How Do I Read the Bible?


Photo (c) Samuel Lee-- taken in South Korea


Many Christians have “reading the Bible in one year” as one of their resolutions for the new year. Some people ask me how I read Bible? Over the years, I have learned to read the Bible from different perspectives, from a personal, historical, metaphorical, and progressive revelation, and the Jesus perspectives. The Personal perspective speaks for itself: it is about life lessons, about learning the Bible stories personally. Joseph's (Genesis 37) story teaches me to be patient, and through the stories in Exodus, I learn to be merciful to migrants and strangers (Ex. 22: 21). Life lessons are not time-bound; they are universal, and they are timeless.


From a historical perspective, I read some texts from the Bible purely as historiography, just like the historical books in the Bible. Some Biblical texts are written from the writer's perspective. For example, when the Israelites win the wars, they thank God for their victory (Joshua 6), while disobedience, on the other hand, is punished with defeats during wars or with calamities (2 Chron. 7:14). When I read the Bible from a historical perspective, I can better understand the Old Testament's contradictions; how can God who commands "you shall not kill" in other Biblical books demand the contrary? I read the text "you shall not kill" in Ex. 20: 6 as inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, the parts in the Bible in which people are murdered in God's name (1 Sam 15: 3), in which the cheering for victory seems to be more based on the writer's inspiration and not on that of God. Unfortunately, over the centuries, people have used this kind of Biblical interpretation to exterminate other nations and to approve of slavery in the name of God, with all the fatal consequences that that entails.


Reading the Bible from a metaphorical perspective can be very inspiring. Poetry and metaphors play an essential role in all these languages. We can, first of all, take Adam as an example. In Genesis, Adam is one person, but at the same time, Adam represents humanity as a whole. Jacob is later named Israel (Ge 35:10), while Jacob also represents Israel as an entire tribe. Abraham is one person in the Bible, but he also represents all nations simultaneously - he is the father of many nations (Ge 17: 5).


As science and technology evolve, Biblical texts are interpreted differently. I call this "progressive revelation."

Lastly, I read the Bible from a "progressive revelation" point of view. As science and technology evolve, Biblical texts are interpreted differently. I call this "progressive revelation." Those who read the Bible a thousand years ago believed that the earth was the center of the universe; for them, this was the truth. Some interpretations of the Bible are truths at a specific moment while they are no longer truths later; in the previous case until Galilei could scientifically prove that the earth is not the center of the universe. Today, everyone believes that the earth is only a small part of the universe, not the center.


Even today, scientific findings call into question certain truths of the fundamentalist churches, such as the theory of evolution and the age of the earth. Let me give a few examples. The killing of Abel by Cain (Ge 4) can very nicely correspond with the oldest wars in human history, namely the wars between hunter-gatherers and the settlers or the farmers. For me, Cain is not only one person, but also stands for the farmers or the settlers that exterminate Abel, who stands for the hunter-gatherers/shepherds! Alternatively, take the story of Abraham. God promises him a beloved son, and then God tells Abraham to sacrifice the child, Isaac. Then God intervenes at the last minute, and a ram appears that may be sacrificed instead of Isaac (Ge. 22). Although I believe in Abraham's historical figure, I also believe that Abraham is the personification of awakened humanity, which replaced the human sacrifice thousands of years ago with the animal sacrifice. We Christians nowadays no longer sacrifice animals as a confirmation of our faith.


Finally, I come to the Jesus perspective: When reading the Bible, the person Jesus is central to me. For me, the Old Testament is a foreshadow that refers to Jesus (my Jewish friends do not believe that, and I respect that too). In the New Testament, Jesus is the foundation for me, not Paul, Peter, or the apostles. I read and interpret the Bible through the eyes of Jesus: for me, which the foundation of my belief.



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© 2010-2019 by Samuel C. Lee

 

Samuel Lee (Ph.D.) is university lecturer, at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam - Faculty of Religion and Theology (FRT-VU), and director for Center for Theology of Migration, the educational program of Samen Kerk in Nederland at the FRT-VU. 

He is the founder of Foundation Academy of Amsterdam, offering higher education in liberal arts and humanities for migrants, refugees and persecuted minorities.

 

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