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Lesson One: How a Catholic Starts to Read the Bible
1. To learn how to read the Bible the way the Catholic Church has always read it.
2. To understand the concepts of “salvation history” and “covenant” and their importance for reading the Bible.
3. To learn the key points of the creation story in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.
- Course Introduction and Overview
- Going By the Book: How a Catholic Reads the Bible
- Divine Revelation: How God Speaks to Us
- Interpreting the Bible: The Three Rules
- Scripture is Divine: Inspiration
- Scripture is Human: The Bible as Religious Literature and History
- III. Salvation History: The Story the Bible Tells
- Starting in the Beginning: An Introduction to Genesis
- Study Questions
- For prayer and reflection:
I. Course Introduction and Overview
A. Reading the Bible Cover-to-Cover
In this class, we’re going to be reading the Bible from cover to cover. Pretty ambitious for a beginners, you say?
You’re right. We won’t be able to go in depth - you have a lifetime of Bible reading to do that. But we’re going to give you the tools you need so that you can start that lifetime of reading. When you’re done with this class, you’ll be able to follow "the plot" of the Bible, keep track of all the characters, and know what the story’s all about.
That may be news to some of you - that there’s a single plot and story to the Bible. Well there is. It’s not just a collection of individual books. All those individual books, when joined together and put in order by the ancient Church Fathers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit , now make up a single book. And this book tells only one story. We’re going to tell you what that story is and how to follow it through all the individual books of the Bible.
Before we do that , we’re going to begin in this lesson with an overview of some basic principles of Catholic Bible-reading.
B. Tips for On-Line Learning
If you’re new to on-line instruction, you may benefit from reading our Tips for On-Line Learning.
II. Going by the Book: How a Catholic Reads the Bible
A. Divine Revelation: How God Speaks to Us
Christianity is a religion of the Word, not of a book! The Word is a Person - Jesus Christ. He is God’s "final word" on everything. Through Jesus,
God has revealed everything He wanted to reveal to us about who He is and what He intends for our lives. God’s revelation of Himself comes to us in three ways:
- Scripture (the Bible)
- Tradition (especially the liturgy of the Church - the Mass and the sacraments)
- The Magisterium (the Church’s teachings, such as its dogmas and creeds)
The Holy Spirit is at work through all three channels - He inspires Scripture, animates the Church’s living Tradition, and guarantees the teaching of the Church’s Magisterium (Catechism, nos. 81-82).
B. Reading and Interpreting the Scripture: The Three Rules
Because God’s revelation comes to us through these three channels, we must remember three important criteria for reading and interpreting Scripture: *
The Content & Unity of Scripture: Though Scripture is made up of different books, we can’t read them as separate books. We have to read each one in light of the rest, keeping in mind that Jesus revealed that there is a unity in God’s plan for the world, as that plan is revealed in Scripture.
St. Augustine used to say that: "The New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New." What he meant is that Jesus showed us how the things that God says and does in the Old Testament pointed to what He says and does in the New. In turn, what Jesus says and does in the New Testament sheds light on the promises and events we read about in the Old.
The Church’s Living Tradition: We must always read Scripture within the context of the Church’s Tradition. That means that we should always see how the Church interprets certain Scripture passages, especially in the prayers and readings it uses for the Mass and for special feasts in the Church.
Analogy of Faith: The same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also safeguards the Church’s teaching authority. That means that if we’re going to read and interpret Scripture properly - the way God intends it to be read - we have to make sure our interpretations don’t contradict the interpretations found in the Church’s creeds and other statements of doctrine.
C. Scripture is Divine: Inspiration
As you can tell by now, there’s no other book like the Bible. The Church teaches that just as Jesus was "true God and true man," the Bible is truly a work of human authors and at the same time is truly the work of God as the divine author.
This is the mystery of the divine "inspiration" of Scripture (see 2 Timothy 3:16). The word "inspired" in the Greek, literally means "God-breathed." And that’s a good way to think about the inspiration of Scripture. Just as God fashioned Adam out of the clay of the earth and blew the breath of life into him (see Genesis 2:7), God breathes His Spirit into the words of the human authors of Scripture and makes them the Living Word of God.
The way the Church explains it, it happened like this: The human authors used their literary skills, ideas and other talents in writing the pages of the Bible. But while they were writing, God was acting in them so that what they wrote was exactly what He wanted them to write (see Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, scroll down to nos. 11-12: Catechism, nos. 105-107).
The human writers were "true authors" of Scripture, and so was God.
Because God is its co-author, and because God cannot err or make mistakes, we say that whatever we read in the Bible is true, free from "error" and has been put there for our salvation. This is called the "inerrancy" of Scripture.
This is a very complicated concept that we can’t explain fully in this class. But it’s important to always read the Bible on its own terms. The Bible doesn’t set out to teach modern history, science or geography or biography. So we shouldn’t try to compare what it says about the creation of the world, for instance, to what modern science teaches us.
That doesn’t mean the Bible is ever wrong. The Bible, entire and whole, is true and without error - not only in what it teaches about faith and morals, but also what it says about historical events and personages. It will never lead us astray. But we have to interpret it responsibly - we have to understand that it is giving us history and natural events from a "religious" and divine perspective, and often uses symbolic language.
D. Scripture is Human: The Bible as Religious Literature and History
Practically speaking, the "divine-human" authorship of Scripture means we have to read the Bible differently than we approach other books.
When we read the Bible we must remember that it is the Word of God told in human language. It’s important that we understand the "human element" of Scripture. As we’ll see, this human element can’t really be separated from the divine element.
But it’s important when we read the Bible to remember that it is:
- Literature: The Bible uses literary forms, devices, structures, figures, etc. We must look for the "literary" clues that convey a meaning.
- Ancient: The Bible is ancient. Its not written like modern literature. It’s meaning is wrapped up with the way the ancients looked at the world and recorded history. Although they were interested in recording history, they were not interested in "pure history." History was more than just politic, economics and wars - it had a deeper significance.
- Religious: Today people think of religion in terms of personal piety. Not so for the ancients. The word "religion" comes from the Latin, "religare," - "to bind together." For the ancients everything - culture, history, the economy, diplomacy - was bound together by the religion. The Bible gives us history, but it is religious history. It is history from God’s perspective.
III. Salvation History: The Story the Bible Tells
A. Salvation History and Covenants
With that brief background on how the Catholic Church understands the Bible, let’s turn now to the Bible’s "content."
The first thing to know is that the Bible gives us history from God’s perspective. It shows us that all throughout time, God is working to bring us salvation. That’s why we say that the Bible gives us "salvation history."
This salvation history, in turn, hinges upon the "covenants" that God makes with his people throughout the Bible. The great early Church Father, Irenaeus, recognized the need for studying salvation history in terms of the covenants: "Understanding ...consists in showing why there are a number of covenants with mankind and in teaching what is the character of those covenants" (Against the Heresies, Book I, Chapter 10, no. 3).
What is a covenant? Let’s start with what it’s not. A covenant is not a contract.
Contracts are deals where two parties make a promise that involves some exchange of goods or services or property. Usually they seal their contract by giving their "word" - their name - in the form of their signature.
When parties make a covenant, they swear oaths. Oaths are more than promises. Instead of swearing by their own name, they swear by the highest name, by the name of God.
You know the formula from all the courtroom dramas, you’ve seen on TV: "Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" That’s an oath formula. You ask for God’s help to tell the truth ("so help me, God") and it’s implied that if you lie, you’re going to be punished by God.
Covenants involve, not an exchange of property, but an exchange of persons. You don’t give somebody your services or goods when you swear a covenant oath - you swear to give them yourself.
Marriage is a good example. It’s a covenant because in the exchange of vows, the woman gives herself to the man and the man gives himself to the woman.
As we will see in the next lesson, when God says to Israel, "You will be my people and I will be your God," that’s a covenant. What’s happening is that Israel is swearing an oath to God - to live according to God’s law as His people, His children. In turn, God is swearing to be Israel’s God, its divine parent. There are blessings for keeping the covenant and curses for breaking it.
In the ancient world, covenants made families. Even ancient treaty documents between nations used "father-son" imagery. Outsiders were "adopted" into a tribe through covenant oaths. So, when we study the Bible we need to see how the meaning of "covenant" is steeped in that ancient idea of family-making.
The whole Bible can be outlined as a series of family-making covenants.
That’s the "point" of the whole Bible story - how God, through these covenants, reveals more and more of Himself to his creatures and asks them to enter into a family relationship with Him. St. Paul sums up God’s intentions, this way: "As God said: ‘I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.’....‘I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty." (see 2 Corinthians 6:16-18).
Throughout the salvation history told in the Bible God acts through His covenants to extend the Family of God. He starts small with just two people, Adam and Eve, and proceeds - through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David - until finally all nations are brought into the covenant through Jesus Christ.
The plan from the beginning was to make all men and women into His sons and daughters through the covenants, which are all summed up in Jesus’ New Covenant, where God sends us "a Spirit of adoption, through which we can cry, Abba, ‘Father!’" (see Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5).
B. The Old And New Testaments
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves! The point of what we’ve said so far is this:
The Bible tells the story of salvation history. Salvation history is the story of God’s marvelous work, since the creation of the world, to make all men and women His children, to form from the family of mankind a family of God. He does this through a series of covenants that He makes with key figures at key points in the Bible.
These key covenants serve as the outline for reading the whole Bible. If we know them and understand them, we’ll have a good working understanding of the "plot" of the Bible. And by the end of this Beginner’s Class, you’ll know the covenants and understand them!
There’s only one more thing we need to know before we crack the cover on the Good Book and start reading.
We need to know why the Bible is divided into Old and New Testaments. Lots of Christians ignore the Old Testament because it was what happened before Jesus. But when you understand that salvation history began with the creation of the world in the Old Testament and progressed through the series of Old Testament covenants, then you realize why the Old Testament is so important. The division of the Bible into Old and New Testaments is much more than a literary or historical marker.
Remember, "testament" is just another word for "covenant." And what goes on in the Old Testament is all about preparing the way for and announcing what’s going to happen in the New Testament. Christ and His cross, is like the "hinge" between the Old and the New Testaments. All the covenants that God made in the Old Testament find their fulfillment - their full meaning and purpose - in Jesus, in His "new Covenant."
IV. Starting in the Beginning: An Introduction to Genesis
A. The Story of Creation
We’re ready now to start reading the Bible! We’re going to start at the beginnings, with Genesis, Chapter 1.
The best way to begin is by reading Genesis, Chapter 1, right now. Then you’ll be ready to read what follows.
Too often people read the story of creation in terms of a religion vs. science debate. Yet, that imposes our historical situation on the text and misses the literary clues that explain to us the "religious" meaning the story had for ancient Israel, and the religious meaning that God intends for us in the 21st century.
Genesis 1:1 tells us that in the beginning the world was "formless and empty." The plot proceeds by showing us how God sets out to fix this - first, by giving the world form and then filling it.
In Days 1-3, God creates the "form" or the "realms" of the world - the day and the night; the sky and the sea; the land and the vegetation.
In Days 4-6, God fills these realms with "rulers" or "governors" - the sun, moon & stars (which "rule over the day and over the night"; verses 14-19); the birds and the fish to fill the sky and the seas; and man and beast, which rule the land.
There’s a perfect order to all this. First God creates the "structure" of the world, then He fills that structure with living beings. It’s like He’s making a house and then putting inhabitants into it. And the individual days match up, too.
On Day 1, God creates day and night. On Day 4, He creates the "rulers" for the realms of day and night - the sun the moon and the stars.
On Day 2, He makes the sky and the sea. On Day 5, the sky and the sea are given their "governors," the fish and birds.
On Day 3, the land and the vegetation are created. And on Day 6, animals and the first humans are given dominion, rule over that land.
After each day of creation, God sees that His work is "good." After the six "work days" are through, God sees that His work is "very good." The word "very" is used to mark the end of the creation cycle, since God had finished creating the realms and the rulers.
B. The Word and the Sabbath
Something also to note, as we read these first few verses of the Bible. How does God create? By speaking His Word. He says "Let there be…" and things come into being. We know by reading the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, that the Word of God by which He created the world is Jesus (see John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:16-17).
That’s something to remember - not only when you read the rest of the Bible, but everytime you go to Mass, too. God’s Word always does things. God’s Word does what it says it’s doing. When He says, "Let there be light," His Word creates light, really and truly. God’s Word does what it says it’s doing.
This same power of the living Word of God is at work in the sacraments of the Church. When the priest speaks the Word of Jesus: "This is My Body," the bread and wine at the altar become the Body and of Christ. When the priest speaks the Word of Jesus: "I absolve you" or "I baptize you," that Word creates the reality it speaks about.
The creative power of the Word of God is one of the most important things to learn from these early verses of Genesis.
One more interesting thing to point out. We may have a hint of the Church’s doctrine of the Trinity in these early verses of Genesis.
Notice that we have three divine actors here - there is God, there is the Word that He speaks, and there is the Spirit that’s describe hovering over the face of the deep (see Genesis 1:2). Note that the New American Bible translates this "a mighty wind." But it’s more accurately translated in the Revised Standard Version: "The Spirit of God," which follows the Vulgate, the Church’s official Latin edition ("spiritus Dei) and the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament ("pneuma Theos").
Notice, too, that God appears to be talking to Himself in the plural: "Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness" (Genesis 1:26-27). Why didn’t God say, "Let Me make man in My image, etc."?
We don’t know. Scholars and saints have puzzled over this for years. We mention it here because it may be our first hint of what Jesus will later reveal - that God is three divine Persons in One: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:19).
On the seventh day, God rests and blesses His creation. Now we’re into the next chapter of Genesis (see Genesis 2:2-3). It’s not that God got tired. We should see this cosmic rest and blessing as the first of the cycle of covenants that we will see throughout the Bible.
God, by His act of establishing the Sabbath, is making a covenant with His creation, and especially with all of humanity, represented by the man He created in His own image. That seems to be what Jesus is getting at when He says: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28).
It makes sense, when you think about it: God doesn’t create the world for no reason - to be detached or somehow unrelated to Him. He creates the world, and the human family out of love. The Sabbath is the sign of that covenant and that love.
God explains this later when He gives Moses the Sabbath laws for the people of Israel. He says the Sabbath is "a perpetual covenant" (see Exodus 31:16-17). That’s why the Catechism calls the creation story the "first step" in God’s covenant-making and "the first and universal witness to God’s all-powerful love" (no. 288).
Also, the Hebrew word for "oath-swearing" is sheba, a word that’s based on the Hebrew word for the number "seven." In Hebrew, to swear an oath, which is what you do when you make a covenant, is "to seven oneself" (see Abraham’s oath in Genesis 21:27-32).
So, what God seems to be doing here on the seventh day, is not resting, but binding Himself to His creation in a perpetual covenant relationship. And we’ll see this pattern of covenant continuing throughout the Bible.
By reading the creation story according to the "content and unity" of the entire Bible, we see something else that’s important about the story of creation.
We see that the creation account is describing God’s creation of the world as the building of a temple, a holy place where God will dwell and meet His creatures. Like the Temple He later ordered to be built in Jerusalem, the "temple" of creation is a holy place where He will dwell and where men and women will worship and offer sacrifice.
We see this in the Book of Job, Chapter 38, where the creation of the world is described in terms of temple building.
In fact, if we compare the creation account with the accounts of the building of the tabernacle and the Temple, we’ll see that both of these holy dwellings are described in terms very similar to those used to describe the creation of the world.
For instance, when Moses constructs the tabernacle, God speaks to Him 10 times ("The Lord said to Moses"). It’s no coincidence that God spoke 10 times in Genesis 1 ("Let there be…"). And there are more parallels:
God beholds that His creation is good (Genesis 1:31). Moses beholds that his work has been done as the Lord commanded (Exodus 39:43). Compare also Genesis 2:1 and Exodus 39:32 and Genesis 2:2 and Exodus 40:33.
Also: God blesses and hallows the Sabbath when He is done and Moses blesses the tabernacle (Genesis 2:3; Exodus 39:43; 40:9). Finally, both accounts end with a declaration that the Sabbath is holy (Genesis 2:2-4; Exodus 31:12-17).
You’ll see the same patterns in 1 Kings 6-8 which describes the building of the Temple. King Solomon consecrates the Temple in the seventh month, on the seventh day of a seven-day feast, offering seven petitions - another not-so-subtle allusion to the creation story.
As the Spirit "hovered" over the primordial waters, the Spirit of God fills Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8:10), as it also did when Moses consecrated the meeting tent (see Exodus 40:35).
In the Temple, it was the "sanctuary," the "holy of holies" that was truly the dwelling place of God, the holiest of places.
And in the creation account in Genesis, the Garden of Eden, where God placed the man and the woman, is described in terms similar to those used to describe the inner precincts of the Temple.
The Garden was entered from the East, as was the Temple sanctuary. The cherubim posted by God at the entrance of the garden resemble whose posted in the sanctuary of Solomon’s temple (see Genesis 3:24; Exodus 25:18-22, 26-31; I Kings 6:23-29).
God "walks" in the garden (Genesis 3:8) as He is said to dwell in the Temple sanctuary (see Leviticus 26:11-12; Deuteronomy 14:23; 2 Samuel 7:6-7).
We’ll see more parallels in our next lesson as we look more in-depth at the creation of man and woman and their "fall."
- Name and explain the three ways that God reveals Himself to us.
- What does it mean to say that the Bible is inspired by God and free from error?
- What’s the difference between a covenant and a contract?
- What do covenants do and why are they important to understanding the Bible?
- There may be two hints of the Trinity in Genesis 1. What are they?
- How is God’s creation like the tabernacle and Temple He ordered to be built?
- What is the meaning of the Sabbath day?
For prayer and reflection:
The Genesis creation story is the first of nine Scriptures that are read during the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday night. Read all the readings for the Vigil, the Responses and, if possible the prayers that go along with the readings. Ask God to help you see the pattern of salvation history that these readings unfold, using the prayer that’s said during the Vigil after the reading of Genesis and the Psalm:
Almighty and eternal God,
You created all things in wonderful beauty and order.
Help us now to perceive
how still more wonderful is the new creation
by which in the fullness of time
You redeemed your people
through the sacrifice of our Passover, Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns forever and ever.
The readings for the Easter Vigil are as follows:
- Genesis 1:1-2:2 Response: Psalm 104:1-2,5-6,10-14,24,35
- Genesis 22:1-18 Response: Psalm 16:5,8, 9-11
- Exodus 14:15 -15:1 Response: Exodus 15:1-6,17-18
- Isaiah 54:5-14 Response: Psalm 30:2-6,11-13
- Isaiah 55:1-11 Response: Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
- Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4 Response: Psalm 19:8-10,17
- Ezekiel 36:16-17, 18-28 Response: Psalm 42:3,5; 43:3- 4
- Romans 6:3-11 Response: Psalm 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
- Matthew 28:1-10 (Year A) or Mark 16:1-7 (Year B) or Luke 24:1-12 (Year C)