The Bible is like a Rembrandt

It’s possible (maybe even probable?) to attend a Bible college or seminary – or to take a Bible course in a major university’s religious studies department – without having to actually study the Bible. Background reading isn’t bad, but John Sailhamer says it might make you miss the point:

In speaking about historical events (things), one may easily confuse what an author says about these events with the events themselves. As important as history and archaeology are for understanding the things that the Bible points to and talks about, they sometimes get in the way of understanding the words of Scripture. The Pentateuch may be compared to a Rembrandt painting of real persons or events. We do not understand a Rembrandt painting by taking a photograph of the “thing” that Rembrandt painted and comparing it with the painting itself. That may help us understand the “thing” that Rembrandt painted – his subject matter – but it will not help us understand the painting itself. To understand Rembrandt’s painting, we must look at it and see its colors, shapes, and textures. In the same way, to understand the Pentateuch, one must look at its colors, contours, and textures. To understand Rembrandt’s painting, one must study the painting itself. To understand the Pentateuch, one must study the Pentateuch itself.

– John Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, p. 19-20


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  1. If you don’t have time for 700 pages, get ahold of this for an hour or two just for the introduction. Accessible, but gives you a lot to think about and a good frame for actually reading the pentateuch. As you can see, Bob is still quoting the introduction 🙂

  2. Sailhamer sounds like Plato on forms.

    I come from the perspective of a tradition that does read the Bible, out of context to the danger of eternal souls. Lots of proof-texting and stuff. I’ll give you one practical example. Various Scriptures are used to show that God is anti-gay, anti-egalitarian, anti-Democrat, anti-abortion, anti-divorce, etc. What is ignored is the context for example of Paul writing to Timothy in Ephesus. Basic knowledge of what was going on in Ephesus makes it clear that their culture had many of the same evils present in our culture, yet Paul did not choose to sound forth the multi-pronged social/moral agenda given above. His agenda was driven by the gospel. So to me this is a situation where background information can make a significant difference. Maybe this is not helpful, but my experience has been lots of Bible study but not enough “Bible in context.”

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