I want to propose a different Bible-reading practice that I think will challenge your devotional experiences in ways you never imagined. No, no, I do not have a trendy new interpretative method. I don’t have a magic formula. Rather, I have a very simple (but not necessarily easy) suggestion.
For many of us, when we read the Bible, we read it from the perspective of people who need encouragement, therapy, challenge, hope, or even love. These are all good things that we do, indeed, need. But usually these needs arise from a larger situation that involves someone or something hurting us. For example, we need encouragement because a boss is berating us. We need therapy because of a conflict in our family of which we see ourselves as the victim. We need challenge because we find it hard to keep pressing on. We need hope because our situation seems hopeless. And we need love because we lack self-esteem.
Again, these are all fine to an extent. But I wonder if they don’t eventually become habits of reading that blind us to other things we may need. If we always see ourselves as the underdogs, the victims, the outsiders, the marginalized, etc. then we may in fact be blind to the ways we are not in fact these things.
So here’s my suggestion if you want a different kind of challenge from your Bible reading: Read your Bible as if you’re on top looking down, not the bottom looking up.
That is, don’t read your Bible as if it speaks to you as a victim, but read it as if it speaks to you as the person/community in the wrong.
Of course, for certain people in certain situations it may be fully appropriate for them to read the Bible from the position of victim. They may need to see themselves as the Israelites in the Exodus story. But for many of us, especially those of us with social privilege, we need to ask a different set of questions. We need to ask ourselves what the Bible might have to say to us if, say, we are the Egypt of the story instead of the Israelites. What if I am Pharaoh instead of Moses?
The point of this exercise is not for me to prove to you that you are Pharaoh. No. That’s not my job. The point is for you to ask yourself harder questions when reading the Bible. Because, most assuredly, God’s word to the Israelites is liberating, but that same word to Pharaoh is harsh and speaks strongly of repentance.
When we read the Bible as if we are on the top looking down, it jars us out of our easy assumptions about our faith and practices. It forces us to look at things that we have been able to hide from our sight. It calls into question our privilege of assuming the other person/group needs to here “this,” and puts the focus solely on my need to hear “this.”
Such a reading forces me to ask, How am I complicit in hurting other people and how might act on their behalf instead? How are the structures of my society set up to benefit me in ways other people don’t have an opportunity to benefited? Am I treating the people who work for me with dignity and respect? In what ways has my cultural heritage – indeed, inheritance – given me access to resources that others are denied because of race, gender, or economic status? And in all, what might the God of Israelite slaves have to say to me about these things? What might Christ, who said, “Blessed are the poor” have to say to someone who is not poor?
Again, let me be clear about this: Victimization is not restricted to non-white, non-wealthy, non-men. Victimization can happen anywhere and to anyone. Thus, there are times it is appropriate to read the Bible as a victim and seek its encouragement. But that should not be a habitual approach for those who are less frequently victimized because of cultural privileges. Instead, people like me – yes, me! – need to challenge ourselves to read the Bible as if it quite often speaks against us, against our assumptions, against “the way things are” for us.
- What if I am Pharaoh and not Israel?
- What if I am King David and not Bathsheba or Uriah?
- What if I am Saul and not David?
- What if I am Laban and not Jacob?
- What if I am Judah and not Tamar?
- What if I am King Saul and not Samuel?
- What if I am a Pharisee and not Jesus?
- What if I am the Rich Young Ruler and not the widow offering her two cents?
- What if I am the accuser and not the woman at the well?
- What if I am Cain and not Abel?
- What if I am the Nephalim and not Noah?
- What if I am the hard-hearted nation and not the intrepid prophet?
- What if I am Ruth’s original kinsmen redeemer and not Boaz?
- What if I am Nebuchadnezzar and not Daniel?
- What if I am Herod and not Mary or Joseph?
You see, if we read the Bible from this other perspective, it may say radically different things to us. Sure, they won’t necessarily by the typical things you find in a Beth Moore devotional, but they might be the very things that save the soul by bringing about the fruits of repentance, holy love for God, and holy love for neighbor.