The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)
Jesus quotes the Old Testament about forty-five times, depending upon who you ask and what you’re counting as a quote. Other New Testament writers also use the Old Testament. Paul quotes the Old Testament eleven times in this chapter alone. (The segment of the chapter I’ve included above is a quote from Deuteronomy.) The previous chapter quotes the old testament ten times. I think this should be reason enough for us to read the Old Testament: if it was important enough for Jesus, then it should be important enough for me. But lots of Christians (I’m looking at you especially, Red Letter followers) decide not to read most of the Bible.
The Bible is dense and esoteric in many places, especially in the Old Testament. It’s gruesome and cruel in many places, too. That can take a lot of mental energy. So while I’m a proponent of all Christians reading the Bible, I also don’t think we need to rush through reading the whole Bible. Those read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans have their place, but I think they hurry you through some things that probably deserve more than a day’s thought. Just look at this blog – at the risk of scaring you off, it’s going to take me about seven years to get through this whole thing, chapter by chapter.
The cultural influence of the Bible cannot be overstated.
If nothing else, we owe it to ourselves to read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, in order to understand the profound, ongoing influence it has on our culture. In fact, the best secular argument I’ve seen for reading the Old Testament comes from (in his own words) a “lax, non-Hebrew speaking Jew,” a “hopeless and angry agnostic,” Slate contributor and author of Good Book, David Plotz. Plotz gives us an example (from this Slate Article) of just how influential even the seemingly un-important books can be:
“I thought for a few minutes about the cultural markers in Daniel, a late, short, and not hugely important book. What footprints has it left on our world? First, Daniel is thrown in the “lions’ den” and King Belshazzar sees “the writing on the wall.” These are two metaphors we can’t live without. The “fiery furnace” that Daniel’s friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions’ den, sealing in a holy man who won’t stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus. Daniel inspired the novel The Book of Daniel and the TV show The Book of Daniel. It’s even a touchstone for one of my favorite good-bad movies, A Knight’s Tale. That movie’s villain belittles hero Heath Ledger by declaring, “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting”—which is what the writing on the wall told Belshazzar.”
At the least, it’s an intellectual pleasure to connect these dots. More importantly, it helps us understand the cultural assumptions and historic pressures that may be exerting invisible influence in our lives. Which segues me from my secular reason to my religious reason for reading the Old Testament:
If we don’t read the Bible, someone else will do it for us and tell us what to believe.
Let me give you an example from my own life, one that I think many around my age can probably identify with: As a teenager and young adult, I believed that homosexuality was sinful. I mean, it tells us so right there in the Bible, in black and white, right? And honestly I didn’t think much about it until college, when I had my first gay friends. When I started questioning whether or not these people whom I had come to know and love were doomed to hell, I got an answer that, I think, was supposed to be comforting, but instead was vague and unsatisfying: “we are all sinners, so it is not for us to cast the first stone upon their sin, but yes, they are indeed sinning.”
That answer felt like it was side-stepping the issue: weakly admitting that we’re all sinners so that church authority wouldn’t have to outright condemn gay people (and maybe scare a few out of their pews, taking their money with them) yet still letting those in power (self-admitted sinners, as you’ll remember) bar people from full fellowship with God. So I started reading the Bible. I didn’t know what the clobber passages were, and I definitely found a lot of nasty stuff in there, but more than anything I saw a God of love. Even in the Old Testament, I saw a God of love. So, how could a God of love condemn people acting out of love? The readings I hadn’t been pointed to before, the readings I found myself, pointed to the idea that God would not do such a thing.
Then, fast-forward to this blog, and I now have a chance to refute the clobber passages point by point. I’ve done the two of the seven or so (you can read here and here) and I’m excited to debunk the rest of them as they come up organically. I no longer believe homosexuality is sinful. I know there are others struggling with the same ideas that my younger self held – blindly following the conclusions of others even though something is unsettled in their heart. My hope is that they will pick up their Bible and study it for themselves.
Of course, it is important to find good teachers. I will totally admit I didn’t get half of my material for this blog from just reading the Bible. I’ve relied on everything from news outlets like HuffPost to scholarly journals like Vetus Testamentum and books from a range of authors (see my 2020 and beyond reading list of non-straight, non-white faith writers here) to help further reveal the depths of the Bible.
The Bible as a constantly evolving source.
I want to end by reminding you that the Bible is not static, to see it as such does it a real disservice. I can come back to the Bible again and again and learn something new from even the same readings, noticing something I’d never noticed before. I like to compare it to The Princess Bride – it was my favorite movie to watch with my father as a kid. (Actually, I think it was his favorite movie to watch with me, and I’m sure he was subtly steering me towards making the decision to watch that movie instead of having to sit through, say, Rainbow Brite or Cinderella, but I digress.) As a five year old heavily into Princess Culture, The Princess Bride was a princess movie, and I enjoyed it as such. As I got older, I started getting some of the jokes that went over my head as a kid. Now that I have kids of my own, the movie is steeped in nostalgia that didn’t exist in years past. Are any of these enjoyments of the movie “wrong” or “better?” No, they are all perfectly valid, and ones I wouldn’t have reached if I didn’t come back to the movie again and again. The same basic principle is true of the Bible as well.
Many have used the Bible to uphold colonialist, racist, and sexist social structures that benefit only a privileged few. Which is why it is even more important that we read it. “No,” we can say, “you are interpreting that verse wrong, and here’s why. And while we’re at it, here’s some more verses to further prove our point.” But that only happens when we read the Bible, become familiar with it, and allow it to guide us, to comfort us, and to challenge us. Let me reference Isaiah 2:4 to close out this post: If others have used the Bible as a sword, wielding it for evil, let us beat it into a plowshare, turning it into a tool for good. Get reading, folks.