To say that the Bible is important to Christians might be the greatest understatement of human history. The late Marcus Borg rightly wrote that “Conflict about how to see and read the Bible is the single greatest issue dividing Christians in North America today." This conflict about what the Bible is, how it should be interpreted, and how, if at all, it should inform our daily lives, is a flash point for heated discussions both online and in families and religious communities. What if, however, some of our assumptions and expectations about the Bible are grounded in misconceptions? What if those misconceptions are, as a result, preventing us from appreciating and engaging the Bible in the most helpful and transformative ways? Over the next five weeks I’ll be sharing what, at least from my perspective, some of those misconceptions are, and I’ll also offer an alternative perspective on what the Bible might be.
Our first misconception is this: The Bible is a book.
As I think of this misconception about the Bible I am reminded of the way Donald Trump pandered to conservative Christian crowds by declaring the Bible as his “favorite book,” with his own book, “The Art of the Deal” being a close second. “Nothing beats the Bible,” he said at a rally in Michigan in 2015. The problem with this thinking about the Bible, that it’s a book, is that it fails to understand the very meaning of the word. Our english word bible comes to us from the Greek word biblia, which literally means, “books.” That’s plural. Not a book, but books.
Why is that distinction significant?
It’s significant because it means the Bible is a library, a collection of books that spans various genres and time periods. In fact, the Bible was composed over roughly a one thousand year period, and it flowed from the pens of multiple authors who lived in different geographic and geopolitical settings. To put it succinctly, the Bible doesn’t have a context; the Bible has contexts. Each book/letter/poem merits its own exploration of the time, place, and events that surround its composition.
Further, the plurality of contexts found in the Bible means that, at times, the authors are in conversation and even offering critique of what came before. A couple of examples are merited.
The wisdom literature of the Bible doesn’t speak with one perspective on many of the deepest questions we ask as humans. Proverbs, for example, offers wisdom that assumes that reality works as expected. If you do good things, if you work hard, if you are faithful, then all shall be well. If you don’t, then you’ll get what’s coming to you. Then Job and Ecclesiastes enter the chat and offer a dramatically different perspective on suffering and the human experience. These differing experiences and explanations sit side by side within our sacred library of texts.
Another example of this tension and conversation found in the Bible is the book of Ruth. While set in the time of the Judges, many scholars believe that Ruth was actually written after the reforms of the Ezra-Nehemiah period. The opening line of Ruth has that “once upon a time” feel that indicates this story might not be historical, but parabolic:
During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. (Ruth 1:1, CEB)
During the time of Ezra-Nehemiah there was a concerted push for keeping the people pure after their return from Exile. Part of that was a focus on keeping the Law, with an emphasis on eating kosher, practicing circumcision, and not intermarrying with outsiders. Notice the following texts from both Ezra and Nehemiah:
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have been unfaithful by marrying foreign women and adding to Israel’s guilt. But now, make a confession to the LORD God of your ancestors and do his will. Separate yourselves from the neighboring peoples and from the foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10-11, CEB)
On that day, when the scroll from Moses was being read to the people, they found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter God’s assembly. This is because they hadn’t met the Israelites with food and water but instead hired Balaam against them to curse them. Yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. When the people heard this law, they separated out from Israel all those of mixed descent. (Nehemiah 13:1-3, CEB)
How might the book of Ruth be responding to these specific texts? First, notice the lines about separating from foreign wives, and how a Moabite should never enter God’s assembly. Then, go back and notice how the story of Ruth begins, with Israelites emigrating to Moab during a famine. The sons mentioned in this introduction marry Moabite women, and one of those Moabite women ends up being Ruth, who accompanies her mother-in-law Naomi as she returned to Israel upon the deaths of her husband and sons. Ruth then becomes proactive in caring for Naomi, securing their position in a patriarchal society. Eventually, when we arrive at the “happily ever after,” we discover Ruth not only played a significant role in the life of Naomi, but she would play a foundational role in the life of Israel.
So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. He was intimate with her, the LORD let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son…They called his name Obed. He became Jesse’s father and David’s grandfather. (Ruth 4:13, 17b)
Did you catch that? Ruth, the Moabite who should never be allowed in the assembly of God, ends up being the great-grandmother of David, the legendary king of Israel. Can you see how the author of Ruth is commenting on--pushing back on--the Ezra-Nehemiah reforms? The books of the Bible don’t sit silently side by side, all expressing the same opinion. They sit in tension. They push and pull. They allow generations to argue and debate. What a gift!
If the Bible is a library of texts, from multiple authors, writing in and from differing contexts, that means that the Bible is multi-vocal. The Bible doesn’t speak with one voice, but contains many voices that are all wrestling with what it means to be human, what it means to be in relationship to God and other humans, who God is and what God is like, and how to navigate the complexities that are part of being alive in the world.
A book can’t do that.
For that we need a library.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what we have.
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