March 7, 2010

Reflecting on the Bible – Part 1

Whenever I read the Bible, particularly when I’m reading through familiar sections, there is a risk that even though I am reading it, I’m not actually listening to what God has said (and is saying) through it. I am reading the words and hopefully even following the plotline of the story, yet oftentimes I do not take the time to think about what I’ve read and reflect on the significance of it. It is this thought and reflection that the Bible refers to as meditation. Far from the popular notion of passivity, or spending hours cross-legged on the floor in a trance-like state, this meditation is active and engaged. It involves contemplating and considering what the text says, why it says what it does, and what the implications of this are. It begins while we’re reading, but should continue throughout the day. During a lull in the day’s activities, while waiting in line or in traffic, or instead of being distracted by the noisiness of life and the unlimited forms of entertainment which surround us, the mind focuses in on the text again and continues to think about what it means. It is this persistent and prayerful reflection, combined with an obedient heart, which leads to true wisdom and discernment.
O how I love your law!
All day long I meditate on it.
Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies,
for I am always aware of them.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your rules.
I am more discerning than those older than I,
for I observe your precepts.
(Psalm 119:97-99; see also Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1-3; 2 Timothy 3:14-16)
A difficulty arises when we think about this in the face of our fast-paced, instant-results culture. In many respects, we’ve forgotten how to think or reflect. It’s not enough to say, “I need to seek wisdom from God through prayer and meditation on Scripture.” The problem is that I don’t know how to meditate or what the results of it should be. When I read a passage from the Bible, I get what is said, but I’m often left with a “so what?” feeling, or an “I already know that story” reaction. There is certainly much to be gleaned directly from the surface of many texts and this is a blessing, but when it comes to plumbing the depths and thinking through the significance of an ancient text for our life today things are much more difficult. What are we to do? How can we learn how to reflect on the Bible?
A good place to start in a quest for the answer is in the pages of the Bible itself. Since the composition of the Bible in its present form took place over the course of 1500 years, an interesting phenomenon develops. As you progress through the text, you’ll find that the Bible contains much reflection, interpretation, analysis, and application of itself. Many of the prophets, apostles, and holy men of millennia past, whose Spirit-inspired words now make up the text of our Bible, were themselves students of Scripture, meditating day and night in the pursuit of wisdom from God, and the result of those meditations can found throughout their writings.
An excellent demonstration of this is Genesis 1. Undoubtedly one of the most familiar passages in the Bible, since every Bible reading plan starts here and it is often brought into discussions on various topics. This familiarity is what leads to some of the feelings expressed above. I already know what it says – “God created the world, he created plants, animals, humans, six days, so on…” What significance does this have for us? Is there any value in continued meditation and reflection on Genesis 1? Beyond any insight into the creation vs. evolution discussion about cosmic origins, is there any wisdom to be gained from the truths set forth in this chapter or should I just continue reading on to Genesis 2?
In a series of posts, I’d like to engage in an exercise where I ask this question of the other biblical authors and seek out their reflections on Genesis 1 and the truth of God as Creator. Through this, I hope to not only learn more about God and his world, but also to gain some insight into how the biblical authors reflected on and applied Scripture, which would help me to sharpen my own ability to reflect on and apply Scripture. The method is simple and can be done by anyone. First, I begin with Genesis 1, seeking to understand the flow of the story and paying attention to the emphases and details along the way. Next, I collect the cross-references found in a few different Bibles (since the cross-references vary among versions, I use 3 Bibles which I’ve found to have helpful cross-reference systems – ESV, NASB, and Cambridge KJV Reference edition). Using those cross-references, I look for quotations, allusions, or reflections that are relevant to the subject matter of Genesis 1. For each reference, I ask “What is the text saying?” and “How is the author understanding or applying the truths of Genesis 1?”
I will post the results of this exercise under the 5 headings below:

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