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Reading the
Good Book

by Carol Luebering

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 letters—a 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 in school."

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 writings—coded 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 big war."

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 5—7).

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 and—well, you know the drama that develops (see Exodus 1—20).

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 (11:25—25:18), Isaac and Jacob (25:19—36:43) and my special delight, Joseph (37:1—50:26).

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 Mary—and her son, Jesus—in 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 1—19) and his successor writes from the bitterness of exile in Babylon under the same name (Isaiah 40—55), 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 voice—the 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 beauty—complete 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...."

Be Moved

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 you—to carry you deeper into the mystery of the one God.

Enjoy the read!

Carol Luebering has recently retired after nearly 20 years as book editor for St. Anthony Messenger Press, though she continues her successful writing career. She is a regular contributor to several homily services. Her most recent book is A Retreat With Job and Julian of Norwich: Trusting That All Will Be Well (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

 

Living the Scriptures  

Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, is rich with Old Testament references, and her son's teaching was solidly based in Scripture. Follow their lead and learn your tradition as they knew theirs. Make 15 minutes of Bible-reading part of your daily routine.

 

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