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Reading the Bible as Literature (4)

This is our fourth article in a series on reading the Bible as literature. We first summarized and provided examples of a literary approach to the Bible. In our second and third articles we answered possible objections having to do with the inspiration and historicity of Scripture, respectively. We are now in a position to advance upon positive ground and consider the benefits of a literary approach. 

The Bible consists of well-written text. Even though it was penned nearly 2,000 to 3,000 years ago in a very different culture, the stories are “extremely able to reveal and explain themselves” to a reader willing to follow its lead.[1] The Bible delivers its message clearly, even if we just simply it read without more detailed analysis. However, believers have always been involved in detailed study of the Bible, based on the conviction that all of Scripture is useful for life. We dig for meaning, looking for old and new treasures. Our high expectation is that the word will be accompanied by the Holy Spirit, not separate from our understanding of the text, but precisely through our understanding of it. That is the motivation for Bible study, privately, in groups or in seminaries.

In the course of centuries the Bible has been approached in many ways. It has been read as a book of allegory, as a book of moral exemplars, as a book of mystic experiences, as a secret code. In Bible study we bring our analytical tools to the text, and different tools often lead to different interpretations. Which approach is best? In particular, how can we avoid reading our own expectations into the text?

John Calvin emphasized the “plain” or “grammatical” meaning of Scripture, and that is still the starting point for Reformed Bible study. We take a story as it is, unless the context tells us to do otherwise. We say that Scripture must interpret itself. At least in principle, the Reformed position is that the meaning of the Bible must be determined on the basis of its own text. But the question is, How? What are proper ways to establish the “plain” meaning of Scripture?

I believe that part of the answer is a literary approach to the Bible, because this method is deliberately based in the text. Reading the Bible as literature helps us to determine the message in the text based on its content and composition. The literary approach gives a more definite shape to the traditional Reformed approach. In a way it is nothing new: Augustine and Calvin, to name but two theologians of the past, also often explained the meaning of a text by appealing to its literary aspects. The main difference is that the modern literary approach is more deliberate and systematic about it.

In summary, reading the Bible as literature is a way to study Scripture on the basis of the text itself. This is not at odds with the traditional Reformed emphasis on the grammatical meaning. And in most cases, it will affirm our understanding of the text.

Example 1: Ruth 2 (Ruth meets Boaz). We customarily think of the story of Ruth as an example of God providing in the lives of his people. When we read that Ruth “happened to come” to Boaz’s field (2:3), we understand that God guided her there. But is that something we conclude from the text itself, or are we reading into it? The narrator of Ruth does not mention any actions of God directly; instead, he has the characters comment on the situation. Naomi speaks of “the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” (2:20) The fact that Ruth ended up with Boaz is an act of divine kindness—providence, indeed, but more than that: providence through which the Lord shows that he is gracious and faithful to his covenant people.

But a literary analysis of Ruth 2 shows more. The main character in the chapter is Boaz the redeemer. He is introduced in 2:1, before the story really takes off. We get to know him as a “worthy man,” and this raises our hopes. Up to this point the story of Ruth has been dismal, but now it is turning for the better. “In the time of the judges” (1:1), during a dark chapter of Israelite history, there is an Israelite who will do what is right. In fact, in the story, Boaz is a representative of the Lord himself. God’s kindness comes to Ruth through Boaz’s kindness. By seeking help from Boaz, Ruth has come to take refuge under the wings of the Lord, the God of Israel. And when Ruth expresses her thanks to Boaz in 2:13, her words could just as easily have been a prayer to the Lord. Is Ruth a story of providence? Certainly; and it is especially a story of finding refuge under the wings of the God of Israel, who provides kindness and blessedness and life.

Example 2: Luke 19:1-10 (Zacchaeus). The “wee little man” who climbed a tree to see Jesus is an endearing example of a sinner whose life is turned around by Jesus’ call; we can appreciate this without digging deeper. But further analysis makes the story so much more powerful. For instance, rich Zacchaeus stands in sharp contrast with the rich young ruler of Luke 18:18ff. The former expresses the joy of salvation in giving generously to the poor; the latter turns away sadly, because he cannot bring himself to do so. This contrast is not accidental, but carefully set up as Luke, guided by the Holy Spirit, arranged his material to communicate the gospel in a powerful way.

Much more can be said about the literary elements in the Zacchaeus narrative, but I will limit myself to one more. The final verse is the climax of the story, where Jesus sheds light on the entire event: “The Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost.” The same expression is found several times in Luke 15 with the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. Comparing these parables to Zacchaeus’ calling, we see that the event in Jericho is a real-life drama or acting out of these parables, especially that of the prodigal son. Zacchaeus is the prodigal who comes home, and the heavenly joy over the return of one sinner is reflected in Zacchaeus’ joy. So we see little Zacchaeus, the younger son; the fattened calf prepared in his home; and the Jericho crowd grumbling, proving that the older son has not yet learned the lesson. There is no better illustration of Jesus’ words matching his deeds!

[1] Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative (Louisville: 1999), p. 21.


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