When I say 'The Bible must be understood poetically', this is not a put-down. Poetry connects: meaning to meaning, spirit to thought and emotion and flesh & back again.
Metaphor is the most basic form of human thought: "I know how this works so I can understand that by comparison" -- so far as two things really are alike. Metaphor was extensively used in Biblical Hebrew, a language with few individual words, so that complex thoughts usually needed to be built up metaphorically from these, or suggested by the similar sound of words based on the same root.
Poetic forms... are not essential to poetic modes of thought. They are used in much of the Bible, however, as in most ancient literature. Books were unwieldy and literacy expensive to teach. To 'read' generally meant to 'recite' -- scrolls being best suited for use as a sort of 'sheet music for public liturgy', a memory aid for someone who knew the score already -- who would not have been able to 'sight-read' such without considerable familiarity with its contents. For a work to be memorable 'by ear', the language had best flow eloquently and be conceptually linked by any means available, like the common Hebrew device of pairing two or more lines of similar meaning:
"Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt the foal of an ass."
[When one tries to take something like this too literally, one can fall into absurdities like 'Matthew's reading of this, where Jesus comes into Jerusalem mounted on two animals. Details matter, but need to be understood in larger contexts.]
Systematic theologies tend to read the Bible like a philosophical work incorporating technical terms, where 'the same word' should normally mean 'the same thing.' This builds up structures of human thought with little relation to what a passage meant to its authors or -- as I see it -- to the message(s) God intend(s) to convey to us by the existence of the Bible.
But the Bible is present, in this Creation, where I'm led to believe that nothing is accidental or without purpose -- and despite some evidence to the contrary, inclined to consider it intended for human good.
Aside from (but not altogether excluding) what I consider common misreadings: What is this anthology meant to tell us? Certainly not -- as some people evidently read it -- that "We're special because we understand this book; but everybody else is doomed!" If it's Good News, it's good news for everybody, even if not necessarily the particular news we had in mind.
One initial message is human alienation from God.
For Christian readers, the story of Eden introduces death, labor -- and Sin! Jewish interpretations differ from Christian ones at this point; both takes illuminate human experience in different ways. Clearly [as Jewish readings tend to agree] this story describes the development of a new kind of wisdom we could not have acquired without some experience of this sort -- and equally clearly [as Christian readers decided quite early on], that development has been traumatic and productive of many evils.
Even if we didn't Fall -- but were Pushed -- humanity soon begins misbehaving: jealousy, murder, the building of cities. Soon after the founding of cities comes vengeance... and by Noah's day, the Earth is said to be so 'full of violence' from us that God determines to drown the lot.
In the next story, humanity has started to build The Tower, striving to reach Heaven without an invitation. It is not clear whether God then 'confuses our languages' as a hostile act, or it's more as Alan Lew sees it: Given this perfectly harmonious world, we weren't
satisfied. Since we were trying to take our fate into our own hands, God (for our sake) made us misunderstand each other's words. Another thought: people were given a multitude of languages so we could discover a wide variety of different ways to understand life -- And that incidentally kept us from getting trapped into a premature agreement that would actually have hampered further development. Whatever God's motive, He stops the project without one word of prohibition or explanation; by this point in the story God is evidently not even talking to us.
One thing we continually observe in the human lives around us: People are not explicitly aware of the spiritual dimension of the universe; we generally deal with problems by physical, social, or technical means first, then pray about them, if at all, as an afterthought. In general people learn to evade questions of God's existence and nature: first, because traditional concepts of God have frequently been punitive and harsh -- frightening and repellent to the most sensitive souls -- and second, because the real nature of God seems 'too good to be true' to people who don't know God, or who know God only by hearsay.
To the extent that anyone knows God directly, the Bible serves mainly as confirmation and reminder. It's also a reminder that God is vast, bewildering, and scary -- that Divine/human relations have long been subject to misunderstanding, disappointment, mutual complaints of betrayal: Human betrayal because people are largely unenlightened in what we consider our self-interest, and a sense of Divine betrayal because human expectations don't match what God intends for our ultimate good.
For the atheist, of course, to expect anything whatsoever from God is simply insane; so the book reduces to one massive incitement to insanity, interspersed with a few nice ethical sentiments among a host of cruel and oppressive injunctions.
And to the extent that anyone imagines God as a vast, Authoritarian Father, for them the Bible is a truly wonderful book. That's the image that most people love or hate: "Boy, are you going to be sorry when your Daddy gets home!" If you marry the Hebrew scriptures to the Christian notion of Hell, that description makes a perverse kind of sense -- except that doing that distorts the image of God Jesus found in those same Jewish scriptures and described from his own convincing intuitions.
Since most human beings are a complex mix of inconsistent feelings, ideas, and intuitive realizations... the Bible is a better introduction to God than you would otherwise expect. That is, if you read the Bible, thoroughly and critically, it frustrates, confuses, says things you don't want while not quite saying what you'd like -- It deals in hints and mysteries but all the same confronts you with a radical revelation you need to come to terms with somehow; this does happen to be the sacred book Western Civilization was given.
Meandering right along from a cluster of myths and legends, it develops through a deepening appreciation of God's nature and character, eventually reaching claims that through this book and the people who came to write it, God intends to somehow rectify our estranged condition.
In hindsight, Abraham's call looks like an initial step in that endeavor. God doesn't, as we see, go about this the way we might normally attempt making peace with an estranged family of our own. If God wanted to announce a peace offer more to all of us, make an official record of some sort -- He might have approached someone more prominent. There was a whole civilization back home in Ur, where Abraham's father came from. They were literate; they wrote on clay tablets that could have lasted for millennia.
Instead God picks a seventy-five year old man and tells him to wander into a land he's never seen, which God intends to give to his descendants. He travels as a herdsman, who if he'd even known writing would do it on portable but perishable sheepskin, into a place where contracts are made orally and confirmed by cutting dead animals in half. When he arrives in Canaan, there is already a priest of God Most High at Salem; what can Abraham's wanderings possibly add to that?
Well, they lead to Abraham's nephew Lot travelling to Sodom -- where he settles down to live a comfortable life, only to find his neighbors corrupt, xenophobic, inhospitable -- and according to the Midrash later Jewish commentators added, a place where the laws were unjust and it was a capital crime to help a beggar survive. This is also a place about to be destroyed, not by human but by Divine violence.
The existence of Divine violence seems to be another message of this book.
That's disturbing; anyone who really likes the idea of Divine violence is likely to make us nervous. But a reader with authoritarian values will take it as a matter of course. Believing there are times when violence is necessary and right, particularly for supporting and imposing his authorities' kind of order -- He will also assume those authorities know and recognize [even if we simple folk don't] such situations.
Does this make God an Authoritarian? Jesus depicts God as 'our Father', certainly as an authority figure -- but as being parental in a nurturing way. Many people of primarily liberal values hence see "the Old Testament God" as violent, even evil, as opposed to "What Jesus Really Taught."
But God in the Hebrew scriptures is more than an idealized Oriental despot; while Jesus in the Christian scriptures speaks to Israelites in the context of their traditions, pronounces Divine judgement against the Temple and Jerusalem much as Jeremiah did before him. It isn't that human concepts of God aren't developing throughout the course of the Bible (and afterwards) but that those concepts are being modified, in many of its stories, through direct interaction.
The Bible is not about how people would like things to be, but about how things are -- not that it's entirely accurate about science, history, or anything else -- but that it represents the world as people in a particular civilization saw it, with violence as much a factor for them as it is in our world. They saw the hand of God in all events -- While the typical modern belief is that things happen only through physical causes, and are thus meaningless except to the extent that human intentions are involved. We say 'an act of God' means 'a meaningless disaster;' whereas they saw disasters and blessings alike to be meaningful acts of God.
The ideas are different, but one is no more a 'prejudice' than the other unless subject to confirmation or correction -- which in spiritual matters, cannot come from physical measurements or from anyone else's beliefs, but through God directly.
Yet another message of the Bible is that such direct communication is not only possible, but has happened many times to people who weren't otherwise different from anyone else. Are such messages subject to error and misinterpretation at the receiving end? -- So far as we are finite beings, that seems inevitable; and to my eyes, much of the Bible serves to confirm this.
Abraham, of course, makes a deal with God. All this contract seems to require of Abraham is that he and all the males of his household, and any male descendant to be covered by the agreement -- get circumcized. In return, his descendants are to receive the land of Canaan, delivery date to be arranged... It's not, on the surface, the most cogent condition ever attached to a land title; but then again, the long-term effects of this simple requirement are probably incalculable. In the story, it leads to Abraham and Sarah, both of them very old, receiving the message that in one year she will have their first child.
And the next thing that happens -- is that Abraham objects to God's intention of obliterating Sodom. "Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do right?" He dickers about it; he's polite, but he dickers: "What if there are fifty good men in the city?" -- "Forty-five?" -- "Fifty?" He argues God all the way down to ten. One begins to see what God likes about this man.
His family stories go on, very strange stories. There are no police; and the customs are very different from ours.
The Greeks wrote fables; they attached brief 'morals' at the end. But in this holy book, we get stories. They don't come with morals; and they don't necessarily even make sense. They do serve to illustrate how God does the more important tasks. Kings give orders, make laws, send vast numbers of people vast distances to slaughter and pillage. God uses narrative devices, speaks quietly to people we might not have chosen, hints at long term benefits but seldom finds us ready to understand Hsr full purposes or how they are to be accomplished.