How do you read the Bible? An ominous question when posed to an Old Testament scholar like Ellen Davis. She charmed me right away – back and forth. How simple and elegant. She sums up so much of Biblical scholarship when she instructs us to read back and forth to allow one text to illumine another.
I’m still smiling, she’s still smiling, when she pushes me to a new edge: …and don’t expect to agree with everything it says because it’s not a single monolithic read on reality.
In her genteel manner she unmasks me – because deep down I do expect that I’ll agree with it all, that I at least ought to agree with it all or repent for the parts I struggle to agree with in the privacy of my prayer closet.
I’ve been taught to expect agreement when I come to the text. When I disagree it’s evidence of my own error, my misshapen understanding or craven thinking. The disagreement always points to me, never the Bible. I’m expected to consider my own sin-ridden nature, further confirmation that the error’s embedded in the reader.
But here I’m pushed to remember the text itself, cobbled together by others generations ago, standing as a testament to truth but with human fingerprints throughout. Walter Brueggemann says the text was written by people in a culture, in a certain time and with varied vested interests. We have royal pundits, prophetic voices, Jewish insiders, Greek outsiders all stitching the Scripture with their story, sensibilities and the mysteriously present Spirit. No monolith, indeed. So many voices, interests and stories compose our family history of faith. I’ve always believed we’re the richer for it, thumbing the holy texture as I turn each worn page.
When Ellen Davis reads the Bible, she doesn’t expect to find agreement. She seems unsurprised by complexity, nuance, layers of meaning and rich but antiquated symbols. And maybe, like me, she does not agree with patriarchy, herem warfare, hundreds of concubines, slaves or silent women. Maybe it’s okay to say I don’t agree with the violence of Joshua and that as I read back and forth Jesus seems to shun such aggression. Could it be all right to disagree and still be devout?
What does she say about Biblical expectations – look for how it helps us understand the bottomless mystery of God. Yes… because all those stories were told, preserved and passed on to move us deeper into the mystery of life with this God who in every generation proves to be faithful. Her words bring to mind a passage from Deuteronomy (fitting for an OT scholar):
The eternal God is thy dwelling place,
And underneath are the everlasting arms. (Deut. 33:27)
This is almost the last thing Moses said to his people at the end of forty years of leadership. He tells them the eternal God, the one who’s been present and active since the beginning, remains our home. And at the bottom of the worst of it all – pain, brokenness even confusion – they’ll always find His everlasting arms. Underneath all the stories, sensibilities, vested interests of others (and our own) we can fall into the strong and everlasting arms of God. He, that is to say Love, is underneath it all. That is what we can expect when we read the Bible well.
NOTE: I’ve been reading a lot of her work this year! For those just wading into the Old Testament she offers a lovely and spot on introduction called Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. She offers poetic commentary on Ruth in Who Are You, My Daughter?: Reading Ruth through Image & Text. As a community development practitioner I’m deeply indebted to her for Scripture, Culture & Agruculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible which I read on Burundian soil this summer.
A special thanks to Travis Reed and The Work of the People for so generously sharing this video!