Let’s talk about what the Bible is NOT.
- The Bible is not an instruction manual.
- The Bible is not a fairy tale.
- The Bible is not a scientific research paper.
- The Bible is not a philosophical treatise.
- The Bible is not a quote book.
- The Bible is not a coffee table book.
Let me briefly break down each one of these and why they’re a problem for interpreting Scripture well. Hopefully, you can hear my tone is 95% instructive and only 5% snarky.
Not an Instruction Manual
An instruction manual is generally used for complex machinery, assembly, or troubleshooting. A lot of them come with pictures, but some are just simple step-by-step written words. When I think of an instruction manual, three things come to mind:
- A car manual
- Ikea furniture
- Old university or employee handbooks
I recognize that the last one is slightly different, but it is essentially an instruction manual on how to behave, or what to expect from the institution and what it expects of you.
The problem with viewing the Bible as an instruction manual is this: there aren’t many instructions in it. Sure, there are some instructions. But there are a whole lot more stories and prophetic sayings and poems than there are instructions. You miss a great deal of the Scriptures and what they can teach you if you only see it as an instruction manual.
And what’s the excitement or draw to reading an instruction manual? Generally, you only look at it if something is broken (and even then, you usually take it to a mechanic to fix it). Or you look at it so you put the Ikea furniture together correctly, then once you’re done you throw it away.
I don’t think you want to read a small section of the Bible once and then throw it away. I don’t think you only want to look at it if something is broken.
Last thing on this section: The only true instruction manual I’ve come across in the Bible was Leviticus, which very few people ever actually read, and maybe a couple blurbs within Paul’s letters in the New Testament, which seem to be the only thing pastors ever teach. *wink*
Not a Fairy Tale
A fairy tale is a work of fiction. It is not made up of real people, real places, or real events. It usually includes overly simple characters and overly simple themes.
If you’ve read the Bible, you know it is not a fairy tale. It’s full of real people, in real places, with real events. Archaeological digs, historical documents, and even experiential travel confirm this. The Euphrates River, the land of Egypt, Israel, and the Sea of Galilee are all real places, just like Ephesus, Malta, and Rome.
Likewise, these people were not simple characters, with simple themes for life.
David, “a man after God’s own heart,” also happened to be a battlefield warrior almost like Braveheart, an adulterer, a premeditated murderer, and a mostly passive dad to some of his sons. If we met someone today who killed tens of thousands, committed adultery and murder, and was a passive or absent father, we probably wouldn’t call him “a man after God’s own heart.”
David, just one of the real people in the Bible, was a complex and messy human. Don’t even get me started on Solomon, Nehemiah, or Moses.
Real people, in real places, doing real things. Real problems, real issues, real tragedies. That’s the Bible.
If you’re looking for a fairy tale in the Bible, the closest you might find is the Song of Songs. But it’s more of a love song than a fairy tale. Maybe something in the Apocrypha would fit?
Not a Scientific Research Paper
A scientific research paper can vary in length, depending on what grade level or branch of science you’re in. But the main commonality is that you’re writing about something in science, not in another subject. Simple enough, right? In a research paper, you’re also trying to look deep into an issue and then prove, with various means of analysis, that what you’re saying is right.
You might cite previous studies, include charts/graphs, and reference experiments you ran or others have run.
The problem with viewing the Bible as a scientific research paper is simply this: it is not.
In fact, there’s not a single book in the Bible that reads like a scientific research paper. The first three chapters of Genesis definitely don’t read like that; they read like a poem. So we should quit trying to “prove” anything from it.
Creation vs. evolution debate can’t be found in the Bible. Debates over the size of the galaxy, whether dinosaurs existed, whether there’s geological proof that a worldwide Flood really happened, etc. — they’re all outside the scope of the Bible.
If you’re looking for a book in the Bible that resembles a scientific research paper, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
Not a Philosophical Treatise
A philosophical treatise is a long, formal piece of writing about a particular subject. In academia, you might also hear it referred to as a thesis. You decide on a topic, do a deep-dive analysis, and come to a conclusion. That’s the research part. Then, for the writing and development of it, you put the conclusion at the start as your thesis and proceed to prove it point by point, page by page, in a meticulous manner.
The problem comes when people think of the Bible as a philosophical treatise. God and Moses don’t start the Bible with a conclusion or a single point they are trying to make. It’s not an essay with headings and subheadings. There are no footnotes, endnotes, appendices citing other sources, or bibliographies.
I enjoy reading a good philosophical treatise from time to time. It stimulates the mind, engages your whole brain, and makes you focus on a very deep level. The Bible can have that effect too, but there’s really very little in the Bible that reads like a research thesis.
Plus, using the Bible to prove a point usually doesn’t turn out well.
For example, if someone has concluded that the world is going to end in the next 7 years, then they line up Daniel and Revelation and start using those along with the current news to “prove” that the “the great Tribulation” is going to start next month, or some world leader is the antichrist, or whatever — well, the next month comes and the next world leader changes and that person suddenly looks like a dunce.
Those books weren’t written as a thesis or treatise. They’re written in another genre altogether.
If there’s a single book in the Bible that resembles a philosophical treatise, it’s probably Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Not a Quote Book
A quote book is a delightful thing to read and look at. Usually, it is themed around a certain topic, like love or resilience or motivation.
As a writer, I love reading and hearing quotes. Some quotes are great for their poetic feel, their rhythm. It’s akin to listening to a symphony with words, instead of instruments. Others are great because they are pithy, direct, incisive. Others, ironic.
The problem comes when people think of the Bible as a quote book. You know what I’m talking about? When people pull their favorite verses or stories out of context, then they apply them to all kinds of situations that are entirely irrelevant. Or worse, when a company puts them on a screenprint, card, t-shirt, or carving, then folks buy them and place them all around the house.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with memorizing Scripture or even having a verse displayed in your house. But please don’t make that your only experience of the Bible. It’s so much richer than that. And please, please, please don’t become a sucker for inflated consumerism that just happens to have a “Christian” label.
Last thing for this section: if there’s a book in the Bible that resembles a quote book, it’s Proverbs. Read it, and you’ll have quotes for days.
Not a Coffee Table Book
A coffee table book can have a few different flavors, but it’s generally meant to entertain. It’s something to pick up and read when you’re bored. Or, it’s something with art and pictures and little snippets about the pictures.
The problem is that the Bible doesn’t have pictures, except for the kid versions. And those are terribly inaccurate. I don’t think Noah and the animals were hanging out on the deck smiling and waving at everyone when the flood went down. And I don’t think Jesus was white, with long flowing hair.
The Bible has a lot of drama in the Old Testament and instructions in the New Testament, but not sweet captions or snippets of description.
The Bible also isn’t something to pick up and read when you’re bored. It requires more of you than a passive, occasional interest if you’re planning to take it for what it claims to be.
If there’s a book in the Bible that resembles a coffee table book, well, you’re not going to find it.
Reading the Bible for What It Is
The Bible is full of proclamations and proof internally that it’s in a different class.
Personally, I’d have to agree that it is.
I love to read. I’ve averaged reading a book a week for the past 10+ years. I’ve read a couple instruction manuals, a couple fairy tales, a few scientific research papers, a few dozen philosophical books, quote books, and even picked up a couple coffee table books. The Bible doesn’t resemble any of those books. I’ve read the Bible a few times through, and I can tell you there’s nothing quite like it.
It’s of a different flavor, a different category, a different level of seriousness and substance. It has something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. But when I meet someone who has actually read it for what it is and experienced it for what it is, I can feel the difference.
I encourage you to check it out and experience it for yourself. And let me know in the comments if you’ve experienced the same thing.
If you enjoyed this post, visit this page for more in this series on “What is the Bible?”.
Visit this page for commentary on different books in the Bible.