The Layered Nature of the Bible

This post is meant to address not only seasoned Bible readers, but also to those who a) don’t believe the Bible is God’s Word, or b) don’t think the Bible is relevant to a person’s life today. Bear with me, please.

It’s been almost a year since I started reading the Bible in earnest. I don’t fall into the “seasoned reader” category, by any means, so I can’t claim to be an expert. Before I tell you what I believe the Bible is meant to be for us, let me quickly list what it is not meant to be.

  • A device for divination. You can’t pop it open, close your eyes, and point your finger to a place on a page, looking for some answer to your question du jour. God’s word isn’t a traveling gypsy or a coin-toss.
  • A measuring rod for how bad “other” people are, and how good “we” are. We’re not that good, and other people are not that bad. If that’s how we use God’s Word, we should probably start over, because we missed the point entirely.
  • A justification for cruelty, bias, bigotry, or murder. Don’t even try to link God to that kind of stuff. That’s blasphemy, and God doesn’t like us splattering our mud on His holy reputation.
  • Pick-and-choose verses to pervert for our own purpose. If we’re going to quote scripture, we’d better make sure we include the context and not cherry-pick what we want God to say.
  • A collection of old stories told by powerful men to control the ignorant masses. Some “religions” have tried to make it so, inserting someone between us and God, but that’s not what God intended for us.

Now that we got that out of the way, let me share with you the thought that’s been developing in me, as I’ve wrestled my way through what, to me, used to be a collection of obscure, irrelevant details. Hint: I was so, so wrong. Again.

The Bible is a literary masterpiece, with layer upon layer of rich meaning, detailing God’s lavish and passionate love for us, even though humanity, in general, has screwed up time and time again. The Bible is a story of unconditional love, which must not be confused with unconditional living.

Don’t take my word for it. What credentials do I have? None, but a thriving relationship with God.

In fact, I can’t recommend taking anyone’s opinion on the Bible as fact, no matter how spiritual or knowledgeable they sound. Why? It could easily lead us to becoming hopelessly tangled up in confusing and twisted man-made doctrines: murder, sacred underwear, white supremacy, empty rituals, matching tennis shoes, pedophilia, poison Kool Aid, polygamy, self-mutilation…to name a few ugly interpretations. Make no mistake – man’s understanding doesn’t even come close to God’s understanding.

Promise me you won’t take my word for it. I’m just as messed up as anyone else. Sometimes I’m a colossal jerk. Really.

That said, here’s my first pass at the three layers of the Bible, so far as I’ve been able to discern.

First, there’s the surface meaning of each book, chapter, and verse. You know, who begat whom, how many golden plates were counted, who got incinerated for touching the Ark of the Covenant. That kind of thing.

The second layer often challenges us with a principle to apply to daily life, yielding wisdom from a tale of a wandering shepherd whom we seemingly have nothing in common with. The rewards are great when we apply the principle, sure. But many of us stall right about here. 

Why? Maybe it takes more self-discipline than we have in our tool chest. Or maybe it requires us to agree that God is in charge, and not us. Meaningful Bible study means submission to God, so that He can deftly guide us through our reading, preventing us from misunderstanding (and potentially brewing up a batch of poison Kool Aid). 

Or maybe, knowing God’s plan means we’d have to make some uncomfortable changes in the way we live daily life, and that doesn’t sound fun. In fact, it might make us look like a bunch of weirdos – distinct from others by our lifestyle and priorities. The changes might separate us from the world, which is pretty much what God has been saying all along.

Living life according to Biblical wisdom might make us into exactly the kind of people whom God intended us to be: wise, humble, selfless, self-controlled, kind, patient, set apart, forgiving, gentle, enduring, hopeful, and obedient. We would actually look like God’s light in this dark world. And, we might find that we don’t fit in anymore. Ouch.

Let’s separate a passage into the three layers: Deuteronomy 12:29-32, when freshly-rescued Israel is going to meet their new neighbors

29 "When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take heed that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods?--that I also may do likewise.' 31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God; for every abominable thing which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

32 "Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it or take from it.

Level 1 (Face Value)

God is giving specific instructions about not mingling worship practices of the people inhabiting the land given to Israel with the pure worship of God, who brought them out of tremendous oppression and slavery in Egypt in spectacular fashion. Paraphrasing, He says, “Don’t conform to the abominable behavior you see around you.” Burning one’s own children is horrible, by the way. The teaching seems obvious at face value.

Level 2 (Application for Modern Living)

This is a little harder. Clearly, we could just stop at the warning to not burn our kids, but we’d also have to refrain from asking other people about their gods. Pretty easy, so far. But if we dig a little deeper, the real principle being taught is to keep oneself separate from all the obvious “gods” of world religions, like Allah, Buddha, Vaheguru, Zeus…you get the idea. But in addition to the named gods, we must also include the unnamed ones: money, cars, drugs, hedonism, power, and sexual immorality. Yikes.

We might have to stop smoking, taking frequent wine tours, playing the stock market, obsessing over cars, cussing, engaging in casual sex, and flipping repeatedly through the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. I love to garden, and a month or so ago I realized that an innocent pastime had somehow become a god to me. I resisted the conviction, but eventually I had to concede that my interest had become obsession. Not good.

Frankly, that’s the point at which Bible study stops for many of us: the point at which we feel convicted about changing things in our lives that society says are OK, but God says are not. That’s the point at which we are tempted to dismiss Bible teaching as irrelevant and outdated. C'mon. You know you've heard that argument before.

Keep telling yourself that if you want; it’s your butt to gamble away. But if you do manage to silence your conscience, you’ll miss out on the deepest level – which is by far the best.

Level 3 (God’s Plan for Your Eternity)

The people in our scripture selection are being warned about keeping themselves separate from the prevailing culture of the land, but in the sections just before that, they are also promised that God will protect them, will feed them, will bless and multiply them – if only they will keep his commandments.

God wants Israel to be safe. He wants their families intact. He wants to lead them away from temptation, so that He doesn’t have to cut them off forever. 

Guess what? God knew they couldn’t do it. He knew His beloved people would start worshiping idols (named, or unnamed) and being rebellious. In Deuteronomy chapter 32, God said that very thing, and promised He would make a way to redeem them, but first He was going to give some instruction on the topic of jealousy.

21 They have stirred me to jealousy with what is no god; they have provoked me with their idols. So I will stir them to jealousy with those who are no people; I will provoke them with a foolish nation. 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 "'And I will heap evils upon them; I will spend my arrows upon them; 24 they shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured with burning heat and poisonous pestilence; and I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with venom of crawling things of the dust.

(By the way, that very sort of language is used in the Book of Revelation – the vibrant and strange description of the end of this age. That’s a very serious warning.)

Where’s the “best part,” you say? It’s the fact that God even made a plan for redemption.

The short story is that God created us, we refused to follow His instruction repeatedly and introducing some of the vilest acts into this world, hurting each other and creating some pretty horrible consequences for us. Sin separated us from God – but He doesn’t want to let us go.

Remember, God offers unconditional love, but He can’t accept us living life on our terms, mingling with corruption. It's like having a dog that you absolutely adore...and the dog has just rolled in a big pile of poop. Sure, you love the dog, but you just can't be around him until he takes a serious bath. And you can't afford to let him wander through the rest of the house, getting everything else poopy.

We're all loved, we're all covered in poop, but to be with God, we're going to need a serious cleansing. 

Our cleansing comes acceptance of, and faith in, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. There's no other way to get that stench off of us. And, we should really do our best to stay out of poop.

Repent and embrace the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ (Yeshua Ha’Mashiach, if you prefer Hebrew), and follow the rest of the instruction God gives us in Deuteronomy 12:28:

28 Be careful to heed all these words which I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you for ever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.