I think this story from Nehemiah 8 is absolutely amazing. You have a group of people, hundreds of people, all the people, gathering together not to listen to a concert or watch a show, but to hear the scriptures read. Ezra begins reading: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” And on through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law” from early morning until midday. Amazing.
A good reader could probably keep a crowd engaged through the narrative-rich books of Genesis and Exodus, maybe even Leviticus. Those books contain plenty of Hollywood-worthy bloodshed, sexual intrigue, and amazing phenomena–the flood, the burning bush, the plague of frogs. But once the reader hits Numbers . . . even the most dynamic speaker is likely to loose the audience.
But this scene we have in Nehemiah is not just Ezra standing in front of the people reading.
As a side note, let me say that the lectionary reading for today actually leaves out the two verses that contain lists of names. On the one hand I understand that people may not like to listen to—or have to pronounce—all of those names. On the other hand, these people whose names are listed are an integral part of what is happening here in the square before the Water Gate. We need to know that it is not just Ezra reading the scrolls, but that Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah are milling around, helping people understand what is being read. This is one huge marathon of a Bible study.
As I consider this story in light of how we tend to relate to scripture today, I am struck by two main things. First, they read the scriptures in big chunks; long passages. The proof-texters have it wrong. We do not faithfully engage the scriptures by pulling out a verse or two and wielding them like swords in battle. Holding up a John 3:16 sign at a ball game just doesn’t cut it.
If you look at the history of our cultural use of the Bible, you can see that when people use the Bible to oppress others, they almost always pull out proof texts—in favor of slavery, against inter-racial marriage, against women in ministry, against homosexuality. To say proof-texters have it wrong is not to say that a brief passage in the Bible cannot contain a deep truth; it is to say that we have to hear and understand the entire context of what we are reading before we decide what that truth is.
Second, they study the scriptures in community. Like the Israelites, we have a pastor and we have those who stand on her right and on her left. We have those who mill around, helping people understand. And surely the people in turn ask questions and provide insights that help the pastor and the teachers better understand as well.
Anabaptists believe that scripture is always and only faithfully interpreted in community. The historical community, the scholarly community, the gathered community. Yes, the Holy Spirit may reveal truths during times of private scripture reading, but those revelations should be further discerned in the community before they are fully accepted.
The scriptures are God’s gift to us. They are, indeed, more to be desired than gold. May we listen to them attentively. May we interpret them faithfully. May we receive their blessings with joy. Amen.
This reflection is excerpted from a sermon I preached several years ago.
Other material related to this week’s Lectionary readings:
- Call to Worship based on Psalm 19
- Hymn Lyrics based on 1 Corinthians 12
- Benediction and Reflection based on Luke 4:16-21