BSing WITH AGENT X

I was trained in exegesis in the academy.  Not exhaustively, but professionally trained nonetheless.  For the record, I did not finish my graduate degree in Bible, and managed to NOT learn to read Hebrew.  So there is one major limitation, and there are others.  Yet, I learned various methods of Bible Study; I learned to respect some and to withhold respect for others.  And I was trained in classically conservative, Christian schools.

I don’t know it all, nor do I think I know it all.  On the contrary, I am all too aware of my limitations.  Nevertheless, I have begun developing some ways of approaching the Bible in search of better understandings which I want to share, keeping in mind that in some ways I may well be reinventing the wheel.  Nevertheless in all my readings and searching, I have yet to find some of these methods being proposed elsewhere, or to the extent I do find them suggested, I have expanded upon those suggestions in ways I don’t find others discussing.

As a foundational matter, I encourage anyone opening a Bible to study it to ask God’s blessing on the endeavor at the very start.  Ask God to speak to you, to open the eyes of your heart so that you can see Jesus.  This is not some magic trick; it does not dictate that you will come away with perfect understanding and be ready to lead others, but at the very least, it puts you in a humble position to receive God’s grace, and God is eager to get his people there.

The next thing I suggest is take care to actually attend to THE BIBLE.  This should go without saying, but anymore it just does not.  I also suggest you keep on hand a quality, conservative translation in a language you can read.  You might be excited about The Message or some very liberal translations, and I won’t bag on those, but I will encourage you to compare and contrast passages you study in those with the NIV, NASB, NRSV, ESV, or NKJV (among others).  There is a LOT lost in translation, actually.  Not that it necessarily puts your soul in danger of damnation, but if you want to listen to God, then strain to listen to HIM and not some pop theology.  There is a difference, even though they overlap.

Let me extend that thought yet further still.  Take care to actually attend to the Bible and not just the sermon, not just the lecture, not just the teacher’s distillation.  Go and actually READ the text or at least LISTEN to the real text read aloud.  (Listening is better in some ways.)  I don’t care how lousy the sermon is, I don’t care how bad the messenger, if and when that preacher/teacher is actually READING biblical text to you, THAT PART IS GOOD!  And sometimes even amid a terrible sermon, I learn from the textual reading!  So can you.

At this point, there are so many hermeneutical, exegetical, and meditative aspects of Bible study to consider that a simple blog post like this cannot exhaust them all.  Everything from textual criticism, literary criticism, redaction criticism, to form criticism, reader-response criticism, and systematic theology (all the approaches to Bible Jesus teaches to The Twelve – I’m being facetious), like tools in a carpenter’s toolbox, sit ready at hand.  But perhaps all that is a little intimidating to consider too.  So… not to negate any of those tools, but rather to set aside all of that, let me offer a handful of simple tools which expand our understanding, in powerful and highly productive – even unique – ways.

As you read my blog and the “perspective” I bring, IF you find that interesting, then let me share with you some of the simple approaches I use.  You may consider these a moment and see better ways forward than mine.  But I want to suggest TWO overall, let us call them “umbrella,” features of Bible study, and then offer a few tools that serve each of those umbrella features which I find particularly beneficial.  The first umbrella feature is the HISTORICAL SETTING and the second is LET THE BIBLE INTERPRET THE BIBLE.  My thought is that between getting the history right and keeping close to the actual Word of God, you are likely to avoid major pitfalls and are likely to discover fresh insight in your Bible study.

When establishing in depth understanding of the historical setting for a passage of Scripture, there are primary and secondary sources to consider.  For those who have the time and patience to read the ancient documents that date back to ancient times, the payoff is tremendous.  (You can find them translated in English.)  There are many ancient poets, philosophers, historians, and authors who open windows into the past for us to look through.  I could list many, yet even I have not exhausted the list.  But a handful of some of the easier reads which have some of the biggest, fastest payoff, I suggest I Maccabees, Josephus (there is an abridged version), and really all of the apocryphal books you find in a Catholic Bible.  These ancient writings are quite interesting in their own rite – real page turners!  I am sure you will enjoy your time spent discovering them.

There are secondary sources too, which are basically studies of various people and events in ancient history produced by modern scholars.  Many of these are easier to read (not all of them, to be sure) because the modern scholar acts like a tour guide.  For my money, Between the Testaments by D.S. Russell and Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs by Richard Horsley are two good suggestions which will help you think historically about Jesus and the times in which he ministers to Israel.

If you open up the Gospel of Mark and read it through from start to finish after spending a week reading I Maccabees, Josephus, Russell, and Horsley, I assure you, the historical stage upon which you watch Mark’s Jesus act and speak will have you seeing him with such a tremendously fresh perspective that you will wonder if you ever knew him before.  (Not that you didn’t, but you will feel so overpowered that you will ponder that as a possibility.)

Then as for the other umbrella feature of LETTING THE BIBLE INTERPRET THE BIBLE, I have a couple of main strategies (and a few lesser ones too) which open up so many opaque passages  and mystery turns to meaning.  Not always, but often, and if not complete understanding, there are footholds illuminated where expectation of understanding gives hope for the future of Bible study.

Let me share two of these tools as I use them, and perhaps you can try them in your study and see if they do for you what they do for me.

The first one I will call BOOKENDS.  Consider the first eleven chapters of Genesis as a bookend for the Bible and consider Jesus as the other bookend.  It’s not terribly hard to see Jesus foreshadowed in the Bible, especially in other characters who exhibit very Christ-like features in parts of their lives.  If you ever read the story of Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers, winding up in prison, and then finally being raised up out of prison to become Pharaoh’s right hand man, second in command of the whole known world and thought, this seems to parallel the life of Jesus, then you are exactly right.  You might look at Joshua leading Israel into the promised land AND note that “Joshua” is the English version of the Hebrew name where “Jesus” is English version of the same name from the Greek instead.  Basically, they have the same name!  Or you might find Jesus in David, the shepherd boy/King.  (I could go on and on and on with this.)

Well, it works similarly go trace the stories from the first eleven chapters of Genesis through the Bible too.  Sometimes these chapters are called the Primordial History.  And some portions of this section of Scripture are more readily apparent than others, but if you look carefully, you will find bits and pieces of the whole Bible corresponding to bits and pieces of this Primordial History too, and when you do, it’s no mistake.  That is how God’s Word is meant to be heard, and when you can hear it at that level, you begin to make sense of some parts which stubbornly did not make sense before at other levels.

By way of some easy examples: Consider the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel and the way everyone at Pentecost miraculously hears the gospel preached in their own language.  These two stories are meant to bounce sparks off one another.  Or consider the way that Adam and Eve’s eyes are opened when they eat the forbidden fruit, and then consider the way the eyes of the disciples are opened when Jesus breaks the bread at the meal at Emmaus.  Again, these stories are doing business with each other.

When you look at any text of Scripture, any story from either the Old or New Testaments, any characters, any events, if you take in a surface reading, then look up the historical setting (to the extent you are able) and then search for any connections between that text at the Primordial History and then for any connections to Jesus, you are surely going to find some doors opening to you which were not even noticed before.  The Bible, then, is starting to interpret the Bible – it seems.

One other tool I use along this line, which is very similar to the BOOKENDS, but does not limit itself to the Primordial History and to Jesus for connections, is to look for stories of the same SHAPE.  They will practically never have the exact same shape, and in fact sometimes have very important differences which are meant to be considered rather than the similarities.  But there are lessons to be discovered in letting stories of the same SHAPE do business together even if they seem otherwise irrelevant to one another.

I first noticed this when reading the closing chapters of Judges where the obscure story about the Levite and his concubine seek refuge in the town square only to be taken in by a host who protects them from a mob of locals who want to ravage and violate the guests.  This story sounds so very much LIKE that of the angels visiting Lot at Sodom and Gomorrah at this level that it can hardly be a mere coincidence.  But there are important differences too.

For one thing, Sodom and Gomorrah were not God’s chosen people.  For another, the angels strike the men at Lot’s door with blindness and they wind up rescuing Lot and his family from the coming destruction.  Also, there is that merciless fire from the sky which destroys the whole valley that Lot and his family flee from.  All of these are important differences from the story in Judges where the woman is given up to the locals, is ravaged and killed, and then the man of God cuts up her body in twelve piece and sends her parts in separate directions to all the twelve tribes of Israel as a message about the sin in that city.  Also there is a judgment against God’s people, but nothing like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet we know from that earlier story the wrath God reserves for behavior like this, and yet now this behavior is found in God’s own people who receive a far more gracious judgment.

There is so much insight to be considered in the similarities and differences here.  Sin has invaded God’s people with all the depravity it ever did Sodom and Gomorrah, yet God is gracious with his own kids.  Hmmm… And there is more too, but I merely use this as an example and not as a study of those passages.  So I will quit with that.  However neither of these stories are about Jesus per se nor do they have overt connection with the Primordial History.  Perhaps we might meditate and find such connections to the BOOKENDS, alright, but we already have the SHAPE putting us here.  And the more I read my Bible, the more I learn to look for these SHAPEs recurring in stories and then to start looking for new depths revealed by pairing them up like this.

After using these tools, then go look up the commentaries and Bible dictionaries and see what the scholars are saying.  No doubt the experts will illuminate more for you than you would have on your own, but by this time, if you have worked with the tools I have offered here, you will find yourself in a much deeper conversation with these experts AND with God too, actually.  Certainly, I hope you do.

Give these tools a try.  I think you will be blessed.

And then come back here and share what you learn with me.  Odds are… you will open my mind to more that I was missing.

 

 

4 comments

  1. Tim McGee · April 15, 2020

    Thank you for the tips. Peace and blessing to you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. GraceandTruth · April 15, 2020

    This is great – thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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