The Bible is a rich and complex book, and there are many different ways to read it, says Revd. Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes
When I go into schools to talk about the Bible, I often take a big sack of props with me. One by one, I hold up a series of objects: a loaf of bread; a pot of honey; a map; an instruction manual; a family tree; an icon; a lantern. These are all images, I explain, of how Christians think of the Bible.
Of them all, the loaf of bread is perhaps my favourite. I love the idea of the Bible as food for thought. Basic and sufficient, life-sustaining and delicious, with all its resonances - manna in the wilderness, the last supper, the miracles of feeding, the disciples recognising Jesus in the breaking of the bread. It is something we chew over, slowly digest, and are nourished by; something we can eat alone, but also a delight to share in the company of other people – ‘companions’ literally means ‘people we eat bread with’.
The Bible, of course, was not written all in one go, but is a collection of books written over hundreds – even thousands – of years. This means that when most of the books of the Bible were written, there already existed a body of Scripture, which later books refer to and reflect on. So we can see throughout the Bible a whole variety of ways in which the Bible itself shows us how we can read – or chew over - what the Bible says. It’s not as simple as just ‘the Bible says it, so I believe it’. What the Bible says about the Bible is that we can and should chew it over in various different ways, in order to get the most nourishment from it for our faith and for how we live our daily lives.
Genesis: Arguing and wrestling
The stories of Abraham’s negotiation with God in Genesis 18 and of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32 were foundational for the developing biblical understanding of how humans can and should interact with God, and hence with God’s words in scripture.
Argument was an important strand in the Jewish rabbinic tradition of reading Scripture. It is what Jesus grew up with. When he stayed behind as a child in the temple (Luke 3:41−9) after a family trip to Jerusalem and was found “in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions”, this is the tradition that he was drawn to. He continued with it throughout his adult ministry, debating with “scribes and pharisees” − though he stayed silent before the outsider, Pilate, who was not trained to appreciate this kind of debate. It was what rabbis and their disciples did; they wrestled with God and with the meaning of the Scriptures, in dialogue and debate.
In this rabbinic tradition, still living today, the purpose of argument was and is not so much to arrive at a correct answer as to encounter God in, and let ourselves be formed and changed by, the process of the argument itself.
The psalms: Meditation and desire
The psalms describe meditating on “the law” as both a desire and a delight, something that we long for, thirst for, and that brings us joy. “Law” here doesn’t simply mean rules and regulations, but all the scripture and teaching that existed. It was thought of rather like the concentric circles that you get when you throw a stone into a pond – the central rock was the ten commandments, then the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and then the Torah, the rabbinic traditions of teaching and thinking about those things. The theme of thirsting and longing recurs throughout the book of Psalms, most famously in the opening lines of Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God”. Spending time reading and sitting with scripture in prayerful contemplation is the main way that the psalms imagine using it. They don’t describe reading scripture primarily to learn from it or to apply it, but simply contemplating it as a way of spending time in the presence of God, the desired beloved.
Meditating on scripture in this way is also described as being natural. Just as a tree drinks water, Psalm 1 implies, we can drink spiritual nourishment from such meditation. It is not presented as a hard task or something that requires specialist knowledge, skills or equipment. It can be done day and night. And so long as you put yourself in the right place − let your roots go down to the water by choosing to spend time in such meditation − you can confidently expect that the nourishment and fruitfulness that results will come as naturally as tree roots take up water. We’re just made that way.
Stories to be provoked by
There are several parts of the Bible that make us wince when we read them. What are we to make of such passages?
2 Samuel 12 sees the prophet Nathan challenge some appalling behaviour using a provocative story. King David has raped or seduced Bathsheba and then, when she becomes pregnant, he first tries to cover up by getting her husband to come back and sleep with her himself, and when that plan fails, he gives orders for her husband to be killed. In response, God sends the prophet Nathan to challenge David.
Nathan’s method is not to condemn David outright, but to tell him a story. David reacts as any right-thinking person would be expected to: he is angry at the injustice, greed and misuse of power that the story recounts. And then, because he is the king, and is expected to enforce justice when a complaint is brought before him, he demands to know who the wrongdoer is and vows to bring him to account.
I love the idea of the Bible as food for thought. Basic and sufficient, life-sustaining and delicious
It does not matter that the story is not, in fact, literally true − no sheep were harmed in the making of this story. Nathan’s purpose in telling the tale is not to get justice for a fictional sheep farmer, but to evoke the reaction that he did in his hearer: to make him angry at the injustice and determined to do something about it. Only then does he point out that it is David’s own behaviour that he has just described. The story provokes in David something of God’s passion for justice – which means he can then see how his own behaviour falls short of this ideal.
At one level − within the story itself − this is simply a clever way of trapping David into condemning himself. But it is also an example to us of what God might be doing for us through the inclusion of some really problematic incidents and stories in the canon of Scripture. When a passage enrages or appalls us, this story suggests that the first question to ask is not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Why am I so angry?’ What is it about the behaviour described that is so upsetting to you? What if the ‘teller’ of the story suddenly turned round and told you that the reason they’d told this story was to bring you to a fresh realisation of just how appalling such behaviour is, and make you contemplate how you, or our current society, falls short of your own sense of God’s ideals for us?
The temptations of Christ: A miniature masterclass
We most commonly reflect on Jesus’ temptations in Lent, when we are thinking about the nature of temptation and the things that tempt us − money, material objects, power, glory, fame, and so on. But this passage is also something of a miniature masterclass in the use and misuse of Scripture. We are eavesdropping on a conversation that speaks to us about how we might use the Bible, for good or for ill, and invites us to reflect on our own use of Scripture.
Jesus’ quotations all come from Deuteronomy chapters 6 to 8, and in the quotes used here we see the whole story of Israel’s wilderness experience summarised. The temptations that Jesus experiences at the end of his forty days in the desert are presented as mirroring the temptations that Israel experienced in their symbolic forty years in the desert: tempted by hunger, tempted to put God to the test, tempted to idolatry. These words are not simply to be taken at face value as clinching arguments or statements of faith; they are deliberately chosen to evoke the story of Israel’s wilderness experience and to imply that Jesus is personifying the story of Israel.
Argument was not so much to arrive at an answer as to encounter God in, and be changed by, the process itself
In just a few lines this passage demonstrates how the biblical writers used quotations and imagery. By making simple references to what would have been well-known stories, they are able to say much more than the brevity of each text might suggest on first reading. Following back the footnotes helps us to understand the full context of each quotation and the range of imagery, history and shared cultural understanding that each one could have evoked in the first hearers of the Gospels. This is all part of the plain meaning of the text and, without it, our understanding is impoverished. We could easily miss that this passage is not only about temptation (as it undoubtedly is) but also about positioning Jesus as recapitulating in his own person the salvation history of Israel.
This story also shows the importance of Bible reading to help you know where you stand. Spend time reading, reflecting on and praying through the foundations of your faith − before you need it. Jesus has just spent a long, silent retreat in the wilderness at this point. This hasn’t made him more vulnerable to temptation. On the contrary, it has made him better able to withstand it because he is immersed in his faith and sure of his roots. Spend time reading the Bible. Go on retreats. Pray. Be part of a church community. So that when the demons of doubt come whispering − as I can almost guarantee they will − you have the bedrock of your inheritance of faith on which to stand firm.
A cloud of witnesses
Hebrews chapter 12 is a breath-taking summary of the Old Testament as a “cloud of witnesses”. In the midst of competing arguments and claims about the shape and direction that the early churches should take, it reminded its readers of the foundational importance of the witness of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. Hebrews suggests that we view the Bible as a collection of witness statements. They are evidence, handed down to us over time, of the interaction of God with God’s people and/or God’s world.
Witness statements often conflict with one another over details. They describe the same or different facets of an event from widely different perspectives. Witness statements are written for a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is obvious, sometimes it is more complex − and part of the task of assessing witness statements is to ask why they are telling us what they do.
Spend time reading the Bible so that when doubts come, you have the inheritance of faith on which to stand firm
We can combine this idea of witness statements with Paul’s image of us running a relay race through time, in which the baton is now handed on to us. This suggests that we take a multi-tiered historical approach to reading the Bible. First, there is the actual historical experience that led to any one passage of Scripture being written in the first place − the creation of the baton. Second, there’s the fact that this particular story was chosen as one that was transmitted down through time, whether verbally or in writing, over the generations. Third, there’s its effect on us as we read it now, and the question of what we do as a result; and finally, there’s our part in passing it on to future generations.
It is a historical reality that the Bible has been passed on to us, as we sit and read it now. Whatever it meant to people in the past, it is now for you, in this moment. Ask yourself what is there about your reading that might make it for you one of this “great cloud of witnesses”? Is there anything about it that might give you one of the benefits Hebrews describes − something that might help you to disentangle yourself, or free yourself, from something that threatens to hold you back? Something that might give you strength to persevere? Something that directs your focus to Jesus?