How to Read the Bible, Part 3: The Bible Isn’t Flat

In our ordinary, day-to-day reading, we realize that different texts must be read in different ways.  It would never occur to us to read the phone book the way that we would read a novel (“Hmmm–lots of characters, but no plot. . .”).  Similarly, we are (at least, generally) aware that while novels sometimes may contain facts, they are not factual: neither Sherlock Holmes nor Atticus Finch is a real person.

But when we turn to the books of the Bible, we sometimes forget this common-sense principle, and insist that each passage of Scripture must be read in the same way as every other passage, “flattening” the Bible as though it were all of a piece.  Slogans such as “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” not only treat the Bible as if it were flat, but also insist that this is the only faithful way to read the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, after all, then it must be true, and if the Bible is true, then that must mean that every word of it is true in the same way: factual, accurate, applicable, and authoritative.


We will talk about biblical authority next time.  But for now, this flattening approach ignores a fundamental feature of the Bible, evident to the most casual reader: the Bible is not book, but a library of books, written in different times, places, and languages.  The Hebrew Bible contains a good deal of poetry: indeed, the books of Psalms and the Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon) are entirely poetic.  The Greek New Testament is dominated by letters, such as Romans or 1 Thessalonians.  Some books are narratives, with characters and dialogue and plot–such as Ruth or Jonah on the left-hand side of the Bible, or Acts on the right.  Most Old Testament prophetic books, such as Amos or Jeremiah, are collections of speeches; similarly, in the New Testament, Hebrews is a sermon.  The first five books of the Bible are commonly called “law,” although only Leviticus and Deuteronomy consist mostly of laws; Genesis is entirely narrative, and Exodus is mostly so.  The first four books of uniquely Christian Scripture are all called “gospels,” from the Old English godspel, or “good news”–although only Mark explicitly bears that title (Mark 1:1).  No wonder we call this book “the Bible,” a word which comes from the Greek ta biblia, meaning “the books!”

Not only do different books call for different readings, but within each biblical book, we find a variety of styles and techniques, calling for different approaches.  For example, Jesus was a master storyteller.  In the New Testament, the word “parable” (Greek parabole) occurs fifty times, all but twice (Heb 9:9; 11:19) in the first three books: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Indeed, Mark and Matthew go so far as to say that Jesus never taught without a parable (Mark 4:34; Matt 13:34).  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture) uses parabole for the Hebrew word mashal.  In the Hebrew Bible, a mashal is a saying requiring interpretation: generally speaking, a riddle,  a proverb (the Hebrew name for the book of Proverbs is Meshalim), or a metaphor.


Put simply, parables are meant to be read not literally, but figuratively (as the two uses of parabole in the book of Hebrews indicate).  For example, Jesus’ parable of the weeds growing among the wheat (Matt 13:24-30) doesn’t describe good farming practices–although when I was growing up, I tried persuading my Dad that weeding our garden wasn’t biblical!  Instead, it is a story about the kingdom of God.

Usually, we understand this distinction without difficulty.  When Jesus says, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that” (Matt 23:27), no one thinks that Jesus has wings, or that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were chickens!  We know how figurative language works.

 Yet Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-30) is sometimes read, not as a story told to illustrate a point about wealth and responsibility, but as a proof of the existence of hell–indeed, as a detailed geography of the afterlife, detailing where “the bosom of Abraham” and hell are located relative to one another, with a “great gulf” between them, across which people in hell can see into heaven, and vice versa.   That Jesus says nothing about that topic either before or after this story in Luke should remind us that this is after all a parable, not a cosmic travelogue.

Reading the Bible rightly, then, requires us to ask of any passage, where does this come from?  What sort of text is this?  What standards of interpretation do I need to apply if I am to understand its message?


Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are often cited by Christians opposed to same-sex marriage.  In the CEB, the first passage reads, “You must not have sexual intercourse with a man as you would with a woman; it is a detestable practice (Hebrew to’ebah).”  The second goes further: “If a man has sexual intercourse with a man as he would with a woman, the two of them have done something detestable (Hebrew to’ebah). They must be executed; their blood is on their own heads.”  How ought these passages be read and applied?

I have written about these verses in greater detail  before.  Put briefly, they come from a section of Leviticus called the Holiness Code (Lev 17—26), which “democratizes” the idea of holiness: not only are the priests and the sacred objects pertaining to worship set apart as belonging to God, but all of Israel is God’s, and so is called to a higher standard of commitment, service, and ritual purity: “You must be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2).

In these chapters, more stringent standards of ritual purity are upheld than is the case elsewhere, even within the book of Leviticus!  For example, Leviticus 15:24 states that a man who has sex with a woman during her menstrual period (during which she is ritually unclean: see Lev 15:19–23) shares in her impurity—like her, “he will be unclean for seven days.”  Lev 18:19 and 20:18 go far beyond this, however.  In the radical view of ritual purity the Holiness Code upholds, sexual contact with a menstruating woman is to’ebah: an abomination to be punished by exile from the community (Lev 18:29; 20:18).

Ritual purity and impurity–the “clean” and the “unclean”–are strange concepts to many of us.  Put simply, these rules have to do with customs that you follow in order to be a fully integrated member of your tribe: the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the way that you plant your crops. Violating these customs alienates you from your tribe: but even more, in ancient Israel, such violations were regarded as pollutions that stained not only the offender, but anyone else who came into contact with him or her.  In fact, the Holiness Code declares that the land itself was defiled by such actions, and so would repel their perpetrators:

You must not do any of these detestable things, neither citizen nor immigrant who lives with you (because the people who had the land before you did all of these detestable things and the land became unclean), so that the land does not vomit you out because you have made it unclean, just as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:26-28).

Some such customs deal with actions any culture would condemn, such as as incest (18:6-18), child sacrifice (18:21), and bestiality (18:23).  But ritual purity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with morality.

Horses, for example, were ritually unclean: since, unlike cows, sheep, and goats, they have solid rather than divided hooves and do not chew the cud (see Lev 11:3), they couldn’t be eaten or offered as sacrifices.  But this doesn’t mean that ancient Israelites thought that horses were evil:  in fact they were important, particularly for the military, and praised for their strength and beauty (see Job 39:19-25).

The point is that, if indeed Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 have to do with ritual purity (as their context suggests; see Lev 18:26-28), then we should not read them as though they were moral proscriptions.  Concerning ritual purity, Jesus taught: “Listen and understand. It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person” (Matt 15:10-11).  When pressed for an explanation, he said:

Don’t you understand yet?  Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer?  But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.  These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).

Christians need not read every verse of Leviticus as a commandment–nor indeed do we.  Few if any Christian readers regard sex with a menstruating woman as a sin.  Further, even among those who would insist upon applying Lev 18:22 directly to our contemporary context, few would call for the death penalty for gay men (Lev 20:13), let alone for children who curse their parents (Lev 20:9) or for mediums and diviners (Lev 20:27).  In short, despite protests to the contrary, none of us really apply the same standard of authority or interpretation to every passage of Scripture.  All of us realize that the Bible is not flat–and an honest reading of Scripture must begin with that acknowledgement.

Because the Bible is not flat, reading Scripture responsibly and honestly requires taking the Bible seriously–not literally.  The Bible requires committed, prayerful reflection and careful study.  This is particularly the case for those books, like Leviticus, that presume a worldview and way of life very different from ours.

But this certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should avoid those harder books!  Leviticus, including the Holiness Code, is Scripture–word of God for people of God.  We need to hear, and heed, its summons to lives of personal holiness.

Holiness, after all, means more than ritual purity. The Holiness Code also states, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18).  Jesus called this passage one of the two commandments on which “[a]ll the Law and the Prophets depend” (see Matt 22:34-40).  For John Wesley, holiness, or Christian perfection, meant

. . . loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions, are governed by pure love (John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection [Orlando: Relevant Media, 2006; orig. 1777]; p. 49).

May our reading of the Bible lead us into lives of love, following the God who comes to meet us in these pages.


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