The Bible as a Love Story
In addition to the complexity of translating from one language to another – or even from an original language like Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek – to Latin – and then to English, we have the challenge that the meanings of words changes over time, or that it has a very particular meaning in a particular time. When thinking about a foray into understanding the Bible, it’s helpful to start by thinking about how the meaning of words changes when used in different contexts.
We need an interpretive key to help us navigate the challenges when reading
One such interpretive key is that the Bible is a love story between God (lover) and God’s creation (beloved) in which we are invited to an ever greater share of life bestowed as a gift by the lover. The lover has always been faithful to the beloved but the beloved has not always been faithful for the lover. The preface to the first Eucharistic Prayer for reconciliation (one of my favorites) puts it this way, “For you do not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life and, being rich in mercy, you constantly offer pardon and call on sinners to trust in your forgiveness alone. Never did you turn away from us, and, though time and again we have broken your covenant, you have bound the human family to yourself through Jesus your Son, our Redeemer, with a new bond of love so tight that it can never be undone.”
How the Love Story is told in Scriptures
This love story is told through the Hebrew Scriptures (often called the Old Testament) and the Christian scripture (often called the New Testament). The books of the Hebrew Scripture can be further divided into separate genres – one such division is:
Law: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
History: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.
Wisdom and Poetry: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.
The Major Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
The Minor Prophets: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
The books of the New Testament can also be separated into separate Genres:
Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
Acts of the Apostles
Epistles: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude.
Not one Book but many
The love story is not one story but many stories. Likewise, it is important for us to understand God’s expression of love for us in their context. Understanding how translations affect the meaning of the words can help deepen our understanding of the passage. Consulting more than one translation and noting the differences can help us to this (as opposed to looking at other translations to see which is right).
Three levels for reading scripture:
We can read the Word of God on at least three levels:
1. The meaning in the original experience.
2. The meaning in the context of the author.
3. The meaning the passage has to us now
These levels may affect how we read the story.
For example, Matthew and Luke both relate a sermon given by Jesus. In Matthew, the sermon occurs on the Mount; In Luke it occurs on the plain.
There are elements common to both sermons and elements that are distinct in both sermons. Are we looking at two different sermons given at different times? If so, why is does Matthew present one and Luke another? We could also say that Matthew and Luke have both gathered elements of sermons and teachings that Jesus gave during his public ministry and presented them as one sermon. We can hear Jesus say, “Blessed are you poor…” and consider what this would mean to the original hearers. We can read Matthew’s writing, “Blessed are you poor in Spirit” and wonder what was it about the context in which Matthew wrote that led him to soften the message (or conversely did Luke toughen the message)?
Either way, it is important for us to understand that the context in which Jesus spoke is different than the context in which Matthew and Luke wrote – and these different contexts may lead to the emphasis of one piece over another. As these passages have been applied through history, it would be important for us to consider how the context influences the reception of the passage.
How a couple tells the story of their meeting or first falling in love may change over time – but this change does not mean that one story is more true than another. The evolving story allows for a more nuanced expression of love that takes into account and incorporates the realities experienced during the lifetime. How much more complex is that reality when we are talking thousands of years and billions of human lives in relationship to God?
For reflection: Do you feel prompted to explore some aspect of Scripture at a deeper level? How might you talk with your children about Scripture?
Fr. Paul and I have been asked to discuss “The Bible in a Nutshell” with the parents of our faith formation students on two successive weekends. This blog post comes from that session.
Fr. Brian Conley, SJ