Ever had a crazy English teacher who saw symbolism everywhere?
Some connections are a stretch; we’ve heard teachers talk about obscure symbolism that felt ridiculous. How do you know that the moon can symbolize lunacy, for example? Who decided that? How can you know the author intended that connection to be made? Our English teachers did us a disservice by not explaining how symbolism and connections are developed. Perhaps they themselves did not know. Sometimes teachers do overstate their case, by assigning author intent when none existed. But often, the conventions and symbolism develop naturally, apart from the author. One book or theme reminds us of another, and the more books we’ve read, the more connections we see. When an author sees similarities that are pleasing, he may add his own intentionally. The more broadly we read, the easier it is for us, as teachers (and readers), to observe the pattern. Students may be skeptical because their body of knowledge is small, or if they have never paid attention to the similarities in the stories they are reading. Young teachers may likewise have a small body of knowledge, and when first talking of symbolism may be simply repeating what other well-read individuals have told them about these connections. These young teachers will not have good answers if they don’t see the patterns for themselves!
The Bible makes use of patterns and repetition of ideas also. Just like in literature, the more we know of God’s Word, the more we see this richness. Biblical literacy allows us to see legit patterns and connections within the Bible stories. These connections give us greater understanding of biblical ideas like mercy and love. Because the human experience is complex, we rarely understand a biblical concept with a single passage. This complexity is why we sometimes have trouble explaining a concept to our children, or feel uncomfortable when a verse is used in isolation to prove a point.
We might first learn about God’s love reading John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” What do you learn about God’s love from this verse? Quite a lot, but there’s more to be learned about God’s love in other scripture passages. Hebrews 12:6 tells us “For whom the Lord loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.” That passage might bring up more questions than answers, but if this passage were the second passage you read about God, you’d gain another piece to the big picture puzzle of his love. As we read God’s Word, we start to see repeated ideas, and our understanding of these ideas grows as we compare and assimilate each story.
The more you read, the more you see connections, similarities, and themes in what you read. Cross references are the connections someone else has made and put in your Bible. They are a fantastic resource! The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge is a giant book of cross references. You can also make your own cross references: “That verse reminds me of one I just read last week!” Then you write the reference in the margin. Next time you come across that verse in your Bible reading, you will be reminded of the connection.
I’m starting to realize that the need for a comprehensive understanding of God’s Word should drive us to more Bible reading in larger chunks. Daily devotionals can be inspiring, but they rarely lead an individual to start accumulating the priceless body of knowledge contained in the whole of the Bible. I always assumed a “big picture” of the Bible was important, but I’ve not understood well how valuable these repeated ideas can be for our spiritual growth.
Does God give you things you can’t handle? Depends on the sense of “can’t handle.” One verse isn’t going to give you the whole picture. Any gotcha meme is going to be imprecise and possibly misleading. I’ve been comforted knowing that God does not give me more than I am able to bear. When I’ve cried out, at the end of my rope, he has always given relief in some form or another. First Corinthians 10:13 is true. And of course, I regularly feel inadequate in a particular circumstance. God does send trials that outstrip my resources. Every time we ask God for wisdom or strength or help, we are acknowledging that he is sufficient where we are not. So does God give things I can’t handle? Yes and no.
Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What did Jesus mean? We find the answer by reading more of the Bible, not by looking up a definition in the dictionary.
Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has promised to guide us and open our eyes to God’s truth through his word. We must be faithful to keep asking, seeking, knocking. The best thing we can do for our children and students is not to stop with Bible stories, but help them learn the Bible in big chunks. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to learn the Bible in big chunks. Reading this way means that we’ll read a lot that we do not understand, but it also means we gain the breadth we need to follow Jesus with more understanding. The Bible really does explain the Bible.
The Jesus Storybook Bible attempted to show the connections between the story of Jesus and the rest of the biblical narrative. It’s a fantastic goal, but reading the Bible for yourself will ensure that you’re not like the young teacher reporting on connections that someone else observed. The Bible explicitly connects many stories; others are more like an echo.
To illustrate, consider that one characteristic of good poetry is the density of the language. A phrase or sentence can be so full of meaning that it evokes a far greater body of knowledge. You can read the poem and just nod at the sentence. But if you know the context, the sentence becomes much stronger.
Take the last line from one of my favorite poems, “The Destruction of Sennacherib.”
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!
You can read the historical account of this poem in Isaiah 37. If you don’t know the story, or are not a Christian, it’s still a good line of poetry; but if you know the story, it’s much more meaningful. Furthermore, if you’ve ever experienced an impossible situation and watched God provide, you’ll resonate with the poem in a way others might not.
I was excited to hear these thoughts articulated by the Bible Project guys in their How to Read the Bible series. All their videos in this series are really good, but the video on Design Patterns gives some ideas on how to begin looking for patterns in the Bible and why they are important. Check it out, and tell me what you think!