HOW TO READ THE BIBLE – II
“Why it is so difficult to read the Bible?” Many of us do not read the Bible because it is the style of writing which does not attract our fancy as other books do. It is because it was written many centuries ago. We find it strange. It is so different from anything we read. Even if we decide to read a few lines, we do not understand them, except snappy teachings, like “Do not kill. Or “Do not commit adultery.” Yet strangely enough, there is no other book sold more copies than the Bible. Ironically “Thomas Nelson,” the biggest publisher of the Bible, prints it mostly in Communist China. Yet, few people who read the Bible. Most of them just sit on the book shelves collecting dust. Why is that?
The Bible is an ancient book written between 600 BC and 200 AD originally in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, and translated into hundreds of languages. No wonder it is difficult to understand. People who lived in those days, their minds and writings, were so different from us. However, we must make one thing quite clear: The Bible is the most important document for us who identify ourselves as Christians. Jews, Christians, and Muslims belong to the same family of religions and are called “People of the Book.” Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the Holy book for all three religions. Christians added the New Testament and Muslims added Kor’an. All three revere the Bible.
Let me make it clear though. The Bible is not the word of God. It teaches us how people in history imagined what God could have said and acted. But it’s all imaginations. Perhaps it could be more serious attempts to find God than just “imagination.” The writers were all humans like us but want to find God in their history and in their experience of daily life. It is a collection of such writings by people who lived in the Middle East and the regions around the Mediterranean Sea between about 600 B.C. to 200 A.D. They are the record of their attempts to find God. Some of them may fit our situation in 21st Century because human conditions are often common and timeless. But in more often, conditions are totally out of our life experience. Even amongst them what the writers of the Bible wrote are often different from each other.
In addition to the above mentioned reason, it is a book written for people who lived a long time ago. What they were interested in were not the same as ours. The subject matters do not invite our interest. They were interested in devils not bacteria. Question of god does not keep us awake at night. But in ancient times, many things were out of their control. They were frightened of unknowns. In our times, many of the unknowns are resolved by ourselves thanks to science, and its application in medicine and technology that solve problems. However, we still don’t know many things. There are more unknown than known. Science is our way to find the unknown rather than faith in gods. There is a commonality between science and what ancient people tried to do: knowing the unknown. I am not trying to be too audacious, but the goal of religion and science is the same; knowing the unknowns.
Another question we have to be clear about the Bible is that books are often different and do not agree between them. They contain many contradicting view points. It is because they were written from their own unique situations in different places and different times. Even in the first chapter of the first book, Genesis, there are two different kinds of gods. Esther and Ruth have contradicting views about race. Paul and James in the New Testament are different in their view of faithfulness. No one can claim that there is a complete agreement in regards to what should be believed. It is impossible to have agreement in different places and times. You must read it with knowledge of their context of times and places.
For exercise, we read and examine the image of human being in the first three chapters of the Bible: Genesis chapters 1, 2 and 3.
As we noted, the first three chapters of Genesis contain two different ideas about human being. At the outset, we should know that Chapter one is based on the documents or tradition known as P – Priestly tradition and E – Elohim tradition. Chapters two and three are based on the document or tradition known among the scholars as “J” (or “Y” in Hebrew.) P-E tradition has entirely different views of humans from that of Y. It is interesting that the people who decided to bunch three documents (or traditions) together into one book to convey their view of the beginning of the world. Why did they do that? A good question.
It is obvious that E and P thought humans very highly. They thought that humans were like gods. They imagined that humans were created in “our (gods’) image.” The creators of P and E hoped that gods must be humans. That image is quite evidently different from the idea of humans who had not had the ability to know good from bad. It took the act of disobeying God’s command to acquire such a capability. In chapter two, the first human (a man: the creator of that image was obviously a male-chauvinist.) was formed from a handful of dirt. So the creator of J tradition did not have P – E’s enhanced image of god-like humans.
Another interesting point to realize is the different understandings of female and male in two traditions “E-P” in chapter one and “J” in chapter two and three. You will note that in E-P, female and male are equal: “humans are created male and female….and making them like me (god).” (1: 27) However, J tradition has the notion of the primacy of males over females. The first human was a male made from a hunk of dirt, and female was made from a part of a male body to be his companion. (1:7 and 18) “J” added the idea of the male first and female second pecking order. How does the party, who compiled such a conflicting order of priority into one document, expect us to interpret such an juxtaposition? Maybe they did not try to convey an unified monolithic view of human being.
Another interesting point is the number of days it took for God to create the world. It took six days for God to create everything in the world, and on the seventh day He rested. We are not literalists, so we don’t take it as the actual number of days of creation. Number always has had meaning. Romans did not have a concept of zero, because they did not know what void was. I don’t think we do either. Albert Einstein did not believe in nothingness, “there is no void.” So he created a notion of “ether” that fills the space where nothing exists. Or what does “one” mean? Many peoples of the world think “one” means unity; a good thing. In the Bible “one” means primacy. It is God. In the modern world we think “one” is pathetic because it is only one, when most of us believe more is better than one. In Hebrew understanding “seven” means “holy or complete” not necessarily number of seven items. In the Bible all numbers have meanings. When “E or P” said God created the world in seven days, they meant the world was perfect.