How to Read the Bible part 4 – the Ancient Way

As I mentioned in part 1, I’m not a theologian (I have trouble spelling theologian!!) and I’m aware I’ve really just touched the tip of the iceberg in what I’ve read of Biblical Study so far. But already it’s dawning on me that there are just so many different ways to approach the Bible. I’m going to start looking now at some of those approaches, it won’t be even close to a comprehensive list, but I’m hoping that it will show that just when you think you’ve got it all neatly pinned down, and you finally know how to read this wonderful book, you realise there’s more you hadn’t seen before and it invites you to come on further in and take another look.

The first approach I want to take a look at is the Ancient Way, the way of the Ancient Interpreters – how the Bible was read and understood during the Biblical period, even as bits of it were being formed and shaped.

The fact that the Bible we know has survived to today tells us that it was valued and respected even from a very early point. Stories handed down from generation to generation were eventually written down by scribes, and then copied and preserved later as the fragile papyrus scrolls disintegrated. Why go to the effort unless you think it is important to keep?

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Harvard professor of Hebrew, James Kugel suggests in his book (also called How to Read the Bible) that the writings of the Bible had perhaps always been interpreted and commented on in some form but there came a pivotal moment when suddenly the importance of the Bible and how it was interpreted came to the forefront.

Nehemiah 8 gives us a glimpse of that moment. In 586 BC Jerusalem was invaded by Babylon and many of its people were carried off into exile, among them most of the country’s leaders. When the Persian emperor Cyrus overthrew Babylon more than half a century later, he decreed that the Jewish exiles could return home to Jerusalem and rebuild, they would be a province of the Persian empire.

This event proved to be one of the most significant moments in the forming and understanding of the Bible. When the exiles returned home, they were back in the land they had been longing for, but things were not as they remembered, and they themselves had changed. (The Bible Project have a great podcast series on this if you’d like to hear more about the Exile). They had a lot to decide: who would lead them, who were they to be in the world, what should they do with all their dreams and promises of a new Son of David who would lead them to freedom and a golden future?

‘What is interesting,’ writes Kugel, ‘is the role that Israel’s ancient texts played in the debate over such questions. Perhaps it was the very fact of returning that brought people to evokethe past in trying to determine what to do in the future’.

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Which brings us to the moment in Nehemiah 8: their answer was to bring out the old Book of the Law and to look back at the formation of Israel to find the answers they needed for its re-formation: ‘all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.‘ They had had readings of the Book of the Law before, but the next bit was new: ‘The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear[a]and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.‘ This is the first clear mention of the need for the Bible to be interpreted to understand another deeper meaning than just the appreciation of its stories or obedience to its laws.

This is an assumption that might seem obvious to us now, but the fact is it came from somewhere, and sometime. By reading the old texts, the leaders were able to suggest that the stories contained ideas not just about where they had come from but also where they were supposed to be going. The Bible became not just a history book but a guide for life hundreds, even thousands of years later. This one moment became the foundation of how millions of us read the Bible today, assuming that this ancient text is relevant and speaks to us in a world of computers and electricity and memes and decaf low fat no sugar caramel lattes.

James Kugel writes, ‘it is difficult to overstate the importance of this change. From now on, the books in Israel’s sacred library would have a new role: these books may have been written long ago, but they were not just about things that happened in the past. Carefully analysed, the words of these ancient texts might reveal a message about how people ought to arrange their affairs now and in the future’.

He goes on to point out several other big assumptions that the ancient interpreters (like those priests with Ezra and Nehemiah, but many others going forward too) seemed to share in common. These are the Four Assumptions that many of us probably understand without ever having really thought about it – that’s the nature of an assumption, it is just understood that that is how we are supposed to do something.

 

  1. The Bible is cryptic – which means that it says one thing, but it can also mean something else if you dig a bit deeper.
  2. It is relevant – its laws and stories were for an ancient people, but they also have a message and something to teach us today.
  3. The Bible is complete and perfect – it contains no mistakes, there are no contradictions unless those are there on purpose to tell us something. It is harmonious in message all the way through from beginning to end.
  4. It is divine – inspired by God and it is His word given to the prophets and teachers.

 

I don’t know if you feel the same as me, but I felt a bit weird seeing those assumptions laid out clearly and written down. They are beliefs that I shared and agreed with, but I’d never looked directly at them and considered that they had come from a moment in history. It made me wonder if these beliefs were there because they were true or if they had been created by people and handed down for so long that I didn’t even question them. But if I am to have confidence in the Word of God, I need to keep wrestling and questioning, not relying on human traditions but searching for God in this! It was this need that propelled me on to keep reading, keep looking and to find out more.

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