Bible Study for Quakers

Barriers to the Bible

I love the Bible. I find it endlessly fascinating, troubling and inspiring. But I didn’t always feel this way. I grew up in a non-religious home, and, although I was familiar with a few Bible stories from school, the Bible was not a book I ever turned to. As a young gay person, I also thought the Bible had some rather negative things to say about people like me. Like many others, I’ve had to overcome a number of barriers before even being able to take a Bible off the shelf.
One barrier to the Bible is that there are both Christians and non-Christians who have a very limited and simplistic view of what the Bible is. This view was summed up for me in a poster I saw tacked up in front of a church. Next to a picture of the Bible were the words: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
Although the simplicity of this idea may be comforting to some, it is misleading in many, many ways.

Is the Bible basic?

Basic implies simple and clear, without the need for interpretation. But this is misleading – everything needs interpretation! It also implies that the Bible has a unified message, but this just isn’t the case. For example, in Ezra-Nehemia there is a command against intermarriage:
‘Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”’ [Ezra 10:10-11] However, in the book of Ruth intermarriage is celebrated. Ruth, a Moabite, marries Boaz, an Israelite. Their descendants include King David and Jesus. Similarly, Deuteronomy [23:1] claims that eunuchs shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, but Isaiah [56:3-5] states the eunuchs who keep God’s covenant will be given an everlasting name. It’s clear that, rather than there being a unified message, there is a much more complicated conversation going on that needs sifting through. This is a collection of books that is in dialogue with itself.

Is the Bible an instruction manual?

The Bible is a library of texts, with lots of genres represented. There are lists of laws and pithy aphorisms which might count as instructions, but there are also songs, stories both historical and mythic, letters, censuses and genealogies, biographies, cryptic visions and erotic poetry. Even those bits that could be interpreted as instructions are not clear in how they should be applied. Is Jesus’ instruction to ‘go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ [Mark 10:21] only for the man he was addressing, or to everyone who wants to follow him? The eating of meat only appears to be sanctioned by God after the flood: ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.’ [Genesis 9:3]. Does this mean that God’s original plan for humanity was veganism? Certainly different Christians at different times have interpreted these words very differently. If the Bible really is an instruction manual then it’s a very badly written one!

Is the Bible about leaving the Earth behind?

The implication that the main thrust of the Bible is to prepare us for a life after this one is also false. The Bible doesn’t detail an escape route to heaven, but is concerned with bringing heaven to earth: ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ [Matthew 6:10].

Another barrier is that throughout history the Bible has been used to justify all sorts of terrible things, including enslavement and racism, violence against women and LGBT people and the domination and destruction of the natural world. Alongside this, people have found many life-affirming images and stories within the Biblical texts. For example, Quaker performance activist Peterson Toscano has done important work highlighting the role of transgendered people in the Bible.

This may lead you to think that you can read anything you like into the Bible. Maybe reading the Bible is way more complicated than we’d like, and perhaps all of us are very good at cherry picking the bits we’re comfortable with and ignoring the parts that trouble us. Before I began to read the Bible, the only thing I knew about the book of Leviticus was that it included a passage about stoning gay people. Can’t we just cut out that book? After reading Leviticus all the way through, I realised it also contains the concept of the Jubilee, a radical model of social justice. I can’t cut out the bits I don’t like without cutting out the Jubilee as well.

The Bible is something we have to wrestle with. There’s a story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with an Angel, after which he’s given the name ‘Israel’, meaning ‘he who wrestles with God’. Judaism, with its tradition of the Oral Torah, has always acknowledged that there are multiple interpretations that need to be included in the conversation. I find it very helpful to think of the Bible as a conversation. There are books of the Bible, like Ezra-Nehemia & Ruth, which are in conversation with each other, and there are the many Biblical interpreters who came afterwards who have added their voices. It’s also helpful to remember that the Bible offers us a history of people who keep getting things wrong. If we can approach the Bible as participants in a long conversation, acknowledging that mistakes have been made, we’ll be making a good start.

Mark will be leading Bible Study for Quakers, Monday 12 – Wednesday 14 November.