How do you hold the Bible?

In the second book of Samuel, the 23rd chapter, we hear the last words of King David. “The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me, [God’s] word is upon my tongue.” David speaks of leadership with justice. I confess, I am caught by David’s proclamation: “God’s word is upon my tongue.”

That’s a bold claim. David is the purported author of what today’s scholars consider the oldest pieces of scripture, the Psalms. David can be seen as the human originator of our Biblical tradition. How do we relate to David’s words? “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, God’s word is upon my tongue?”

Today we celebrate the end of the year. Today marks the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday in our Biblical Cycle. Next week we will begin with the first Sunday of Advent, a new year. Today as we wrap up our cycle of scripture, I want to consider our relationship with the Bible. Many Christians boldly claim the title “Literalist” in their approach to scripture. I have to tell you I am not one of their number.

I don’t believe that the people who followed King David and put together the Hebrew Bible were attempting to give a counter-argument to evolution. The Book of Genesis was never meant to give a geological date for the Earth. The questions of our scientific world are not the questions held by the people who developed the Scriptures. I believe it is fruitless to try to argue against science with the Bible.

But that doesn’t mean means we should lay the Bible aside. The writers of Scripture held important questions, theological questions. The writers of the first chapter of Genesis included a refrain to their creation account. We read that “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and God created light and “saw that the light was good.” God separated the waters from the sky, the dry land from the sea, and “God saw that it was good.” God put forth vegetation, “And God saw that it was good.” God created the sun and the stars and “saw that it was good.” God created living creatures, “And saw that it was good.” God finally created humankind in God’s own image, and God looked on all that was created and saw, “indeed, it was very good.” Good, Good, very good.

Some scholars now believe that this story was written during the Babylonian exile. The people of Israel were living in a strange land, and hearing strange stories about the creation. Babylonians believed that life on earth was an accident, caused by warring and capricious Gods. Human beings were a side-show to the more interesting melodramas of the heavens. The gods liked to mess with people by sending floods and famines. The refugee people of God begged to differ. “No, God intended our creation,” they said. God saw that we were good, even us refugees. The earth is good. The sky is good. The people are very good. God intends us, delights in us, we are made in the image and likeness of God. Today, when the world can still seem a little capricious, especially to refugees. Famines and floods are still commonplace, and still today the Scripture tells us that God created us on purpose, and cares for us. That is very very good.

The Bible wasn’t written to contend with today’s science, but there are deep truths at stake in Scripture. The Bible also wasn’t written in for our so-called culture war. We have to face that gender inequality, homophobia, and slavery are commonplace in our Scripture. That doesn’t mean they should be commonplace in our world today. One of the best guidelines I have heard for Scripture comes from a bumper sticker: The Bible is not a book of directions (plural), but a Book of Direction (singular).

We may not find exact data for our modern quandaries, but if we read the overall arc of the Bible, we can hear the deep rhythm of Scripture that still rings true: God creates us, God loves us, God yearns for us to be free to love God and one another.

Just last month, our Jewish sisters and brothers celebrated the end of their own cycle of readings. Each year in the synagogue, the service of Simchat Torah marks the end of the scroll. Literally, because the Jewish Torah is hand-written on a lambskin scroll. You know you’ve come to the end of the cycle because all of the skin is wrapped around one of the spools. It needs to be re-wound.

When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of attending a Simchat Torah celebration at the congregation Aggudis Achim in Alexandria, Virginia. The rabbi Jack Moline had crafted the celebration. Any adults in the congregation who wished to participate were given white gloves at the start of the service. After some dancing and singing, the participants stood in a big circle and the torah scroll that had been on the lectern was completely unravelled. Each of us with gloved hands held the skin carefully between our fingers.

The torah scroll wrapped around the congregation. We were literally surrounded by Scripture, literally holding the words of the Bible. As the adults held the torah teenagers who had recently been through their bar or bat mitzvah stood around the room near a section of scroll and chanted aloud a story of God’s people. As these young voices sang in Hebrew, I looked around the room.

Torah scrolls are works of art. The calligraphy is masterful. There are moments where you can literally see what is happening in the text. I could see across the room in big Hebrew letters LO, LO, LO, (NO, NO, NO) standing out in the text of the ten commandments. Earlier on the scroll, as the Israelites cross though the Red Sea on dry land, the calligraphy takes on the shape of wild waves. God rescues the people from bondage. Holding the Torah, we were surrounded by stories of God’s relationship with God’s people.

That night, standing in the synagogue, I came to a new appreciation of our ancient shared texts. I was invited, literally, to hold Scripture with care and with reverence. I admit, when the rabbi told me that each individual scroll costs something like $80 thousand, I held that scripture with fear and trembling. Still, the reverence with which the Jewish community held the text inspired me. These stories told of God’s action among God’s people. They surrounded a community that had, in the words of our Collect, “inwardly digested” Scripture. The story of God’s loving action wasn’t just the story of centuries ago. God was active loving this community in the present.

Today, as we come to the end of our own cycle of readings, I invite you to consider your own relationship with Scripture. Maybe you’re like me, and you’re not a literalist. Maybe for you parts of the Bible aren’t asking the same question as science or history textbooks. Maybe you need some footnotes to explain the Biblical moral code. But can you still hold scripture with reverence for the deeper truths it contains?

I invite you not to let go of Scripture. Hold on to the Bible. These stories can still speak to our complicated postmodern world. Though they may have to speak over some cultural dissonance, the message of Scripture is still powerful.

Today we celebrate another round of hearing God’s word. From the Beginning, God has loved you. God created you. God yearns for you to be free to love God and your neighbor. Inwardly digest.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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