What if I told you that there are important Bible stories you’ve almost certainly missed? And not just minor subplots buried in the middle of a genealogy, but stories that change everything we know about the Scriptures and how to read them? Though enormously important, these stories are also very subtle. So subtle, in fact, that you could read the Bible cover to cover and still miss them. The kind of stories I’m talking about are the broader stories that encompass a specific conversation between author and audience. In a sense, the books of the Bible are primary sources, offering a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes.
This kind of thinking takes us beyond stories in the Bible and introduces us to the story of the Bible.
While we sometimes acknowledge an ancient conversation going on between author and audience when studying the epistles—Paul’s letter to the Galatians, for example, is part of a broader story involving gentile inclusion into the family of God—we rarely stop to consider the various situations surrounding the other books of the Bible. But believe it or not, every one of the 66 books has an original intended audience . . . and that audience wasn’t us. Put simply, when you read the Bible, you’re reading someone else’s mail.
The Broader Picture
In one sense, the Bible is timeless. But in another sense, the Bible is very much time-bound, each book having roots in actual circumstances that influenced the telling. For example, a quick—or perhaps not so quick—read-through of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles will unearth a number of inconsistencies if we ignore the backdrop circumstances in play.
The Samuel/Kings’ version of Israel’s monarchy (Saul, David, Solomon, and others) is complicated and disheartening. These stories are filled with dismal details about King David’s shortcomings, including his affair with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband in an attempt to cover up his sin. All of which resulted in a messed-up family situation that would fit nicely into a reality TV series.
Surprisingly, even though Chronicles covers the same time period in Israel’s history, this author deliberately leaves out all the juicy details. According to Chronicles, David was the ideal king who set Israel on the path of covenant obedience. No scandal, no mess.
So what’s up? These accounts seem to be in serious conflict . . . that is, until you consider their respective backdrops. If we zoom out to consider the circumstances in which the two accounts were given—the broader story—we find that each account serves a very important and very different purpose.
Samuel/Kings was almost certainly written during the time of Babylonian exile; it focuses on Israel’s shortcomings as a way of explaining how they got there. Chronicles was written many years later after the Jews had returned to their homeland. The purpose of Chronicles is to point the recently returned people onward in the covenant faithfulness of David, the one who brought the Holy Ark to Jerusalem so many years ago. In other words, the books of Chronicles is suggesting they pick up where David left off. It’s no surprise, then, that the book of Chronicles ends in a place of hope as God’s people are sent back to Jerusalem with hearts set on restoring the temple.
Though this particular example of a broader story may be slightly more apparent than some others, each book did in fact have an original audience and application—whether we know the full story or not.
The Bible and Me
So where do we fit into all this? If we accept that the books of the Bible have “homes” in the ancient world and that they were originally told and written with a specific purpose—to encourage, critique, rebuke, or explain—for specific communities of God’s people at various points in their history, what does it all have to do with us today? That’s a very good question with a somewhat startling answer. The truth is, the Bible isn’t all about you. Though the Bible is for you, it most certainly wasn’t written to you. When you read the Bible, you are listening in on a conversation much older and bigger than yourself. You’re a guest—and a late-comer, at that. This is what Old Testament professor Peter Enns calls “eavesdropping on an ancient conversation.”
Accepting these “broader stories” means admitting that the Bible isn’t primarily God’s letter to you, or an owner’s manual for life, or even Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. These are all “me-centric” readings, and they must be shed if we are going to mature as Bible readers. This can be difficult at first—as challenging and upsetting as the discovery that the earth isn’t the center of the universe was for 16th century scientists—but in the end we may just come to find our place as important, though peripheral, characters in God’s story. Paradoxically, we must remove ourselves from the story in order to truly enter into it.
This does not for one second mean that the Bible isn’t applicable or relevant for a modern audience—it most certainly is. In fact, the beauty of the Scriptures is that they depend on the Holy Spirit’s activity in the hearts and minds of readers. In other words, though the Bible may not be addressed to you, God speaks to you as you listen in on these ancient conversations. And the good news is that God speaks whether we get everything right in reading or not.
This diverse collection of books we call the Bible has changed my life. Not always as Bible verses speaking directly into the modern world, but more often as an invitation to leave here and now, and go back there and then. I think of Marco Polo, the Italian merchant, who left the comforts of home and traveled throughout the continent of Asia, then considered by most Europeans to be an entirely different world. He didn’t speak the language, he didn’t understand the customs, and he was completely unfamiliar with the culture. But as he spent nearly 25 years there, he acclimated to this new world and was transformed by the things he saw, the places he went, and, most important, by the people and the king he met.
After a quarter of a century, Marco Polo returned home to Venice a changed man. And as a changed man, he changed his world. Stories abound of the remarkable perspectives, insights, and inventions Marco Polo brought back with him from Asia to Europe.
What if this was at least one of the ways we are meant to read our Bibles? What if, instead of pretending that Paul or Solomon or the psalmist was writing to us, we were to leave home like Marco Polo and travel to a world in which we were the strangers? What if, by spending years in this unfamiliar place, in this unfamiliar time, even with this unfamiliar language, we were transformed as we saw and experienced a God who interacts with people in their world?
Like Marco Polo, we would return home as changed people. Changed by the things we’ve seen, the places we’ve been, and, most important, by the people and the God we’ve met on our travels.
This might sound like a strange and unfamiliar way of reading the Bible. But it is actually what happens in the process of exegesis and hermeneutics. Going there, and coming back changed.
By noticing and paying attention to some of the “broader stories” hinted at in the biblical books, we are led into a trust-based relationship with the God who has been at work in the reading of this book since its earliest compilation.
This invitation to read the Scripture as an outsider listening in to an older conversation is nothing short of a call to adventure. It’s an invitation to journey beyond what is comfortable and step into the often unfamiliar terrain of the Scriptures.
Be prepared to be changed!