What is the Bible?
Part 1. Someone Wrote Something
I’ve had a number of conversations recently that somehow led to the Bible. I say somehow because these weren’t conversations with particularly religious friends, and yet what they talked about was their interest in the Bible.
For some, they readily acknowledge that this particular library of books (Yes, it’s a library. More on that later…) has deeply shaped western civilization in countless ways and yet they haven’t the foggiest notion what it’s actually about other than vague references to David killing Goliath (Although in the book of 2 Samuel it’s written that a man named Elhanan killed Goliath) or ominous warnings about the end of the world (Like in the recent movie This Is The End where Jay Baruchel keeps reading passages from the book of Revelation to Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill and James Franco-as if that’s the book to help you understand why the sinkhole in your front yard just swallowed up Rihanna…) or stories about Jesus doing things like turning water into wine (Really? That’s his first miracle? He makes it possible for people to keep drinking for days on end? Is this why Jesus was accused of being a drunk?)
For others, they’ve heard someone quote the Bible and something about what the person said made them think there’s no way that it actually says that. And yet they don’t have some better or more informed way to counter the explanation they heard other than you can’t be serious, that’s crazy.
And then for others, the Bible caught them off guard. They had an experience, they tasted something, they felt something, they endured something-and they discovered in the Bible language for what they’d experienced. They were wronged by someone and in moments of honesty realized that they wanted that person to die in a violent and gruesome fashion-only to discover these exact impulses described in vivid detail in the Psalms. How is it that someone writing thousands of years ago in a different place in a different language in a different culture could describe with such startling detail exactly what I’m feeling here and now in the modern world? How could something so many have discarded as irrelevant be at times so shockingly relevant?
Questions I’ll get to.
I’ll start with how the bible came to be The Bible,
then I’ll write about
all in order to explore what’s going on just below the surface of the stories in the Bible.
Then I’ll address some of the ways many people were taught to think and talk about the Bible-
as God’s word, The Good Book, the living word, principles for living, The Word, the absolute standard, THE INERRANT TRUTH ABOUT WHICH THERE CAN BE NO COMPROMISE, God’s view on things, the ultimate owners manual, and so on
-and why those ways of thinking and talking about the Bible aren’t working like they used to for lots and lots and lots of people.
All of which will lead me to articulate a way of understanding the Bible in which your mind and your heart are both fully engaged as you see it and read it for what it is-a funky, ancient, poetic, revolting, provocative, mysterious, revelatory, scandalous and inspired collection of books called The Bible that tell a story, a story I want you to hear.
First, then, a bit about how we got the Bible.
Someone wrote something down.
Obvious, but true. And an important starting point.
The Bible did not drop out of the sky, it was written by people.
Again, obvious, but it helps ground us in how to begin thinking about what the Bible is. Many of the stories in the Bible began as oral traditions, handed down from generation to generation until someone collected them, edited them, and actually wrote them down, sometimes hundreds of years later. That’s years and years of people sitting around fires and walking along hot dusty roads and gathering together to hear and discuss and debate and wrestle with these stories.
The people who wrote these books had lots of material to choose from. There were lots of stories floating around, lots of accounts being handed down, lots of material to include. Or not include.
(There’s a line in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings 11 where the author writes
As for the other events of Solomon’s reign-all he did and the wisdom he displayed-are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon?
Well, yes, I guess they are…it’s just that we have no idea what the author is referring to. Interesting the assumption on the author’s part that not only do we know this, but that we have access to these annals. Which we don’t.
We see something similar in the gospel of John where it’s written
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of disciples, which are not recorded in this book
and then the book ends with this line:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
It’s as if the writer, just to wrap things up, adds Oh yeah, I left a ton of stuff out.)
The authors of the books of the Bible, then, weren’t just writing, they were selecting and editing and making a multitude of decisions about what material and content furthered their purposes in writing and what didn’t.
These writers had agendas.
Luke: I too decided to write an orderly account for you…
The Book of Esther: This is what happened…
John: These are written that you may believe…
There were points they wanted to make, things they wanted their readers to see, insights they wanted to share. These writers, it’s important to point out, were real people living in real places at real times. And their purposes and intents and agendas were shaped by their times and places and contexts and economies and politics and religion and technology and countless other factors.
What does it tell us about the world Abraham lived in that when he’s told to offer his son as a sacrifice he sets out to do it as if it’s a natural thing for a god to ask…?
The David and Goliath story starts with technology-the Philistines had a new kind of metal, the Israelites didn’t. The story is undergirded by the primal fear that comes when your neighbor has weapons that you don’t have-like spears. Or guns. Or bombs.
Why does the Apostle Peter use the phrase there is no other name under heaven…? Where did he get this phrase and what images from military propaganda would it have brought to mind for his listeners?
writing in real places,
at real times,
choosing to include some material,
choosing to leave out other material,
all because they had stories to tell.
That said, two thoughts to wrap this introduction section up:
First, for some the Bible is just a collection of old books. Books written by people, and nothing more. For others, the Bible is a collection of books, but it’s also more than just a collection of books. They’re books, but they’re more than just books.
We’ll get to words like inspiration and revelation and God-breathed later (which I’m a believer in-but I’m getting ahead of myself), but for now it’s important to begin by stating the obvious: The Bible is first, before anything else, a library of books written by humans.
I say this because there is a stilted literalism that many have encountered in regards to the Bible that makes great claims about its divinity and inspiration and perfection but then doesn’t know what to do with its humanity.
Why do the four resurrection accounts in the gospels differ on basic details?
Why aren’t there any clear denunciations of polygamy? Or slavery?
Why does Paul say in the New Testament that it’s him speaking, not the Lord…?
When people charge in with great insistence that this is God’s word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power.
All because of starting in the wrong place.
You start with the human. You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote these books.
Because whatever divine you find in it, you find that divine through the human, not around it.
(I should play my hand here just a bit on where I want to take you: If you let go of the divine nature of the Bible on the front end and immerse yourself in the humanity of it, you find the divine in unexpected ways, ways that can actually transform your heart. Which is the point, right?)
Second, a bit about questions.
Often, especially when people come to a particular strange or gruesome or inexplicable passage, they’ll ask
Why did God say this?
The problem with this question is that it can leave you tied up in all kinds of knots. (Really? God told them to kill all the women and children? God did? And we’re supposed to accept that, well, that’s just how God is?)
That sort of thing.
The better question is:
Why did people find it important to tell this story?
What was it that moved them to record these words?
What was happening in the world at that time?
What does this passage/story/poem/verse/book tell us about how people understood who they were and who God is at that time?
What’s the story that’s unfolding here and why did these people think it was the story worth telling?
Let’s take one of those stories-
the one about a flood-
and ask these sorts of questions.
Next - What is the Bible? Part 2: Flood.
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