How Not to Read the Bible

The Bible is not a collection of “stories-with-a-point.” They are not simply morality tales, stories with a lesson or a principle to extract. The problem with trying to extract a principle from Bible stories is that in doing so we de-historicize them, rip them from their context, and neuter them. We turn human beings into “types and shadows.” We turn real cities with smells and sounds and scenes into flat, one-dimensional backdrops for a “moral lesson,” or worse yet, codes and metaphors. And though the Bible is rich with symbolism, you miss the beauty of the symbol if you don’t remember how or why it became that. Babylon is not just “the world.” It was first the city that sprung from the place of humanity’s attempt to organize itself apart from God to reach the heavens. It was the real city that took Judah captive around 586 B.C. It was the real place that the people of God hated as they chafed under their chains when they lived in exile there. It was the city they wished curses upon.

The way we read the Bible, it’s as if the stories could have happened anywhere to anyone. But they didn’t. The Bible is a story of a particular people with a particular purpose and culture. They have a language. They have a culture. They have poetry and songs and legends. But we have turned the stories of Scripture into abstracts. If you miss the particularities, you miss story. And whatever “principle” you have extracted from it will be a thin truism. It’s like squeezing a steak and drinking the juice and thinking you’ve eaten a rib eye. If you eat the steak, you’ll get the juice as part of it. Immerse yourself in the stories of Scripture– eat it, chew it, let it get in you– and you will find that there are things to learn, ways to change, and more. But look for the “lesson” or the “insight” or the “nugget,” and you’ll miss the Bible.

But the worst part of treating the stories of Scripture like stories with a lesson is that we forget that those stories are our stories. We forget that we have somehow gotten in on that Story. It is now our story. We are the continuation of it, not a disconnected religious group that simply uses the stories for “lessons.” Until you understand that Jesus is the fulfillment of Abraham’s calling, that you as the Church are part of Abraham’s family that now in Christ includes Jews and Gentiles, that your life is a continuation of the journey of the people of God living in exile, that your story is the continuation of the stories of Scripture, you will treat the Bible like Aesop’s Fables, a collection of generic tales with sweeping lessons that can be interpreted and applied as freely and subjectively as an individual may wish.

We don’t read the Bible to find a principle or learn a lesson, though we certainly will learn from it. We read it to discover our history, the story of God at work in and through His people, and to find that same God continuing His story in us.