IN A RECENT POST, I pointed out that the Bible is unlike other books in that, while each individual portion has a human author, the book as a whole is God’s composition, and both the whole and the parts were written through His inspiration. While only those who know God and listen for His voice can grasp the spiritual meanings with which the Bible is inspired, any attentive and experienced reader can figure out what the human authors were trying to say (that’s the “literal” meaning). Any believer who wants to get at the spiritual meaning must first accurately discern the literal meaning.
Literal but Not “Literalistic”
The literal meaning is not the same as the “plain sense” insisted upon by many early Protestant sects, and requires reading skills somewhat more sophisticated than the rudimentary ability to figure out the meanings of individual words and sentences. Even on the literal level, Scripture doesn’t interpret itself. If you’ll look back over some of the posts I’ve written about the flood stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Epic of Gilgamesh, much of what I was doing was trying to discern the “literal meaning” of the flood story in those poems. So, to find the “literal meaning” of the Great Flood in the Bible, a similar approach will work.
You don’t have to be a university professor to use this method of literary analysis. In fact, any thoughtful and attentive reader can winkle out the meaning of an unfamiliar text, if he just puts his mind to it. So, I have decided to let a very ordinary (albeit imaginary) reader, with no religious background (nor anti-religious prejudices), have a crack at it—someone who knows next to nothing about the Bible. Let’s just call my ignorant (but by no means stupid) friend “Joe Schmoe.”
Meet Joe Schmoe
Joe is a pretty ordinary guy who grew up without any direct exposure to any kind of religion. Like most people of his generation, Joe managed to acquire a bachelor’s degree (in business administration) without actually getting much of an education, and the little he did receive has faded over time. This doesn’t bother him, because he has become a successful in the cut-throat business of industrial widget sales. He works hard and, when he’s not working, he enjoys spending time outdoors in the fresh air, hiking or hunting or fishing. He enjoys outings with his hiking and hunting buddies, but is equally comfortable fishing alone on a pristine lake, where he often takes a book to read while waiting for the fish to bite.
You see, the one thing that makes Joe stand out from his social peers is that he is a devotee of mystery novels of all sorts. Back in college, Joe got hooked on murder mysteries after he found a copy of Death on the Nile that some other student had left behind in his sociology class; Joe glanced at it out of curiosity and decided it was more interesting than whatever the professor was blathering on about. Now he never goes anywhere without a paperback or two tucked away “for emergencies,” such as dull dinners alone or long waits in air terminals.
What started as an idle pastime for Joe has become a kind of mental challenge. He likes trying to figure out “who dunnit” and prides himself on his familiarity with the literary arts of, misdirection, and. Without ever intending to, after years of trying to out-sleuth the investigators in these books, Joe has developed a range of reading habits that enable him make sense of almost any kind of reading material, from industrial widget spec sheets to the most head-scratching Nero Wolfe. These same skills will help him when he gets bored enough to read the Bible.
Joe Gets Stranded
Here’s Joe Schmoe, driving up to the rustic mountain cabin he and a pal of his rented for the weekend, hoping to take advantage of the fine early spring weather to get some hiking in. His friend had to cancel at the last minute, but Joe decided to go ahead without him. As he unloads his groceries into the cabin, Joe notices a growing chill in the air, so he checks the back porch to make sure there is plenty of firewood for the old-fashioned stove that heats the cabin. He also tops up the kerosene in the equally old-fashioned hurricane lamps, and then decides to turn in early and finish unpacking the car in the morning.
When he wakes, though, Joe finds the cabin frigid and filled a curious light that doesn’t quite look like dawn. He peeks at his cell phone to check the time but, with nowhere to plug in the charger, the battery has run out of juice. So Joe peeks out the back door of the cabin, past the stacked firewood and down the slope through the trees. There is enough daylight to let him see that the slope and the trees are now covered in snow. Dashing into the front room of the cabin, Joe sees snow piled against the windows as high as his eyebrows. When he tries to open the front door, the latch at first seems frozen shut, but after a bit of struggle he gets it open, only to reveal a solid wall of snow up to his eyebrows. On tiptoes, he can just glimpse the tip of his car’s antenna protruding a few inches above a smooth layer of fluffy white stuff. Clearly, winter is having its last laugh at his expense.
Being a resourceful guy, Joe assesses his situation. No phone, no electricity, but no immediate danger, either. The rising sun is creating glints of light on the snow drifts, suggesting that the storm front has passed. Surely the rental agent will let the state police know where he is? And the state highway department will clear the roads . . . eventually. Meanwhile, he’s snug, has plenty of food, can always melt some snow if he runs short of water . . . nothing to do but settle in and enjoy the solitude. Maybe get some reading in . . .
Then he remembers that his “emergency” paperbacks are in the trunk of his car. So, he busies himself stoking the stove with wood, making a pot of coffee, doing a few push-ups and crunches to build up some body heat–and tries to ignore the little itching sensation in his gut that indicates incipient cabin fever. Exploring the cabin for potential sources of distraction, he finds stowed on a shelf near the stove a hand-cranked emergency radio cum flashlight. A few cranks on the handle allow him to tune the radio to the nearest NOAA weather channel, where a mechanized voice confirms that the area has been hit by a pop-up blizzard and it will take at least a couple of days before the snow ploughs make it to his remote area. Continuing his treasure hunt, he pulls open a drawer to find a couple of tiny pencils and a Yahtzee score pad—but no dice. Further scouring of the cabin’s interior uncovers little more than several layers of dust and a few dead spiders . . . until he spies an old paperback book propping up a back leg of the nightstand beside his bunk. Voilà! His cabin fever cure!
Joe Cracks the Bible
Joe pulls out the book, careful to replace it with a chunk of kindling to steady the table, and dusts it off. The cover and first few pages are missing, and the rest is spotted with mold, but the pages seem to be legible. He flips through to see what sort of book it is, and notices that the rather small, smudgy type is set in two columns, and numbers appear regularly in the text. A few footnotes here and there, but not too many. Doesn’t look like a novel, then. Not a wilderness guide, either, which is what he was secretly hoping it would be, just in case he winds up being stranded for more than a day or two.
He carries the book into the front room, where the light is better, and turns back to the first page, which seems to be part of the Introduction, most of which is missing—some remarks on the way the book has been translated and organized. Is it a foreign book? He turns the page and finds a table of contents: “The Names and Order of the Books of the Old Testament.” Ah, it’s a Bible. That would explain all the weird chapter names, like Deuteronomy and Nahum. He groans and is about to toss it aside when something stops him. It’s a book, after all, and he was hoping for something to read, so . . . maybe he’ll take a crack at it.
This is probably first time in his life Joe has held a Bible in his hands, although he seems to remember laying his hand on one when he was sworn in as a Boy Scout—or was that jury duty? It’s one of those books everyone has heard of but no one actually reads. Some of his college professors used to make nasty cracks about “Bible-believing Christians,” but they said a lot of other things that suggested they didn’t know much about the real world, so maybe this book isn’t as bad as they made out.
He takes another look at that table of contents. The Old Testament. There’s also something called the New Testament, isn’t there? Is that in the Bible, too, or is it a different book? Joes notices that the last chapter (or “book”) of the Old Testament starts on page 927, but the whole book is more than 1,200 pages long. Sure enough, on page 97 he finds a page that says “The New Testament” and lists a couple dozen or so chapters. So the Old and New Testaments are just two parts of one book. But why is the first part so long, and the second so short? If this were a mystery novel, the New Testament starts right about the place where the detective would finally start unraveling the mystery, the high point of the book but almost the end of the story. It seems like an odd way to divide a book. So, how do these two parts fit together?
Joe hardly notices the little spark of interest struck by this question. He has decided to try reading this odd book that he has heard so much about. But now his stomach is growling and he realizes he hasn’t had breakfast yet, so he sets the book aside and unpacks the skillet, the bacon, and the eggs that will fuel his brain for a little literary exploration.
We’ll let Joe enjoy his meal in peace and check in again when he’s ready to read. Meanwhile, you might want to hit the “subscribe” link at the top of the page to make sure you don’t miss the next episode of “Joe Schmoe Reads the Bible.”