Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Reading the Bible from an Informed Point-of-View

Yesterday I posted on why I think it is important that biblical scholars participate in at least one archaeological dig. I believe the exposure to the method and the experience earned adds to our knowledge and understanding.

In the Huffington Post there is an article this week by Kristen Swenson in which she comments about the importance of reading the Bible from an informed point-of-view. She notes that Bible is not designed to be read the same way one would a modern book and that trying to do so can cause more confusion than understanding, Here is a bit of what she has to say.

Simply reading the Bible (really reading it, in any of its three main forms, all the way through) without any background information results more often than not in bewilderment and confusion, leaving readers at the mercy of others to interpret for them. Why is there so much concern about dermatological conditions, so little about homosexuality, and nothing explicitly about abortion? How many animals did Noah take into the ark -- two of every kind, or seven pairs of some kinds? Where is Zion in relation to Jerusalem? Was the Last Supper on Passover or not? Why does Isaiah prophesy, "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares" and Joel prophesy, "they shall beat their ploughshares into swords"? Does God disapprove of, or demand divorce? Why would Paul praise Phoebe as a deacon and also say that women shouldn't teach or have any authority? And what's with the "whore of Babylon"?

Without any background information, simply reading the Bible is not only really hard (Leviticus, anyone?), but also it can lead to all sorts of problems. Some are innocuous misunderstandings, such as today's Ezekiel 4:9 breads and cereals -- cheerfully confident that the recipe is biblical and their preparation mandated by God. Trouble is, God did not urge people to make the bread out of righteousness or anything healthful and good. Rather, God forced the prophet-priest to make it by mixing things that were supposed to be kept distinct in order to show how bad things would be for the sinful people in Babylonian exile. Made by breaking the biblical commandments that respect God's ordered universe, the original bread was meant to communicate uncleanness and disgust. (The modern versions are delicious nonetheless.)

Knowing something about the Bible -- its historical backgrounds and development, its languages of origin and the process of translation, and its use within religious communities as well as secular contexts -- enables readers to make sense of biblical texts and references for themselves. For religious people, such knowledge can enrich their faith; and nonreligious people may appreciate better why the Bible has endured with such power and influence.

You can read the whole article here.

I think Swenson makes some important points about the need to know more about the backgrounds of the Bible. This is one reason why I spend a lot of time studying the various historical periods in which the Bible was written and reading it in the languages in which it was written.

On the other hand, not everyone has the same opportunity to study the way that I do nor do they need to. This is why I think it is important that preachers and teachers be well trained and know much of the background material of the Bible or, at a minimum, know where to get the answers they need. Perhaps I will do a post later this week on quality sources for understanding the background of the Bible.


  1. Yes, please do post some of those sources!

  2. It has been very interesting and enlightening studying Philippians from the Greek. I completely agree with the need for understanding background and context and I plan to read the rest of this article. Thanks! Tina