7 secrets to better Bible reading

The Bible is a work of art. Actually, it is many works of art - it's a portable, multi-media art collection. At one end of the gallery, the panoramic vistas of Creation, Cain and Abel, The Deluge, and The Tower of Babel. At the other end, the psychotic paranoia of John's surreal dream-scapes. For him, the serpent in the garden of Eden has morphed in to a fearsome dragon. There are simple portraits, like that of Ruth, hung alongside rolling dioramas - a crowd of 3 million marching through the Red Sea, a wall of water on either side, congregated at the foot of a volatile mountain, and encamped out in the wilderness. There are sections of scripture cinematic in scope: Compare the assassination scenes during Michael's initiation as The Godfather, with Solomon's establishing the throne of David (1 Kings 2). Or, see how cleverly John juxtaposes the courage of Jesus with the denial of Peter (John 18). Imagine the camera flying low over a camp of 185,000 dead Assyrians. Even the one genuine historical narrative is presented as a thrilling mystery: Who will succeed to the throne of David when the Queen is barren? (2 Samuel 6 - 1 Kings 2:46)

Despite all of this, owning a Bible is not to everyone's taste, let alone reading the thing. Here are 7 secrets that might make reading and understanding the Bible a whole lot easier.

1. The Bible is life
The Bible is not just the myths, legends, and history of the nation of Israel, it is a cross-section of life. In some ways Israelite actions, customs, and beliefs might be unique, but very often what is portrayed is distinctly universal. The Israelites looked back on their monarchy and believed it was chosen and appointed by God. This is no different from any other monarchy that exists today - they all consider their rulership to be a divine right. Wars are fought by nations with the belief that God is on their side - exactly as it was the with the Israelite nation.

Whether the men and women in the Bible are real or imaginary, mythical or legendary, elaborations or exact representations, they can still be viewed (in the words of James 5:17) as people, "with feelings like ours." The prophet Samuel had to cope with being handed over to the temple at a very young age; is it any wonder Solomon had multiple wives and concubines with a father like David; how can Samson be viewed as anything other than the prototype of a suicide bomber? How does Paul cope with the reality of watching a young man getting his head staved in with rocks?

There is not wisdom on every page - but neither is there no wisdom at all. Just as in life, many men have uttered a lot of words on a variety of subjects, and it is up to us to sift through and glean the best.

2. The Bible is aetiological
What is the name of your town? How did it get that name? How did a particular custom or ritual come about? Aetiology is the study of origins, or cause. All this means is that you can often find the source of the Bible account at the end of the story - "That is why the name of this city is Beersheba, down to this day." (Genesis 26:33) This happens to a greater or lesser degree right throughout the Scriptures, from the Old Testament and on into the New. For example, Acts 1:18 and 19 is aetiological.

"Father, why is this place called Akeldama?"

"Well, son, the betrayer of our Lord (spit, spit) got just what was coming to him. It was a comedy of errors, no less. He was so filled with remorse and self-loathing that he went to hang himself from a tree, but when he let go, the branch broke. Not only that, he had picked a tree on a precipice so that when the branch snapped he pitched head foremost and he noisily burst on the rocks below so that all his intestines poured out."

"Ooh, juicy!"

"I know. So they called it Akeldama, which means 'Field of Blood'. Now, ask me about that crazy ritual that takes place over in Shiloh each year where the men all hide in the bushes and then jump out and chase the girls about, that's a real treat." (Judges chapters 19-21)

Sometimes a story might arise from a saying. An example of this can be found in John chapter 9. By the end of the first century there was a popular saying - something akin to, "There's none so blind as them who think they can see," a forerunner to von Goethe's, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” With this saying in mind, the writer of John's gospel fashions a wonderful account of the healing of a blind man. It starts with the hilarious picture of a man stumbling forward with clay caked on his eyes. He is crying out, "Help me. Tell me where is the Pool of Siloam. I cannot see." And all along the way, wags are laughing and pointing, "Of course you can't see, you have clay caked on your eyes." The dialogue that develops between this man and the religious leaders is a piece of pitch perfect humour which effortlessly segues from a discussion about physical blindness to a serious commentary on spiritual blindness, culminating in the climax of the Pharisees asking Jesus, "We are not blind also are we?" Drum-roll, please...

Further reading: Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis p21

3. The Bible is history written in hindsight
There was not a period of some several thousand years when God was actively involved with a single nation by means of dialogue, signs, miracles, and prophecy. As it is now, it was then. Just as men can look back today and speculate on God's involvement in matters, so they did then.

It was always written by someone who was looking back at events and making an interpretation of those events. It was not written chronologically. The first five books of the Bible contain at least three versions of the same period of time, written from different religious and political perspectives, centuries apart.

Jewish writers were not afraid of indulging in a spot of historical revisionism. Because things didn't turn out quite as Jeremiah imagined they would, Deuteronomy contains at least one rewrite, woven through the original document. Compare also the two histories of the monarchy: First and Second Chronicles is a re-appraisal of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings more or less stripped of any mention of a separate Israelite nation.

Further reading: Richard Elliot Friedman, Who Wrote The Bible

4. The Bible never foretells the future
We have prophets today. They are the political critics, the journalist, the blogger, and the trend analyst. It was Jeremiah who bigged them up, and that's because he viewed himself as one - but he did himself a serious disservice when he attempted to predict the future, and the man he pinned his hopes on got pinned by an arrow.

The Bible is not a book of prophecy in the sense that it foretells the future. Any utterance which appears to be a prediction about the future either an event that occurred at the time, or it is an interpretation of events: This is how something turned out, therefore someone must have said that this is how something would turn out. For example, by the time of King Josiah fifteen generations have ruled in the family line of David. From that standpoint it becomes easy for Jeremiah to have Nathan tell David, "Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever," way back in 2 Samuel 7:16. Red faces all around, and a hasty re-write called for, when Babylon wipes out the last Judean ruler several years after Josiah.

When the writer of Deuteronomy has Moses saying, "And when the Lord your God brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, with great and goodly cities, which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant, and when you eat and are full, then take heed lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage," they had already done this. They had already marched into cities, towns and villages and slaughtered men, women, and children, as well as livestock. In order to absolve themselves of the horror of hacking people down in cold blood, they made themselves believe it was God's blessing. Their rich spiritual heritage was mired in blood. It was something to be ashamed of. Yet, here they were saying that it was God's will - his reward for their faith.

The nation's rise or demise was not anything to do with God's blessing or not. It came down to the straightforward law of political existence: If you feel fine about walking into someone's town, obliterating the townsfolk and living in their houses and off their land, you better make damn sure you live life looking over your shoulder, because eventually someone bigger and stronger is going to do the same to you. Jesus put it much more succinctly: "All those who live by the sword, will die by the sword."

This ability to look back on events, and to write into the narrative an assumption that somehow things were foretold, reached a logical climax when a whole mythology was constructed around one man based entirely on verses of scripture that had already had a fulfilment. They revolved almost exclusively around two events which were either unverifiable, or highly charged emotionally - his birth and his death. By doing this, they invented their promised Messiah. This carpenter was very likely not even from Nazareth. This town was probably fixated upon because it allowed for a clever play on words. Matthew 2:23 informs us that Jesus' family eventually settled in Nazareth so that "what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" Nowhere do the prophets declare that he shall be called a Nazarene. However, Isaiah 11:1 says, "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." The word for "branch" is nezer - and from that the Christians invented the Nazarene.

But then, why should this not be the case? Their whole history is an account of a people who are presented as being stiff-necked and rebellious, but who are unremittingly saved from destruction by their God, usually at the hand of one man who appears out of nowhere and serves as their momentary Messiah. It reeks of entitlement, and could lead to nothing but self-righteousness. This is why the branch of Judaism that blossomed into Christianity eventually reverted to the mean - if indeed it had ever left it - and became itself entitled and self-righteous.

5. God is not vengeful
Woe betide any who find themselves on the wrong side of God. He brings a deluge to wipe out every living thing. He sends plagues and maledictions. He opens up the ground and swallows people down - whole families, young and old alike. Throughout the scriptures, God is terrifying. He is angry, vengeful, and destructive.

Actually, he is none of these things. Any death and destruction carried out is either exaggeration, it never happened, or it was done by man and later ascribed to God. If tribes went in to Canaan and committed what can only be described as an act of ethnic cleansing, then it was done by men. On looking back from a vantage point of a nation in the throes of success (ie. David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, or Solomon's peaceful reign) it was seen to be Jehovah of Armies fighting on Israel's behalf. Man was not made in the image of God - more likely, God was made in the image of man.

6. The Bible is layogenic
If on occasion the Scriptures seem to be repeating themselves; if the narrative seems to trip along with stuttering sentences; if it appears to contradict itself within the framework of a few chapters or verses, it is because it does repeat itself. It is the same story lifted from different sources and eventually gathered together and expertly woven into one piece.

Layogenic is a Tagalog word which is best summed up by this quote from the 1995 film, Clueless:
Tai: Do you think she's pretty?
Cher: No, she's a full-on Monet.
Tai: What's a monet?
Cher: It's like a painting, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess.
Being an amalgamation of multiple sources, the Bible often looks better from a distance than it does up close. There are times when pieces need to be read as a whole. Read the book of Judges in one sitting. Don't get bogged down in the brush-strokes. Enjoy it as a thrill a minute, and stand back from it to see a piece which tells of faith in a God who forgives sins unconditionally. No matter what the people did, they could turn back to God and he would be there for them.

Look at John chapters 13 to 17. It needs to be read in one go, from beginning to end. What you get is repetition, contradiction, deviation, and the utter conviction that there is no way Jesus said these things all in one sitting, if he even said them at all. It appears to be gathered together by someone who hasn't bothered to go back and re-read. If ever a gospel needed a proof-reader. Great swathes of paint, all of a similar hue, daubed onto a canvass with reckless abandon...But step back a few feet and take the piece in as a whole. Jesus is basically saying, "I and the Father are one, and if you would only listen to what I'm saying, you could be one with the father also."

7. The Bible contains a hidden message
It is a hidden message because it has to be found in among all these words; among these strange and other-worldly happenings, these mythical creatures and legendary characters. It is not there because it was magically placed there by a crafty, cryptic God who liked to write things in code. It is there because it is a fact of life that could not avoid finding its way into the narrative.

The hidden message can be summed up in one word: Redemption. Or, as Jesus put it, "Your sins are forgiven." A couple of Bible writers came close to uncovering it - Genesis chapters 2 and 3, for example; whoever wrote Isaiah 40-66 probably knew what he was talking about; collecting the stories of the Judges was pretty inspired. Whatever the case, Jesus saw right through the whole she-bang. He summed up the hidden message and formed it into the key centre-piece of the whole Bible - the illustration of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). That is the concealed treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44). You buy the whole field. The treasure is hidden, you purchase the whole field. Don't sweat needing to have the whole of the Bible when the buried treasure takes up such a small part of it. It's all of a piece. It's a beautiful field - a work of art. And, you know where the precious gem is.

Jesus was not teaching Christianity - he was not even teaching a Christianity that could be interpreted on an individual basis, whereby all those deserving would have the holy spirit poured out upon them, thus becoming "anointed ones". Jesus appealed to individuals. He told them their sins were forgiven, that the kingdom of God was "within you". He was advocating a relationship with God that was already present within each and every one of us, if we could only move the mountain. Sins are forgiven, not by fulfilling some requirements, or sticking to some law, but because God understands you. You don't understand you, and you need to. When we understand, we are in the same place God is. We cross the chasm. We become one with Him.