12Whoever strikes another man and kills him must be put to death……..14But if a man wilfully kills another by treachery, you are to take him even from my altar to be put to death. 15Whoever strikes his father or mother must be put to death. 16Whoever kidnaps an Israelite must be put to death, whether he has sold him, or the man is found in his possession. 17Whoever reviles his father or mother must be put to death.
Exodus 20: 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 – Revised English Bible
13If a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, both commit an abomination. They must be put to death; their blood be on their own heads! 14If a man takes both a woman and her mother, that is lewdness. Both he and they must be burnt, so that there may be no lewdness in your midst.
Leviticus 20: 13-14 – Revised English Bible
I’ve chosen this week’s Bible passages, as it’s essential for any extended comment on the Bible to face up to the fact that there’s a great deal in it that’s incredibly difficult, when judged by our modern standards. We can’t ignore this, but it’s a powerful argument for not taking the Bible literally. If we reject homosexuality because it’s called an abomination in Exodus 20, but we then choose to turn a blind eye to the instruction to put homosexuals to death, then are we taking the Bible literally? Surely biblical literalists should, in order to maintain their argument, be campaigning for the death penalty to be introduced for homosexual acts? This small example highlights the impossibility and stupidity of the biblical literalist arguments.
I worry that over my lifetime, we’ve steadily become more intolerant. We now wish to ‘cancel’ those who have different views to us. There are calls from some environmentalists for those who refuse to agree with some of their more extreme demands, to be jailed. And I fear that the period of Covid restrictions has resulted in some seriously unpleasant things being said about ‘COVID deniers’, who are defined as anyone who feels that perhaps some of the more extreme reactions to Covid have been excessive. What has this got to do with the Bible? We cannot, sadly, ignore that the Bible has been and is still being used by some as a weapon against others.
Does God want to punish us? Is he ‘wrathful’?
It’s not difficult to find passages in the Bible that ‘commandeer’ God’s voice. The passage that I’ve quoted above from Leviticus 20, starts with the words: ‘The Lord told Moses to say to the Israelites:….’ My own feeling is that we should be very wary of anyone who commandeers God’s voice in this way. The modern equivalent tends to be: ‘God says in the Bible….’ Followed by a loud denunciation of someone, or something. Why is this wrong?
I think firstly, what we need to try to do is to read the Bible with a view to picking up what we can about God’s nature (from both Old and New Testaments, and including most importantly, the teaching of our Lord Jesus). If we do that, what we find is that the Bible, despite its massive size, number of authors and many centuries over which it was written, is like a stick of rock. For overseas readers, a stock of rock is a cylindrical candy, normally pink on the outside, white inside and the white is written through in black from end to end with a phrase that runs the full length of the ‘rock’, normally with a comment such as a welcome to a particular seaside resort. My analogy with the Bible is that if we read and understand the Bible as a whole and resist focusing on one verse that suits our prejudices, we’ll find that the words that run through it are some of these:
Love, tolerance, peace, justice, mercy, forgiveness, support for the downtrodden, generosity, grace, sympathy etc, etc
You may like to add your own words to this list as you progress in your reading. What I do not pick up among God the Father’s or Jesus’s characteristics is a desire to instil in his followers a wish to reject, condemn, persecute, victimise or chastise others. It’s the very opposite of what we’re called to be, and to do. Listen carefully to those doing the condemning. If they’re portraying God in a way that you struggle to recognise, then maybe your instincts are correct, and the person doing the condemning is commandeering God’s nature and voice? Is God ‘wrathful’? The dictionary definition of wrathful is defined as: ‘angry, irascible.’ My opinion is that we should see God not as angry, but as sad at our failures, rather than wrathful against those whose failures we choose to focus on. If God is genuinely wrathful in a human sense, then there’s no hope for us. Ever.
There is, of course, a call for us to be sorry for our own failings and, using biblical language, to ‘repent’ (this, incidentally, means to turn away from our old behaviour, rather than to ‘heap sackcloth and ashes’, as we’re more inclined to think). This is most important; we do need to be aware of what we’ve done, to be contrite, to say sorry, to accept our failures and to try to lead a better life. But we should try to focus on our own failures, not our perceptions of the failings of others. One of the most important verses in the whole Bible is in John 15:12:
12This is my commandment; love one another as I have loved you.’
Offer this verse up against any situation that you come across. If something doesn’t stack up, then maybe it’s not describing God, but pandering to our innate (and singularly unattractive) desire to criticise others. I fear that the world has become a more judgemental place during my lifetime. The Bible should and must encourage us to be less judgemental. If we use God’s voice to judge others, we have a tendency to make God’s love of us conditional. No true Christian believes that God’s grace is conditional!
What are the best Bible passages to get me started? Don’t shun the Old Testament; you won’t be able to understand Jesus without it, as it was ‘his’ Bible; there was no other until several decades after his death. What follows is a list that I’ve put together. I don’t pretend that it’s definitive; it’s not in any particular order and I offer it without any explanation that might colour your readings in advance (the sequence is Books: Chapters: Verses)
Genesis: 1 to 4, 6:9-9:29, 11:1-9, 22:1-18
Exodus: 3:1-15, 14, 20:1-21
1 Samuel: 8:1-22, 17
Psalms: All; read in conjunction with other readings. Split up Psalm 19 into manageable chunks
Proverbs and the Book of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus from the Apocrypha: Like the Psalms, dip in and out of these ‘Wisdom’ books
Ecclesiastes: 1-6, 12
Isaiah: 40-43, 49, 52-66
Jeremiah: 31, 52
You will probably eventually want to read all of the New Testament eventually. But I would start with Mark, then go to Luke, then Acts, then Matthew and finally John. And bear in mind what a very wise scholar once said: ‘If you begin with St Paul, you will interpret Jesus incorrectly. If you begin with Jesus, you will interpret Paul differently’ (John Dominic Crossan). Leave Hebrews and Revelation until last; you may then understand them!
Try to set up a time to read each day if you can, and read a piece of Old Testament and a piece of New Testament and maybe a Psalm or a proverb.
Sources for additional help
My advice would be to leave looking at either Bible commentaries or Bible reading notes until after you can honestly say that you’re beginning to develop your own understanding of how to read; you’ll get better as you go along. But there’s one reference book that I feel sure you will find very useful, which gives a lot of background to the Bible and it will also help you to find a passage you’re looking for, as it has a small summary of each section:
The Lion Handbook to the Bible, published by Lion Publishing Ltd
It costs £16.64, but it’s worth every penny. For example, it includes maps and lists of Jesus’s parables and miracles and where they can be found. I’m not on commission! If and when you do want a Bible Commentary (Commentaries explain the Bible verse by verse) I’ve found the most useful one to be:
The Oxford Bible Commentary, by Barton & Muddiman
It can be obtained now for about £25, a third of what I paid many years ago!
Summary of Biblical principles
So here’s my summary:
- Allow enough space and peace for God to talk to you through the background noise of the modern world
- Accept that some passages may take time and patience to open up. Be open to new interpretations
- Be conscious of translation difficulties. Jesus spoke Aramaic; the New Testament was written originally in Greek, so his teaching has gone from Aramaic to Greek to modern English
- If you’re not struggling with the Bible, you’re probably not properly engaged with it!
- The Bible is not inerrant and should not be treated as if it is, but the major Christian values and God’s nature don’t change
- To interpret the Bible literally is to misuse it
- Try to get a feel for the Bible’s historic and cultural background
- Accept that every miracle has a metaphorical meaning, whether you believe the miracle literally or not
- To use the Bible as a weapon is to abuse it
- Try to add to your understanding of God’s nature, as you read. And pray for God to reveal himself to you
- God wants the best for everyone, not just for Christians and not just for ‘us’
- God wants us to accept our own faults, improve our own lives, love one another and not be judgemental
- Try not to beat yourself up; the Bible isn’t about you, but God will speak to you using the Bible, if you let him
- Be brave as you read your Bible. Your friends may think you’re mad!
- Try to remember that God’s main wish is for you to become what he made you to be. What did God make you to be? The Bible should slowly enable you to answer this
LISTEN – THINK – REFLECT – WONDER – GIVE THANKS – EXPLAIN TO OTHERS.
YOU’LL BE AMAZED!
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the wonderful gift of the Bible. Please teach us how to use it, how to listen for your ‘still small voice’ and how to understand what you want for us. Amen