Faces on Faith: A matter of interpretation
I bring certain presuppositions to the Bible. I assume that it should be read in context. I assume that we should pay attention to things like literary form and historical background when we explore a passage. I expect that parts of the Bible are to be understood figuratively, that metaphor and simile play major roles in certain passages. And I assume that it was inspired by God. Not directly for the most part. God didn’t dictate the texts to the various authors. But I believe they were inspired by their encounters with God, and out of those inspirations they wrote their poems and stories and histories and genealogies.
I also bring another presupposition to the Bible that impacts my interpretations of the texts. For I assume that it does indeed have something to say to you and me in this day and age – even as it has spoken to other people of faith over the last three millennia. I assume that while it rarely reflects the literal words of God, it is the Word of God. And I am willing to trust that the millions of Christians, and in the case of the Hebrew scriptures millions of Jews as well, who have gone before me, and who have found profound meaning in its pages, were right.
Over thirty years ago, when I went through a divorce, I experienced a great deal of emotional pain. I also felt very guilty. Not because I had engaged in some illicit behavior – I had not. No, I felt guilty simply because I was getting divorced. I had always been taught that marriage was for a lifetime, and that divorce was wrong. As a result, I felt very isolated from God.
But then I stumbled on Psalm 139. You know it, perhaps, for it is one of the better-known bits of poetry in the Bible. But I had not encountered it before. Its words saw me through that period of my life. We don’t know who wrote it – perhaps David. We don’t know its immediate context. But clearly the author experienced the same sort of distancing from God that I knew in those days. Yet the author was also able to express his belief that God was still present, and still cared, even if it wasn’t always obvious. “If I descend to Sheol (the land of the dead),” he wrote, “you are there If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limits of the seas, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:8b-9)
I didn’t need to take it literally to be comforted. I knew that the author wasn’t thinking he would be literally walking around Sheol, or flying to the horizon. I knew he meant it metaphorically. I knew he meant anywhere we go, no matter the circumstances, God is there. And that thought, that thousands of years ago a person of faith had experienced a time of distress like mine and had found a way through it, gave me the strength to carry on.
You see, in the end, while it is always a matter of interpretation, it is also so much more. For in the end, the Bible connects us to the unknown Psalmist, and countless others who have gone before us. Men and women, girls and boys, who have found courage, strength, comfort and hope, in reading and interpreting the scriptures. And that, like the Bible itself, is both inspired and inspiring!
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.