10/12/2012 08:06 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Lectio Divina: A Critical and Religious Reading of the Bible

In The Bible and the Believer, Marc Z. Brettler, Peter Enns, and I explore how biblical scholars from different traditions--Jewish, Evangelical, and Catholic--integrate their historical-critical learning with their ongoing religious commitments. The word "historical" means reading the text in its ancient context, and "critical" means using the power of reason and judgment. Here I want to illustrate with reference to Exodus 3:1-6 how those in the Catholic tradition might do so. The framework is lectio divina ("sacred reading"), an ancient monastic practice that can be adapted to include both historical-critical and religious readings of texts. It has four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and action.

Here the question is, What does the text say? The context of Exodus 3:1-6 is the account in Exodus 3-4 of Moses' initial encounter with the Yahweh, the God of Israel. It comes after the narratives of his birth and infancy, as well as of his murder of an Egyptian and flight to the land of Midian. The text according to the New Revised Standard Version reads as follows:

"Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, 'I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.' When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then he said, 'Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.' He said further, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God."

The first step in analyzing a biblical text is literary criticism, that is, examining the words and images (the mountain of God, the angel of the Lord, the burning bush, the Lord, holy ground), the characters (Moses, the Lord), the plot or structure, the literary type or form (theophany, or divine revelation), and the message (dynamics of religious experience, encounter with the sacred).

The text is a perfect example of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of religious experience. It begins in Moses' curiosity, which demands further inspection, involves a call to personal relationship, leads to a recognition of the sacred as different from the profane, features the identification of Yahweh (the Lord) with the God of the ancestors, and ends with Moses' reverent fear. His encounter is fascinating, mysterious, and overwhelming.

Behind the text lays a host of (most unresolved) historical questions. What does the divine name YHWH mean? In 3:14 Moses is to tell the Egyptians that "I am who am" sent him. The name may refer to this God as creator: "the one who causes to be." Or it may be a way of saying, "Read on and you will see." Medieval philosophers found in this text the basis for understanding God as pure being. This raises the further questions whether Yahweh may have been the tribal god of the people of Midian and Moses' father-in-law, and how Yahweh related historically to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In scholarly circles the account in Exodus 3:1-6 is customarily assigned to the J ("Yahwist") source, because it features the divine name "Yahweh." That source, while very early (10th-9th century), is still hundreds of years distant from Moses. How can be sure what comes from Moses? What really happened? There are many different answers to these questions, and they are debated vigorously. The believer has to recognize these questions, without necessarily being overwhelmed by them, since what is most important is the text as it stands.

Here the question is, What does the text say to me? Of course, Exodus 3:1-6 may say many different things to many different people. For believers it is not simply a relic of the past or even a classic text. It is these things but more. It is a sacred text. Some refer to it as "the word of God." For thousands of years people have read, mediated, and prayed over this text.

The purpose of reading such a biblical text is to open one's mind and heart to the religious heritage of Judaism and Christianity. The kind of literary and historical analysis illustrated above can help to uncover the riches within the text. When meditating on a biblical passage, some find it helpful to enter the scene by way of their imagination. Think of yourself on Mount Horeb beside Moses. What do you see? What do you hear? What might you smell, touch, or taste?

Longtime believers may find in this text confirmation of their own religious experiences, while recent converts might use it to connect their experiences with the great tradition of biblical call stories (Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah). Some may focus on the symbol of the burning bush, while others may reflect on the text's revelation of God or empathize with Moses' development from curiosity to "fear of the Lord" (a good thing in the Bible).

In my own life this text has been very influential. As a boy I stuttered. When I heard that Moses stuttered, I looked up Exodus 4:10, where Moses says to God, "I am slow of speech and sloe of tongue." But I found much more than that. Reading the whole of Exodus 3-4 introduced me to the dynamics of religious experience, and eventually led me to become a Jesuit priest and a specialist in biblical studies. Whenever I find myself discouraged, I go back to this text and find in it encouragement and direction.

Here the question is, What do I want to say to God on the basis of this text? Many Christians and Jews use biblical texts as starting points in their prayer. With regard to such a rich text as Exodus 3:1-6, it may be sufficient to say "Wow." Many readers may want to thank God for their own religious experiences, and compare and contrast them with that of Moses. Other who feel less centered may ask God for help in enriching their relationship with God.

Those who pray with Scripture often find the exercise so engaging that they want to stay with the text, further relish its details, and integrate it into their piety. This is contemplation. Still others find that their engagement with the text may prompt them to take action: Resolve to pray more; join a Bible study group; work on some problem or obstacle in their life; engage in interreligious dialogue; or be more active in the community.

Serious historical-critical biblical study and the devotional use of Scripture need not be viewed as opposites. In fact, they can and should enrich one another. Lectio divina provides a good framework for doing so.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. is professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.