Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
A library is an enchanted place. Friends old and
yet to be discovered populate it. Shelves filled with colorful
spines, the hushed atmosphere and the smell of books speak a warm
welcome. I was too small to remember when I first discovered the
joys of exploring such a magic land.
But I remember well when I discovered the joy of
exploring another library: the Bible. It is a treasure trove of
poetry and adventure, family sagas, wise advice and love lettersa
reader's paradise. I approached it as a reader before I ever thought
of studying it (indeed, before I could really call myself a believer).
I found myself in good company when one of my heroes, the great
Scripture scholar Ray Brown, wrote in his introduction to Reading
the Gospels With the Church: From Christmas Through Easter (St.
Anthony Messenger Press) that he had discovered "the marvelous
wealth of the Bible from reading by myself, not through courses
You don't need to be an expert in Scripture or theology
to gain from browsing this library. Join me for a reader's tour.
Use Your Reading Skills
You've come a long way since you struggled with
"See Spot run." You can decode those funny marks on the pages
of newspapers, histories, magazine articles, novels, biographies,
computer manuals, cookbooks, business reports, self-help books,
letters from friends. But you don't read that vast assortment
of material in the same way. You call on different skills without
even thinking about it, because you can tell the styles apart.
That unconscious judgment keeps you from expecting to be moved
by the poetry of a computer manual or thrilled by the solution
of a real-life murder.
The biblical library predates the Dewey Decimal
System. Its shelves are, to be sure, roughly sorted: Pentateuch,
History, Wisdom Books, Prophets, Gospels and Letters. But fiction
may show up in the middle of History (Tobit) or Prophets (Jonah).
Erotic poetry (Songs) and a prayer book (Psalms) jostle collections
of proverbs and practical manuals in the Wisdom section. Scraps
of apocalyptic writingscoded encouragement for believers
enduring hard times that read a lot like sci-fi are slipped
in like forgotten bookmarks.
It's usually not hard to tell the difference. You
might think Jonah is the story of a historic figure until you
try to swallow that whale.
But if you think Tobit is anything but a morality
tale, you obviously haven't read it. (And you should: The plot
is nothing short of amazing.)
Good fiction, by the way, is not untruth but truth
presented differently. Uncle Tom's Cabin is fiction, but
it told the truth so powerfully that Abraham Lincoln called its
author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, "the little woman who started this
Leviticus and Numbers read a lot like a computer
manual, useful details that can confuse as well as inform. Yet
Jesus' teaching reverberates with echoes of Leviticus 19:17-18.
(Stay with me; you don't have to look it up right now.)
If you're still not sure what reading skills to
use, most of the newer translations have built-in guides.
Check the Notes
Confession time: I skim introductions with little
hope of finding anything useful. (How nice that the author's spouse
supported the creative effort by keeping the kids quiet!) Every
now and then an author surprises me by saying something that gives
me a key to understanding the book.
Biblical introductions are just such keys. They
provide the necessary context for the book: historical events,
the situation and purpose of the author, an outline or overview
of the book and the kind of writing it is.
Another confession: I size up footnotes and end
notes before I start reading. If they're just citations, I ignore
them unless I come across something I want to explore further.
If they're explanatory, I don't want to miss them; even tuck in
a second bookmark to keep my place in end notes.
Biblical footnotes are of greater interest. Not
only do the explanatory ones help you make sense of ancient cultures
and customs, the citations help you trace a concept back through
the ages with perhaps serendipitous results.
I used footnotes to find the Old Testament connection
to Jesus' Great Commandment, which is easy to find in the Gospels
(especially in Luke, where it's followed by the story of the Good
Samaritan). A footnote spared me the plethora of rules in Leviticus
and led me to the discovery that Leviticus 19:17-18 sounds remarkably
like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 57).
Get Caught Up in Characters and Plots
Nobody reads a book for the notes, of course. Whether
you're diving into a good history or a good historical novel,
you're going to meet some fascinating people who shape the very
events they are caught up in. Character and plot are the things
that hold your attention. And the Bible is crammed with both.
The Gospels are peopled with familiar folks who
deserve more than a passing glance; let your imagination fill
in the descriptive passages the authors omitted. (Try Luke 19:1-10.
How silly did Zacchaeus look in that sycamore tree? Picture him
scrambling down the trunk at Jesus' urgent invitation, his firm
stand against his accusatory neighbors, the party at his house.)
The Old Testament is a mother lode; most of us have
only picked up a nugget or two from the surface without digging
deeper. Exodus is Hollywood's favorite: Blood ties draw Moses,
the son of slaves adopted into Egyptian royalty, to the pyramids
where his people labor. He murders a cruel overseer and flees
for his life, finding work tending sheep in Midian. One day he
sees a bush that burns without being destroyed andwell,
you know the drama that develops (see Exodus 120).
Other fascinating figures only make cameo appearances
in the first reading on Sundays or peek out from the branches
of the Jesse tree in Advent: Ruth, Esther and Daniel have books
of their own; the books of Samuel and Chronicles are family sagas.
Genesis is peopled with some of my favorite characters and their
struggles: Abraham (11:2525:18), Isaac and Jacob (25:1936:43)
and my special delight, Joseph (37:150:26).
You meet Joseph first as the bratty little brother
flaunting his dreams and his fancy coat to his big brothers. I
get goose bumps when he faces the brothers who do not recognize
him, searching his heart for forgiveness while angels hold their
breath. Without his wife to reconcile, one more family would have
starved without notice in a famine-stricken land. Without the
tears that spilled down his cheeks, there would have been no Hebrews
in Egypt to be forced into building pyramids, no Moses, no great
divine act of compassionate rescue, no covenant people to nurture
Maryand her son, Jesusin its faith. What that says
to modern family quarrels!
Get to Know the Authors
Favorite authors become fast friends. Reading about
near-death experiences some years back, I mused about the voices
that might urge me on toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
Family and friends, yes; but I also listed the writers whose voices
were dear and familiar. John the Evangelist came quickly to mind
for the infinite love that shines through his lines.
Is Luke's Gospel your favorite? You'll love the
sequel, Acts. Among its many stories are the accounts of Paul's
life and travels, the events behind the letters he wrote to the
communities in whom he invested so much of himself.
Many Old Testament writers are more elusive. Scholars
identify strands of different oral traditions intertwined when
the first five books of the Bible were written down, and you can
catch some of the voices if you listen carefully. The Yahwist's
God has human characteristics. He breathes life into hand-shaped
clay (Genesis 2:7), walks in the twilight garden (Genesis 3:8)
and bargains with Abraham like a Middle Eastern camel trader (Genesis
18:22-33). The Deuteronomist's God is an unyielding lawmaker (see
Deuteronomy 6:10-15). The Priest's concern for ritual makes the
sabbath part of creation (Genesis 2:1-3) and interrupts the flight
from Egypt with Passover dinner details (Exodus 12:43-51).
Get acquainted with the prophets. Enjoy the dramatic
confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings
18:21-40) and then see how quickly the prophet's lot becomes unbearable
(1 Kings 19:1-4). Jeremiah expresses the hazards of speaking for
God even better in his lament (Jeremiah 20:7-18). Listen for the
shift of voices when Isaiah of Jerusalem ceases to warn his people
about impending disaster (Isaiah 119) and his successor
writes from the bitterness of exile in Babylon under the same
name (Isaiah 4055), weaving some of the tenderest poetry
in the Bible. Note how Hosea sees in the bitter failure of his
own marriage God's love for a faithless people.
Explore New Translations
I own two books by the same French author, translated
by two different people. One is a romp; the other is drudgery.
Translation involves more than trading a foreign word for an English
one, like substituting A for Q in a cryptogram. It takes an ear
for rhythm and nuance, connotation, idioms and author's voicethe
same skill with words that sends you back again and again to a
favorite author. Just so, an unfamiliar translation may bring
startlingly fresh insight to words you know by heart.
One of the first English Bibles was the King
James. Published about the same time Shakespeare was writing
plays, it echoes the same Elizabethan beautycomplete with
thee's and thou's. It pleases the ear, but is not easy reading.
Neither is the Douay Rheims, the "Catholic Bible" of bygone
years. Happily, newer translations abound.
The most familiar to Americans from Sunday liturgy
is the New American Bible (NAB); The New Jerusalem Bible
also has a familiar ring. The New Revised Standard Version
(NRSV) is my personal favorite for private prayer and reflection.
In addition to good scholarship and an ear sensitive to poetry,
it uses inclusive language gracefully.
Or try something quite different. The Revised
English Bible is of British origin; the differences in our
not-quite-common language turn familiar phrases in unexpected
ways. The Five Books of Moses is the first volume of a
new translation from Schocken Books with introductions, commentary
and notes by Everett Fox. It re-creates the rhythms and nuances
of the original Hebrew. Read the opening of Genesis and you're
whisked back to a Semitic campfire, listening to words not yet
written down: "At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens
and the earth, / when the earth was wild and waste, / darkness
over the face of Ocean, / rushing-spirit of God hovering over
the face of the waters...."
A good book is a magic carpet that can carry you
across centuries and through far-flung lands. The Bible is a specialized
library; everything it contains is a record of a people's discovery
of God. And every book in it is intended to transport youto
carry you deeper into the mystery of the one God.
Enjoy the read!