Human stories stand at the core of holy books
by Jesse Hove
The Bible has historically been a powerful, yet tricky book. Some argue it is the cause of countless wars. Others say reading it gives them a sense of peace and harmony. Does this book tell us about God’s love? Or is the God of this book a murderous tyrant? Is this book against abortion? Does it support the invasion of Iraq? Many have used it to argue for, and against, a wide range of issues. There are, however, a few basic understandings of the Bible that can help us cut through some of the stereotypes, misconceptions and negative feelings.
Firstly the Bible a collection of several books. And these books didn’t magically drop out of the sky. It took many years for all them to be compiled. The Old Testament authors span more than a 1,000-year period, and they include a variety of different cultural influences. The New Testament is a set of texts that were not officially compiled by the early church fathers until about 250 years after their authorship. The fully compiled Bible has influences from Israelites, Babylonians, Jews and Greeks, just to name a few, and represents an assortment of different historical locations. This helps to explain the large variety of theological perspectives and literary genres, and is why I would argue you can’t simply “read for the Bible for it says” as many suggest you can.
When Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, his intention was not make a biological claim about seeds (Matthew 13). He was telling a parable in order to explain a metaphysical truth about the Kingdom of God from his Jewish perspective. If you read Ezekiel 17 in concert with this parable, the text is further illuminated. Jesus is constantly intertwining Hebrew texts with his message because he himself was something of a Jewish Rabbi. The culture, the language and the history matters if you want to more deeply receive what is being said.
One example of genre can be seen in an Old Testament passage in the beginning of Numbers 21, which said that God completely destroyed the Canaanite people. However, in Matthew 15 Jesus speaks to a Canaanite woman at a well. How could she have been alive? One genre in Old Testament is what many scholars consider to be epic language. Perspectives are exaggerated and everyone in that culture knowingly expects it.
Secondly, the material that became biblical wasn’t written in order to be part of a Bible. This is why we get a book of erotic love poetry such as Song of Songs, and one that doesn’t mention God at all like in Esther.
In the New Testament letters we get to see the Apostle Paul at his best and his worst. The same guy who wrote the wedding vows for half the weddings I have been to (in Corinthians 13), also suggested to the Jews in Galatia that if they were really that into everyone being circumcised, they might as well go all the way and cut their penises right off (Galatians 5:11-12).
This is the beauty of the Bible. It is not just a list of rules and regulations, and it is not trying to answer today’s questions surrounding morality and political policy. We relate to it because it is telling us stories of humanity. It shows us at our most bent and most broken, which is all the more illuminating when we’re at our most beautiful.