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Want to Read the Bible Well? Then Read It This Way, Which Leviticus Illustrates
True confession: I was once a professional Bible quizzer.
As a teenager I memorized John 1, 3, 5 and 8; 2 Corinthians 1-10; and all of Ephesians and 1-3 John. Then I memorized the questions that accompanied those verses so I could buzz in early, leaving my competitors in the dust. That’s what true Bible quizzing professionals did, after all.
Looking back I’m thankful for that experience, because it gave me a solid grounding in God’s Word. But I also see how it skewed my view of the Bible. I saw it as a thing to chop up and dissect for knowledge sake. And what verses I did memorize were totally disconnected from the Bible’s larger narrative.
Bible quizzing taught me to memorize verses, it didn’t teach me to read the Bible.
In their book How to Read the Bible Book by Book, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart expose a similar problem of their generation:
our generation had learned a kind of devotional reading of the Bible that emphasized reading it only in parts and pieces, looking for a “word of the day.” (14)
Like my own reading of Scripture, the downside to this “daily breadcrumb” style of reading is that it teaches people “to read the texts in a way that disconnected them from the grand story of the Bible.” (14)
Twelve years ago their book sought to rectify this problem by showing how the various books of the Bible fit into God’s story.
Because after all, that’s what the Bible is, a story—God's story. And in order to read the Bible well, this is how it should be read.
Here are 3 reasons why and an example to illustrate:
1) The Bible is not Essentially Propositional and Imperative
“The Bible is not merely some divine guidebook, nor is it a mine of propositions to be believed or a long list of commands to be obeyed.” (14)
Yes, we receive guidance from its pages. Yes, the Bible contains plenty of true propositions and divine directives.
Yet “the Bible is infinitely more than that.” (14)
It is more than a word of the day. It is even more than a theological tract, though it is obviously theological.
So what is the Bible?
2) The Bible’s Essential Character is Narrative
The Bible is story, through and through, argue Fee and Stuart:
[T]he essential character of the Bible, the whole Bible, is narrative, a narrative in which both the propositions and the imperatives are deeply embedded as an essential part.
Under this assumption, then, Genesis 1 and 2 are less interested in the specifics of how the world was created (proposition), but that the world was created by the main protagonist, God the Creator (narrative).
This is even true of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. While on the surface they “may appear otherwise because they are composed largely of laws,” they “cannot be properly understood apart from the narrative structure in which they are placed.” (21-22)
3) The Bible is One Whole Story
Sometimes we forget the Bible's original manuscripts did not contain chapter and verse divisions like our modern Bibles contain. While such divisions are helpful for memorizing and sermonizing, they can distract from seeing the Bible as one whole story.
Fee and Stuart “want to show how the separate entities—each biblical book—fit together as a whole to tell God’s story.” (9) Which is why they spend the first chapter outlining this so-called metanarrative.
You may recognize its four-act form: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. The authors help readers carefully reconnect each book to this larger story.
Leviticus: Illustrating Reading the Bible Book by Book Well
Let’s return to Leviticus, because this enigmatic book illustrates how the authors help people read the Bible well by reading books within God’s larger story.
To help readers get the most out of reading Leviticus Fee and Stuart remind them of two things:
- These laws are part of God’s covenant with Israel, so they’re not just religious rites but about a relationship;
- Leviticus is part of a larger narrative, the Pentateuch, and must be understood in light of what comes before and after.
The authors remind us Leviticus picks up the story after Exodus, where Israel is camped in the wilderness. So before they can seize Canaan and “in order for these individuals who grew up in slavery to be formed into God’s people, there is great need for them to get two sets of relationships in order, namely with God and with one another.” (45)
Thus, even a book so saturated with propositions and imperatives as Leviticus is essentially narrative in character.
And the way Fee and Stuart help readers navigate this book is how they help readers navigate every book in the Bible:
By making the whole story hold together as one story.
Just as God intended.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at www.jeremybouma.com.
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