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Reading the Bible as a Religious Book: What's the Matter?

Uncategorized Jul 29, 2021
Spiritual Maturity Project
Reading the Bible as a Religious Book: What's the Matter?

In 2 Samuel 3, we find an account of regime change, to use a familiar modern term.  Like virtually any regime change, it is not a pretty story.  Saul's surviving son, Ishbaal, who sits on Israel's throne (Saul and three sons are killed in battle against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 31), as least as nominal king, is assassinated in chapter 4 and David is made king of all Israel in chapter 5.  Throw in the rivalry between Abner (Ishbaal's general who defects to David) and Joab (David's general who kills Abner), and you have a doozy of a Bible story.  

From the standpoint of Christian discipleship, how do read these scriptures?  What spiritual benefit comes through engaging these texts?  Once again, we have a chance to think about how we think and to examine our reading habits so that we can grow in the knowledge and love of God.  As a regular part of the ministry, I stress the critical need for regular Christians to read all of the Bible, not just the parts we like or that seem the clearest to us and here, in 2 Samuel 3, we have such a case. 

Let’s practice, first, thinking about how we think before we get to the point about 2 Samuel.  We reflexively assume different modes or mindsets for different types of reading that we do. Think, for example, about reading the morning news. When you log on to your computer to catch up on what is happening in the world, you reflexively (sub-consciously) assume that the news is not fiction.  You know the difference between the news and a news report used as a device in a Tom Clancy novel. 

You also expect something from the news.  We expect to read factual, up-to-date and as accurate as possible, accounts of events that have actually taken place.  We want our news relatively free of editorializing, which should be left to the editorial pages.  

We know how to read the news.  We know how to read novels or poetry or an owner’s manual.  Often, however, when we read the Bible, we slip into a mindset that short circuits our understanding and growth.  Let me share some perspective on why I think we have this problem and what we can do to correct it.  Remember: we are thinking about how we think.   

Virtually all of us - lay or clergy - have been trained to read the Bible as a religious text.  This point seems patently obvious, so why do I think it is an issue?  We know that a religious text is supposed to provide instruction, insight, correction (maybe), and inspiration.  It is supposed to draw us closer to God. 

Just as with reading the newspaper, we therefore come to Bible reading with expectations.  We expect to get some spiritual benefit from reading.  We expect to feel something, perhaps, or understand aspect of relationship with God more clearly.  We expect to get guidance for daily living, which means we tend to look for how the Bible reading applies to life. 

On consideration, we realize that we have basic views set firmly in place about what the Bible is and about what it does.  Those views dictate what we expect out of reading the Bible.  They predispose us to look for certain things, which means we don’t notice other features because we are looking in another direction.  Sometimes it is the wrong direction and we miss the opportunity for more understanding and deeper growth. 

Now back to 2 Samuel.  What if we recognized, in the first place, that this work, humanly speaking, comes from a serious historian telling us about the end of one (very short-lived) dynasty and the beginning of another?  And that, like the work of any historian, we are getting an interpretation of the events in question and the human actors in those scenarios?  Like the work of any historian, this account is written after the fact, with some time passage for perspective.    

To see what I’m driving at, compare how you read of the regime change in 2 Samuel with how you read of another regime change, the rise of the Tudors after the Wars of the Roses.  (You may have no interest in the Wars of the Roses, but you get the point.)  I hazard the guess that, when we read English history, we read in a different mindset than when we read the Bible.  We think nary of “religion” at all, the reason being that we learned to read history in a “non-religious” way.   

Conversely, when we read 2 Samuel, we do read it “religiously” and probably don’t worry much about the history as (actual) history.  It’s as if the “spiritual” history we find in the Bible is of a different sort than the rest of history.  This is both true and false.  The Bible gives an account of the saving activity of God, so, in that sense, the focus is narrower than history in general.  The history we get in the Bible is history related to God’s mission to redeem and re-create the cosmos.  But it is nonetheless real history, not just “religious” history.  The writer of 2 Samuel is writing about real people and events.  No, we don’t get a blow-by-blow chronicle of a set of events like we might find in a modern history.  We get, rather, what we might call a stylized account, a theological reading of history.  But it is still history.  The writer of 2 Samuel has beliefs about God's actions through these historical circumstances.

I’m convinced that there is constantly working a very subtle “spiritualizing” of our Bible reading because of the mindset we bring to reading the Bible.  We have been trained by our education and lots of cultural habits to read these ways.  Whether we use the word “religious” or not to describe this mindset, it remains.  It narrows our focus and unnecessarily limits our understanding of what is happening in the texts because we are concentrating on some spiritual principle that we can apply to our lives. 

Let’s ponder the irony of what we find here.  On the assumption that we need to glean some sort of application from Bible reading every time we read it, we turn the biblical texts into little more than a means to the end that we – again ironically – think of as real discipleship.  And we often thereby miss the opportunity for deeper, more sustained growth.  Our penchant for practical application is ultimately impractical.  Or very practical toward the wrong outcome!

To be sure, the account in 2 Samuel is more than just a historian’s interpretation of events.  It is also God’s word.  How it is God’s word is a complex and fascinating question, an answer to which would take much more space than we have here.  That it is God’s word has been the view of Christian thinkers (and Jewish thinkers before them) for millennia.  And this dual aspect of the Bible as a whole, for which this text provides us an example, is cause for re-wiring our thinking when it comes to Bible reading. 

Which leads me to make an appeal: when we read passages like 2 Samuel 3, could we start by withholding the application questions till later in the process?  Could we let the text speak, as it were, on its own terms?  It is a matter of slowing down to notice details of the subject matter.  Clearly, 2 Samuel 3 is part of the narrative of regime change in Israel.  We are getting an account of a transformative transitional period of time in Israel’s history. 

How was God at work through these otherwise very common political/historical circumstances?  How is God at work in situations that, in some respects, look like any number of historical situations we know about, with dynastic interests, murder, and intrigue?  How could God possibly have anything to do with those kinds of conditions? 

These questions don’t have easy answers.  Recognizing, though, that God is engaged and active in stories like 2 Samuel jars us into the realization that God cares about and has an opinion about what is happening in our world today.  And he is active in our world, as much as he was in Israel’s.  Today. 

Once we get this line of thinking going, we can see that the real question is not how the Bible applies to our lives, but how our lives “apply” to what God is doing.  That change in viewpoint changes everything. 


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