How to Read the Bible (like any other book)

Just about everyone has read the short little novella Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. It’s an American classic, and many high schools have incorporated this little gem into their English curriculum in some way.

But, not everyone has read the Bible.

In our postmodern society, many look at our Christian scriptures and regard them as “offensive.” There are many claims that the Bible is bigoted, sexist, outdated, and violent. Are these claims true?

Before we jump in, I wish to paint a picture of what this specific blog post is trying to accomplish. Using Steinbeck’s novella, I wish to show how some scripture is both taken out of context and, at times, read incorrectly. Then, we will look at one example of a supposed “bigoted” verse and apply the principles that follow.

**WARNING, IF YOU HAVE NOT READ “OF MICE AND MEN,” THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!!!**

Picking and Choosing

When we read a book, most of us do not begin in the middle and assume what we read will make sense. It would be strange to start in the fourth chapter of a new book and immediately start reading the middle of a paragraph.

Why is it that we do just this when reading scripture?

The Bible is a book, albeit a very complicated and multi-faceted book; and, since it is, why do we not read it from front to back? Instead, a normal reading of scripture involves turning to specific portions, and reading certain passages from those areas assuming that they can be understood out of the context of the whole story.

This is what gets us into trouble. And, I believe, this is largely the cause of the claims that scripture is bigoted.

For example, if one were to open to the beginning of Steinbeck’s novella and begin reading portions of the first chapter, one would see George threatening to punch Lenny, a mentally challenged man. “You gonna give me that mouse or do I have to sock you?[1] Those who have never read the book before may be misled to believe that George is intolerant of those who have mental handicaps, but those of us who have know that this isn’t so.

Or, if one opened the book towards the middle, we would find a more disturbing portion. “He led the dog out into the darkness…A shot sounded in the distance[2] If one decided to “pick and choose” where to read in “Of Mice and Men,” they may come to the chapter where Carlson takes Candy’s dog out back in the farmyard and puts him out of his misery. Those of us who have read the book know its purpose and context, a foreshadowing of what is to happen later, but those who have little to no knowledge of the book would not know this.

One might be led to assume that the creator, John Steinbeck, is intolerant and cruel toward pets.

If one were to read the final chapter of the book, outside of its context, it would be easy to assume Steinbeck held a low value of human life, as George shoots and kills Lenny point blank. However, in its context, we know that this simply isn’t so.

But, this is exactly what some do with the Bible.

Genre

Another mistake that we make when it comes to reading scripture is assuming that there is just a “universal” genre for all holy texts. This is not so. The Bible contains many different genres. It is rich with diversity!

The book of Psalms contains song, poetry, and lament. Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and others are considered wisdom literature. We have historical texts such as Kings and Chronicles, and even fable and story found in the parables of Christ in the Gospels. Apocalyptic literature is found within Daniel and Revelation, Greco-Roman type letters are found within other New Testament books, and much more!

When one goes to their local bookstore, if they are like me, they know exactly what genre they are looking for. It is hard to mistake a romance for a historical biography, or a science fiction for a cookbook.

John Steinbeck’s book also has a very specific genre: novella. The book is about two migrant workers who are looking for work in 1920’s America, set loosely around the “dust bowl” era. It would be hard to mistake this for another genre unless specifically trying to do so.

So, it should be said: reading one type of genre like it is another genre would be a mistake. Even in the Bible.

Scripture in Context

Now let’s take these principles and apply them to a passage found within the Psalms that is very frequently taken out of context:

“Happy shall they be who take the little babies

and dash them against the rock!”[3]

From a quick glance, this is an alarming passage. How could a God, who claims to be loving and just, command such a brutal and horrendous act? It would be easy to bring negative charges against scripture using a passage like this.

However, by simply “picking” this passage out of its context and genre would set one up for failure.

This specific Psalm is set within the context of the Babylonian exile, somewhere after 587 B.C.E., when King Nebuchadnezzar finishes off his destruction of the city of Jerusalem and takes the rest of the Israelites into exile.

If you read the first verse of Psalm 137, it states that these exiled Jews sat “by the rivers of Babylon,” and that they “wept when [they] remembered Zion.” The psalm goes on by expressing the wish for their “tongues to stick to the roof of [their] mouths” if they forget their homeland. In its context, this scripture’s genre is a lament. It is a brutal crying out caused by deep sorrow. Those who have been displaced and ripped from their homes are wishing serious misfortune upon their captors and their children. Although brutal, it is honest.

It would be a mistake to read the words of the psalter within the law genre. God did not decree that the Israelites were to smash infants against rocks, nor did God come down and do this act himself as those who point fingers at scripture might suggest.

Is Psalm 137 offensive? Yes. That’s partially the point. But it is not bigoted.

Conclusion

Learning to interpret the Bible in this way is important. Slowing down and reading scripture the same way we might read other books can really help us properly understand scripture in the way it was meant to be understood. More often than not, by simply looking at a passage in its context and within its proper genre, we can erase the claims that the Bible’s “bigoted” or “offensive.”


[1] John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men. (New York: Penguin Books, 1937). 8

[2] John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men. (New York: Penguin Books, 1937). 48-49

[3] Psalm 137:9 (NRSV)

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