How to Read the Bible

There is much to say about how to read the Bible, and so much nonsense already said, that one is reluctant to open the subject. From Marcion to Thomas Jefferson and on up to the present, people have carved it up to their liking.

A high criterion for reading anything comes from the late Randall C. Reid, a professor of literature, not a Bible scholar. He taught students to drill into a text far enough to find where the writer reached his limits; where he could not answer his own questions. A text that didn’t go to this point, or a writer who didn’t challenge himself that far, could not be taken as first rate. This is the opposite of reading only to answer one’s own questions; that is an insult to any literature worthy of the name, biblical or otherwise.

Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament (Augsburg Fortress, 1997) is surely a worthy successor to Gerhardt Von Rad and Walter Eichrodt before him. His overarching metaphor is that of a courtroom with testimonies in conflict, never to be resolved. This undergraduate, ca 1968, reading the book of Deuteronomy from the critical point of view then current, thought its chief interest lay in the most ancient layers of tradition lying behind it. Brueggemann focuses attention elsewhere; for the conclusion of a book, not its opening, is more important to its meaning: Near the end of Deuteronomy (ch. 28) we read:

the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey which I promised that you should never make again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no man will buy you.

Surely this is the ghastliest of possible threats to Israel: that she will wish to re-sell herself into slavery, but nobody will buy. Israel will repudiate the very thing—freedom from slavery—which made her Israel. It is the Israel which has experienced this, now gathered back in Jerusalem, of which we hear in Ezra 3.12-13:

Old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this new house being laid . . . so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.

Clearly, none of the prophets or the other documents of Israel’s hopes and God’s promises can be read without holding such passages in mind—not for some discursive message, reducible to “principles” (though that goes on among people who ought to know better), and not for explanations or predictions of historical or current events, but for what it demonstrates about the vexed relationship between God and his people. As the psalmist says

With the faithful you show yourself faith, O God;
      with the forthright you show yourself forthright.
With the pure you show yourself pure,
      but with the crooked you are wily.
(Psalm 18:26–27)

Well we may conclude we are crooked men, for ours is a very wily God.

The important truth is that no particular fragment of scripture, nor any selection of fragments, speaks the truth in isolation from the rest. We do best if we treat them all as supremely valuable attempts to speak truth, records of men’s attempts to cope with the presence of God with his people. Only as a whole does it add up to anything; and then only to a great open ended mystery.

Every time a writer, scriptural or otherwise, claims to have a grasp on God, or thinks some sure thing awaits the faithful, that writer’s insight is disconfirmed. The overall message is a wild and radical one, at bottom: God is free; actually, really free; not free as we think of free, but free. A free man frightens people quite enough; a free God is beyond frightening. Absolutely anything can be; God is free. (Lemma: we too are free. Cope with it if we can.)

Nor does the New Testament take the irony out of the relationship. The coming of Jesus is a disconfirmation of everything expected of a Messiah, however tortuously old Matthew tries to link things up with Old Testament prophecy. Even the Resurrection is, in a sense, another disconfirmation, a complete violation of sense. The appearances afterward can scarcely be believed, even by those closest to the events. Ascension too calls forth fresh worries of abandonment.

Through all of this, the one promise (if we have the fortitude to embrace it as a promise) never fails: I am your God. You shall have no other. That shall must be taken as a declarative promise, not an imperative. The challenge of faith is still what it has always been: to live that reality. The reassurance available from reading the Bible is a very odd kind. It has more to do with knowing others have felt as bewildered as we before us, than it does with expecting the bewilderment to stop. As Karl Rahner puts it in Visions and Prophecies (1963, pages 105–06):

As to the purpose of . . . divine prophecies, we must first state that they cannot be intended to restrict human liberty. Being divine interventions whose purpose is human salvation, they will not take from man the burden and grace of free decision in courageous and trusting faith. They do not intend to provide man with a device for cleverly avoiding the difficult passages of his history and securing himself a safe and comfortable life (from the worldly point of view). They are not instructions for fleeing the cross of Christ. Where prophecies are so understood they are misunderstood, though genuine and of divine origin in themselves. Divine prophecy has a different sense and object; it is to manifest the living God as the Lord of history, even the history of darkness. . . . Divine prophecies will warn us against worldly optimism, against the mania for progress and against the utopian attempt to realize on this earth a kingdom of universal bliss. For this reason they constantly announce a dark future. True prophecies call us to penance, conversion, prayer, trust in the victory of Christ, hope in God eternal.

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