After the boredom factor, the reason many people stop reading the Bible is the inability to understand what they are reading. They may find themselves the ideal translation, one that does everything possible to make the language of the Scriptures fit their cultural and linguistic context but once they begin reading, they are confronted by things they don’t understand.
The lack of understanding comes for a lot of reasons:
• The Bible is written from a very different cultural perspective–or better, it is written from many different cultural perspectives. These cultural differences often confuse the point of the story. For example, in Matthew 17.24-28, Jesus and Peter have a discussion about the temple tax. Jesus asks Peter is citizens or foreigners pay tax–and the answer is that foreigners pay tax, a very real cultural difference that makes the passage hard to understand and deal with from our cultural perspective.
• The Bible is written using many different styles and approaches. Some, like the Psalms is poetic. Some, like the Gospels and Acts, is more factual. Some, like Revelation is highly symbolic. Each style and approach needs to be read differently because the meaning is understood as much from the style as the actual words.
• The Bible is a gift from God to all people of all time. But what is vitally important for one people at one time isn’t always significant for another people and time. The agricultural laws from Leviticus were vital for a nomadic people looking ahead to becoming farmers or former African refugees learning how to farm again but are probably confusing for an urbanized, highly technology culture.
• Some parts of the Bible were actually written to be confusing and hard to understand. Revelation and parts of Daniel and Ezekiel, for example, were written for believers struggling through tough times. The writers used symbolism and references that the readers would understand but which outsiders would not understand in order to communicate hope to the readers. Even though we read these passages as believers, we are from a different time and culture and don’t always get the references.
• The Bible was originally written in Greek and Hebrew, languages that exist today but which are very much changed from the actual language of the Bible. Even translators who are expert in these languages struggle sometimes to understand what the words are trying to communicate–just look at the notes that accompany any newer translation of the Bible
• At times when we read the Bible, we don’t really want to understand what it is saying. The Bible has the ability to reach into our lives and touch us right where we don’t want to be touched. We read that we are supposed to love our neighbours, for example, but like the man in Luke 10.29, we want to know just who is our neighbour, rather than dealing with the truth that Jesus provides in the parable that answers the question.
So, with all these difficulties, is there any point in reading the Bible? Most definitely. There are ways to deal with most of the difficulties encountered in reading the Bible and we will look at some of them in future blogs.
But we also need to realize that there is a great deal of Biblical material that is totally comprehensible with even a quick reading. We may not understand the all details of Roman taxation practices in New Testament times but we can understand the Biblical message that we are not what we should be; that God loves us; that Jesus is the supreme sign of God’s love; that God wants us to be with him–these messages come through very clearly and forcefully.
Sometimes, I think we prefer to struggle with the parts of the Bible we don’t understand because of the parts we do understand. The challenge of the understandable parts is sometimes a threat–when I really understand that even at my best, I fall short of what I could be with God’s help, that is a real challenge and even threat to my self-understanding. It is less painful to try to work out the symbolism of Revelation than it is to surrender myself to God through Jesus so that he can make me what I was meant to be.
So, in the face of the hard to understand parts, always deal first with the parts you understand. The understandable parts are there for a reason–to speak to the reader. The parts that are hard to understand can speak as well–but first, we need to deal with the parts we can understand.
May the peace of God be with you.