Observations and Musings on the Bible
A Series of Curiosity about the Bible
After I graduated from college, (a fundamentalist Christian college), I was disillusioned with Christianity because of Christians. Most of my life before though, I never really had a strong desire to read the Bible. I would have told you, at the time, that I did. But that was only for two reasons: one, it was an expectation, and two, because of the shame-based behavior modification used within most, if not all, Evangelical belief systems. Yet, it seems that most Christians that I knew and still know also have never had a desire that came from within them to read the Bible. Most of the desire came from not wanting to be perceived as a bad Christian (read '“bad person”) or as a backslider, etc. It was an expectation or obligation, and became something to check off a daily to-do list. So then, when someone asked about devotions or Bible reading, we could feel good about ourselves, no matter whether we learned anything or were able to discover an opportunity for growth. At some point, all the Bible stories, and verse memorization, and talking points became so ingrained, that we became ignorant of and desensitized to the depth and mystery and life of the Bible. Any new or different things that didn’t fit within the belief system were gaslit and shamed out of us early on, so we didn’t dare question what “approved” conclusions we were to arrive at. Because of this, we certainly didn’t read it out of curiosity. There was nothing to be curious about.
For myself, I needed distance, time, growth, and healing for my curiosity about the Bible to be uncovered and invigorated. It’s been about five years since I graduated college, and I’ve done some reading here and there. I’m now able to see things I couldn’t see before. I’m able to sit and question things. And I’m okay with not having or finding answers. None of this hurts my belief or faith, nor does it cause me anxiety. I’ve had so many thoughts and questions that I’ve decided to write them out here in a series of sorts. It’s a series where I share observations and muse about what they mean and what implications they might have, and whatever else comes to my mind. This will be a series where I hope you will be intrigued or discover a curiosity for yourself, or at the very least see the Bible in a fresh perspective.
Before I make my first reading post, I want to share some of what has shifted my view and approach to the Bible and has led to my curiosity. First, one of my favorite classes in college was Classics of Western Literature. We read excerpts and studied pieces from all around Europe from different time periods. Appropriately, we started with the Iliad and the Odyssey. And to help us understand more of the nuances in those works, we read Mythology by Edith Hamilton. I was always very intrigued by mythology, but had never learned much about it. After this part of the class, I wanted to learn more. Over the years, I’ve read some other mythological poetry, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Sometime after gaining this new knowledge, I read Genesis 1, and realized that it reads just like a mythology. Knowing that the first bit of Genesis is Hebrew poetry made me connect the dots with how other mythologies were written as poems. This was the first time I got very excited about how maybe there was way more to the Bible than I had been led to believe.
The second thing that led to my curiosity was reading Lois Tverberg’s book Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus. In Chapter Four: Painting in Hebrew, she explains the shortcomings of translations in a way that makes sense and encourages people to read multiple translations. This excerpt is lengthy, but worth reading:
“When you speak, you ‘paint,’ in a sense. You choose from a list of words in your language that have the hues and overtones you’re looking for and you blend them into sentences to express what you mean. Each language is a palette with a finite amount of colors. When you try to paint a scene in a different language, the same words carry very different shades of meaning, so the result is never exactly the same.
This is especially true when translating between Hebrew and English, and less so with Greek. . .
Hebrew also contains a smaller set of ‘pigments’ than English—about eight thousand words, in comparison to one hundred thousand or more in our language. . .
You could say that Hebrew expresses truth by splashing on bold colors with a broad brush, like Van Gogh. Even though the details are quite rough, you mentally fill them in, inferring them from context. . .
Imagine yourself as a Bible translator who is ‘repainting’ a scene into English. If you aim to translate word-for-word, you can only use one stroke of your brush to portray each stroke in the original. But you have to trade your wide Hebrew ‘brush’ for a fine-tipped English ‘brush,’ and your color palette isn’t quite the same. English may have more hues to choose from, but each stroke can pick up only one overtone within the original swath of color.
What will you do?
Most likely, the result of your efforts will show people the overall scene but it won’t quite capture the atmosphere of the original. Another translator would bring out different shades and overtones from the exact same text. Certainly, some renderings will be better than others, but it simply isn’t possible to perfectly reproduce a painting with a different palette and different brushes. This is why there will never be one solitary ‘best’ translation of the Bible that replaces all others.
What’s a person to do, then, to get the truest sense of the original text? Rather than clinging to one translation, you’ll actually get a clearer idea if you read from more than one version and then compare them. Read from a few major translations that aim to be word-for-word and then look at some that are more thought-for-thought. When you see the range of ways that artists ‘paint’ the same passage, you’ll start to get a better sense of the colorful hues within the original.”
This book opened what seems like a portal to the depth and mysteries of the Bible. But this passage in particular has stuck with me about the importance of reading more than one translation to understand as wholly as possible what the Bible is saying, whether literal or metaphorical.
And finally, for now, a podcast by Pete Enns and Jared Byas. The Bible for Normal People. They have guests on that have expertise in different areas, and they talk about the Bible in a way that is enlightening. There’s not one episode that I have to recommend over others, but I will say, Jared Byas explains in one episode how he takes the Bible seriously, but not literally. That distinction was important and helped me understand more how I believe about the Bible.
For those of you who read my ponderings, I hope you will appreciate this series and add observations of your own in the comments. But I do ask that we respect each other and understand that this is not a space for preaching at or condemning others for their observations or questions. This is a space for curiosity and connecting and prophetic imagination. Stay tuned for my first post about Genesis 1-4!