When it comes to the Bible, modern Americans are at a distinct disadvantage. They know both too much and too little.
They know too much because they live in a society in which references to the Bible -- positive and negative -- are frequent, creating a false sense of familiarity. They know too little because they have not read it, or have read only selected portions of it, or have allowed others to read it for them through the filtering lens of later theological doctrines or political opportunism. And that's a pity because the Bible, by which I mean the 24 basic books common to all Bibles (equivalent to the Jewish Tanakh or Hebrew Bible and to the Protestant Old Testament) is deserving of the same careful attention and close reading that we regularly bestow upon other classic texts.
It has been my experience teaching a university course on the Bible, that a close reading of the Bible is often hampered by several misconceptions. I ask my students -- as I ask readers of the book based on the course -- to correct five common misconceptions in order to encounter the Bible as if for the first time.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book. It was not produced by a single author in one time and place. It is a small library of books composed and edited over nearly a millennium by people responding to a wide range of issues and historical circumstances. Because it is not a book (the name "Bible" derives from the plural Greek form ta biblia, meaning "the books") it does not have a uniform style or message.
From narrative texts to legal texts, from cultic instruction to erotic love poetry, this library contains works of diverse genres each of which sounds its own distinctive note in the symphony of reflection that we call the Bible. As is true of any collection of books by different authors in different centuries, the books in this collection contradict one another. Indeed, they sometimes contradict themselves because multiple strands of tradition were woven together in the creation of some of the books. The compiler of Genesis placed, side by side, two creation stories that differ dramatically in vocabulary, literary style and detail (who is created first -- humans or animals?). A few chapters later, two flood stories are interwoven into a single story despite their many contradictions and tensions (does Noah really take the animals on board two by two?). Proverbs extols wisdom, but Ecclesiastes scoffs at its folly and urges existential pleasure. Deuteronomy harps on God's retributive justice, but Job arrives at the bittersweet conclusion that despite the lack of divine justice (in this world or any other), we are not excused from the thankless and perhaps ultimately meaningless task of moral living. That such dissonant voices were preserved in the canon of the Bible, their tensions and contradictions unresolved, says something important about the conception of canon in antiquity. Ancient readers viewed this anthology as a collection of culturally significant writings worthy of preservation without the expectation or requirement that they agree with one another. Just as an attempt to impose harmony and consistency on the short stories collected in the Norton Anthology of English Literature would do great violence to those stories, any attempt to impose harmony and consistency on the diverse books collected in the Bible -- to extract a single message or truth -- does great violence to those books.
The Hebrew Bible is not a book of systematic theology (i.e., an account of the divine) delivering eternally true pronouncements on theological issues, despite the fact that at a much later time, complex systems of theology would be spun from particular interpretations of biblical passages. Its narrative materials provide an account of the odyssey of a people, the ancient Israelites, as they struggled to make sense of their history and their relationship to their deity. Certainly the Bible sometimes addresses moral and existential questions that would become central to the later discipline of theology but then so do Shakespeare and Frost and that doesn't make them theologians. The Bible's treatment of these questions is often indirect and implicit, conducted in the language of story and song, poetry, paradox and metaphor quite distinct from the language and tenets of the post-biblical discipline of theology. To impose the theological doctrines of a later time that not only do not appear in the Bible but are contradicted by it -- creation ex nihilo, the doctrine of original sin, the belief in life after death -- does another kind of violence to the text.
The Hebrew Bible is not a timeless or eternal work that stands outside the normal processes of literary production. Its books emerged from specific times and places. Reading the Bible alongside parallel materials from the many cultures of the Ancient Near East shows the deep indebtedness of the biblical authors to the literary heritage of the Ancient Near East. The ancient Israelites borrowed and adapted literary motifs and conventions from their larger cultural context and an awareness of those motifs and conventions produces richer, more coherent readings of the biblical text than are otherwise possible.
The narratives of the Hebrew Bible are not pious parables about saints, nor are they G-rated tales easily understood by children. Biblical narratives are psychologically real stories about very human beings whose behavior can be scandalous, violent, rebellious, outrageous, lewd and vicious. At the same time, like real people, biblical characters can change and act with justice and compassion. Nevertheless, many readers are shocked and disgusted to discover that Jacob is a deceiver, Joseph is an arrogant, spoiled brat and Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law when she is disguised as a prostitute!
The unfounded expectation that biblical characters are perfectly pious models for our own conduct causes many readers to work to vindicate biblical characters, just because they are biblical characters. But if we attribute to these characters the reputation for piety manufactured by later religious traditions, if we whitewash their flaws, then we miss the moral complexities and the deep psychological insights that have made these (often R-rated) stories of timeless interest. Biblical narratives place serious demands on their readers. The stories rarely moralize. They explore moral issues and situations by placing biblical characters in moral dilemmas -- but they usually leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
The character "Yahweh" in the Hebrew Bible should not be confused with the god of western theological speculation (generally referred to as "God"). The attributes assigned to "God" by post-biblical theologians -- such as omniscience and immutability -- are simply not attributes possessed by the character Yahweh as drawn in biblical narratives. Indeed, on several occasions Yahweh is explicitly described as changing his mind, because when it comes to human beings his learning curve is steep. Humans have free will; they act in ways that surprise him and he must change tack and respond. One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Hebrew Bible is to allow the text to mean what it says, when what is says flies in the face of doctrines that emerged centuries later from philosophical debates about the abstract category "God."
Setting aside these misconceptions enables readers to encounter and struggle with the biblical text in all its rich complexity -- its grandeur and its banality, its sophistication and its self-contradiction, its pathos and its humor -- and to arrive at a more profound appreciation of its multi-faceted and multi-vocal messiness.