How to Read the Bible
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
I think one of the hardest things about our Bible is that, depending on how you read it, you can use it to justify just about anything.
“You shall not murder,” says one of the ten commandments in Exodus, chapter 20. But then the Israelites go on to commit all sorts of murder, wiping out the Cannannites in order to take their Promised Land. Even King David, the great hero, has a man killed simply so he can sleep with his wife. Let’s back up, though, the first act of “heroism” he commits is killing Goliath.
Speaking of murder: Did your spouse cheat on you? Murder is an appropriate punishment, according to Leviticus, chapter 20. Oh, but not so fast, says Jesus in the gospel of John, chapter 8, to those who are about to stone an adulterous woman to death. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
And what about—yeah, I’m going to say it—abortion. “For you created my inmost being;” says Psalm 139. “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” But also, in the book of Numbers, chapter 5, a priest of God prescribes a potion to test if a pregnant woman has committed adultery. If she’s guilty, verse 21 says, and I quote, “the Lord makes her womb miscarry.” If she’s innocent, the pregnancy will continue.
This is all sorts of problematic, obviously, but in the case of Numbers, God clearly prioritizes the woman’s faithfulness to her husband over the continuation of the pregnancy.
It’s not about what the Bible says. The Bible says all sorts of things, written by all sorts of different people who had all sorts of different agendas. It’s about what content we prioritize, and how we choose to read it.
This all brings us to the book of Revelation. Maybe I’ve already told you this before, but when I was a kid—like when I was 11 or 12—I used to sit over the forced-air heater on the floor of our dining room in the winter, curled up with the Bible, reading Revelation like it was a gripping thriller. The sun blacked out. Horse-sized locusts come to torture unbelievers. Enormous wars waged. Death, destruction, a person come to this world embodying evil itself, the opposite of Christ, the anti-Christ.
It’s no wonder that the Left Behind series and movies, which are based largely on Revelation, are so wildly popular. Even if you’re not Christian, the imagery of Revelation is vivid and maddening and over the top and dark. It’s compelling.
And it was written by a man who was himself living in the midst of a dark situation. John, the author of Revelation, was a Christ-follower in the Roman Empire during a time when following Christ came with significant risk. We’re not sure if Revelation was written during the time of Nero or Domitian, but both emperors were known for persecuting Christians. In fact, the 666 in Revelation likely refers to Nero who ruled before Domitian.
No one knows exactly how that persecution looked. Sources report that the apostle Paul was likely beheaded and the disciple Peter crucified during Nero’s time, both for proclaiming Christ. We know that this John is called John of Patmos because he was exiled to the Greek island of Patmos for spreading Christian ideas.
Being a Christian in that time meant risking your home and even your life.
And John of Patmos was a self-proclaimed prophet, and probably a well-known one at that. He was both rebel and storyteller. And he obviously knew how to tell a good story.
In the face of that persecution, that danger, Revelation is what he conjured. One Bible scholar says, “The book of Revelation takes sides in a battle over sovereignty, where the Roman emperor competes with God and Christ in a contest for the allegiance of the faithful. Warning that those who worship the emperor, symbolized by ‘the beast’, will suffer ultimate defeat.”
John of Patmos wrote an incredible revenge fantasy.
A couple months ago, I watched the movie Don’t Look Up. It’s about a scientist—played by Jennifer Lawrence—who discovers that a comet is headed straight for the earth and will destroy everything and everyone in about six months. The president—played by Meryl Streep—willfully denies it as fake news, convincing a lot of the country and the world not to worry about it. The scientists become activists, trying to rally the world to do something immediately before everyone dies.
The movie is a pretty obvious allegory for climate change. It’s vivid and maddening and hilarious and over the top and dark. It’s compelling.
Can you imagine if people 2,000 years from now discovered this movie and decided to take it as a prophecy of what’s literally going to happen? They start predicting when the comet will come, start sorting people into comet-believers and comet-unbelievers. They start building spaceships and deciding who is worthy of escaping and who isn’t.
That’s how some Christians treat Revelation today.
But Revelation is also an allegory—a story intended to guide us in our belief and actions. In fact, one of the earliest and most prominent bishops of the early Church—Dionysius of Alexandria, who lived during the third century—didn’t want Revelation included in the canon of the Bible unless it was made clear that it was allegorical.
So if Revelation is an allegory, what is it trying to guide us toward? Another scholar I read says that Revelation is a call to “resist with patient endurance and at any cost the overwhelming pressures to accommodation and compromise with the dominant culture.” I like that.
But we need to be really honest with ourselves: there’s not one way to define the dominant culture we’re supposed to resist. Some of us think that fighting white supremacy is resisting dominant culture. Others think that banning books that teach about systemic racism is resisting dominant culture.
How are we to know what should guide our belief and actions? As I said before, not even our Bible is clear.
I can only tell you what I do, how I’m guided. I prioritize Jesus. The Jewish teacher and healer around whom our whole faith is centered. The child of God we call our savior.
And in today’s gospel, Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In his life, Jesus loved people without wondering whether they deserved it or not, and he showed this love by healing, blessing, feeding, protecting, forgiving.
He loved his family and friends, of course, but he also loved foreigners. He loved Roman soldiers. He loved tax collectors. He loved prostitutes. He loved the 5,000, the majority of whom I’m sure he hadn’t met. He loved the criminal who hung on the cross next to him.
Jesus’ love did not require anything on the other person’s part. He didn’t force people into believing a certain way before he showed his love. He didn’t try to control people’s behavior. He trusted that love given freely would change everything.
And Jesus showed the ultimate love through the resurrection, overcoming the human sin that killed him and deciding to love us anyway. And we were changed by that love. We continue to be changed by that love.
That kind of love, Jesus’ love, is what guides my belief, my action.
I don’t think that suppressing the cruelest parts of American history—slavery and all the ways that slavery shaped our modern institutions—demonstrates that kind of love.
I don’t think taking away a person’s freedom to make choices about their own body—whether having a baby or affirming one’s gender—demonstrates that kind of love.
In a Bible fraught with contradictions, with so many ways to read and interpret it, I let Jesus’ love be my lens. I let Jesus’ love be my compass.
Because the kind of love Jesus showed us was about trust. Trusting that love given freely, without demands, without conditions, without coercion, will change everything.