I’ve been learning recently a little about how Jewish people interact with the Bible. Since much of the Bible is their history and speaks specifically of them, maybe we could learn something from how they seek to understand scripture.
As Christians, especially American Christians, we tend to use the Bible just like we use other things. Culturally, we are geared to consume and/or to be entertained. On some level this filters how we read and understand the Bible.
We consume. We were taught from an early age to memorize the books of the Bible in order and various one line scriptures. Enticements were offered – stars, prizes, Bible bucks. We grow up with heavy emphasis on reading the Bible in a year, or first thing in the morning, or for an hour a day. There is an overabundance of reading plans to choose from so we don’t get bored or bogged down in the Old Testament. Now, none of these are bad things. It is good to read the Bible. It is good to commit scripture to memory. I suppose memorizing the books in order is, at least, helpful when someone says to turn to the book of Amos.
The problem is when we don’t go much deeper than that. We read our plan’s prescribed passages and then move on to the rest of our day.
We’re entertained. If we’re honest, we want our sermons to be short – preferably delivered with humor and pictures. We rely on the pastor to expeditiously explain scriptures and stories to us, often nodding in agreement with whatever they say. If we are fortunate enough to have a particularly good pastor, we may learn context and ancient language details that make confusing passages a little clearer or even allow us to see the story from a new perspective. Depending on the sermon topic, it may elicit some emotion from us. We may feel like we’ve learned something that applies to us and feel either convicted or prideful. We may even, often temporarily, feel inspired.
However, even the best pastors can become mere religious entertainers if after Sunday morning we simply say, “That was a good sermon” and carry on without absorbing and applying the ideas that drew our appreciation in the first place. This is how our cultural lens allows us to consume the Bible and be entertained by God’s Word without ever actually being truly impacted by it.
Too often we take interesting Bible stories and twist them into something that has some personal relevance that, conveniently, lines up with our pre-established belief system. Further, if the story doesn’t align with these beliefs, or with what we’ve always been taught, or worse, if the Bible seems to contradict itself, we tend to gloss over it or ignore it completely.
Here’s the thing. We say we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, the Living Word. We then read it as little more than a history book and a rule book. For the Word to be living it must not be stagnate in us. It cannot be read just like any other book. We do this because it is easier than allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed and confused by scripture. We do this because we’ve been taught that questioning the Bible, or a leader’s interpretation of it, is a lack of faith.
This is where we have much to learn from faith-filled Jewish brothers and sisters.
Many Jewish people and Jewish religious leaders regularly discuss and debate scripture and enjoy it! They do not tend to believe there is only one “right” way to interpret what they read. While we get all bent out of shape over differing opinions or schools of thought and demand a determination of what is “right”, they embrace the debate. They are comfortable with learning other perspectives, possibilities, and thoughts. They are fine with either remaining in disagreement or accepting that a passage could mean more than one thing. Unlike us, this isn’t seen as threatening to them or to their religion.
A good example of this would be a (true) story I heard recently about a group of Jewish rabbis and scholars meeting at one of the men’s house. They sat and debated the text from the Torah late into the night to where the man’s wife nearly ran out of food for them. She was thrilled they had stayed so long because this was part of what made scripture beautiful. The text had invited them into community and conversation. They left arm in arm.
They were fine with disagreeing. They were fine with not having a definitive determination on how things should be interpreted. They seem comfortable with the idea that they could all be wrong, or even all be right. They weren’t afraid of the uncertainty.
So, when was the last time your Bible study looked like that?
Why are we so threatened by having our personal or denominational interpretations challenged?
What if the need for certitude is more indicative of a weaker faith?
What if we had honest conversations about the things that are contradictory, or confusing, or just seem wrong?
What if instead of getting into the Bible so we can check it off our list, we actually allowed the messages of the Bible to get in us?
People wrestling with and questioning God are seen throughout the Old and New Testament. Even Jesus had a couple of questions.
However, questioning and wrestling and debating require much more of us. We have to swallow our pride and admit our uncertainty. We have to quit consuming and start contributing. We have to quit just being told a story and start becoming part of living out the Story. Questioning, wrestling, and debating require relationship.
Maybe developing those kinds of relationships would allow our lives to look like we really believe what we say we believe – that God is sovereign and Jesus ushered in a Kingdom of love and forgiveness. Maybe it would give us the courage to live out, with actions and not just words, the things Jesus clearly told us to do.
Love your neighbors.
Love your enemies.
Care for the widow.
Care for the orphan.
Care for the refugee (immigrant).
Care for the poor.
What if a little less need to be certain allowed us to offer more grace, more mercy, and more love?