Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
Today is Bible Sunday, so a few thoughts on how we read and interpret the Bible. We often refer to the Bible as the ‘book of books’, and so it is – probably the most influential collection of literature in the world’s history. But it is also literally a book of books – 66 in all, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. The Greek phrase from which we derive our word Bible is ta biblia, literally ‘the books’. They were composed over an extensive period of time. Probably the earliest composition in the Old Testament, the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, may date from the 12th century BC (four to five centuries earlier than Homer) and the latest is the book of Daniel from the 2nd century BC, making a total span of 1000 years. And when we add in the books of the New Testament, virtually all composed in the first Christian century or so, we extend this to as much as twelve hundred years – nearly twice as long as the entire span of the writing of English literature, from Chaucer to the present day.
The books of the Bible are of many different genres: law, prophecy, historical narrative, proverbs, psalms. There is literature of a sceptical nature, most notably the book of Job and its struggle with the problem of the suffering of the innocent, and the book of Ecclesiastes, with its rather doleful theme of ‘all is vanity’. Then there are the gospels, a unique genre in its own right, though possibly adopted and adapted from Roman or Greek narratives about singular individuals. And there is the letter – the epistle – adopted first by St Paul and then by others as a means of expressing and transmitting the Christian message. There is also apocalyptic literature, such as our own St John the Divine’s Revelation, centring upon the last things and the end of time.
We refer to this large collection of books as the Christian ‘canon’, or ‘list’ – in this case a list of books bearing authority. And we commonly refer to this collection as ‘the word of God’, ‘the word of the Lord’, and it is about this specifically that I’d like to offer you a few thoughts, especially since I know that there are some among you who, like myself, feel a degree of discomfort about a too-ready use of the liturgical declaration ‘This is the word of the Lord’ that follows a reading from Scripture in church.
Here’s an example that is often cited, from the story in Numbers 15 of the man caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Until quite recently, it was prescribed by the Lectionary for the third Sunday before Lent. It concludes: ‘And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ And all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses’. This is the sort of reading which, when capped by the declaration, ‘This is the word of the Lord’ provokes an indignant, even angry, reaction. And of course this passage doesn’t stand alone. At Morning Prayer last Wednesday, poor Alan was landed with Leviticus 8, a blood-curdling account of ordination rites with graphic details of slaughter, entrails, fat and big toes. (Take a look: it makes you grateful that ordination is a somewhat more seemly affair these days – especially for vegetarians!)
And the New Testament doesn’t entirely escape; we’ve all heard understandable mutterings of annoyance when we are invited to declare ‘This is the word of the Lord’ following, for example, a reading ordering the subordinate status and role of women in the church. A discriminating choice of readings which omits such passages from the Lectionary has been the answer to such frustrations, and as a practical measure this has been widely accepted. I don’t think any of us wants to reintroduce, for example, those raging curses which find expression in some Psalms, and I don’t imagine that we would find very appealing a Lectionary that subjected us to weeks on end of readings from the book of Judges. But selectivity is just an evasion of a more fundamental problem. It sidesteps the offensive texts, but leaves the thoughtful reader or listener wondering about many passages which, while not offensive, are scarcely inspiring. One example: the story of Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27: ‘So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders; then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach’? Why we should cap this text with the declaration ‘This is the word of the Lord’ quite eludes me – perhaps you, too.
The source of ‘word of God’ language is the prophetic declaration we see in such texts as ‘The word of the Lord that came to Hosea…’ and other prophetic books. This in the face of the fact, however, that much of the Bible is manifestly not prophetic in either origin, or literary form, or content. And that’s why I have mentioned the very diverse types or genres of literature and books that make up the Bible.
What is crucial, however, is that much of what we read is not God’s word to men and women; rather it is human reflection – for example, in search of meaning, as in Ecclesiastes; or wisdom, as in Proverbs; or narrative, of which there is a great deal; or hymnody, the Psalms; and human dialogue about the justice of God, as in Job. But the point is that these are words of the people addressed to God, not vice versa, In short, much of the content of the Bible is anything but prophetic-style divine oracles. Rather, a great deal of what we read are the words of human beings – ancient Israelites and early Jewish and Gentile Christians – and none of it can be assimilated to the model of divine communication to men and women. We can best put this by saying that the text of Scripture is not God’s word spoken to us; rather, it reveals God as the one about whom, not by whom, various types of literature are written. To regard them all as though they conform to a sort of prophetic ‘template’ is to ignore the very nature of a great deal of the contents of the Bible, and it leads to the idea of Scripture as dictated, as something whispered in someone’s ear, as it has been put – not unlike the Muslim view of the Qur’an – essentially a divinely dictated text.
What is required is that we engage in a positive account of the fact that the Bible presents us with revelation not as direct divine speech, not as the direct communication of information by God, but far more as the fruit of an encounter into which the biblical text leads us. Revelation is embodied in, and inspired by, all these diverse genres—narrative, law, wisdom, prophecy, hymns, prayers, letters, stories, and the rest. That is, the Bible is a vehicle or channel for the word of God, which comes to us through the reading and exposition of Scripture. Through this very diverse literature, from many different hands and from widely separated times, we are drawn into an encounter, involved in a story, drawn into the companionship of those who worked out their relationship to God in teaching and instruction, in formulating laws and stories, in chronicling the history of their people, in praise and celebration and thanksgiving, in reflecting upon life in God’s world, in confronting disaster and suffering with faith and hope and trust in God and his promises. Primarily, of course, Christians hear and are summoned by the proclamation of the gospel, the Jesus story.
It is in such ways, when hearing the Scriptures in worship in church, or as we read them in the silence of our own prayers and meditation, that God reaches out to us and touches us, delivers us, consoles us, renews and enlivens our hope, vanquishes any sense of ultimate fear, blesses us as his own, steps out with us on the pilgrimage to which our Lord beckons us and on which he journeys with us. This word is more than the words that we read on the page; the Bible is a vehicle or channel for the word of God rather than simplistically identical with it. This word is a gift of God the Holy Spirit. It is for this gift more fully comprehended, and not simply for the written words of Scripture themselves, that our thanks are properly due when we read the Scriptures or hear them read. Such a declaration of thanks could be achieved with a little tweaking of the present formula, but one which surely expresses more fully the way in which the Bible actually operates in our worship and in our growth in faith. It could go something like: ‘For the gift of the word, thanks be to God’, or maybe a variation on that formula. I wonder if, when the time comes for a revision of Common Worship, our liturgical specialists might just consider it…..