The text has something to say!
When considering the real conversations that we have from day to day, we see that it is important for us to learn how to listen to one another. Otherwise we won’t understand what the other side desires to communicate to us and there will not be any real interaction or communication. Of course, I am able to respond even without listening, but my response will only be relevant if I have perceived and understood what was said to me.
We can look in the same manner at the reading of the Bible. Of course, I have many thoughts of my own and things that I would like to say about what I’m reading… but if I desire to respond to what is really said in the text (and not just what I am imagining to myself), I need to learn how to listen to it and to give it the chance to speak to me.
It is therefore important to understand that the text itself has something to say, that it has a message. Whether the goal of the text is to teach or communicate something to its readers (including me), or to express something towards God (as in many of the Psalms) and I am just an onlooker, listening to, and maybe even joining in with, what is said by the psalmist – it is important for me to aim at understanding the meaning of the text.
Similarity and variation
Just as in every family there can be a lot of similarity between family members (language and accent, external look, behavior, traditions, etc.), at the same time each person in the family has his or her own character and personality – the Bible is the same. There is no doubt that there is similarity between its different parts, but it is important for us to recognize the uniqueness of each book, each psalm, etc. Therefore it is very important to read with curiosity and with an interest to know and understand each part in and of itself.
For example, each book of the Bible has its own structure. Even though the idea of literary genre is important, it is not right to try to force a well-known literary structure upon any of the Biblical books. If we do this, we are likely to miss out on the uniqueness and the message, since the message is deeply rooted in the book’s structure and division. This is also true not only with entire books but also with poetic sections (Psalms, for example) or sub-sections of a book.
It is worth reading with an interest in knowing the character of the text and the message found in it, in order to hear what that part of the Bible has to say. It is an adventure that is really worth the effort. As we continue to read, we will start to recognize the similarities and the connections in language and idea between the different parts, without losing the understanding of the unique contribution that each part gives to the whole.
A few examples
The same history of the Israelites found in I & II Samuel and I & II Kings can be found also in I & II Chronicles, many times in the same exact words. However, it is important to understand the direction and message of each one, and to discern what belongs to the books’ own unique character and message. For example, it is noticeable that in I & II Samuel and I & II Kings, the history of the two kingdoms (Judah in the south, and Israel in the north) is displayed in an in-depth fashion. Compared to this, I & II Chronicles is both more selective and chooses to focus more on the kingdom of Judah and less on the northern kingdom of Israel, usually only when it is relevant to the Kingdom of Judah’s story. Moreover, in I & II Chronicles there is a tendency to not include the most negative stories about David and his descendants (for example, the stories of David’s sin with Bathsheba or the idolatry of King Solomon towards the end of his life). This lack fits with the emphasis put in I & II Chronicles on the subject of the legitimacy of the House of David, an emphasis that was especially important in post-exilic times. This comes with the emphasis on the legitimacy of the unified religious center of the Jerusalem Temple, that was also important during the time when the Temple was to be rebuilt after the exile. The fact that I & II Chronicles repeats material from I & II Kings, or from the same sources that the author of I & II Kings based the books on, does not reduce the uniqueness and creativity found in I & II Chronicles.
When reading the Prophets, there are many things that are common from book to book, but in spite of this each one is definitely unique and one shouldn’t think “If I’ve read one, I’ve read them all.” Despite the difficulties that may arise from reading these books, it is worth it to understand the message and to identify what is in common between the different books.
In the book of Psalms, each psalm is a world in and of itself. Despite the similarities and common elements between the different psalms, it is important to read each psalm with an interest in discovering what is unique in it and what it emphasizes in its message and meaning.
The details and the whole
When one gets to know someone for a long time, the little details of their appearance and personality become more distinguishable or recognizable, but it is clear to see how they all come together to make up one whole human being. While reading the biblical text, it is very important to take note of the small details, but also to understand their place in the whole text and their contribution to the message. This is also true on the level of each sentence, each verse, and each of the words that come together to make them, both when looking at the different parts of the work (paragraphs, verses in a poem/psalm, literary units) that the sentences and verses belong to, as well as when considering the relationship between all the different parts within the work. In order to let the text speak, it is important to understand each word and its meaning in its context, each sentence and its place and contribution to its context, as well as each part of the book or poem but with its meaning and weight in the greater textual context. It is therefore worthwhile to read the text in a way that takes note of both the details and their contribution to the whole text. Only then will we be able to understand the message of the text, since the whole is larger than the sum of its parts but is also made up of its parts.
A recommended way to read, therefore, is to take note of the details, of the context, and of the overall message. This demands investment in time and effort, but the payoff is well worth the work. To read in this way, there are several steps and we will mention them in more depth in other articles (for example, see the article on Biblical poetry). But for now, here are a few important points:
- For those of you who don’t read Hebrew it is worth finding a literal translation which you can use alongside the translation that you normally use (for example, Young’s Literal Translation). The literal translation may not flow as well as the one you are used to, but it will help you catch some important features of the Hebrew original that may be lost in other translations, such as:
- word order (which at times can be important)
- repetition of the same word (which can be translated differently but its repetition may be making a point)
- certain turns of phrase, ways of saying things in the original Hebrew, which are smoothed out in normal translations, but which actually express a content that is important to the message
These are some examples of things you will notice when you use a literal translation that reflects the wording of the original language.
If you have experience reading the biblical languages, then it can be beneficial to use a lexicon and concordance when reading the original text. It is worthwhile looking up not only unfamiliar words, but also words that we think we understand but that maybe have a different meaning than what we are used to. When words have different meanings than what we are expecting it is important to pay attention to this.
- A recommend reading strategy is that of repeated reading. During the first reading we may check out words that are less familiar as well as their meaning in context, seek to understand the general picture, and maybe notice some unusual details or a general feeling of something that repeats itself. During the second reading (and further readings) we can build upon the first reading and go more in depth with the elements that clearly become repetitions in different ways, whether to emphasize or make clear the meaning of the text.
In Pirkei Avot 2:4 it is written: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have reached his place.” This idea is reflected in the better-known proverb: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” The meaning is, of course, that if you want to truly understand someone else, you need to understand him from his perspective. This is true also for all those who seek to fully understand the text of the Bible. This doesn’t mean that you need to start off by changing your worldview in order to read the Bible. But it does mean that if you want the text to speak to you, to hear what it has to say, you must be sensitive to its worldview and to be willing to read what is written from the perspective of the inner premises in the text, trying not to judge it according to your own worldview. Otherwise, you will only be explaining everything according to your own standard, and you will never be able to understand the message of the Biblical text in the way it desires to express itself.
Contemplating the text – read with the head, read with the heart
The Bible is a book. This may not be clear initially but has important ramifications: it communicates in a literary manner. It is, therefore, critical to read it in a literary manner, using a reading strategy that considers the different literary devices that are found in it, and that attempts to identify the literary structure, the different elements and their place in context, as well as the text as a whole.
The Bible uses the word “contemplate” or “meditate” (in Hebrew: להגות) in the context of a deep reading that bears fruit (see for example, Ps 1:2 – “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.”) The first step in this kind of contemplation is to understand the text in a cognitive sense. For this purpose we encourage you to read in a literary manner as previously described, to try to understand the message of the text and to let the text speak. But this contemplation does not end with the first step. It continues by involving the heart, reading with a willingness to hear the message and being ready to “have a conversation” with the text, with what the text has to say, and with the One whom the text talks of and testifies to.
We hope that you will find tools on our website that will help you to understand the text and encourage you to contemplate the text in a way that involves the heart as well as the head.
 Translation: Mishnah Yomit by Dr. Joshua Kulp