However much we may have run our eyes over the standard works, however much we have mouthed the words or even memorized, many of us remain functional illiterates when it comes to understanding scripture. When we read the word of God, many of us read only words. The reason scripture exerts such remarkably meager impact upon the quality of many of our lives is that we often do not know how to read it.
The problem may be as much a matter of perspective as it is of spirituality. We live amid constant overstatement. We are surrounded by blinding neon signs, blaring public announcement systems, TV commercials repeated ad nauseum. Our senses are besieged by media acting vociferously on the theory that the louder the noise, the more successful the communication. We have as a result become proficient at deciphering overstatement. We are expert at reading billboards and movie marquees and press releases. When we see “President Directs Congress to Hold the Line on Expenditures,” we know that taxes are about to be raised. We know that “the most gripping drama since War and Peace” describes a movie approximately as interesting as a TV rerun. We know that “This toothpaste has been found to be 23.7% more effective in preventing tooth decay” means 23.7% more effective than not brushing at all.
But our expertise in interpreting Madison Avenue propaganda doesn’t help much with scripture. Scripture understates. Nowhere is that more evident than in that least modern of our scriptures, the Bible. Hebrew prophets wrote as they lived, with less “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” and more profundity, with a stillness that runs deep. Their writing is intensely concentrated as compared with the superficial prose we are used to reading. The Bible doesn’t lend itself to speedreading. When we assume that everything is being laid out for us in the usual prosey detail, we miss much that is only hinted at, much background and detail, much of setting and implied action and mood and character.
Hence we tend to miss the more important parts of the Bible message, the motivational parts, the aspects of it that can have real impact on our lives. We miss much of its feeling. Most of us can inwardly grieve with anything as explicit as David’s pathetic mourning for his rebellious son: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33.) But the more subtle, the more poignant biblical emotions elude sensitivities jaded by television violence and the sensational excesses of modern novels. Look closely at a familiar episode. Abraham is directed one night by the voice of God to take Isaac to Moriah to offer him as a burnt offering:
“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
“Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.” (Gen. 22:3–4.)
This is weighty expression. Every line is packed with significance. Every detail counts. In Abraham’s rising up “early in the morning,” we see clearly what kind of man he was; that slight detail confirms the discipline, the unhesitating dedication to God that will enable Abraham to go through with the awful business of sacrificing Isaac. We are shown with equal economy and force what that sacrifice is costing him: Isaac is not just “Isaac,” but “Isaac his son”—the son of the promise, the long-awaited child of his old age, Abraham’s heir in the rich Hebrew tradition that holds family continuity so supremely crucial: the son whom God himself described the night before as “thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest.” (Gen. 22:2.)
It is not just that there is a lot going on in every line; vital things go on between the lines. Most of the action and the most moving aspects of the experience take place after that first sentence ends and before the second begins. After the introductory picture of Abraham making hasty preparations and setting staunchly off, the first thing we see is Abraham sighting the sacrificial mountain three days later. The writer leaves totally to our imagination three long days of the torturous reflections of a father about to destroy his only child, the accumulating repulsion of this completely kindly man, so generous to greedy strangers and demanding wives and ungrateful nephews, this magnificently gentle Abraham who fled Ur and Egypt in part because the practice of human sacrifice was so odious to him.
There is only the most delicate of hints to suggest the length of pain and the depth of grief through which he has been struggling, eyes cast in steadfast grief upon the ground: “On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.” (Gen. 22:4.) Think what Hollywood would do with those three days—the grueling trek through an endless desert under a cruel sun, with flashbacks to the celebration of Isaac’s birth, Isaac chasing lambs before a beaming Abraham, Isaac asleep in Sarah’s arms, the red-edged vision of the coming sacrificial scene, Abraham with knife upraised amid recurrent closeups of Isaac’s wide brown eyes, Sarah’s tears, Abraham’s bent neck.
Prophets expect more of us than Hollywood does. They expect us to notice, to flesh out with the inner eye of a spiritual imagination such apparently casual comments as, “Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.” (Gen. 29:20.) It’s easy not to notice; there’s much more than we’re used to in those twenty-one simple words condensing seven years. But the force of that titanic tribute to the attractiveness of Rachel and the gallantry of Jacob and the power of the human soul for enduring loyalty is almost totally missed if you miss the unwritten detail between those lines, if you fail to put yourself imaginatively in Jacob’s sandals herding goats and sheep in some place like the Sevier Desert for seven long sun-withered, wind-blasted, grit-flavored, sheep-stinking, backbreaking years of your own ardently impatient youth.
We miss more than the love and the sorrow in reading the Bible as if it were this morning’s newspaper. We miss the human interest, the humor. One of the greatest one-liners ever composed comes in the King James translation, in which the editors give us a humorous syntactical twist when they record the miraculous smiting of the Assyrians: “when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” (Isa. 37:36.) And, to move from one end of the Bible to the other, there are delightfully human touches: little Rhoda became so excited at meeting Peter at her door that “she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate” (Acts 12:14)—leaving the prophet of the Lord, who only moments before had prison gates opened for him by angels, cooling his heels outside.
That humanness gleams through the Bible even in such unlikely places as the account of a too-long sermon by the strict apostle Paul: “There sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus”—with whom those who have endured overlong talks can identify—“and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft.” (Acts 20:9.)
We miss by our misreading of the Bible much that matters; we miss its humor, its pathos, its love. It is our unawareness of those touches of humanness that causes us to see the people of scripture not as people but as bloodless examples in a rule book: they may inform us, but they fail to move us to better action. When we fail to read thoughtfully, we learn little about the advantages of staying awake during conference from Eutychus, little of love from Jacob, little of dedication from Abraham.
The problem is that our verbal environment habituates us to the superficial. Our ears have become desensitized to “the things that are more excellent.” It will take as much concentration for us, amid the superficial turmoil of our modern lives, to discover the still small voice of the Spirit in scripture as it took Elijah to find God upon the mount:
“Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
“And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” (1 Kgs. 19:11–12.)
The Bible, like all scripture, is sensitive and concentrated, and if it is to be understood and absorbed into the texture of one’s life, it must be read with sensitivity and concentration. The stories of Abraham and Jacob, of Joseph and Moses, of Samson and Gideon, of David and Daniel, of Elijah and Jonah, of Rachel and Rebecca and Ruth are worth reading. Worth really reading, between and through the lines. Worth reading oneself into.
The Bible—and all scripture—is much more than the mild sedative we tend too often to make it. As an assurance that human beings very like us are capable of profound feeling and superb action, as a promoter of spiritual morale, as a direct stimulus to do good, the scriptures are unsurpassed in literature. To get into them, and to get them into us, we must search them intently, sensitively, lovingly. We must search them by the Spirit.