How I Read the Bible, And So Can You! Part 4


In the last post I talked about how important it is to recognize that the biblical writers have their own voice.

The Bible, especially the Old Testament, doesn’t speak with one voice or one viewpoint. It actually contains multiple voices and multiple viewpoints, and, as I pointed out last week, they don’t all agree with each other.

It’s not merely that they see things partially or from different aspects such that combining them gives you a larger picture. It’s that they sometimes disagree with each other.

Sometimes they are arguing with each other. One person writes something with which someone else disagrees. That person then writes something to invalidate what the first person has written and to advocate for a competing view. That’s what an argument is.

So here’s the next thing I try to do when reading the Bible: I look beyond what the writer is trying to say to what they are trying to accomplish. I look beyond meaning and look for effect.

The Writing of History as an Act of Power

We have this mistaken view that writing history is about the past, but it’s not. The phenomenon of writing history to record for posterity what happened in the past is a recent invention in the history of writing.

Before the printing press made information readily available, the past wasn’t documented in the way we think of it today. Before that (and this is still often the case) histories were written to 1) validate the present order; 2) invalidate the present order; and 3) shape the future.

Kings and rulers would commission the writing of history to show that their present position is the result of their own brilliance, their courage, their righteousness, and the righteousness of their cause. Usually they would assert that God or the gods favored them and therefore delivered them the military victories that led to their enthronement and current status.

Of course, if you were out of power but wanted to be in power, you would present history differently. You would seek to invalidate the present ruler’s status.

You would write a history that showed that his victories were the result of conniving, of lying and cheating and stealing, of making pacts with the spiritual forces of evil.

You would show how he exploited the common person and continues to do so through his ruthless power.

You would also show how your opposition to him is right and righteous and based upon truth, justice, and concern for the common person, of whom you are one. You are just a regular guy like them, a humble person of common stock whom God or the gods have chosen to set the world right.

Doesn’t this sound a lot like the book of Kings in the Old Testament? In fact it is a good description of that whole body of literature that includes Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Kings, while Ezra, Nehemiah and, in particular, Chronicles, tells a different story of Israel’s past.

Each of these writers is using the past to support their view of the present, and they are doing so in order to shape the future. Those in power want to stay in power, and those out of power want to gain it.

Beyond Meaning to Effect

When you understand that, you begin to look for more than what they are saying, you look for what they want to accomplish by saying it. You look for what they choose to include in their history and what they leave out. You look for what they emphasize, and what they don’t.

What does it mean, for instance, that Kings makes a big deal of David’s affair with Bathsheba, and that it’s through Bathsheba’s conniving that she convinces an old and addled David to make her son Solomon king rather than his older brother Adonijah, who was David’s son from a different wife—but that Chronicles hardly mentions her at all, and Solomon becomes king because that’s who God wanted and instructed David to anoint?

It means a lot, but you have to know to look beyond what the text says and look for what it seeks to accomplish

Next post I’ll talk about what is the most important step I take in interpreting the Bible.

(For the rest of the series click here: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.)

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo / Massonforstock

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