Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Considering the Literary Brilliance of the Bible

I have always been a lover of literature since I was a child and consider myself a lifelong student of the English language. Two years ago I took a Bible course called Hermeneutics, which is a fancy name that simply means the study of interpretation theory. In this case, it was the study of how to interpret the Bible. I found the course fascinating because it broke down the Bible into several categories that needed to be considered when approaching the interpretation of any portion of Scripture. These categories included the text’s historical setting, geographic location, cultural aspects and its use of linguistics. It is this last category that I wanted to spend some time discussing.

It is an amazing thing to consider that the Bible, written over a period of fifteen hundred years, has a common theme - the redemption of sinful man by a gracious and loving God. Approximately forty men, from Moses to the Apostle John were Bible writers from circa 1500 BC to 100 AD.

The Bible is what one person has called a "linguistic incarnation" as it is 100% the word of man and 100% the word of God, as God used men to write down His thoughts in the same way a businessman uses a secretary. He allowed them to put these thoughts in their own words, but the men themselves were inspired (2 Peter 1:20-21). The authors differed in many ways. Some were Pharisees, including the Apostle Paul. Others were fishermen, such as Peter and John. Matthew was a tax collector. David was the King of Israel. Amos was a shepherd from Judah. Although their backgrounds and occupations were vastly different, God used these men to accomplish his will as each one used their life experience and individual talents to pen their respective books.

It may surprise you to know that the Bible contains 8,000 figures of speech! A figure of speech is simply a word or a sentence thrown into a peculiar form, different from its original or simplest meaning or use. If we say "It is raining hard," we are using a normal, plain statement. But if we say, "It is raining cats and dogs," we have used a sentence that means the same thing but is a more unusual or colorful way of expressing the same thought. The Bible is filled with metaphors, similes and other figures of speech to convey God’s message to its readers in a palatable and memorable way.

The Bible also employs several genres or literary writing styles, including narratives, legal writings, poetry, wisdom literature, gospel writings, epistolary (letters), and prophetic literature.

The Book of Psalms, often called the hymn book of the Bible, is its most poetic. William E. Gladstone, who was prime minister of England during the 18th century, had this to say about the Psalms, "All the wonders of Greek civilization heaped together are less wonderful than is the simple Book of Psalms."

There may not be a more captivating and thrilling chapter in the Bible than Ezekiel chapter one, where the prophet describes in explicit detail his vision of the Lord coming in a whirlwind. The entire book of Revelation uses wonderful imagery and symbolism to convey the Great Day of the Lord and Christ’s triumphant return to the earth. The four synoptic gospels all detail the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as each writer skillfully depicts a different aspect of the Savior, from His deity to His humanity to His coming kingdom. Then there is the Book of Ruth, a love story from other days, which moves the reader from tragic heartbreak at its outset to overflowing joy at its conclusion in just four short chapters.

Alas, I do not have the time or space to touch on the literary brilliance of each book of the Bible, but would encourage you to begin reading it if you never have in the past. So many people believe the errant perception that the writers of the Bible were old men that offer nothing of value for our present age. This statement could not be more false. Quite simply, the Bible is the divine communicating to the human, conveying His message of salvation through every genre of the human language.

"If I were asked what has been the most powerful force in the making of history, I should have answered figurative expression. It is by imagination that men have lived; imagination rules all our lives. The human mind is not, as philosophers would have you think, a debating hall, but a picture gallery. Remove the figurative expressions from the Bible and its living spirit vanishes…the prophets, the poets, the leaders of men are all of them masters of imagery, and by imagery they capture the human soul." - W. MacNeil Dixon, Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow

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