What is the Bible? #1 Dave Rogalsky September 23. 2018
Theme/Goal/Aim: An introductory sermon about the major answers to “What is the Bible?” A history, a source of inspiration, and a source of materials for science/study.
Scripture: Hebrews 11:32-12:2
In the hour after worship we’ll get into a discussion about what we each think and feel the Bible is. I want to outline three ways that I understand what the Bible is.
The first way is as a source of source materials for many different kinds of science and studies. The Bible is made up of ancient writings from many different periods of time. Some of the material in it comes from around 1400 before the Christian Era, and much of it preserves information from before that time and in the years between then and 100 AD. There are ancient poems, songs and proverbs that come from before the Jews settled the land of Palestine. There are stories that preserve information about literature, religion, anthropology, culture, philosophy, sociology and psychology from around 2000 BCE until 100 AD.
Some have scoffed at the Bible as a bunch of made up myths or legends, but it contains material that scientists and scholars of many kinds have and continue to mine. A couple of examples:
In the book of Acts in the New Testament Luke the writer records that Paul was in the city of Philippi
in Macedonia (Acts 16:11-40). There he was beaten and wrongly imprisoned. When the community discovered that he was a Roman citizen the leaders of the community came and apologized. They were literally “people leaders,” in Greek ethnarchs. Scholars thought that Luke got it wrong. They thought that there was never more than one ethnarch at a time but Luke made it plural. And then a monument was dug up by archeologists that was dedicated by the ethnarchs of Philippi. Luke had gotten it right. The Bible was a source of good information.
A second piece of history that the Bible clarifies is the switch from Bronze Age warfare to Iron Age. This switch took place over several hundred years all over the ancient Middle East. In the books of Samuel a new people came into the land of Canaan. The Philistines came with iron swords and with chariots. If we examine the place names of where they operated we find it was in river valleys and on plains. The Jews were limited to the hills for their farming and herds. The place names which we have of their territory verifies this. And then David, before he was king, went and worked for the Philistines as a mercenary (see 1 Samuel 27). When he came back he brought back the technology of iron swords and chariots. Soon the Jews had taken over the river valleys and the plains, either driving out the Philistines or absorbing them into the people of Israel.
A third example, more about religion and culture, comes to us in the form of the repeated stories of incubation rituals. Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-18), Solomon (1 Kings 3:3-15), Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13), and others all slept in a temple or a religious location and had visions and dreams. This process continues into the New Testament where both Paul (2 Corinthians 12:1-10) and Peter (Acts 10), and others (Acts 9:10-19; Revelation 1:9ff) had visions after performing acts of contemplation or meditation. We know that other groups in the Ancient Middle East, and all over the world, did and do practice such rituals.
So one use of the Bible is as a source book for literature, religion, anthropology, culture, philosophy, sociology and psychology.
A second answer to the question “What is the Bible?” is that it is a source of inspiration by the Holy Spirit in our lives. Many of us have the spiritual practice of reading a portion of scripture each day to hear what God is saying to us as an individual. It might be guidance, encouragement, correction, and learning about ourselves, God and the world, and on and on. I have used a reading guide for many years that is connected to the Lectionary readings. The Lectionary is a series of readings that takes the church through about 60% of the Bible every three years. My readings connect with the Sunday readings week by week through the year. I have often heard God speaking to me through the Bible as I read it for me.
Of course we also do that as congregations and denominations. This is a more “inspirational” reading, looking for an emotional connection, rather than as a source of information. Often I have heard or said “I was reading the Bible today and I heard God telling me . . .”
Interestingly, God is not limited to the Bible. In the last seven years I have added reading spiritual poetry
to my spiritual practice. On the advice or suggestion of a Roman Catholic spiritual director the first book I read was The Gift by Hafiz, a 14th century Shia Muslim poet from what is now Iran. Currently I’m reading To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue, a 20th century Irish Catholic poet. Often I sense God having something to say to me through a poet, or a song.
The third way I answer the question “What is the Bible?” is by thinking of the Bible as a history of God, in relationship with human beings, of the Jewish faith, written down by human beings who were in relationship with God. Let me unpack that.
A history is the telling of a story. In our modern times we have tried to be as unbiased as possible, telling the story with all the successes and failures of the people and processes. That hasn’t always been so. The Bible is what is called a polemical history – it has goals, it has things to prove, preserve and promote. But it is a history none-the-less – the telling of a story. But sometimes the history we want is hidden in the writing, re-writing, editing and re-editing of the story. Stories in the Bible often show the hand of multiple generations of writers and editors, using the stories to make their point. And while the story seems to flow from older to newer, sometimes the telling of older stories was done much later and added to the story. The chapters before the story of Abram and Sarai in Genesis show that they are from a much later time that the actual stories. The creation stories, the flood, the tower of Babel and so on were added as an introduction as the Bible was gathered in the 200’s before Christ. But the Bible is a history.
This history is primarily about humanities’ growing knowledge and understanding of God. While they began by believing in powers of nature, and of many gods, slowly over time they came to the conclusion and knowledge that there was only one God. While there might be other spiritual beings, some of them masquerading as gods, there really was only the One who had created, and who had chosen to use Abram, Sarai and their descendants to teach the rest of the world about Godself, in relationship
God, who called Godself YHWH – which means I AM – wanted to be in relationship with the whole creation, loves everyone and everything, and has hopes and dreams for what the creation can become.
The Bible is the record of how God did this in the Jewish faith. From the beginning Abram and Sarai were to be the parents of many peoples (Genesis 17:1-16; Genesis 18:17), and the prophets who wrote the history and who prophesied and taught the people, were of one mind. This was not a message for only Jews but for the whole world. They believed that God was at work in the wider world and not only among the Jews (See Genesis 9:1-17, Acts 14:15-17; Revelation 5:9).
This history, these stories, these experiences, were written down by human beings based on human observations and storytelling. There was no angel sitting on Matthew’s shoulder as he wrote down his stories of Jesus. Paul did not know that his letters would be collected and read for thousands of years afterward. They were human beings, going about their human business, telling stories about what humanity was learning about God, humans and the whole creation.
But, we need to remember that they were not unbiased. They were people who were in that relationship and sometimes they take the side of their people. Sometimes, based on the biases of their time, they credit to God things that we might no longer find acceptable. We’ll spend more time on this one but one quick example. When the stories of the Jews coming into the promised land in the 1400s BC were being written down in the 800s BC, so 600 years later, the style of telling such a story included a god telling their people to go and take possession of a land, and to devote at the point of a sword all living things in that land to the god. They were to kill all who lived there. We find such a description on a monument raised by Mesha the king of Moab around 840 BC. He wrote that Chemosh his God sent him to go to the land of Israel and take possession of it, killing all the men, women, children and animals, devoting them as sacrifice to Chemosh.1 This sounds almost exactly like the stories in the book of Joshua where Yahweh sent Joshua into the land to take possession of it, killing everyone (See Joshua 6:21 for an example). The Bible is a very human book, written by people from specific times and places with their biases and prejudices. But at the same time it is a record of how God slowly shaped those people until it produced Jesus who was both a human Jew, and God with us.