Scriptures: Do We Know How to Read Them?


Scriptures:

However much we may have read the standard works, however much we have said the words or even memorized some of them, many of us remain basically uneducated when it comes to understanding scripture. When we read the word of God, many of us read only words. The reason scripture makes so little difference in so many of our lives is that we often do not know how to read it.

The problem may be as much a matter of not being shown how to read scripture as it is of spirituality. We live in a world where things are constantly overstated or exaggerated. We are surrounded by blinding neon advertising signs, blaring public announcement systems, and television and radio commercials repeated endlessly.

But our ability to understand and shut out advertising messages doesn’t help much with interpreting scripture. For while advertising overstates, scripture understates. Nowhere is that more evident than in the oldest scriptures we have, the Bible. Hebrew prophets wrote as they lived, with less “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” and more profound understanding. Their writing is intensely concentrated as compared with the shallow material we are used to in our daily reading. When we assume that the scriptures can be read in the same way we read a daily newspaper or popular magazine, we miss much that is only hinted at, much of the background detail, much of the setting in which the action takes place, and much of the mood and character of the people involved.

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 plain 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 deeply felt biblical emotions are lost to sensitivities numbed by television violence and the sensational extremes of modern novels. Look closely at a familiar episode. Abraham is directed one night by the voice of God to take Isaac to Mount 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 significant expression. Every line is packed with information. Every detail counts. In Abraham’s rising up “early in the morning,” we see clearly what kind of man he was; that small detail confirms the discipline, the unhesitating dedication to God that will enable Abraham to carry out the sacrifice of 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 tradition of family that is so important to Hebrew tradition: 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 of scripture; vital things go on that we don’t see. Most of the action and the most moving aspects of Abraham’s and Isaac’s experience take place after the first sentence ends and before the second begins. After the introductory picture of Abraham making hasty preparations and resolutely setting off, the first thing we’re told of is Abraham seeing the sacrificial mountain three days later. The writer leaves totally to our imagination three long days of the tortured thoughts of a father about to sacrifice his only child, the growing revulsion for the task by 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 repellent to him.

There is only the slightest hint 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 might be done in a movie with those three days—the exhausting expedition through an endless desert under a cruel sun. The movie camera would doubtless “enter” Abraham’s mind and we would share in his memories of Isaac’s birth, Isaac chasing lambs before a proud father, Isaac asleep in Sarah’s arms; the vision of the coming sacrificial scene, Abraham with knife upraised alternating with camera close-ups of Isaac’s wide brown eyes, Sarah’s tears, Abraham’s bent neck.

But prophets expect more of us than moviemakers do. They expect us to use our spiritual imagination and delve deeper into 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 for the reader to pass by this phrase; but there’s much more than we’re used to in those twenty-one simple words condensing seven years. But the force of that enormous 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 overlook the unwritten detail. You need to imagine yourself herding goats and sheep in the desert for seven long, hot, windy, sandy, smelly, difficult years of your own eager and impatient youth to begin to comprehend the depth of meaning in this brief scriptural description.

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. For example, Rhoda, the servant girl at the home of Mary the mother of John, became so excited at realizing that it was Peter knocking at the 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, outside.

Human nature shines through the Bible even in such unlikely places as the account of a long sermon by the strict apostle Paul: Among the listeners was “a certain young man named Eutychus”—and those of us who have endured long talks can empathize with him “and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft.” (Acts 20:9.) [Unfortunately the fall killed him, which must be something of a warning to all who nod sleepily through sermons.]

By our casual reading of the Bible we miss much that matters; we miss its humor, its pathos, its love. It is our unawareness of those touches of human nature that causes us to see the people of scripture not as people but as bloodless examples in a book of rules: they may inform us, but they fail to motivate 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 the world of words surrounding us daily tends to make us more used to superficial language. 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 so that it becomes a basic part 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. Worth imagining oneself in the setting of the story.

The Bible—and all scripture—is much more than the reading assignment that makes us sleepy. As an assurance that human beings very like us are capable of deep 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 the scriptures, and to get the scriptures into us, we must search them intently, sensitively, lovingly. We must search them by the Spirit.

An assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University, Brother Walker serves as Young Men president in the Provo 10th Ward, Provo Utah Stake.