To read Scripture deeply is to enter into relationship with its writers, spiritual seekers like ourselves.
By Patricia K. Tull
Many people regard Scripture as a guide for truth and good behavior or as a source of proof texts for theological debate. For such readers, the Bible becomes a mere tool under human control. But the Bible is not a book of abstract doctrines. Rather, it shows how ancient people pondered many of the same questions we do about life and faith.
To read Scripture deeply is to put ourselves into relationship with its writers, as we might with friends from whom we seek to learn. When we read Scripture with an open mind of inquiry, attending to lives so generously and honestly shared, we read with empathy. We read to know better who these people were, what they cared about, what hurt them, what they aspired to, and how they experienced God. We find insight not only as we consider key figures such as Moses or Ruth or Mary or Jesus but also as we ponder the perspectives of the writers themselves. As we get to know them, we find their aspirations echoed in our own. In their quests for restoration, for wisdom, and for God’s presence, we see our own spiritual journeys.
In the book of Ruth, we read that a famine drove Naomi, her husband, and their two sons from their home in Bethlehem across the Jordan River into the often hostile land of Moab. Then Naomi’s husband died. Her two sons married Moabite women, remained childless, and also died, leaving Naomi alone with foreign daughters-in-law. Even if we have not experienced equally traumatic situations, in reading Naomi’s story carefully we can feel her broken heart and understand her conviction that “the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me” (Ruth 1:21).
There is no use in arguing theology with Naomi, nor with anyone today who has become embittered by life-denying tragedies. Yet against all expectation, one of Naomi’s foreign daughters-in-law, Ruth, becomes God’s agent for restoration. We don’t hear much about Ruth’s own sorrows, but we see her, in her own abandonment, determined never to abandon another.
We can step further into the text and consider what kind of person could write such a healing story. It’s a story that neither preaches nor sentimentalizes, but with irony and insight articulates the depths of social and faith crises and the heights of restoration. Did the author also suffer displacement and loss and question God’s intents? Did he or she find healing in a friend’s commitment and in the hidden work of providence? We can’t know particulars, but we can recognize experience. We see that this writer knows both this wilderness and the path through it, helping readers also to find paths to restoration.
Likewise, many of the psalmists knew sorrow and sought restoration. They offer their words for a community that extends from their own time to us today, modeling prayers for every kind of brokenness: abandonment (Ps. 55), sickness (Ps. 88), and failure (Ps. 51). These uncannily candid poets could not have written what they did not somehow know.
At his humblest moment, King Solomon prayed for a mind capable of distinguishing good from evil, in order to govern well (1 Kings 3:9). He was no paragon—he began his reign by assassinating political enemies and ended it by alienating most of his subjects. But in this nobler moment, he wanted more than anything, more than fame or wealth, simply to rule wisely.
Once again, we might consider the attributes of the person telling his story. We don’t know when or where or with what struggles or joys Solomon’s biographer lived. But even if this writer never ruled a nation, he knew the challenge of governing oneself. The writer shares wisdom from both Solomon’s successes and his mistakes.
The sayings in the book of Proverbs offer wisdom that seems self-evident when read apart from the muddle of daily life. It’s easy to agree, for instance, that “one who is slow to anger is better than the mighty” (Prov. 16:32) when we are sitting in quiet contemplation; it’s much harder to believe this when we are on the highway, in the office, or with a stubborn child. But instead of imagining that such wisdom flowed effortlessly from a holy mind, we can view it as a “note to self” after hard experience. This will help us see better how to gain wisdom in the midst of failures.
Seeking God’s presence
Behind this verse is a story left untold: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him” (Gen. 5:24). The curious of later generations want to know what it meant that Enoch walked with God, where he went when God took him, and what he might say to his descendants.
Suppose we told the story of Job similarly: “Job . . . was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. . . . Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days” (Job 1:1; 42:16–17). This is the beginning and ending of the book of Job, but it is by no means all of Job’s story. Beneath the told and untold stories—Enoch’s, Job’s, the biblical writers’, and our own—lie worlds of experience of the presence and absence of God.
At Job’s most despairing moments, what he wanted even more than his suffering’s alleviation was for God to show up. He yearned to escape the imposed solitude of grief, to present his case to God, and to hear why death, loss, and disease were afflicting him. It was only when God spoke from the whirlwind, saying things entirely unexpected, that everything changed. It was what God had to say, but even more, it was the sound of God’s voice that transformed Job’s life. The story of Job’s pain and discovery was written empathetically by someone who must likewise have experienced divine absence and return.
The Bible offers a variety of images for divine presence. For Adam and Eve, God walks like a companion through the garden. For Moses, God passes by, showing only God’s back. For Elijah, God comes as the sound of sheer silence; for Job, it’s through a whirlwind; for Naomi, it’s as a friend.
Sometimes we today are accompanied by a sense of the divine, whether we call it the Holy Spirit in our hearts, Jesus by our side, or the light of God before us. At other times, we wonder where God is hiding. We want to walk with God as Enoch did. We want sight, not faith unseen. The key becomes whether we can persevere even in the apparent absence of God and whether we’ll say, “Where are you?” as if God is actually there to hear.
Naomi fully believed that God had abandoned her. It took her some time to discover God’s providence through the companionship of her daughter-in-law Ruth. Scripture is filled with similar companions, walking beside us on journeys that challenge and heal us. By so generously offering glimpses of their own souls, the biblical writers are for us, as Ruth was for Naomi, proxies for God’s presence in every moment of our lives.
Patricia K. Tull is A. B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She is an ordained teaching elder (minister) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and author of three books on Isaiah and of Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis (Westminster John Knox, 2013).
Beginning (again) with the Bible
- Approach Scripture as you would a person you would like to know better: with curiosity and interest, open to the unexpected.
- Acquire a good study Bible with interpretive notes, such as The Discipleship Study Bible (Westminster John Knox Press), the HarperCollins Study Bible, or the New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. You may also want a one-volume dictionary, such as the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, and a spiral notebook for recording information, thoughts, and questions.
- Make a realistic plan and stick to it as closely as possible. Include when, where, what, how much, and how often you will read. Develop a habit.
- Pray before reading for openness to the Holy Spirit speaking; pray afterwards in thanksgiving.
- Begin with what interests you, and add interests as you go. For example:
- If you like to organize information, use the introduction in your study Bible to help you sort out the Bible’s sections, books, and genres.
- If you like the big picture, begin with historical background. An excellent resource is the well-researched 2008 Nova program The Bible’s Buried Secrets, available online.
- You might begin with a book or theme you are most drawn to. Many people begin with the Gospels because they are the most familiar—but don’t stop there. For prayer, read the Psalms. For wisdom, go to Proverbs, Job, or Ecclesiastes. For politics, start with Samuel and Kings. For social justice, consult the prophets. Avoid reading single verses; instead, read chapters and whole books to understand the context.
- Many people are helped by a guide for reading through the Bible in a year, whether or not the books are to be read in order.
- Some arrange with two or three friends to read together and to meet periodically for coffee and discussion.
- If you can, enroll in a seminary or college Bible course for one semester. You will learn a lot quickly.
- Each day, take away a verse or phrase that touched you. Write it in your notebook, and let it linger in your mind throughout the day, like the remembered scent of a morning flower. It will speak in unexpected ways.
- When beginning a biblical book, first read the introduction to the book in your study Bible. As you read, consult the study notes. Jot down questions, both mundane and deep.
- Keep reading with an open mind. No matter what route you choose, the more you explore, the more familiar the territory will become.
Which version should I read?
By James E. Davison
You can find a multitude of Bible translations to choose from these days. They vary from literal, word-for-word translations to loose paraphrases of the original languages. In general, literal translations are better for purposes of study, while paraphrases are good for devotional reading. Sometimes it is useful to compare two or three translations in order to get a better sense of the meaning of Bible passages. Here are the two best translations for all-around use:
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This revision of the tried-and-true Revised Standard Version, translated by a team of scholars from the mainline churches, is probably the best primarily literal translation available today. It reads easily. The translators have eliminated archaic English words and structures and attempted to employ gender-inclusive language whenever possible.
New International Version (NIV). Translated by a team of evangelical scholars and revised in 2011, this version is less concerned with a word-for-word translation because it seeks to capture the sense or feeling of the words and phrases in the original languages. The result is a fluid, rich translation, a good one for devotional reading and for study.
Others worth considering:
Good News Bible (GNB). This popular version is designed to be understandable to people with limited educational backgrounds. Also called Today’s English Version (TEV), it is a careful translation of the original languages into the contemporary American idiom. It can be useful for general or devotional reading as well as for reading with children.
The Message. This paraphrase by Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson likewise attempts to put the Bible into contemporary American English. It is too colloquial to be used for Bible study, but comparing it with another, more literal version can provide insights into the meaning of a passage. It is also good for devotional reading.
Common English Bible (CEB). Recently published with the support of a number of mainline denominations, this translation brought together a wide range of scholars to create a translation that is easily readable for most English speakers, while staying closer to the text than paraphrases do. It can be used effectively for both study and devotional reading.
King James Version (KJV). Published in 1611, this translation was approved by King James I of England and is therefore also called the Authorized Version (AV). Since then, many better texts of the original languages have been uncovered and the English language has changed considerably. Thus, the KJV is no longer a good translation for study purposes, but the beauty of many of its renderings remains unmatched. (Think of Psalm 23!) It is certainly worth reading devotionally from time to time.
James E. Davison is director of continuing education and a lecturer in Greek language and exegesis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.