Reading the Bible is exciting and challenging. But, before we start to read it, we need to understand its language.
Even though the Bible has been translated from the original Hebrew and Greek into English, we still can't read it and understand it in the same way we read contemporary writing.
All the books of the Bible were written thousands of years ago and they have to be set in their historical context if we are to have an accurate understanding of them today. Otherwise, they may be as well be written in gibberish or in some foreign language we simply do not know.
The good news, however, is that we don't all need to be scholars to read the Bible. We don't need to master biblical languages or be completely familiar with the ancient Jewish, Semitic and Greco-Roman cultures. We do, however, need to read texts carefully and ask the right questions.
We need to consider both the context and content of what we are reading.
When we read a book from the Bible, we need to know What was going on historically at the time it was written; and why it was written - what was the occasion or purpose that made the author speak or write it. It is also critical to try to work out what is the point that the writer is trying to make. Never, for example, take one verse from the Bible and try to interpret it, without considering the verses that come before and after.
On Wednesday evenings at the moment I'm reading the book of Jeremiah with a group of friends. Reading it out of context, we might think we have here the ravings of someone who is quite seriously mentally unwell. But when we realise that Jeremiah is writing at a time of national catastrophe, the writings are far more understandable.
Jeremiah writes over a time when his country was in great danger of invasion by the foreign powers of his time - the Assyrians and the Babylonians (or Chaldeans.) Jeremiah warns of what he sees coming but no one wants to listen. Ultimately the Babylonians lay siege to Jerusalem for ten years, which gives rise to starvation and all kinds of horror within the city. Eventually the Babylonians breach the walls of Jerusalem in 587BC and destroy the city and its centre of worship, Solomon's temple. Then many of the Jewish people are deported to Babylon while others - including Jeremiah - escape to Egypt.
It is also important to know that Jeremiah is writing his book - not primarily to document history but to say that he believes that the Jewish people have brought calamity upon themselves by being unfaithful to God and not keeping his Law. The sudden devastation, carnage and loss also make the Jewish people ask deep theological questions and make them rethink their national identity, which had been founded on God's promise to dwell in the temple and to protect the Davidic monarchy. So, had God abandoned his people? Or was God powerless to prevent the conquest and crushing of his people?
The book of Jeremiah is probably written for survivors of the Babylonian invasion, particularly the exiles in Babylon. Although there may also have been a pre-exilic audience. And it is almost certainly not written by one person - not only the historical Jeremiah. Nor is it complied or presented in an intended or particularly logical or chronological order.
With all this in mind, we can receive far more understanding when we read Jeremiah. We see it less as an unremitting prophecy of doom, and more about a prophet and a people seeking to make sense of a time of great misery and persecution and seeking to hear God in the midst of all that they are suffering.
So, next time you read the Bible, take the time and trouble to ask lots of questions. A good translation, a Bible dictionary and commentaries can be enormously helpfuk.
Journey back in time, wrestle with the author and the literary devices - and God will speak to you in great power and truth.
Posted by Martine Oborne