When you consider how to read the Bible, do you approach it as ancient Jewish meditation literature? For many of us, this is likely not our first thought. But just as it is important to recognize the different genres of the Bible in order to interpret God’s Word correctly, the BibleProject reminds us that the Bible is in fact Jewish meditation literature, and that reality should directly impact how we approach and interpret it.
“In Psalm 1, we read about the ideal Bible reader,” explains the BibleProject, and that person “is someone who meditates on the Scriptures day and night.”
Meditating on the Bible is an essential part of reading it in the literary form in which it was written, and it is only through careful meditation over our lifetimes that we can understand many of its rich and life-changing truths.
How to Read the Bible: Meditate on It
When considering how to read the Bible, we should keep in mind that “the Bible is a small library of books that all emerged out of the history of the people of ancient Israel.”
In an interview with ChurchLeaders, the BibleProject’s Tim Mackie explained, “The Bible comes from another culture, another place, another time and language and history—actually multiple languages. That in itself presents a gap in understanding…Most people aren’t in the habit of reading ancient texts from across the planet from thousands of years ago, and that’s what the Bible is.” The Bible is not modern American literature, and we should not read it as if it were, imposing our own expectations on it.
So what are distinctive characteristics of ancient Jewish meditation literature? “A key feature,” says the BibleProject, “is that it lacks a lot of the details that modern readers have come to expect in stories and poems.” While this lack of detail can make this ancient style of writing appear simplistic, it is actually “very sophisticated” because “every detail that is given matters.”
For example, in the account at the beginning of Genesis where the serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, there are many details left unaddressed. Where did this talking snake come from? Why did God allow it in the garden? Why did Adam and Eve not physically die right at the moment they ate the fruit? Who is the offspring of the woman?
Those are major unanswered questions pertaining to the narrative, but there are a number of other questions that might occur to us. Is the Garden of Eden in Mesopotamia? What kind of fruit was on the tree? Did the snake have legs?
Leaving these questions unanswered allows more of a chance that people will read their own conclusions into the text. “That’s a risk that the biblical authors took in writing this way,” says the video. “We all tend to impose our own cultural assumptions onto the Bible, but [the authors] apparently thought it worth the risk was worth it. These oddities are really invitations into an adventure of reading and discovery.”
Take as an example the fact that God promised that the offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent and that serpent would bruise the offspring’s heel. God’s words about the woman’s offspring are a “clue to pay attention to genealogies,” which, as it turns out, “run all through the biblical narrative.” Genealogies connect the line of Eve to King David and to Jesus. Isaiah ties the woman’s offspring to the suffering servant, and in Revelation we see that Jesus, through his suffering, conquers a dragon. “This is the literary genius of the Bible,” says the BibleProject. “It forces you to keep reading and then interpret each part in light of the others.”
Learning how to read the Bible and meditate on it, however, takes time. The Bible is lengthy, varied, and not always easy to understand. But, says the BibleProject, “You’re actually not expected to notice all of this by yourself or all at once. This dense way of writing forces you to slow down and to read carefully, embarking on this interactive discovery process through the whole Biblical narrative over a lifetime of reading and rereading.” It is through meditating on Scripture that we will make these discoveries. “And as you let the Bible interpret itself,” says the BibleProject, “something remarkable happens: The Bible starts to read you. Because ultimately, the writers of the Bible want you to adopt this story as your story.”