How I Interpret the Bible
When approaching scripture, I am aware of what I bring with me. I come to the text with a set of experiences that affect my reading of it. My skin color, my economic class, my gender, my citizenship, my family and my religion all have an effect on my interpretation of any text. I cannot read the Bible without the lenses of my past.
Likewise, I use the Bible as a lens to shape my present. Where once it was a mirror, showing me my faults and shortcomings, I now see its prophetic implications and social admonitions more clearly, using it as ‘recommended reading’ for building a more equitable and just society.
As recently as five years ago, the Bible was an end for me. It was the clincher in any debate I wanted to win (or at least feel superior in), a weapon that I often brandished in order to cut someone down to size. It was not a way to understand God or a document that pointed towards God; it was God. The Bible was THE revelation of God, not to be questioned, never to be doubted, and most certainly, the Bible’s authority on all things human must never, ever be anything less than absolute and final.
Inevitably, as I grew older, the questions life gives us when we think we’re not paying attention called this blind devotion into question. Themes such as the social settings in which these sacred scriptures were penned, the vast difference in time between when the words were written and today, traditions of folklore, questions of inerrancy, the human involvement in speaking for God – all of these ideas jumpstarted my journey towards a deeper understanding (and therefore a deeper love) of the Bible.
Fortunately, my deeper love did not mean a more obtuse following of every dictum in the Bible. When I removed Jesus from his lofty perch as the end of all things scriptural, I began to see a beautiful man, more in touch with God and his fellow humans than I ever had before. Freed from his sole role as soul role model, he became one who advocated for more equitable economic systems, a freer understanding of God, and who sought to banish stereotypes that, for some, had become truth. Like me, the meanings of the Bible became malleable and changeable.
The Bible became ‘true,’ but not in the sense of factual data having actually happened in a given point within human history. The Bible became ‘true’ because it pointed to a God who I knew to exist deep within me. The Bible was true in the way that nursery rhymes and Aesop’s fables are true – we learn from them, they shape us, and we create a better world because we know that to act differently in light of this story is wrong.
This newfound interpretation method is not without its own holes. Like a rigid fundamentalist, I, too, pick and choose which verses of the Bible I feel are applicable. I lobby for people to give to the poor in our current capitalist system, but I do not believe a loving God would endorse systematic genocide of entire nations. I do not greet people with a holy kiss, but I do believe that Christians are to surround themselves with the poor. I do not feel as though God has predetermined every second of our lives, but I do feel as though there are forces of good and evil at work in the world.
In regards to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), I cannot help but rethink the meanings of the text in light of who I believe Jesus to be. Exclusive passages with excruciating requirements on who may and may not stand, worship or be in a certain place disappear when we see Jesus touch lepers, forgive adulterers and upstage the pious. In my Bible, grace and love win in the end (although I’m not sure what or where the ‘end’ is). The communal requirements in Deuteronomy 23 do not allow for grace, so they must be relegated to historical context, explained away by stating that different men in a different time wrote those words because they were important to other men a long time ago.
Trying to stay off of the slippery slope, I realize that the notions of Jesus as Justice Warrior can equally be explained away with an appeal to context. However, for me, there seems to be something so much more permanent about Jesus than a temporary tabernacle in the desert. I see Jesus as having more durability than a prototype understanding of medicine and religion. I see the message of Jesus’ forgiveness and love the chief call upon my life. If my only purpose in life is to enforce the rules, then I feel that I am missing something.
Regarding ‘membership’ in the community of God, I think the requirements are more than skin deep. The benevolent community where love and forgiveness and grace are a way of life does not begin with clean hands – it begins with a pure heart. For the Jewish mindset, the clean hands were important because outward devotion to God was mandatory in a theocracy. But for me and my Jesus-mindset, a pure heart is the goal of the community, which can be achieved with dirty hands.
Membership and attendance are rarely equals. My heart can long for a place that my legs cannot take me. The lack of my physical presence does not negate my membership. I can work on the margins and achieve more than sitting in a chair. Perhaps when these Israelites went outside the camp until sundown on the next day, they were scheming ways to be more understanding, compassionate and accepting. Perhaps by not being allowed to worship formally, they informally achieved the purity of life that was thought to only come through ceremonial cleansing.
I feel that Jesus knew this best. Growing up marginalized, he knew the feeling of not being included. And instead of trying to exclude, he simply redrew the lines of membership. The outsiders were in and the insiders were forced to look at the new line in the sand and figure out where they now belonged.
The litmus test for all things Scriptural comes at what I feel is the fulcrum of the Bible – Micah 6:8. If a passage does not chide us to love justice, to walk humbly or to love mercy, then it cannot have a place at the table of the new feast of grace introduced to us by the God-man Jesus. If I am to hold Jesus in a special place in Christianity, then I must acknowledge that his life set a new standard. This new standard was not one of oppressive rules, but one of a lighter yoke. There are still responsibilities, there are still regulations upon those who belong, and there are still expectations we must meet. But, they have all become more than skin deep.
Therefore, I approach Deuteronomy 23 with the understanding that it does not represent a complete picture of the community of God, nor does it reflect our present reality. Likewise, our present reality does not reflect a complete picture of the community of God. Our rules today may very well fall by the wayside of a changing worldview tomorrow. But, if I believe God to be ‘big’ enough to be present in an exclusive Israelite community, and ‘big’ enough to be present in our Christian communities today, I must believe God ‘big’ enough to dwell outside of, or beyond, this community.
I read the Bible with my past and all of its baggage, try to interpret it in light of a collective social present, hoping to get closer to a future with a God manifested in Jesus.