Oh, how we struggle with scripture! So many passages that say things we don’t like; so many passages we don’t understand; so many passages that are dated or arcane; so many passages that contradict other passages. It has an old testament and a new testament – does the new supersede the old? There are books in some bibles that aren’t in other bibles – does that make some bibles more authoritative, or the other bibles simply incomplete?
A large part of our problem with reading the Bible in the 21st century comes from our literary training which says there are two kinds of writing: fiction and non-fiction. Those are the only two categories for the New York Times bestseller list. Publishers and editors subdivide their catalogs this way. So, we naturally use this duality to try and lay a foundation for understanding the Bible – is it fiction or non-fiction? We might even try a little nuance and say that some of the Bible is fiction and some of the Bible is non-fiction. But it seems like the more we try to deconstruct scripture in this way, the less powerful and meaningful the text becomes.
But fiction and non-fiction are not the only two categories of writing. There is (at least) one more category known as wisdom literature. Wisdom literature does not follow the patterns or rules that differentiate fiction and non-fiction. Wisdom literature employs story, myth, history, poetry, imagery, paradox, logic, rhetoric and just about any other literary tool available to uncover a deeper truth. The writers of the Bible were not inspired by God to write entertainment; they were led to inspire and exhort readers into the deep truth of God, both as knowledge and as a way of life. A paradox or a disturbing story might just nudge the reader’s mind a little closer to the mind of God. Are we not elevated both by our reaction to the beautiful poetry of the psalms as well as our reaction to the abhorrent violence of the Davidic civil war?
The Bible can not be read as if it were fiction or non-fiction. Its purpose is neither to entertain nor inform. And learning about the Bible is not the same as learning the meaning of the Bible. Even great biblical scholars have acknowledged this. For example, Martin Luther, who wrote the first German translation of the Bible, said: “Scripture is the manger in which we find the Christ child.” The truth of God is not found in the words of the Bible, it is found in the Word of God lying in a manger of words, much in the same way that great music is not found in the notes on the page, but in the sound of those notes brought to life by the expression of the artist.
It definitely says something about the modern world when the best-selling book year after year after year – the Bible – does not appear on any best-seller lists. Apparently, wisdom literature is not a category the New York Times wants to deal with. But if you find yourself struggling with the Bible, you know you’re on the right track! Again from Martin Luther: “If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”
In fiction, we seek entertainment and read it somewhat like consuming comfort food. In non-fiction, we seek knowledge and read it somewhat like consuming a healthy diet. But in wisdom literature we seek God like consuming the living water of life. What higher purpose can a human being have than to seek the Mind of God? And what better resource for that journey than the wisdom literature of the Bible?