Monday, July 16, 2012

How to read the Bible

There are, in my view, two erroneous perspectives on that collection of ancient literature that we have come to call "The Bible." The first, and perhaps most common, is that is is some kind of divinely authored encyclopedia. On this reading, the Bible comes straight from God as is therefore free from any scientific, historical, moral, or other errors.

Anyone who has actually read the Bible knows this is simply not true. The Bible contains every manner of human error. We know that not all of its stories are historical, that knowledge of science does not inform its pages, and that it frequently assumes a tribal and primitive morality that we cannot even begin to find inspiring.

This knowledge, unfortunately, leads some to reject the Bible as a horrid product. Such readers love to debunk and ridicule the Scriptures, pointing with glee to troubling or historically mistaken passages. They are correct that these passages exist, but they too beg the question on what the Bible is and how we should read it.

The problem is that both sets of readers assume that the Bible is either a divinely authored and error free text, or it is pure rubbish. This dilemma is, I suggest, a false one.

The way out of this false dilemma is to understand what the Bible actually is. The Bible is a fully human collection of texts. These texts were written, edited, collected, and canonized, copied and re-copied over centuries. They contain every human error one would expect from so broad and wide a collection of ancient literature. It might help if we ceased to speak of "the Bible" and instead spoke of "the scriptures." This is, after all, a collection of widely different texts from very different authors, in different times.

Far from undermining the Bible however, such an understanding of what it is should enrich our appreciation of it. Were we to believe that God truly authored the texts, we would have to face troubling events, slaying the first born of Egypt, commanding genocide against the Amalekites, stoning twig gathers on the Sabbath, striking Onan dead for the withdrawal method, and so forth. Unless you are willing to look into the face of your firstborn son - and I know I'm not - and think that such a being could deserve God's wrath because of the decision of your nation's leaders, or that God could command that your child be killed just so his "chosen people" could have their promise land, then you simply cannot be a Biblical literalist.

Seen as an ancient human product, on the other hand, we can appreciate the gradual transformation of Yahweh, a tribal war god, into the one universal God of mercy, justice and Compassion. For make no mistake, taken as a literary work, we can follow the Biblical Character of God from his origins as a fiery, vengeful deity who plays favorites (just read the book Judges or 1 and 2 Samuel) to the loving Father in Heaven who teaches Jonah the value of mercy. That transformation is a splendid and inspiring one. There were lot's of little war lord tribal gods, I can think of no other that transformed in to a loving God of universal justice.

Casting our gaze downward from Heaven to the Earth, we find that the Bible is a story of conflict. On the one hand stand the Kings of Israel and Judah. Again and again these Kings, and the elites who serve them, attempt to lord it over the "regular folks," to take their lands, their spouses, even their very lives; to become little dictators in the promised land. But again and again the prophets speak out to condemn them. Pleading for justice, making the case for the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, the poor, and the downtrodden, the prophets consistently equate God with justice and fair play, and religion with treating others, particularly the weak and marginalized, with respect, compassion, and concern.Whether it is the prophet Nathan damning King David for the murder of Uriah the Hittite (not to mention adultery with Uriah's wife!), Elijah defending the commoner Naboath against King Ahab's seizure of the former's vineyard, or Amos crying out to let "justice flow like water," there is simply nothing like the passion of the prophets for justice, equality, and fair play in all of ancient religious literature.

So read the Bible as a flawed, sometimes horrible, human creation. That is, after all, what it is. But in that realization the very power of "the good book" can hit home. A ethic of "the chosen people" turned into a universal ethic of compassion and justice for all people; a petty and jealous tribal god transformed into a loving creator wishing for all to receive justice, mercy, and blessings.

That is something truly inspiration, truly spiritual, and truly astounding, and - just perhaps - truly divine.

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