July 25, 2014

Horse 1721 - How To Read The Bible For The First Time... Again... Again

I concede that this sounds like an idiotic title for a blog post but bear with me, because I kind of think that even reading the Bible in different ways, can change our mindset enough so that something different can come out. Let me start this post with an even more idiotic way of talking about how to read the Bible.

I once saw a production of Henry V by William Shakespeare, in which everyone on stage was wearing national rubgy kits with names and numbers on the back. This was exceptionally helpful because there are is at least an English XV, a French XV and a couple of Scots. The other thing which I found helpful was the use of outrageous accents.
Shakespeare's plays for a time were often performed in a "traditional" style which after 200 years became highly stilted and stylised. It was as though someone was moving chess pieces about the stage and because Shakespeare wrote for an often rowdy crowd, it would have been a far cry from the lively performances first put on in the theatre. This brings me nicely to the main point.

How something is delivered is often important in conveying understanding and what people actually retain. To understand something and to emotionally engage with the Bible, probably very much helps in the process of owning it, using it and wearing it out (pun intended - think about it).

Think about the Old Testament. For a great deal of time; before any of the gospels and letters were written, this is all that the early Christians actually had.
This is going to sound foreign to Christians I suspect, but in a synagogue, Jewish people will read the Torah (that is the five books of the law of Moses, the Pentateuch) in 54 weekly portions known as "parshahs". The reason why there are 54 is that over the course of a year, the whole of the Torah will have been read.
Rather than reading the Torah, it is chanted and the very last portion of the Torah is read on a holiday called "Simchat Torah", or literally "Rejoicing In The Law". The reason that I'm told that the Torah is read in 54 portions on a continuous basis is to show the idea that the Torah is a circle and never ends.
I rather like that concept. The idea that observing the law (whilst of itself doesn't save someone of their sins) is not only a continuous process but a discipline, I think is probably something worth impressing.

There are three ways to read the Bible; four to properly understand it.

Statements of the form "There are X of a thing; X+1 things et cetera" are commonplace in the Old Testament; they indicate that the list is incomplete.
In the book of Amos for instance, this form is used no less than 8 times at the beginning. Whilst that's helpful to know, even when reading something like this, there are helpful conventions.
In some synagogues (and again I really have no idea how widespread this is), at the end of each of those "There are X of a thing; X+1 things et cetera" which mention in turn the sins of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab, the congregation will cheer (as I was told by a client of ours at work) but for the last two of Judah and Israel, the congregation will sigh.
In most protestant churches, we don't tend to think of reading the Bible as that much of a participatory thing. The closest that we get I suppose is when there is a collective reading, it can sound like a low murmur. The example from the synagogue to me, suggests something a bit closer in tone to British pantomime - "Oh yes it is"; Oh no it isn't".

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
- Nehemiah 8:2-3

I wonder if when Ezra for instance, was reading the law how he went about doing it. People didn't exactly have television sets back then and so merely reading "the Law" sort of sounds a little dull to me.

One of the traditions of Purim, involves making a din with boos whenever the name of Haman is mentioned. This stems from the mitzvahs in the Torah in Exodus 17 to "blot out the name of Amalek" because Haman was an "Agagite" which is taken to be from King Agag of the Amalekites.
This hardly seems like a passive sort of congregation, who just sit quietly whilst someone up the front reads to them; though I don't want to disregard the sense that God's word does demand a degree of reverence.
I do wonder though, how passive a congregation is supposed to be though. I think of the young man named Eutychus, who when sitting in a third story window listening to Paul go "on and on", fell sound asleep and dropped three stories to his death below... he got better though.

Then again, I also wonder about the New Testament and particularly about the letters of Paul. They were written in extremely long, breathless, tumbly, bumbly, wibbly-wobbly Koine Greek. Koine was the Greek of the marketplace and scholars who would have studied Aristotle or Plutarch etc. would have been aghast at the way that the language was being mauled.
Even worse is the gospel of Mark. I get the distinct impression that Mark was written both in a hurry and with the intent of trying to convey a sense of excitement. If you were going to write down the story of Jesus who died and rose again to save mankind from their sins and restore man to God, wouldn't you just want to blurt out everything that you possibly could at nineteen to the dozen?

Actually, even when I'm thinking about the process of compiling my notes for this post, the tone of voice of the client of ours I spoke to, rings out loud and clear. He's not a Haredi Jew but I suppose that he is kind of... orthodox? I don't know. Okay, I struggle to use the word "Jewish" as an adjective here; so let's just say that he's a jewy Jewish Jewish person. Anyway, the point is that I've wondered if a lot of people in the Bible would have spoken with those sorts of mannerisms.

I'm not exactly a scholar by a long shot; so I'm not exactly writing from any authority here but isn't it at least worth considering thinking about and perhaps trying to read the Bible with a degree of colour and character about it? If something is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, then I'm pretty sure it will stand up to bothering to read it in a new light... again.
Every piece of writing does to some degree, belong to the people reading it. If it takes a new perspective to make an effort to own the Bible, then surely that's a good thing, no?

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