The biblical readings we’ve just listened to are supposed to give me an easy ride either to moralistic rant based on the Ten Commandments (the first reading) or to a clichéd call for moralistic purging as derived from the Gospel reading. I considered that – by following either of these routes – I would be guaranteed the prospect of losing the scarce remnants of your attention. These passages from the Bible, well-known and somehow worn-out by over-preaching on them, have induced a headache in me as I’ve been pondering why on earth these two were thrown together in the lectionary for one Sunday Mass. Their themes seem to have hardly any common aspect to them. So, if you think that you struggle to read and understand the Bible, be aware that you’re not alone – if this offers you any consolation.
We are used to reading more-or-less clear instruction manuals, providing us with all the useful details about how to operate new devices. We are used to reading novels that have a more-or-less linear and followable plot. But the Bible is neither a good instruction manual nor a good novel. A couple of days ago someone told me about an attempt to read the Bible from cover to cover – the attempt had failed after page 4, inducing a headache in the reader. I admit that some parts of the Bible resemble a phonebook or an inventory – hardly exciting reading by any measure. That person made the classic mistake of treating the Bible as a single homogeneous book that tells one long story, a tale on the lines of an ancient ‘Downton Abbey’.
So, what is the Bible? The answer lies in its very title or – to be more precise – its Greek origin: ‘ta biblia’. This literally means ‘the books’ or – in a rather loose translation – ‘the library’. That library was created over the centuries in a pretty complicated, fascinating process of incorporating bits and pieces into a bigger piece, merging and dividing, editing and re-writing, and so on and so forth… Those bigger writings that eventually emerged were then incorporated into so-called canons, or sets of books, considered holy and divinely inspired. With the development of making books and then the invention of printing, those canons were put together into one big book in the name of convenience, and by that the library has imperceptibly become a book. A book that is difficult to read and therefore widely abandoned, and – at best – condemned to a prominent place on a dusty bookshelf.
My aforementioned conundrum with the seemingly incompatible readings of today reminded me that the Bible requires a different approach to that of any other book. Reading biblical passages is not a pastime activity to kill time or to fight off boredom. It’s about taking a small portion at a time and letting it to raise questions, even doubts, and pushing one gently towards finding the answers. Forgive me this sacrilegious comparison, but perhaps it’s helpful to you; if we think about reading a paperback as binge drinking, then reading the Bible is like savouring a sip of precious single malt – a different one for a different mood, or season, or occasion. As we are midway through Lent, maybe it’s a good time to give the Bible another chance, to dust it off and to start discovering some little bits for ourselves? Obviously it requires some personal effort; but hopefully it will pay off, sooner rather than later.