A writer friend asked me, “So, what have you been reading this summer?” Writers have to (and love to) be readers; it’s part of the craft, and feeds the creative juices. I paused just a moment to think of the last book I’d read. “Oh, that’s right,” I replied, “only the Bible.” That only is meant not in a belittling sense, but the opposite, because I’ve read such large swaths of Scripture every day that it is literally the only book I have had time to pick up since Memorial Day weekend.
I’ve been following a B90 schedule, created by a pastoral colleague for reading the Bible in 90 days. Shortly before he started leading his congregation through this adventure, he organized a “Rostered Leaders” cohort via Facebook and Zoom, to check-in among ourselves on a weekly basis just like his congregation members. This is how and why, since Memorial Day weekend I’ve read nothing else but the Bible.
I read my travel Bible (which I used to take on hospital, nursing home or home visits) now at the playground with my kids, during their swimming lessons, in the lobby during appointments, while the little one was napping, in the car on our epic road trip, and after they went to bed at night. 75% of the time, I was a day behind, but I rarely let the gap widen much more than that, because I thought it would be insurmountable to return to the task if I did. The short attention span availability of our road trip fell during the Psalms, which are hard to read through in big chunks anyway.
I’ve read much of it before, of course. But this time, this method, showed me some things the typical seminary deep-dive into smaller portions of Scripture just couldn’t do. Here are a few of the themes:
The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is 2/3 of our Bible. Yet, we don’t give it that weight or importance in Christian worship, do we? The historical books are SO long, and although I know length is not synonymous with worth, the emphasis on the trajectory of the Israelites in a good portion of Scripture probably means that it should bear weight in our faith identity more than it does (which is almost not at all in some cases).
There are stories in there that I did not realize are repeats, which I had only merged into the one most memorable one. Three examples:
1. bargaining with God not to wipe out an entire city (not just Sodom/Gomorrah)
2. mass killing of false prophets by one of God’s prophets (not just Elijah with Ba’al prophets once)
3. victory over the Philistines by felling one of their number descended from the Giants (but it’s not Goliath)
1 & 2 Samuel are basically 1 & 2 Kings all over again. So other than making me think I’ve picked up in the wrong spot and started reading material I’d already read before, it begs the question: What was the purpose of keeping both in the canon? As one colleague said in our discussions of this, perhaps it makes a stronger case for the Holy Spirit at work in pulling the Bible together, over a group of editors or council with their own agendas.
We mostly read the uplifting Psalms in worship. But there are so many more that are violently vindictive. If you’re reading it right through, the vengeance this poetry calls down upon enemies gets pretty oppressive. We are clearly choosing a certain perspective by what we use for public reading, which is in itself a tool of interpreting Scripture.
If God never changes (there are a couple verses one might choose to make that point) then clearly human perspectives on God, recorded in Scripture, are what have changed over time, because God “behaves” quite differently in different part of the Bible.
The prophets are very concerned with the political realities of their time, in explicit, specific detail. When we take a verse or two here or there from them to interpret as a prediction of Jesus, it’s quite far from the message of reading the whole prophetic book in which it appears. But…
Speaking of cherry-picking favorites, even Jesus himself takes characters or stories from the Hebrew Bible out of context, bordering on cultural appropriation in his preaching.
King David can interpret the Word of God, the prophets do it, Jesus does it, Paul does it. They take Scripture out of context and apply it to their own situations. Rather than directives to limit our interpretation, perhaps what Scripture really is then, is a jumping off point for our myriad interpretations of how God works in the world and our lives. We can certainly check our interpretations against the whole body of Scripture, but there is also ample permission here to riff on the messages that come out of our contexts.
Having read the whole in such a short period of time, I know I would preach smaller parts of it differently. I will be compelled to check my interpretations against larger contexts, AND also find the freedom to make even more creative interpretations, because hey, all the best preachers in the Bible did. But for now, please excuse me because I’ve got to read…something else.