Archives For Bible

This is part of a series on Ellen F. Davis’s book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. The series begins here.

There is a stunning passage where Jeremiah describes the land of Judah as “without form and void” (Gen. 1:1–2; Jer. 4:23–26 ESV). Judah is under the threat of invasion, and Jeremiah describes it as a disaster of global proportions.

Bible students will recognize that phrase “without form and void” as one that Jeremiah borrowed from the opening verses of Genesis—before God formed and cultivated the earth to make it inhabitable for life. It was wild and chaotic.

In this passage, Jeremiah “leads us stage by stage through the unhinging of the created order” (Kindle loc. 255). In sin and rebellion against God, humanity unknowingly participates in the unmaking of everything God made and called good.

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There can be no question that there are various levels of biblical understanding. A child can understand it, or at least parts of it, and yet it is a book that more than repays decades—or even a lifetime—of study. It’s sort of like the movie Inception that came out a few years ago—as you go deeper into biblical understanding, it seems you are always compelled to go just one level deeper.

Now, let me be clear that I’m not talking about some kind of gnostic, secret, deeper understanding, but a clearer understanding that is based on a broader knowledge of the Bible’s historical and literary context.

For example, if you start with Jesus—which is a great place to start—you can easily grasp the outline and something of the meaning of his life. But soon you’ll realize it’s helpful to know something about the ancient Roman empire under Caesar and his regional governors. And even more, it helps to have an understanding of first century Judaism in all of its different varieties. Jesus lived and moved in a world full of Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, chief priests, scribes, teachers of the law, kings, and governors as well as many people who had no power or authority. And each person or group of people Jesus interacted with had their own perspective on what it meant to be a part of God’s people. The more you know about his context the better you’ll understand what Jesus said and did.

Very quickly, you’ll begin to understand that Judaism didn’t suddenly spring into existence in the first century. Judaism itself had a history that spanned centuries before the time of Christ. And in order to get what Jesus was doing, you have to know something of the history of his people.

There are levels upon levels. And each one adds to your understanding of who Jesus is and what his life, death, and resurrection means.

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You may have a blind spot in your theology.

There are two basic ways of reading the Bible—as a story and as a reference book. Tim Keller offers an excellent illustration, when he describes two different ways of reading The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. He says some people have a difficult time reading the books for the first time, because they immerse you in a completely different world. Fortunately, some people who know a lot more about The Lord of the Rings than we do have created glossaries and encyclopedias that organize the information under topics like “elves” and “Mordor” and “Aragorn.”

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Sustainable holiness begins with an understanding of the story God is writing in the world and the part that He is calling you to play in it.

The story found in Scripture, the story of God’s interaction with our world, can be summarized fairly succinctly. It is not a complicated plot, though it’s easy to get lost in the details. Once you grasp the big picture, it will begin to shape your life. And whatever your plan for regular Bible reading, it is only helpful to the extent that it helps you gain more insight on those two questions: What is God’s story and what is my (our) part in it?

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