It’s the beginning of January, so get your lazy, gravy-soaked, sugar-saturated bodies off the couch and pack up those Christmas decorations. Get back to the gym, dust off that musical instrument in the corner, set that laminated Bible in a Year calendar on your nightstand and stick to it. Maybe you can get through February this time.
If you’re anything like me, you’re already dreading those long prophetic passages, boring genealogies, useless rituals and confusing theologies. Let me offer you five questions that have helped me to get the most out of my own personal Bible study:
- How would these characters think and feel in their cultural contexts?
God didn’t write the Bible. People did, about 40 of them. These sixty-six books have been handed down through the centuries by oral tradition and an army of copyists, surviving wars and exiles. Simply put, they are old.
They are also foreign. Despite the chic cover of your new Study Bible, and the efforts of scholars to make the original languages sound fresh and contemporary, the Bible is not an American book. It’s not even British. If you went to heaven and asked for a counseling session with Solomon, your question might be answered with blank stares. His name was actually Shlomo. Sounds wise, doesn’t it?
If we allow the Biblical writers to be real people in real places, we can accept a book that expresses a variety of value systems. We would assume scientific ignorance and a propensity toward violence, idolatry and polygamy. We would assume a bit of culture clash.
Books on ancient cultures are available at Christian bookstores or online. Why not grab a couple?
- What is the author trying to communicate?
If we are conscious of human authors, we must assume that each author is not only recording information, but also promoting something. That’s what authors do.
If you read the book of Joshua, you are presented with a nation that quickly and miraculously conquers the land of Canaan. But if you read the book of Judges, you find a rebellious Israel huddled up in the hill country being attacked by surrounding nations. On the surface, the stories seem to contradict one another, but if you recognize the slant of each author, the stories come together. One author emphasizes the loyalty of God, while the other emphasizes the rebellion of his people. Both are true.
To recognize the intention of an author is to understand the binding principle of that book. If you can understand that binding principle, you will be able to place each verse in its appropriate context.
- What might God be trying to communicate?
Yes, humans wrote the Bible, but Paul believed that God inspired it (II Tim. 3:16). With such obvious human fingerprints all over these 66 books, how can anyone be sure of a divine administration?
First, there is a layer of subtlety to the text that could not have consciously been set there by its authors. Spoken openly in prophecy, but also buried in the subtext of certain characters and events, layered with symbol and type, are advertisements of a coming Messiah, the very Messiah that the Jews rejected and crucified. I very much doubt that when David wrote the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was thinking of one of his distant relatives dying on a Roman cross.
Second, despite the variety of worldviews and emphases, there is a cohesive message that transcends and binds the text. The Garden of Eden and the Paradise of Revelation create natural bookends to a story of redemptive history that makes sense of the entire biblical story. As far as we can tell, Genesis and Revelation were written about fifteen hundred years apart.
Without a divine administration, we lose our sense of mystery and purpose. Without a divine administration, the Bible loses its authority and becomes little more than a cultural curiosity.
- Where are we in the story arc?
Many of the nagging contradictions of the Bible can be settled with this question, especially when trying to justify certain Old Testament passages with the New. A lot changed when God came to earth in the flesh and explained a few things. And things changed again when the Holy Spirit brought the Church to life.
It’s easy for Christians to throw out those passages that describe Jewish rituals, claiming that Christ fulfilled them all. But can we throw out the Ten Commandments along with them? Why or why not?
A clear understanding of culture and story arc can help bring clarity to these kinds of questions. They can also keep us from picking out verses and claiming them for ourselves. “For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord…” Plans for who? When? Why?
- What does this mean for me?
We should not try to apply verses to our lives before we understand them. Yes, we are all a part of the same spiritual journey, but some passages are specific to certain people in certain places. We should be able to tell the difference.
We all make fun of people that close their eyes and drop their finger on a verse, hoping for special insight. Secretly, we might give it a shot, but we all know that the Bible should not to be treated like a Quija board. God may choose to use Scripture to answer a prayer or encourage us. That doesn’t make it a magic book.
The message of the Bible is complicated, cohesive and revolutionary, and can still hold questions for its students after centuries of study. To enter its pages is to enter into fellowship with men and women throughout history that have been transformed by real encounters with a living, eternal God. It is to be invited into that divine relationship as well, letting the lessons and insights of our ancient family encourage us deeper and deeper into our personal and corporate life with God.