Bible Reading: Part II

by David Hawkinson

For all the warfare surrounding the bible, especially when the issues are those of inspiration and authority, the sheer enjoyment of reading the text is rarely taken into consideration. It may help explain why so much of biblical study is so heavy and serious — a condition unsuitable for the Spirit to do its work. Somehow the rule has been transmitted, that before we open the bible, we have to agree not to enjoy ourselves while doing it. People are afraid to engage the story, not because of the story or its implications, but because they may find themselves under suspicion for thinking heretical thoughts concerning authorship or how the text has been transmitted. Or, having been told that there is only one right approach or answer, many sit with unanswered questions and unspoken insights, afraid of feeling and of looking silly or ignorant. This can often be true of both liberal and conservative approaches. Never mind the story!

However, suppose we begin from another place — the story itself! And suppose we had learned to read the text in the great school of Rabbi Ishmael, late in the first century in Palestine. A midrash: "It was taught in the school of Rabbi Ishmael: 'Are not my words like fire...and like a hammer that shatters rock?' (Jer. 23:29) Just as a hammer scatters sparks, so can a single text yield several meanings."

Midrash means to inquire! To ask questions! This is at the heart of the biblical reading tradition. But we must begin with the freedom to ask! The text grants us that freedom — indeed demands that we accept it. This is also at the very heart of good teaching and learning. The best teachers aim at developing trust and confidence in the students, in their capacity and ability to learn. If you have ever experienced this relationship, you are aware of how enjoyable the learning process can be. I see it in the eyes of my child who returns glad and proud of himself at the end of a day in second grade when skillful teaching allowed for curiosity and exploration and the boundless joy of discovery.

So, also, the biblical text opens itself to us with a remarkable trusting spirit; that we will enter it and find there our own stories. As my colleague, Earl Schwartz writes, "At first glance the biblical text appears rock hard, static, and opaque. But strike it with the sharp edge of intellect and with the force of imagination and personal experience, and the text cracks open with a spray of sparks, the likes of which have captured the hearts of Bible readers for a hundred generations." Consider the following story from Genesis 25:

Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel, the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban, the Aramean. And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren: and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is thus, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger." When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold there were twins in her womb. The first came forth red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came forth, and his hand had taken hold of Esau's heel; so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.

Considering the scope and depth of the biblical message, the bible is a book of remarkably few words, as this story illustrates. But the words it does use were chosen with utmost care, and each one counts. The very terseness emphasizes the importance of each word and suggests that much of the meaning of any given story is implied rather than stated explicitly. This is illustrated in the rabbinic parable about the wheat and bread — the text being the wheat and the full narrative with all the implied meaning, the bread (see "Reading Bible: Part I" in Volume III number 2). This dimension of implied meaning must be "leavened out of the text, as bread is leavened out of dough." In other words we must begin to explore the ways in which raw, explicit information provided in the text points towards a profound undergirding of implied meaning at many levels.

For the most part, biblical narrative style limits its descriptions to observable behavior and dialogue. We see people acting and talking, but we are not usually given explicit access to thoughts and feeling, motivation and attitude. (Exceptions to this are important to note: see I Sam. 18:17 which makes Saul's mind transparent to ours.) It is the lack of explicit reference to the deeper "human" concerns that call us in to empathize and participate with the characters in the story. They fill out as living characters as we enter into their lives, adding texture and hue from our own experience. Still, the cues into these deeper layers come from the script as we have been given it. It is why we must be careful readers, moving slowly and taking notice of everything that the text offers us.

We see in the birth narrative of the twins an opening concern: Isaac and Rebekah do not have children. The concern brings Isaac to prayer before God. At once we read that "the Lord granted his prayer." Yet, perhaps it has not been that simple. We begin with Isaac at forty and end with the children born when he is sixty. Twenty years have passed! The text doesn't comment explicitly, but instead lays out the information as matter of fact. But why give us the information at all, if not to raise the question: what about those twenty years? Was Isaac praying all the time? Were the prayers becoming more urgent? Was tension growing between Isaac and Rebekah? And isn't all of this strangely reminiscent of an earlier scene — between Abraham and Sarah? (After all, we should always be aware that we are jumping into the middle of the story.) Now I begin to wonder: Does Rebekah know about the earlier problems of Isaac's parents? Does she wonder what kind of family she is involved with? What kind of God is it who talks continually about blessing, only to withhold it from those he has promised?

Touch this family story anywhere and questions continue to flow. Does Rebekah also pray? Why, during her painful pregnancy, does she go directly to God and not to Isaac? When she hears the reasons for the tumult in her womb, does she tell Isaac? Or, does she withhold that vital information? If so, why? Does she know that this reversal of blessing also happened between Isaac and his older brother Ishmael at an earlier time? What does it mean for the future of their relationship to have such a secret between them? Does this help us understand the alignment of Isaac and Esau and Rebekah and Jacob at the conclusion of narrative? These questions remain before us. Some will be answered as the drama continues and we are able to reflect back upon the beginning. Others may never be answered. Here we see the capacity of the biblical narrative to reflect the ambiguities of human life with which we must also contend every day.

We might probe to yet another level of the story. With Rebekah, we also hear God speak. What effect does it have on the dramatic content for the audience to have vital information withheld from one of the main characters? Certainly it adds to the tension as we see the plot unfold. What is God up to? Does God intend that Rebekah should tell Isaac or is God only aware that, knowing their relationship, she will not, and thus bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy? Is the prophecy such that, regardless of what happens, Jacob will receive the blessing? How is it that such a vital blessing should be set in the middle of a family filled with duplicity and competition, secrecy and fear? Can people like this find reconciliation and receive blessing?

To read in this fashion is truly a delight because the narrative bursts to life. How much greater when reading is done in community! When a dozen eyes are brought to search in and around these few words, and the experience of others sheds new insight into the emerging story. Who among us cannot speak of family secrets and sibling rivalry, of yearning for the acceptance and blessing of parents? As we engage the story, we find not only the biblical character, but each other as well — and a drama that is filled with great moment and power. At issue in Genesis 25 is the life of a family and the meaning of blessing.

The biblical insight into the human condition is as deep as our own internal plumblines, which means that, as we grow in skill and courage in raising the questions, we move into the depths of our own experience. Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked that scripture is not a human theology as much as a divine anthropology. I like that turn of phrase. It makes all the difference. The bible is not a book about God as much as about us, from the perspective of God as we know and experience God. For this reason the text pulls no punches. It will not allow us the easy way out as it describes the full wonder and pain of being a human being. For me, this is where the true authority of the word lies. I look toward the text and find myself revealed in it. It is a remarkably accurate portrait, and so I trust it to guide my own narrative, to shape my own emerging drama. Like the student trusted with the freedom to ask the question, I am able to turn to the teacher and trust that the teacher has my interest at hearL Martin Buber put it that (supplement to Eclipse of God, 1952):

the human substance is melted by the spiritual fire which visits it, and there now breaks forth from it a word, a statement, which is human in its meaning and form, human conception and human speech, and yet witnesses to Him who stimulated it and to His will. We are revealed to ourselves — and cannot express it otherwise than as something revealed.

Reading bible is not something we do. It is something that we are. It is a way of living with text. It is that way of living which named our own mothers and fathers lasare — "readers." Walking across the rocky, unyielding soil to the rich humus of the biblical landscape, they found themselves in conventicle, in search of each other 4 and of the God who called them to be a part of the ever emerging adventure. These people handed the promise and the blessing down to us — an inheritance carried in their passion and love of bible. Our task is no less crucial and no less enjoyable.