"It's priests have done violence to my teachings and have profaned my holy things; they have made no distinction between the holy and the common.... It's prophets have smeared whitewash on their behalf, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, 'Thus says the Lord God,' when the Lord had not spoken. ...And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me..." -- Ezekiel 22:26, 28, 30
These words resonated with me as I began to think about teaching a Bible 101 course for adults at my church. While searching for resources to use for the class, I noticed two prevailing, and contrasting, viewpoints. On one side, I found resources that promote the point of view that every word in the Bible comes directly from God, every statement in the Bible is literally true, and the canonical Bible is the only source and norm for religious life. On the other side, I found resources that promote the idea that the Bible is simply the product of different people writing from within specific cultures and times who had their own agendas, which were then compiled, edited and redacted, by other people, with other agendas. I have to say...neither viewpoint appeals to me.
I began to wonder... Is there a way to understand the Bible that does not equate it with God and that does not remove God from it altogether? Is there a middle way that values both the humanity (with all its flaws) and the divinity (with all its perfection) to be found within this holy book?
Personally, I value much of the historical-critical biblical scholarship that is available for the average person today. I appreciate understanding more of the cultural context behind these writings. When I find differences in the Bible, for example in laws or theology, or outright contradictory statements, it helps me to know that the Bible is the product of diverse people over a long period of time. There is, naturally, a progression in understanding over time: laws
change, viewpoints of
historical events change, and understanding of God changes. Even one writer, say for example Paul, does not demonstrate absolute consistency
of thought over time.
My appreciation of the Bible is also deepened by understanding the various kinds of writings that are to be found within it: legends, history, civil and ritual law, love poetry, praise hymns and lamentations, parables, teachings, stories, letters, etc. The Bible is the epitome of what it means to be united in the midst of diversity: differences are not erased, they are all included. The Bible as it has been handed down to us, without harmonizing the diversity found within it, is more like an anthology of man's evolving understanding of God, than it is a single story.
But more important that what the Bible is, is what the Bible does. And this is what makes the Bible holy. The stories and prayers and teachings in the Bible have the ability to inspire, comfort, convict, and guide us as people of God. Because these ancient writings are about (or by) people aspiring to, or turning away from, God, they have the power to speak to us, even to this day. The things that concerned these ancient people still concern us today: judgment, suffering, divine intervention, spiritual gifts, prayer, the poor, the stranger, the lost, the afterlife, etc. And very often, their answers provide needed insight into our own lives.
Even stories that may have been originally intended as a retelling of an
actual event can still act as parables or allegories for our
lives today. The Bible is chock-full of these, each one resonating with new meaning depending on when you read them. For example, in the story of Adam and Eve, besides the story itself, one can discover many other insights: there is the understanding that Eve was made to be an equal partner with Adam, having come from his side; there is the understanding that in the beginning Adam and Eve walked naked upon the earth with no shame, and that God walked with them and conversed with them; there is the idea that knowingly disobeying God creates shame; there is the idea that because neither Adam nor Eve admitted their transgression they were separated from God; there is the idea that the whole story from beginning to end can be an analogy for our own growth from innocent children to disobedient adolescents to independent adults; there is also the understanding that even with God's punishment comes love as God makes clothes for them before sending them out of Eden. There are many more insights that have been and can also be discovered in this one story. The Bible, in this way, is rich with untold treasures.
And yet, clearly some writings are more meaningful than others. Martin Luther placed greater value on some books than on others.
Catholic Bibles include more books than do Protestant Bibles. And, while I hesitate to discount any books from the Bible, I must admit that the specific
laws about animal sacrifices, temple construction, and ritual
purity, which illustrate the cultural-religious understanding of an
ancient time, are not as important to me as the stories of the patriarchs or
parables of Jesus, which cross all cultures and are timeless.
I am not a biblical scholar by any means. Thankfully, you don't have to be one to appreciate and learn from the Bible. However, over the years, I have discovered a few things about the Bible, besides those mentioned above, that I wish were more readily known.
(1) The stories in the Bible do not have to be literally true to convey profound truth.
(2) The writings in the Bible do not have to be written by who they are attributed to in order to reveal God's truth. Even the humblest person can reveal God's truth. The test for truth is whether it rings true over time.
(3) The Bible has never been an effective tool for determining church
doctrine. Alternate viewpoints will always find corroboration within these diverse writings, which is why schism so frequently occurs.
(4) Historical-critical biblical scholarship seeks to determine the human context of the writings, which can be insightful. It can, however, digress into irrelevant minutia which does little to convey the meaning of these writings.
(5) Commentaries and study Bibles, while informative, can also
direct and limit your thinking. If you think about what the biblical words say to you first, without other
guidance, you will gain even more insight.
(6) God can and does speak to us through these words, especially when we read the Bible devotionally.
(7) The Bible is not the only means, or only book, through which God can speak to us. God was with humanity after the Bible was canonized. God is still with us. And God still speaks to us in many diverse ways.
This is what I know about the Bible, so far -- or at least what comes to mind at this moment. I'm sure I have much more to learn. Hopefully, the more I read the Bible itself the more I will learn. And that is really the key to appreciating the sacred qualities of the Bible: reading it, again and again.
May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you