Formation: The Bible - Wisdom Text or Instruction Manual

The bible is a curious thing and we all have a different relationship with it. Some of us might love everything about it, some of us might know we’re supposed to love it but are not really sure what to do with it, some of us might have loved it in the past but aren’t so sure anymore, some of us might have had quite negative experiences of either reading scripture or the way it has been used by others. For some people, the use of scripture has been traumatic, for a variety of reasons.

When I began studying theology I was suddenly opened up to the fact that the way I had been taught to read the bible was quite limited and sometimes a bit unhelpful. I was like… “wait, what? This passage is not about that? Why has no-one told me this before?” At first this was exciting, but then I didn’t know what to do with it. I became unhappy with how I used to read it, but unsure about what to do with it now. So I had to stop reading the bible for a while, because although I knew I didn’t want to read it like “that” anymore, I didn’t know what else to do either.

So what kind of book is the bible?

Firstly, we should say it’s not one book. It’s a collection of writings over a long period of time. It’s a library of books, written by all kinds of people, in lots of differing styles and genres. It is certainly not a uniform, straightforward or linear book. It does not provide us with a set of answers to all of our questions. It is a mixture of songs, poems, myths, parables, prophecies, visions, stories, and all sorts of other things.

And many readers of the Bible assume that when they read scripture, the people in the stories and the authors of those texts all have pretty much the same idea of God in their head. In other words, many of us assume that you could dip in and out of any part of the bible and when people are using words for God, they all have exactly the same thing in mind. Especially if you think that God wrote the bible – just using the hands and pens of the human authors – it is a pretty logical conclusion.

But the reality is that the Christian scriptures – both the Old and New Testaments – reveal to us an evolving and changing view of God. At times there seem to be arguments, different points of view being wrestled with, different conceptions of God.  Ancient Israelite belief wasn’t always monotheistic, for example, but monotheism clearly became the predominant view over the course of time.

And even though this might seem unsettling, especially if we’re tied to a certain idea of what the bible is supposed to be, what we’re getting insight into here is a long tradition of wrestling with the idea of God, and how to interpret and understand human experience in light of that.

So one suggestion might be that rather than picking up the bible, opening up a passage and immediately asking: “what are the principles being taught to me personally right here in this text?”... instead, we can read and then step back a little and ask a series of questions that might invite us into the tradition, into the conversation. Because what we have in this wide-ranging text is an invitation into wisdom. The wisdom tradition – as contrasted with an instruction manual – invites us into the journey of people figuring out what it means to live, what it means to believe in the divine, how to figure out what God is like and what that means for us. We are invited into the process. 

This helps us to avoid 2 extremes:

1.    Everything I read in the bible has to be taken literally and as a direct instruction for my life. Or;

2.    This book is pointless, old and outdated and has nothing to offer me.

Instead, we can recognise that the kinds of things that the authors of scripture are wrestling with are in many respects the same we wrestle with now. They’re couched in different contexts and different language, but it’s often the same journey. Whether it’s how we deal with conflict, about what we believe lies at the heart of fundamental reality, about what we believe is central to the human experience, about how to negotiate our own demons, our jealousies, anger, rage, anxiety, worries, loves, relationships.

The bible doesn’t answer all of these questions in tidy little boxes. But it does invite us into an old but ongoing conversation about these things, and asks us to join in, to enter in to the conversation. And to learn from both the insights and failings of those who have gone before us in this sacred text. 

And for Christians, Jesus becomes a transformative figure in the reading of scripture. Because Jesus marks another step forward in our understanding of what God is like, and so we read the rest of these texts in light of that particular Jesus story.