How to Read the Bible When it Doesn’t Make Sense
A Sermon by Rich Tafel
I’d like to talk about how we can use the Bible in our lives when specific passages don’t seem to make any sense.
Sheri reported to me that she makes a habit of trying to read the Bible cover to cover. When she does, she comes across horrible passages. If you read the entire Bible, you too would ask how we make Sense of some horrific courses.
We believe in the Bible.
Each Sunday, we show our reverence for the Bible by opening it at the beginning of worship, which demonstrates our opening our hearts to the Lord. Only through reading and teaching the Word can we be connected to God. We’d be lost without its teaching.
Not only are the many versions, but there are different ways to read the Bible. Let me highlight four and then share how each reads it to see if there is a way to read a passage like today.
In today’s Scripture reading, the writer predicts with delight crushing children’s head of the dominant Babylonians who hold the Jewish people in cruel captivity. There are other passages just like it in Isiah, Numbers, and Jeremiah.
There is also the entire book of Job that tells the story of God and Satan having a debate and God’s suggestion to Satan trying to destroy a very good person named Job and see if he’ll remain loyal. Satan brings every evil upon Job as part of God’s game with him. It’s fierce.
If you read the Bible, you will find these passages present a God not of Love but revenge, anger, and capriciousness. These verses are not only in the Old Testament. I once heard someone describe the God of the Old Testament as an angry drunk based on some passages. How does that view square with our belief in the Word?
In the New Testament, Jesus says if you sin with your eye to pluck it out. Paul says slaves should obey their masters. There are many ways we can read this holy book. I will share with you the different lenses used by other groups to see if I can help you navigate this book.
Let’s start with the Fundamentalist Christians who pledge they take the Bible literally. In this case, they do see an angry, vengeful God when they see these passages. They also believe the world is 3000 years old. The world was created in 7 days. God is angry, jealous God and can destroy our enemies. Most evangelical and fundamentalist faiths try to take the Bible literally. As they like to say, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
Another way to read the Bible is using the Historical-Critical method. At HDS, I was taught the Biblical critical method, where you try to study the world it was written in and the original language it was written in and use history as a lens to make sense of what is being said.
As the denominations’ delegate to the NCC governing board, this past week, we voted to produce a new version of the National Revised Standard Version of the Bible that would encapsulate the latest scholarship. The NCC holds the rights to his understanding of the Bible and wanted to update it. They have used the best scholarship to help translate and understand what is being said.
Another way Christians read it is to see what it is saying to the reader today. How is it most relevant? Put yourself in the story and see what you can learn. Don’t get wrapped up in the literal meaning or the world of that day.
Our tradition includes all three of these styles. We see what’s being said, study history to make more Sense of it, and try to put the reader into the story to make it relevant.
But our tradition offers two additional ways to read the Word and make Sense of it that you are unlikely to find in other faiths, which is why we read a Swedenborg insight each week to add another lens.
The first in called reading for correspondences which means there is an inner meaning. In this view, the Scripture holds both a literal meaning and a deeper, often hidden spiritual meaning. Maybe the best example of this is the seven days of creation. We don’t see it as a scientific telling of past events, but instead, a myth that defines different levels of spiritual development that a person goes through and a creation myth. In this mode, you read it at multiple levels.
We all use correspondences in our daily language. We say she doesn’t seem bright. Or I’m having a gray day. She’s my right hand. He has a sunny disposition. She’s cold. He’s warm. None of that is literal. We are using words that hold more profound meanings than what we say literally.
In this model, the whole Bible is a parable teaching us different things. In the same way, Jesus used non-literal stories called parables, so too is the Word is a parable to be understood not so much but at a deeper meaning.
The story of the Bible is also the story of each of us.
We have our genesis story, our teen rebellion when we leave home in exodus. We have our battles as we mature. We have our king period, where we feel we’ve mastered things. We have our mid-life crisis represented by the captivity, and if we grow enough internally, we have our Christ period.
In addition to reading the Bible like a parable, we see an evolutionary spiritual worldview. The world, we are taught, is evolving through different levels of spiritual evolution. Early humanity saw God much like a child sees a parent. Later, when humankind is developed we are ready for Jesus. Today, we are prepared for deeper spiritual insights. This is called spiritual evolution and offers another lens for us to view Scripture.
When we read the Bible through this lens, we see specific passages appeal to a less evolved level of spirituality.
I remember a few years back preaching on the Ten Commandments and being interrupted by a member who was angry about how sexist it was to hear a passage that a man could not take another man’s wife.
What he couldn’t see was that the Ten Commandments mark the historical evolution from a warlord culture that dominated the world into a traditional rules-based culture where it was no longer okay to kill or rape or steal a person’s wife.
Our tradition of reading the Bible invites us to transcend and include each of these reading methods. We can gain something from the literal story; something more knowing the history about it; something more when we put ourselves in the story; and the something more profound when we see the whole passage as a parable; and, finally, we can see something more when we look at it terms of humanity growing up spiritually and understanding different concepts of God as we go.
So, how to see make sense of passages like the one I quoted today from Psalms?
First, we start understanding that that God is Love. That’s our primary lens. There is no hatred, guile, or desire for revenge. God is not cruel.
The fundamentalist lens teaches us that there will be times we wish evil upon others who have hurt us. Not a good thing, but reality.
The historical lens teaches us that Babylon was incredibly oppressing Israel and that this passage became prophetic as they were conquered and abused themselves.
The reader-centered lens would ask you if you’ve ever wished evil on others and how you cope with it.
The correspondence lens would open this up to a battle against selfishness represented by Babylon throughout Scripture.
The developmental lens would remind us that human beings throughout history have understood God and described God at their level of development. They’ve seen God as an angry father the same way we see our parents as far off and keepers of the rules.
When we want to stick our finger into an electric socket, we get our hands slapped. We don’t get an explanation of how electricity works. So too, humanity has received the lessons from God at the level they were ready.
We are fortunate to have these lenses to view Scripture and especially lucky to have the two most other groups do not have of seeing an inner meaning and spiritual evolution.
Again, the ultimate lens for us is the teachings of Jesus, who clarified our understanding when he taught, “You have heard that it had been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say to you, resist evil. I say to you, Love your enemies.
Jesus brought new insight into the actual lens to us who didn’t see the message of Love. Remember the message of Love as a lens, and the Word will make Sense. This is why almost every week; I preach from a lesson from Jesus.
Let us all come to the Bible with great respect and be curious to see how deep we can go to receive God’s guidance in our life.