs where Deuteronomy claims there is only one way into the promised land, that of annihilation of the Canaanites. In contrast, however, the stories in Joshua and Judges report a myriad of other ways that Israel emerged on the land. Many of these alternate texts show that the early Israelites found ways to live beside the inhabitants of the land and include those inhabitants in Israel’s social and religious community.

The covenant history writers collected the covenant law contained in Deuteronomy and wrote the theological history contained in Joshua through 2 Kings. They blended foundations stories and ancient traditions with more recent theological insights. As sages expressing the religious ideals of their time, they expressed their covenant theology in the language and concepts of their context. Context made a difference. Further, rather than writing and preserving a text that speaks with a single perspective, these writers created a complexly voiced text. A dominant perspective is consistently placed against alternate perspectives that transform its dominance. Primary paradigms that create frameworks for collections of stories are then modified by the stories themselves. This means that within the Bible itself, there is justification for appreciating diversity, for seeing that variety makes a world of difference.

In Front of The Text

By looking at contemporary readers we can think about how we might read and interpret responsibly amidst multiple voices. I have selected three contemporary writers from varied locations so we can listen as different voices interpret Scripture.

Cyris Moon, a Korean scholar, wrote a contextual liberation theology in A Korean Minjung Theology—An Old Testament Perspective. Moon interweaves the Old Testament story with the reality of oppressed and alienated people, the “minjung.” He draws a parallel between the emergence of Israel in Canaan and events in Korea when the country was divided into wealthy, powerful groups struggling against the masses of minjung: widows, labourers and refugees. Moon proposes that the ancient Hebrews and the 20th century minjung are alike in awakening to their collective power and becoming more aware of their rightful place in society.

Cheryl Exum, a North American scholar, in Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives recognizes that the Bible was written in a patriarchal society and inevitably served the interests of the dominant male worldview. She argues that we can re-imagine women’s stories from the submerged strains of their voices in men’s stories. Exum demonstrates ways to read texts so that women characters reclaim their own stories through speech and action, bringing women out from the background and diminishing patriarchal control. For contemporary women, she says, this approach will help shape positive gender roles and expectations in society.

In the Global Bible Commentary, Dora Mbuwayesango reads the book of Joshua from her context of Zimbabwe, whose inhabitants experienced brutal dispossession of their land during colonization by white settlers—a disturbing parallel to Israel’s conquest of the land in Joshua. She questions whether the church can be a voice for justice today without critiquing the injustice, violence and exclusion depicted in the Joshua, where divine sanction is given to exterminating indigenous people. Mbuwayesango suggests that we should interpret Joshua as a warning against constructing our Christian identity in a similarly violent and exclusivist fashion.

These readings represent only a tiny sample of interpreters from all over the world. No longer is biblical interpretation what it was 50 years ago—a task for European and North American white educated males. Why should we take account of this diversity of reading contexts and biblical interpretations in our own reading of the Bible?

First: Christian regard for our neighbours. We must listen because these global interpreters are, in many instances, our Christian brothers and sisters. In past centuries, our missionary efforts carried the gift of Christianity and wonderful medical and educational resources around the world. However, this too often came wrapped unwittingly in cultural assimilation and served the purposes of economic exploitation. Our global friends have suffered under international economic and political systems that we have benefited from. How can we not listen?

Second: the Bible. Deuteronomy deliberately expands the covenant community beyond land owning adult males, which would have been its culturally prescribed limits. Rather, by consistent appeal to remember that they were once slaves in the Egyptian empire, the Israelite community is extended to include those whom empires treat as expendable. The inclusion of those who once had no place—widows, orphans and resident aliens—fundamentally changed the nature of that community to encompass the perspectives, needs and rights of these “outsiders.” What happens if we take that radical inclusion as our analogy for our interpretive community today?

Finally: Reformed emphasis on the sovereignty of God. God is the creator of all that is, including our existence itself, so all reality is firstly and finally defined by God. This makes all human creation limited—all human claims, ideas, knowledge and comprehension are only ever partial understandings of reality. This attitude suggests that everyone lives with a humility that allows us to be open to the other, to other understandings of what our faith means, to dialogue, and to discovery of new insights about Scripture from those who read in different contexts and thus read differently.

So how shall we read? Here are some principles that help Biblical interpretation today.

  1. When reading the Bible, it is important to understand our social location and principles of interpretation. Every reader’s own social location, where they stand in social structures, their interests and assumptions, and their reading approaches shape how they read the Bible.
  2. When reading the Bible, it is important to recognize the variety of voices within the Bible itself. We read well when we respect complexity and differences which reflect varied faith expressions and theologies that were preserved through the process of writing and re-interpretation that formed the Bible.
  3. When reading the Bible, it is important to be aware that its original dominant cultural context submerged the voices of marginalized people. We read well when we use strategies that help us imaginatively reconstruct the world of the Bible and find submerged voices and new perspectives in texts.
  4. When reading the Bible, it is important to recognize the variety of voices within biblical interpretation today. We read well when we take seriously the varied contexts and perspectives of interpreters around the world, especially the voices of marginalized interpreters in who might wrongly be submerged below dominant voices.
  5. When reading the Bible, it is important to remember that we read in and among communities of interpretation. Among globally diverse communities, we engage in biblical study, ecumenical dialogue, the willingness to re-think ideas, and interaction with those who hold very different interpretations.

Amid distinctive contexts and multiple readings of the Bible, we have a responsibility and opportunity for the practice of passionate and compassionate discussion. As informed and faithful readers of God’s living Word, we need to listen well to our global neighbours. In this way, we read to respect dialogue, find richness in texts, and create interdependence with other readers. It makes a world of difference!

How To Read The Bible: A World of Difference
Study Guide

  1. The article makes a point about a variety of theological ideas in the Old Testament itself. You can see this for your self with this exercise. Read Genesis 1 and 2 as separate stories (which they were originally). For each story, make a separate list of words that complete the following three sentences: 1) God is….; 2) human beings are…… and 3) creation is…… Then compare the lists. What you’ll find is that each story about creation has a different view of God, a different view of humanity, and a different view of creation. What is the effect of having two creation stories? What is common between the two views of God? What’s distinct in each story? What is the effect of having two views about God?
  2. Here’s another exercise to see how the Old Testament includes different views, this time about how Israel emerged on the land. Read the following passages, paying attention to what is different among them, rather than trying to harmonize them. Start with Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and 20:16-18. Then read Joshua chapters 2 and 9, and Judges 1. How many different ways do the various stories portray Israel’s coming into the land? What is the effect of such variety in the Old Testament?
  3. Several contemporary authors who interpret different themes in biblical texts are mentioned in the article (Moon, Exum and Mbuwayesango). Have you heard about other interpretations, or have you talked with other Christians who have views different than yours about certain passages or stories? If you’re in a group, share those stories or interpretations. What is common among the different stories or interpretations you’ve heard? What is the effect of having many different interpretations?
  4. What would be your list of important ways to read the Bible? Finish this sentence in several different ways: “When reading the Bible, it is important to……” Compare your list with those in the article and with friends in your study group or those at church. What common themes come up in these lists? What is the effect of the differences?

For further reading, the best single book that gives good biblical background and shows us a wide variety of interpretations is: The Global Bible Commentary, (Daniel Patte, editor), Nashville : Abingdon Press, 2004.