Spur of the moment rant about how to get “meaning” from the Bible

The reason there is frustration in my “voice” is that I don’t really know how to solve the problem. Hands & Eyes wants to teach the Bible and how to read the Bible (eventually there will be a mission statement; this post might provide a clue why it is hasn’t happened yet). But typically people want a list of rules on how to read the Bible. I don’t have a lot of faith that a helpful and accurate list is possible. Addressing the problem in that fashion seems to exacerbate it. On the ministry Facebook page, I wrote the following:

“What does the text mean?” In what context?

Jael puts a tent peg through Sisera’s head. That means she killed him. It also means that it can be OK to be at war with the enemy. It also means that Barak is being lightly disciplined by not getting to kill Sisera. It also means something about Mary the mother of Jesus (because in the next chapter Deborah describes her in a similar way). It also means

that God is keeping his promise that there will be war between the Woman and the Serpent, and the Serpent will be defeated by a head wound. It also means that Gideon’s idolatry is the pivot of the book of Judges (because this is one of two Woman-delivered head wounds in Judges and they are part of a chiastic pattern that centers on Gideon’s ephod). It means that wives don’t always have to agree with or obey their husbands (Jael’s husband was allies with Sisera). It means lying is allowed sometimes (Jael got Sisera to sleep by making false promises). It means…

It means answering the question “What does the text mean?” is much more complicated than people want to realize.

I point this out because I think Christians need to realize several things:

1) One of your lifetime mandates is to read the Bible. Read the Great Commission. We are supposed to be trained by the Word of God. Read “the Hands & Eyes life verse.” The Bible is supposed to be bound to our hands and eyes.

2) One of the real obstructions to carrying out this mandate is the desire to get “meaning” from the text. That process never ends. And it is not limited to syllogisms. I remember in the movie Wit, the question of whether John Donne intended to use a period or a comma made a huge difference. The Bible needs to be read, in some ways, as one large poem or song.

3) the fact that many seminary students (God bless you all; I love you!) start their first year needing to take an English Bible Knowledge “catch-up” course, has consequences in many cases for how much Biblical literacy ever gets projected or encouraged from the pulpit (It isn’t incurable, but a student has to want to really take care of the disease!)

4) the fact that most scholarly commentaries in the Evangelical world are written for the purpose of proving to other scholars that the author is a real scholar has consequences for lay people trying to find a commentary to help them read the Bible. (If any of you commentators somehow stumbled onto this blog post, there is hope for you too; but I would be lying to express the same affection as I have in the case of (3)).

5) adding some Sunday School material to the complexity does not really help the problem in (4). We pass on anti-intellecualism and intellecutalism in the same book.

6) There are no rules for reading small passages of Scripture that will really protect exegetes from making mistakes. There is no substitute in to comprehensive Bible familiarity in reading any passage of Scripture.

I could write a lot more (and probably should have written less). But these things really bother me. We have probably more Bibles per capita in our country than ever existed before in world history. We need to make better use of what we have!

God regards us as his glory

In Isaiah 48 we read:

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.

In the context of a prophecy that God will deliver his people from Babylon and the nations, Someone recently pointed out to me the text of Jeremiah 13.11:

For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.

This chapter in Jeremiah is full of severe judgment. But here in the midst of it, God himself tells his people that their sin strips him. His loins are uncovered and his glory has been taken away.

It is astounding that God tells us that we are his inheritance, and shows us in Scripture the saints praying to God to remember his inheritance and protect his people–as if God were some pauper hoping to come into a fortune. As if we corrupt sinners were his fortune. Jeremiah 13.11 is of the same sort. The all-glorious God considers himself naked without us–we who are by nature sinful and ashamed and prone to trade God for fig leaves.

The word of truth?

I was once trying to get a sermon out of Ephesians 1.12-14 and it seemed obvious that I should look for two parallel statements both ending with the phrase, “to the praise of his glory.” Paul here begins talking about two groups of people (“you” and “we”), and he later reveals that these two groups are (from his perspective) we Jews and you Gentiles. The text read in the New American Standard:

to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation–having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

After wrestling with this and coming up with nothing. I glanced at the Greek. I realized the first verse had been altered in form. It was not, “to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory” but rather “to the end that we should be to the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ” as the old original American Standard Bible translated correctly.

This meant my quest for two parrallel statements, each ending with “to the praise of his glory” was not going to meet with success. Once properly translated, there was less in common between verse 12 and 14 than I had originally thought.

But then I noticed that we had an AB-BA pattern between the two verses:

to the end that we should be to the praise of his glory,

we who had before hoped in Christ…you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance,

to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.

This seemed interesting. Paul spoke of the Jews who had hoped in Christ first and then of the Gentiles who had become heirs of the promise. Both seemed like future-oriented ways to describe conversion to Christianity. But it seemed awfully uncertain that Paul was intentionally writing to make that specific point.

But then I noticed something else. Paul had chosen to repeat the same thing in two different ways, describing the Christian message as “the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation.”

I went through two iterations before everything suddenly fell into place. Here’s the structure of Ephesians 1.12-14 with some Greek words transliterated in brackets:

A. to [eis] the end that we should be to [eis] the praise of his glory,

B. we who had before hoped in Christ:

C. in whom you also [en ho kai], having heard

D. the word of the truth,D’. the gospel of your salvation,

C’.in whom you also [en ho kai], having believed,

B’. you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance,

A’. to [eis] the redemption of God’s own possession, to [eis] the praise of his glory.

This pattern is called a “chiasm” by Bible scholars, from the Greek letter chi which looks like our “X” (thus the lame title for this column). It means the passage has an inverse parallelism to teach the careful reader something. In this case, the centrality of the Gospel is literally demonstrated (D.D’) and the future nature of Christian salvation is brought out as we see that we are trusting Christ because we are hoping for a future glory and we have a basis for such hope because we have been made heirs (B.B’).

Furthermore, this analysis brings out more clearly what Paul seems to be saying by speaking of “the Gospel of your salvation.” He will later write that the Gospel-mystery, for which he is an ambassador in chains (6.19, 20) that was especially made known to him by revelation is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3.6). The Gospel message can be narrowed down to the declaration of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, but Paul sees Christ’s resurrection as the reconciliation both of man to God and man to man:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (2.13-22).

Though Paul undoubtedly believes that the Gospel is also good news for Israelites, in Ephesians he is stressing its reference to the Gentiles. By calling it “the Gospel of your salvation” in a context which implies that “we” seems to mean “us Jews” and “you” refers to “you Gentiles,” Paul is already hinting at where he is going in the letter.

From resurrection to unity

In my last post, I argued that Paul is not talking about the personal conversions of the Ephesians in Ephesians 2.1-7. Rather, he is saying that both Jews and Gentiles were collectively dead and enslaved until Jesus joined them in death and then was raised with them in his resurrection and ascension.

This concept is found in the Old Testament. Ezekiel 37 begins with a vision of a valley of dry bones. That image represents Israel in exile. God promises they will be returned from exile and portrays the fulfillment of this promise as the resurrection of the bones into a living, breathing army. So, whether or not individual Israelites were believing or backslidden, they were all dead in their sins and they all received a new life at the point when God ended the exile.

The chapter in Ezekiel goes on to also prophesy that, when this happens, the separated tribes of Israel will be joined as one. Interestingly, Ephesians 2.11ff follows this pattern. Paul moves from being raised to new life to the joining together of Jew and Gentile as one people.

When were we raised TOGETHER WITH Christ?

Here is Paul telling his readers that he is praying they will be brought to understand God’s power:

…the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.  And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

So reads Ephesians 1.19bff without the chapter break. Typically, people read “made us alive together with Christ” as personal conversion. I don’t think that can be right.

Paul goes on to mention personal faith in the next verse (“by grace you have been saved through faith…”). But that does not give us reason to think he is referring to conversion in the above paragraph.

After all, when was Christ raised? When someone in Ephesus asked Jesus into his heart? No.

Jesus was raised up on a specific Sunday and then raised to the right hand of God about forty days later. That happened. Paul’s point is that when Jesus was raised up he represented both believing Jews and Gentiles. “We” were all raised up together with him and seated at the right hand of God.

The transition here is not the transition of individual biography. Reading Acts it is obvious that many people were not “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience,” living “in the passions of our flesh, carrying ou the desires of the body and the mind…” For example, Cornelius was a devout man whose prayers were acceptable to God. The point here is that both Jew and Gentile races were going to Hell and, before the death and resurrection of Christ, the entire age was characterized in this way. Jesus representatively put the world to death and renewed the world in his person.

Those who believe the Gospel message are sealed with the Spirit (1.13, 14) to Christ. We are saved “through faith” (2.8). But that work of the Spirit is not in view for believers in 1.19-2.7. Rather, it is the work of the Spirit in declaring a verdict on Christ by raising him. Christ was given the credit for his faithful life culminating in death on the cross by his resurection and ascension. When we believe the Gospel we receive and are received into Christ so that we share his verdict. Our sins no longer legally matter because Christ’s death to sin counts as ours. There is no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1). Furthermore, Christ’s faithful life and ongoing faithful reign are reckoned as our own. Positively and negatively, Jesus’ righteousness is ours.

Paul is perfectly capable of mixing the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection with the story of a believer’s conversion (Colossians 2.8-15). But in Ephesians 1.19-2.7 is about the history of the world being brought to salvation and glory in the historical work of Jesus. It is not about a personal conversion experience.

Peter Leithart on Biblical literacy (with obedience) as a revolutionary act

Trevin Wax interviews Peter Leithart here about his new book. One thing that really stood out to me as essential to what we do here at Hands & Eyes, was the following:

Trevin Wax: What is the responsibility of pastors and church leaders in helping Christians understand their role as citizens of God’s kingdom who are also citizens of the United States? What are some wrong turns the Left and the Right take? What is the way forward?

Peter Leithart: The obvious things are the most important things: Teach the Bible, the whole Bible, and urge God’s people to obey it in all areas of their lives.

Absolutely. Hands & Eyes is not about cultural analysis or commentary. It is about learning and knowing and understanding and following the Bible. But that doesn’t mean we don’t expect to impact political and cultural issues. Quite the contrary!

I alluded to one aspect of this role a few days ago:

The Great Commission is an ongoing project.

And, though Jesus emphasizes training and commands, it requires stories. If nothing else, people already have stories. These stories make “sense” of their lives. Jesus, initially presented, comes to them as a powerful savior. He rescues them from the superstitions of other gods and perhaps spirits or magical forces.

But these stories are still the dominating background. And faith in Christ can take the form of demoting him to a god or magician in a scenario that is not true, but that maintains social and mental power even over Christians.

God gave us other stories. To even read them as embodied “principles” to be applied fails to fully realize their power. (In that understanding, the story is a husk from which proper moral behavior must be extracted; then the story is no longer important.) These stories are meant to be cultural bedrock. They provide a new historical foundation for every culture.

Don’t let the geography fool you. When the Gospel arrives in a nation, it is those people who are emigrating to a new Land. But failing to inculcate and saturate the new Churches with all of God’s word–stories, songs, and wise sayings–will leave them halfway there.

In my original post I was thinking mainly of cultures in “developing countries.” But it applies to the American Religion as well. The Bible and all the Bible is the antidote for allowing Christ to be assimilated into the national ethos.

Dr. Leithart was kind enough to write a testimonial for the website. I didn’t quote it in full because I didn’t want readers to make a mistake regarding the focus of Hands & Eyes. But it seems appropriate to provide the full quotation in this post. Here it is with the cut portion highlighted.

“Over many years, on many issues, Mark Horne has proven himself a superb theologian and a bracing political and cultural commentator. He has an extraordinarily keen mind, a sharp pen, manifest zeal for Jesus and His kingdom. I highly commend Mark and his work.”

Leviticus and Romans 12?

A few years ago I had a chance to read Faith, obedience, and perseverance : aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans by Don Garlington. He provided me some food for thought about the transition to the practical/ethical (I’m oversimplifying) in Romans 12.1, 2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul goes on to write: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”Garlington points out that Romans 12.19 is contains a quotation from Deuternomy 32.35, 36:

Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
and their doom comes swiftly.’
For the Lord will vindicate his people
and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
and there is none remaining, bond or free.

Garlington associates the Deuteronomy passage with Leviticus 19.17, 18:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

So a passage that begins with an exhortation for us to “offer” ourselves as “living sacrifice” (Romans 12.1) on the basis of the finished work of Christ (1-9) has an appeal to the book of Leviticus. Thus:

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all (Romans 12:9-17 ESV).

This might give us an clue about how to understand Leviticus. That book has some of the weirdest commands about dismembering and burning up animals, coupled with some basic exhortations to love, faithfulness, and peace. So maybe the movement from Romans 12.1-3 to the exhortations that follow can helps us make sense of it. Leviticus is about sacrifice and sacrifice is a picture of what kind of community Israel should be. It is how to be a pleasing aroma to God.

Everything that is wrong with modern exegesis in one footnote

 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything (Genesis 14:17-20 ESV).

I won’t name it, but to this day I remember a reference Bible I owned as a child that contained a footnote explanation to the “bread and wine” mentioned above. It claimed there was no sacramental significance to the passage.

That is everything that is wrong with common Christian “Bible believing” hermeneutics in one footnote.

If you’re not reading the Bible for fun, maybe you’re doing it wrong.

The title of of this post may be overstated, but it is worth considering.

If something needs to be read, portraying the importance of the material in a way that makes it harder to read is self-destructive.

I have several Bibles, the NASB and the ESV being my most common. I study them sometimes. I preach from them. But they are not very conducive for reading. What I have found much easier to read is a paperback translation of Genesis by Robert Alter. I can dogear the pages. I can read it on the toilet, something that some sort of neurosis prevents me from doing with a “real” Bible.

At some point I hope to get the single paperback version of Matthew Fox’s rendition of Exodus.

Of course, all these single-person translations have huge drawbacks. I would be scared to have anyone rely on these without being exposed regularly to the reading of and preaching from versions that are less idiosyncratic. But the benefits of having these sorts of things lying around the house to be read in a Christian home far outweigh the liabilities. It’s simple really: if you can’t binge on a book the way you might suddenly binge on a favorite crime novel, then you won’t read much. We complain about Biblical literacy but how often have you seen people carry around books the size and thickness of a Bible to read on the airplane or at the beach? The very form in which Bibles are published helps us revere them as dust collectors rather than read them.

It is not hard at all to go into a bookstore and find that there is a market (albeit a small one) for small paperbacks of Icelandic sagas, Medieval plays, and ANE myths. Penguin Classics, Oxford World Classics, and the Everyman paperbacks, however small their market share, do attract modern readers. I’m sure Christian Bibles sell far better, but I doubt they are read as much.

Yet the stories in Judges and elsewhere in the Bible are every bit as interesting as sagas and myths from other cultures. Why can’t I read them as adventure stories to my children? Somehow, even at a young age, my children picked up the idea that the Bible is not the book to turn to for exciting stories. I have to wonder if the regular practice of family devotions (a practice I think is nevertheless worth continuing) hasn’t spoiled the Bible for them as literature.

At a certain point in my life, I suddenly began buying mass-market paperbacks of Shakespeare’s plays and reading them. Why? Because Kenneth Brannaugh transformed the way I think about them. Suddenly they were more about drama and less about scholarly sanctimony. In high school and college I was assigned Shakespeare. It never occurred to me to read him for fun. (I already owned a big black hardback of all Shakespeare’s plays. When I suddenly got serious about wanting to read Shakespeare, I didn’t even glace at it. I went to a bookstore and bought a mass-market paperback. Some books are readable and some aren’t. You’re usually better off with a book you can hold in one hand, even if it doesn’t look flashy. Which kind is your Bible?)

What does the average Christian do when he reads the Bible? He reads it regularly (or starts to do so) for devotions. So he reads some small chunk and tries to get something properly pious from the text. What does this mean? It means he must stick to the passages that are already familiar to him and properly domesticated in the given interpretation so that they can inspire the correct thoughts and feelings. Otherwise, it means a great deal of work trying to figure out why God is asking you to spend a few minutes each morning in the genealogies of First Chronicles, or the instruction for entrail placement in Leviticus. (The sacrifices point to Christ we say, piously dismissing ninety percent of the actual text describing those sacrifices to oblivion in the Evangelical mind. If the only point is substitutionary death, then the Holy Spirit must really love the sound of his own voice.) After a few mornings spent in frustration trying to pry devotional material out of the text, the pilgrim often gives up his quest.

Maybe the books of the Bible aren’t meant to be read fifteen minutes at a time. Maybe you’re supposed to read Isaiah in three days. Maybe fragmenting the text over weeks and weeks of snippets will hurt your understanding of God’s word.

My advice is this: Put different books of the Bible on your reading list. After you finish something by Raymond Chandler or P. J. O’Rourke, let your next book be one by God. Then go back. Of course, if this means lumbering around with a big Bible, or reading from microfiche text, this will be cumbersome. So I advise finding paperbacks of single books when possible. When you’re done, read something else. But put another book of the Bible in the rotation.

Reading a small bit everyday is probably good if you keep at it. So do yourself a favor: don’t try to get anything out of it. Why make the experience unpleasant? Why make it more tempting to stop your reading? You don’t need to apply what you read. You don’t. You have heard preaching and teaching for years, probably. Your applications are more likely to be memories of what you already know than true discoveries. Don’t try so hard. Don’t feel you must theologize or moralize. Just read the book. God wants His people to know him which means becoming familiar with his Bible as a whole. Atomistically trying to “get something” from a passage is a good way to make sure that you never gain that familiarity.

God told Abraham to walk through and around the Promised Land. Abraham would not have gone very far if he had decided to only travel for fifteen minutes in the morning. Especially not if he had stopped to examine every rock and plant.

Reading the Bible as a story

Quick! What’s the basic message of the Bible? Summarize it in as few words as possible and say what first comes to mind.

Here’s how I would answer the question:

Boy meets girl.

No, I am not joking. We see it in the happy ending of Revelation, which shows us a wedding between Christ and the church and tells us that they live happily ever after. We see it in Adam and Eve all the way back in Genesis 2, which–as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5–refers fundamentally to Christ and the church. When we read in Luke 2 of how the Spirit will overshadow Mary, we realize that the description of the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 involved the same theme. From beginning to end , this theme of boy meets girl pervades all of the Bible.

Twice in Genesis, once in Exodus, and once in an incident reported in both Joshua and Judges, we see a man coming together with his wife in association with a well or spring of water. Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah, the future wife of his master Isaac, at a well. She gives him a drink and waters his camels, demonstrating that God has chosen her to be the bride. Jacob meets the shepherdess Rachel at a well. He rolls away the stone that is blocking the spring and then waters all her flock. Moses meets his future wife Zipporah at a well. He defends her and her sisters (who all “just happen” to be shepherdesses, just like Rachel was) from bullying shepherds, then waters their flock. Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to the man who defeats the Canaanites in Kirjath Sepher.  Othniel captures the city and wins the bride. In receiving her, he also gains some land grants from her father. Due to her petitioning her father, the grant is expanded to include springs of water.

So when Jesus meets a woman at a well, in Samaria, what are they going to talk about? Even if you have never read John 4, the answer should be inescapable. When Jesus meets this woman at a well, they are going to discuss her marital status. Indeed, Jesus rescues her from a much more dangerous threat than bullying shepherds.

There is much else to support this basic biblical theme. Space would fail if I were to mentions the Song of Solomon, the role of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, and the way Proverbs culminates with the portrayal of the ideal wife. Neither could I list here all the times Jerusalem or Israel is called God’s wife, setting us up for the identity of the church as the bride of Christ.

There are two things we have to keep in mind if we are going to understand the Bible as God’s literary masterpiece. First of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of providence: God is in complete control of everything that happens in history. As we read about the events recorded in the Bible, we must apply this doctrine by bearing in mind that not only what God is said to have done in these events, but also the events themselves, are part of His message. God could have brought about Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in some other place, but he predestined it to take place there. It is not simply what Jesus said that reveals god, but the entire situation in which Jesus acts.

Second of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of inspiration. Every word, every jot and tittle of Scripture, is the very Word of God. It is not merely the overarching truths that are inspired but the words used to express them. With the woman at the well, John could have summarized what Jesus said about the Spirit without quoting the metaphor of water or mentioning the well where He spoke. He could have overlooked what Jesus said about her marital history. But by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John set down those statements.

If we remember these twin truths, we should be able to navigate between two common errors. Many conservative evangelicals, who (rightly) affirm the inerrancy of the scriptural record of events, treat the events themselves as virtually meaningless. The fact that the same things keep happening is simply ignored. Liberals, on the other hand, sometimes do much better at seeing the meaning in events, but they treat the Scriptures as a fictionalized account that cannot be trusted for historical veracity. For conservatives, the woman at the well really happened, but her encounter with Jesus is important only in that it gave Jesus a chance to say some things He could have said almost anywhere else. For liberals, the woman at the well fits nicely into the themes and theology of the Bible, but her encounter with Jesus probably never really happened. Rather, it is the work of a novelist.

But if we acknowledge that God is the great novelist, then we need never choose between meaning and truth. God is more creative than any human being and can make His novel work better than any merely human book. But God is also all-powerful and sovereign over history. Thus, God can make history be His novel. Therefore, He can make a truthful Bible work better than fiction, even while remaining completely truthful.

As characters in God’s novel, we usually don’t see how our problematic lives can possibly be leading to the kind of tidy plot resolutions that we find so satisfying in a narrative. But the Bible can function as a corrective to our lack of faith. As we see what a well-woven tale the Bible is, how it is all true, and what its story is about, we can believe that our own stories will make sense because they are tied to that story. We have to trust the Novelist to finish His work and vindicate His graciously chosen protagonists. Ultimately, He is going to win the girl.