John Hobbins has been writing some Hebrew ditties to encourage us to “internalize scripture in Hebrew.” A good challenge to us! But not to just Hebraists (although, I agree with John that more people should learn to read the Bible in the original languages). How well do we know our Bible?? This post is taken from something I wrote a few years ago (so a few of you have probably already seen it). But it seemed to fit the need.
Got your Bible? OK, quick, find the telling of the murder of Ammon (do you remember who killed him?)
Or how about an easier one, can you find the story of Samson or the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem?
What if your pastor said, “Find the place where it is said: ‘As for my sacrifical offerings, they sacrifice meat and eat it, but the Lord does not accept them. Now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins; and they shall return to Egypt. For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds.’ ”
What, you say, you need the chapter and verse… or maybe even the book to find it?
Many people probably would need a good deal more time to find the stories of the Bible in this manner. Yet, we’re exceedingly swift to find book, chapter and verse of even the most obscure reference (even if we have no idea what it means or what the context is). So how did we become such excellent librarians (able to quickly find information) instead of people of the book (who know the chain of stories that link together our redemptive history)? For centuries students of the scriptures had to be able to locate a passage on a scroll without seeing anything but blocks and blocks of text; when did we lose that skill?
Was it the introduction of chapter and verse markings? Instead of helping us quickly find a familiar passage did it allow us to not have to remember? And is there much difference between the versification of Scripture and the advent of Bible software? In some ways they are remarkably the same beast. Both are useful tools, but they come with an unseen potential risk. Both allow quicker reference skills, but both also compartmentalize the Bible into smaller and smaller chunks (byte-size?) that actually make it harder to digest the entire book rather than easier.
Or perhaps it was when we shifted to a quantifiable method of measuring our knowledge of scripture. Enter Bible drills. First, the necessary disclaimer: I think Bible drills are a fun and helpful way for children (or adults) to learn their way around a Bible… but that is the limitation. You learn how to find things, but you don’t necessarily learn what the verse is about or what the context is. To spend so much time finding random verses one right after the other is rather like a librarian on a timed scavenger hunt finding books in a large library but (perhaps) never having read any of the volumes! They can retrieve quickly, but they learn nothing.
Think about this. How many of us are able to readily recognize all the quotes and echoes of the Old Testament in the New Testament? Most of us rely on special typesetting or cross-reference notes to pick up that there even is a reference, much less know the original context of that reference. Here’s the convicting thing… the original readers of the NT did. Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day would have known right away when he was making a reference to an OT reading. They were that familiar with the entire Scripture.
Many people do memorize many individual scriptures (and this is a good and useful tool), but perhaps it should go hand in hand with memorizing (or at least reading until we have great familiarity) large chunks of scripture. It is far to easy to say “Oh, that’s too hard… the Bible is such a large book. You cannot expect people to have that kind of familiarity with such a large volume.”
Hmm. The Bible has 783,137 words (KJV). The Lord of the Rings is somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000. If you throw in The Hobbit or The Silmarillion you are definitely over the Bible wordcount. Sure I know a lot about the Bible, but I know an embarrassing amount of the literary background, manuscript tradition, linguistic nuances, chronology, characters, geography, and overall storyline better for Tolkien’s work than for the Bible. That’s not to say that my time spent studying Tolkien’s legendarium is not worthwhile (I’ll save my thoughts on the value of Tolkien for another day)… just that I need to be very very conscious of what takes priority in my time, energy, and focus. What I’m trying to say is that if I can know all that I know about The Lord of the Rings (the book), if I can find a scene in that large volume relatively easily, then it is very possible to do the same with Scripture. And so much more vital to my life!
If we just focused on one chapter (or scene) at a time in LOTR and never knew the whole story, we would be severely disadvantaged. We can only truly enjoy savoring individual vignettes when we know the position they hold within the masterpiece. How much more so when it comes to Scripture. Without the big picture, the overarching themes, the interwoven stories, the nuanced references, we are missing some of the riches that God has given us in His Word.
I spend a good amount of time reading, but I must guard against just reading works about the Bible, and remember that the book I want to know best is God’s Word itself. I want to be counted as one of those who were known as “People of the Book.”
Once in a while I daydream about sword fights for fun among Hebraists, in which the Tanakh would be opened at random and two or three Hebraists would take turns sight-reading it, encouraging and correcting each other in terms of understanding it properly in terms of pronunciation, morphology, syntax, pragmatics, and so on.
If we played this kind of game among ourselves, the hope of performing well in the fight might very well spur us on to master Hebrew and Hebrew texts with greater thoroughness.
That would indeed be a good challenge! I appreciate you always holding the bar high and encouraging us to know our Hebrew (and Hebrew Bible) better!
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