Reading Scripture

Over the course of the last year, I have written and beta tested a schedule for reading the entirety of the TaNaKh in the course of a year.  My efforts have partially been based on an expressed desire for such a schedule from other Jews and partly based on my own desire for a schedule not written for Christians.  The latter, personal element is related to my desire to raise my sons in an environment steeped in faith.

In a few weeks, this schedule, which also includes other pertinent information (Parsha and Haftarot schedules, English and Hebrew names for books, and a schedule for younger readers) will be available for download, in time to coincide with Simchat Torah.

Putting this work together has forced me to reflect on how people read the scripture.  I’m including myself in that statement.  I’m also including both Jews (Rabbinic and Karaite, Ashkenazic and Mizrahi) and Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Secular).  In my experience, most people read scripture almost as a meditation exercise.  It may challenge how they, as individuals, live their lives, but it almost never is allowed to challenge accepted theology.  To borrow imagery from a different religious tradition, there are sacred cows.  In this regard, I think that Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, was right.  Every individual should have access to the scripture, so as to prevent religious authorities from bending theology to their own political ends and personal enrichment.

Luther’s solution to this problem was to set a goal that every individual be fluent in Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, Ancient Greek, and Latin (the latter two being relevant for Christians), as well as literate in his own native tongue (in part, for the purpose of being able to criticize modern Biblical commentaries and criticism).  Modern readers also have access (through the internet, especially) to historical data Luther could never have imagined.

However, access is only half of the equation.  The other half is how we read the scripture.  Do we approach it with an open mind and heart, ready to receive the TaNaKh’s messages to us?  Or do we read it as a security blanket, dutifully noting the proof texts used by religious thinkers to promote their interpretations?  For far too many of us, the latter description really is the default position.

Readers, as you examine your Bible (whether is consists of the TaNaKh or the Christian Testaments), consider this challenge:

  1. This is the most important part of the challenge.  Read as though you have never read any of this before.  Read as though you have never attended a religious service of any kind, as though you are completely ignorant of the doctrine and theology of your faith.  Pretend that all you know is that this book is divinely inspired.  Approach your reading with the open mind and heart I mentioned earlier–with “ears to hear” and “eyes that see.”
  2. Read your scripture in order, and at least a full chapter at a time.  Reading larger chunks consecutively really preserves a narrative quality that is easily lost otherwise.  It also lends a clarity to the TaNaKh that is very easy to miss in the density and sheer volume of content.
  3. Take notes.  I recommend downloading the Kindle Reader app from Amazon (it’s free!), and reading the ESV translation available free through Kindle.  This version provides extensive cross-referencing, footnotes with translation information, and the opportunity to highlight, bookmark, and annotate to your heart’s content.  That and the kids won’t lose your bookmark 😉
  4. Look stuff up.  Who were the Moabites anyway?  What do all these funny names mean?  Where did each of the tribes settle?  Look it up!  This is another great reason to do your reading online.  Internet resources are just a few clicks away.  There’s really no point in reading something if you have no idea what it’s talking about.  If you need or want more information to understand a text, look for it!
  5. If your thoughts and study take you in a direction that feels uncomfortable, even heretical or blasphemous, let yourself go there.  See where it leads and where you come out the other end.  It may be nothing–a misreading, something that is clarified later on, a bad translation.  It may be that your initial view was mistaken.  It may bring you to a crossroads in your faith.  Whatever the outcome, it is through these kinds of challenges that our faith and relationship with G-d is defined, refined, and honed.  

Over the years that I’ve posted on this blog, I’ve made my own beliefs about G-d and scripture pretty clear.  And those beliefs are not mainstream.  In this post, I am not here to spread those beliefs.  What I want is for readers to know what they believe and why they believe it–regardless of what those beliefs are.

This video typifies the religious experience of so many (myself included, at times).  We accept as an article of faith the words of a temporal authority without first determining the accuracy either of the words or of our understanding of those words.  It’s time to end that trend.

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