The one thing I really love about Bible study, isn’t so much the reading of the text itself – although that’s a pretty marvellous thing to do as I’m a bit of a translation hound. I have seventeen English translations of the Bible and I love seeing how they all put the same thing. But what really fascinates is to read the text alongside study guides and commentaries and reading what Biblical scholars for, well, thousands of years have to say on the text. Just a simple verse can unpack into something quite mind-bogglingly enormous when you read it in the context of all the historical, archaeological and cultural information that has been collated around it.
For instance, yesterday I was reading some notes on Genesis, to pick out some points for a Bible study I was going to be leading on Cain and Abel. It wasn’t specifically Cain and Abel that I was reading about, but the really big themes of the Bible that are present all the way through it. They are clearly evident in Genesis right from the off. God’s introducing his characters (humans), in all their face-palming idiotic-ness. Let’s face it, we know some people who make us facepalm at the best of times and God’s got some right ones in the Bible. Not just that, but imagine how many times God smacks his hand to his face just in the stuff you do.
‘Oh she didn’t! Drat, she’ll have to go the long way round again, why does she never listen to me?!’ I could have saved her ten years trudging about in the wilderness.’
What really stuns me time and again, is the wonderful contrast, between the big overarcing themes and that lovely attention to detail that God puts in – a bit like a Russell T Davies Doctor Who script. God and Russell T Davies in the same sentence – oh I’m cooking on culturally-relevant gas today!
The thing is, is if you know anything about Doctor Who since the 2005 re-boot and it’s time being helmed by Russell T Davies; then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Russell T Davies knew the story he wanted to tell, the message he wanted to get over and nothing is ever wasted in a Russell T Davies script. There are no throwaway characters, there are no throwaway lines, they are ALL crucial to the story, they all play their part in getting to the point when it all comes together and your brain has that Space Dust feeling – the moment when your synapses start fizzing because you see how it all fits together.
There have been many times when I’ve sat watching an episode and gone ‘oh, that’s clever.’ He’s an awesome scriptwriter is Russell T Davies. I know he doesn’t do God, but I swear he’s from the same mould in crafting a good storyline. He may not have written that specific episode (a bit like God, he’s the Executive Producer if you like, someone else may have written the actual episode), but the plot elements are in place, the characters are behaving as they should (atrociously at times) and it’s all moving towards the big season finale.
Sometimes it all seems a bit of a mess and you can’t see where he’s going with it, but when you get to the end and see how all the pieces link together, you have to stand back and admire the handiwork. And, if you’re a bloke, kick the tyres on it. Why do they do that?
It’s the same in the Bible, and right there in Genesis you have the hallmarks of someone who knows where he’s going with the story. It starts really well and it does have a triumphant ‘all home in time for tea and medals’ ending; but the middle bit… from about Genesis 3 onwards it all gets a bit East Enders. There are times when you have to wonder why God wasn’t down sooner to knock some heads together. Talk about frustrating! You’ve got the entire cast of every soap opera in there, thrown in with lashings of blood, fighting, every kind of -cide going; cowards, heroes, wanton women, chaste virgins, power, glory, yah-boo-sucks to you moments and I’m sure if you look hard enough you’ll find the comedy dog. But it all pulls together. Everyone is part of the story, everyone plays their part in the big storyline arc right through to the OMG fight scene! end.
For instance, did you know that God has a habit of subverting things? It was the cultural norm for the first born son to take preference, to have all the glory in the family. But time and again we see God picking out the younger son or the younger daughter, the ‘expected to be weaker or less important’ child to work through. Sadly, the lauded firstborn sometimes came to a sticky end – which doesn’t bode well for me.
- It isn’t Cain who God works through, it’s Seth (Cain killed the second son Abel).
- It isn’t Ishmael, Abraham’s first son who God works through but Isaac.
- It isn’t Esau but Jacob
- and from Jacob’s sons it isn’t Reuben but Judah and Joseph.
A nice twist. You think you know what you’re getting, you think you have your nice cultural rules in place, but actually God’s got the plot going off in a totally different direction and he makes the rules. He’s the writer, he’s the one who knows where this will end up. Of course, there are times when he did use firstborns to rather good effect(hurrah!). Pick up the story in Matthew and see what he does with a young carpenter’s son from Nazareth… He’s not having quite so much success with the firstborn daughter of an Industrial Chemist from Adlington; still, there’s time.
So what I’m saying here is this. Don’t dismiss the Bible as a dusty book on a shelf that has absolutely nothing to recommend it or is as dull as ditchwater to read. Get your eye in, get a good commentary to assist you and it all unpacks into to the most glorious saga!
And can you spot yourself in it ’cause he’s written you in somewhere..? No, this time you’re not the third donkey in the nativity, you’ve got a bigger role…
Ooh look… It’s your line!