See and Savor the Bible's Rich Layers
While celebrating my wife's birthday at a Brazilian restaurant we finished our meal with a wonderful dessert. A birds-eye view of the cake slice revealed a chocolate topping with a sweet glaze. But sticking the fork into the cake revealed something even more pleasing, something unexpected: layers. Layers of other desserty goodness that beckoned me to savor.
Even though our meals were finished, suddenly we weren't in a hurry anymore. Here was something artfully prepared with the finest ingredients. The layers mattered because their cumulative effect heightened the enjoyment of the food. The plate didn't feature some hodge-podge attempt at combining a little of everything and hoping the result worked out. The presentation and consumption was rich and satisfying because someone designed it that way.
Have you ever noticed how the Bible speaks about itself with sensory language regarding our spiritual palate? God's words are sweet like honey (Ps 119:103). Believers should long for the milk of God's word (1 Pet 2:2). Man doesn't live on bread alone but on each word from Yahweh's mouth (Deut 8:3). Taste that God is good (Ps 34:8).
Sometimes we might find ourselves rushing through Scripture. Maybe we're trying to meet a daily quota, trying to get to the next thing on the to-do list, or perhaps we're more interested in a passage still to come. So we rush. We hastily consume, take in a birds-eye view, with nary a prayerful pause or time for reflection.
We should be more patient as we read the Bible. There are layers to see and be savored.
The Authors as Literary Artists
God's Word is a marvel. To read the Bible is to connect with literary compositions thousands of years old, divine revelation written down in stories and letters and poetry. But this inscripturated communication has not been hastily compiled. The Bible's human authors are literary artists. They wrote with intention and structure.
There's no book on earth like the Bible, and no text should be more savored. We should give close attention to the writers' rhetorical devices, intertextual echoes, explicit Old Testament quotations, and even the arrangement of the material. A surface read won't reveal the artistry that patiently laboring over their texts will. We must give to the Bible our time, our mind, our prayerful dependence for insight and understanding.
Seeing What's (Not) There
Spending time savoring the text will result in seeing what is there but may not be readily apparent. Insight must be earnestly pursued. "Think over what I say," Paul told Timothy, "for the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Tim 2:7).
Think about the arrangement of the first Gospel's opening chapters. Scholars have noted how Jesus embodies the experience of Israel as he comes out of Egypt (Matt 2:15, 21), goes through the waters of judgment (3:13-17), endures temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), and talks about God's law with authority (5:1-7:29). In the design of these opening chapters Matthew shows how Jesus is the new Israel, the true Israel, God's faithful and obedient Son.
Consider how Peter instructed Christian slaves to endure injustices incurred while living under harsh masters. He pointed to the example of Jesus, who had no deceit in his mouth (1 Pet 2:22), who bore our sins and healed our wounds (2:24), and who is the Shepherd of sheep formerly astray (2:25). Why is this language significant? It's still dripping from baptism in Isaiah 53. Peter draws upon explicit Isaian phrases of the Suffering Servant and holds them up to the eyes of literal suffering servants. This move is especially meaningful coming from Peter, who once rebuked Jesus for linking suffering to the work of the Messiah (Matt 16:22). The resurrection changed his hermeneutic (cf. his speech in Acts 3:18).
Reading the Bible Patiently
The layers of a text matter because the authors wrote and arranged their material from a perspective shaped by the Old Testament. Even the words of later Old Testament writers were molded by earlier biblical texts. Their minds were drenched in ancient images and stories and promises. Our goal should be to immerse our minds in these things too.
The method for a richer reading of the text calls for a more patient reading. This doesn't necessarily mean studying only small sections here, a few verses there. In fact, reflecting longer on larger sections of Scripture can bring more understanding as you gain a firmer grasp on the Great Story being unfolded. Reading, in one sitting, books like Revelation, Isaiah, and Ephesians is a valuable exercise requiring both time and prolonged focus. You don't always have to choose between reading widely and reading reflectively.
Peter Leithart illustrates patient reading with the example of music:
We cannot take in music in a moment. A chord gives us several notes at once, but a chord is not music, or not much music. To hear the simplest melody, we need to listen for at least a few seconds. And more complex pieces of music can take an hour or more to experience. . . . If we are going to listen to music at all, we have to give it time to unfold. . . . This does not appeal to us. We are often impatient with music, and we are impatient with texts (Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, 52-53, 55).
Reading the Bible Repetitively
A patient approach to Scripture also involves repetitive reading, because the words of the text need to sink in deep. We especially need to read the Old Testament in order to fill our mental reservoir. From this reservoir we'll see later echoes of earlier Scriptures not only in the New Testament but in the Old. Whether or not you realize it, each time you read a text you're storing up words, and this mental---and spiritual!---deposit will help you read with more comprehension what comes later.
Reflecting on textual layers isn't a hermeneutical practice that denies authorial intent. It simply recognizes that authorial intent can be complex and doesn't always mean locating one valid meaning for a verse. With a layered reading the text isn't ignored but bolstered. Its meaning isn't deadened but enriched.
So savor the Scripture. Read it again and again, and think over what it says. Read widely in the Bible, yes, but also deeply, and by that I mean patiently, carefully, with the discipline of reflection that repays dividends of insight. Taste and see that the text is good!