Learning From The Gaps

As someone who frequently likes to read the Bible and write about it, I think it is worthwhile to learn from what the Bible does not talk about just as much about what it does talk about.  From seeing the areas that the Bible consistently does not deal with, we can better understand the priorities for what Christians should value as important, and illuminate areas where we have departed from biblical ways because of the influence of our own (fallen) human context.  As a big part of our walk as believers and followers of Jesus Christ should be to develop godly character and to become more like our Heavenly Father, knowing that which God does not consider particularly important is a good way for us to check our own priorities according to the Bible and to make sure that we are in alignment with what the Bible provides or does not provide.

One of the striking aspects of the Bible are the sort of details that are absent in it.  In general, the Bible is not particularly rich and vivid in visual details except insofar as those visual details relate to the larger point that the Bible is addressing.  We see Sisera’s mother looking out of the window imagining her son and his chariorteers bringing home a couple of captive young women between them, but the Bible does not provide a physical description of its personages enough to suit either those who would wish to paint the Bible or those who like the photorealism of contemporary life.  Nor is there a great deal of landscape discussion that would provide the sorts of details that people would wish for in visualizing the scene.  The Bible tells us a lot about what people said and did and wrote but not very much about what they or the landscape looked like.  In stark contrast to this, we may compare the Bible’s deep attention to geographic details to point out that in many stories, where they happened is of great importance.  What Esther looked like is not particularly important, nor what Mordecai or Haman or the Persian king looked like, but it was of great importance that the events of Esther happened in Susa.  We don’t have great details about what Joseph’s brothers looked like when he was seventeen and about to be sold into slavery, but the text makes it clear that the brothers were in Dothan, as obscure as a place as that may be, and several books of the Bible (among them Ruth, Judges, 1 Samuel, Micah, and Matthew) make it clear the importance of the rather small village of Bethlehem of Judah to the events of the Bible.  Geography matters a great deal but physical description does not matter much at all in the Bible.  Let us make of that as we will.

There are other details that are of importance in what is present and what is missing.  For example, the Bible spends a great deal of space talking about the details of parentage, expressing a much higher degree of interest in genealogy than many contemporaries have, and comparatively less interest in talking about people that we would find important.  The Bible is pretty casual about the names of rulers, even giving multiple forms of names for various Assyrian rulers, and there are no named Pharaohs before the tenth century BC, but in the beginning of Exodus the writer (presumably Moses) makes it clear to note the names of the midwives who refused to be a party to the genocidal violence of Egypt’s nameless Pharaoh for the male infants among the Hebrew slaves.  Some of the Bible’s writers show an interest in the names of people that approaches the level of contemporary journalism or historiography, in particular the writer Luke, whose writing is filled with detailed and accurate information about not only the emperors but also the provincial governors dealt with by Jesus and Paul and others throughout the world of the Eastern Mediterranean.  This level of detail can also be found among the chronicler of the so-called Dueteronomic history going from Judges through 2 Kings, where there is also a high degree of seriousness in the historical writing.  When, at times, as is the case with the prophet Nathan or the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek, the Bible does not give a lot of information about family origin and parentage, that gap is itself deeply interesting and worthy of investigation. And for those who worry that genealogy discusses only males, the kings of Judah have the names of their mothers listed as well, demonstrating some sort of vital importance for queens and queen mothers in that kingdom that is somewhat difficult for us to understand.

This leads us quite naturally into another area where the Bible tends not to give detail, and that is the structure of institutions.  Whether we are dealing with the structure of church or state, the Bible gives precious little detail about the ideal structure to be found in those institutions.  To be sure, it assumes that there will be some sort of structure, but while there is a great deal of focus on the behavior of people in authority or towards authority, there is far less interest in discussing the forms of those institutions.  Nowhere, for example, does the Bible state a preference about the division of power between multiple branches of government or the desirability of frequent or infrequent elections to various consultative bodies, as is the content of many contemporary fundamental documents.  We find a great deal of moral and ethical material that commands justice and respect and a proper fear of God and honor for others and treating others with kindness and generosity of spirit, but we do not read about the precise relationship of how congregations are to be organized besides the existence of recognized (and ordained) leadership that demonstrates high moral conduct in its behavior.  It would appear as if the Bible is subtly telling us that structure does not ensure the health of institutions, but morality and ethics do.  Perhaps the Bible is also telling us that it is less important the nature of the precise structure of the regimes we live under or the institutions we are a part of than the moral character and integrity and behavior of the people who run those institutions.  We would do well to pay more attention to this in our own lives and times.

There are a lot of genres of writing that can be found in the Bible.  We find material of several different types of legal material, material that reads like novellas or dramas (think of Ruth or the Song of Solomon) and a wide degree of historical and poetic and prophetic material.  We have as well various letters that were written to believers and congregations that the writer was unable to see at that time face to face.  It is important to note, though, that the Bible does not contain the sort of material we take for granted as contemporary believers.  There are no devotionals, no systematic theologies, no closely argued treatises, no lengthy texts of textual criticism.  This is not to say that such subjects are without value, but the fact that such matters as the Bible gives no attention are often viewed with a high degree of importance suggests that we have our priorities wrong when it comes to issues of genres.  The Bible is clearly interested in narrative–it contains material that could be considered almost novel-like in terms of its story flow, but the fact that the Bible shows no interest in examining earlier writings or seeking to find imaginary documentary sources indicates that we should not focus on these areas either.  To be sure, the Bible does speak about documentary sources, but they are precisely not the sources that many higher critics are most interested.  There are references to the Song of the Bow and to the chronicles of various kings and prophets, but no Yahwist or Elohist or Priestly source or Q source of the Gospels or anything of that kind.

This is not an exhaustive sort of discussion but rather one that can help us to see the topography of the Bible and its materials and thus clue us in to what we should see as important.  The importance the Bible places on family ought to encourage us to view our own families as important, and to recognize and appreciate the heritage of faith that we have been given by those generations that came before us.  The importance the Bible places on poetry and narrative, on history and geography, and on both divine laws and regulations based on learning from human experience and its sorrows ought to inform the way in which we look at our lives and behavior as believers.  The Bible’s interest in both social justice and in religious piety ought to clue us in to the fact that personal morality and social morality are not to be pitted against each other but to be diligently pursued together.  The Bible’s strong disinterest in higher criticism as well as visual details ought to remind us not to make these areas too important in our own spiritual lives.  Given the richness of material the Bible contains, it is worthwhile for us to reflect upon what the Bible chooses to omit, and to ponder on what is absent as well as what is present in scripture.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Learning From The Gaps

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Your point is well taken. We must prioritize according to the priorities of the Bible, for we take our cues from it. The Bible is the Christian handbook of life.

    For me, a visual person who speaks descriptively, the Bible is very rich in imagery. Examples include the Promised Land of Israel, the priestly vestments and tabernacle, and Solomon’s temple. His home is described as even greater than that. The last eight chapters of Ezekiel painstakingly describe the God’s new temple and city. His Heavenly Throne is also richly pictured by both Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation. Ezekiel also gives a glorious account of Lucifer’s former state. And one must not forget the fiery description of Christ as the triumphant leader of His conquering army! One of the first and of most profound visual impact for me was God’s description of Abel’s murder. He told Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries to Me from the ground.” How can one not draw a mental picture of that? The prophetic visions are also ripe with descriptive details, each of which symbolize something spiritual or something yet to come. I personally think that when people are called by God, His Word–the Bible–speaks to them in the language with which they relate best. Even though people may read it from different lens, all are cautioned not to read anything into it. The Bible still interprets itself. There are no conflicting scriptures.

    • Yes, that’s very true; I think there are definitely some images we get from the Bible, but they aren’t the sort of physical descriptions that are photorealistic as much as they are symbolic meanings that have a rich degree of resonance. Still, that is a worthwhile point.

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