You don't have to read the Bible for long before you realize the folks who wrote this book were quite special, with enormous capacities for feeling and understanding truth. Paul and John are definitely my favorites, but after those two my favorite writer in the Bible is Moses. Moses most likely wrote the book of Job, and when he was finished he wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy.
I took a class on Moses from a man named John Sailhamer. It was the best class I have ever taken. I didn't normally take Bible classes back then, but my friend John MacMurray told me John Sailhamer is one of the smartest guys in the world when it comes to talking about Moses. I told him I still didn't want to go to the class, that I wanted to watch television, but at the time I was living with John MacMurray and his family, and he told me that I had to go if I wanted to continue living in his home. So I went to this class and about five minutes into it I knew I was taking the best class I would ever take. If you ever have the opportunity to take a class from John Sailhamer, you should. His knowledge concerning the Old Testament is quite ferocious.
At one point in the class, for instance, a lot of us were getting confused because we couldn't figure out what translation of the Bible he was teaching from, so we asked him. It turned out he was teaching from the ancient Hebrew, translating it in his mind into English as he went along. And you might think a guy like that would go around speaking Hebrew all the time to impress people but he didn't, except one time when he read a long piece of poetry that Moses wrote. He read it in Hebrew and it sounded so beautiful that when he was finished, even though none of us knew what he had said, we sat around very quietly because we knew we had heard something profound, something Moses had sat and labored over for a very long time, something that ancient Hebrews would have read and then stopped to slowly note the complexity of its beauty, and the depth of its meaning.
The thing about John Sailhamer is, he helped me love Moses. I don't know if I had given Moses much thought before that class, but after hearing John Sailhamer talk about him, he became a human being to me. Dr. Sailhamer said Moses, unlike most writers in Scripture, would stop the narrative to break into the kind of poetry he had quoted earlier, a kind of poetry called parallelism, which is when you say something and then repeat it using different phrasing. He said the way Moses wrote wasn't unlike the way people who write musicals stop the story every once in a while to break into song. At first I thought Dr. Sailhamer was just making things up, but he showed us in the text several places where the writer clearly stopped writing narrative and began writing poetry. The reason Moses would do this, according to John Sailhamer, is because there are emotions and situations and tensions that a human being feels in his life but can't explain. And poetry is a literary tool that has the power to give a person the feeling he isn't alone in those emotions, that, though there are no words to describe them, somebody understands.
I can't tell you how beautiful I thought this was; I had always suspected language was quite limited in its ability to communicate the intricate mysteries of truth. By that I mean if you have to describe loneliness or how beautiful your sweetheart is or the way a rainstorm smells in summer, you most likely have to use poetry because these things are not technical, they are more romantic, and yet they exist and we interact and exchange these commodities with one another in a kind of dance.
This comforted me because I had grown up thinking of my faith in a rather systematic fashion, as I said, listed on grids and charts, which is frustrating because I never, ever thought you could diagram truth, map it out on a grid, or break it down into a formula. I felt that truth was something living, complex, very large and dynamic and animated. Simple words, lists, or formulas could never describe truth or explain the complex nature of our reality.
What John Sailhamer was saying was meaningful because it meant God wasn't communicating to us through cold lists and dead formulas; it meant He wanted to say something to our hearts, like a real person. Remember when I was talking about a hidden language beneath the language we speak, and how this hidden language is about the heart? It seems the Bible is speaking this language, this inferred set of ideas, as much as it is speaking simple truths.
Furthermore, it is true God used a great deal of poetry in the Bible. David was a poet and his son Solomon created a musical called Song of Songs, which is about romance and sex, and even Paul had memorized the works of Greek poets so he could speak them from memory when giving a talk. If you quote a poem in a sermon today, some people think you are being mushy, but if you quoted one back in the day, people would have felt you were getting to the core of an idea, to the real, whole truth of it. And after taking John Sailhamer's class, I started wondering if the message God was communicating to mankind, this gospel of Jesus, was a message communicated to the heart as much as to the head; that is, the methodology was as important as the message itself, that the ideas could not be presented accurately outside the emotion within which the truths were embedded.
And if you think about these things, it only makes sense that if God was communicating a relational message to humanity He would use the multilayered methodology of truth and art, because nobody engages another human being through lists and formulas. Our interaction with one another is so much more about that hidden language. I started wondering if our methodology, that of charts and formulas and lists, is not hindering the message Jesus intended. If our modern methodology is superior to the methodology of historical narrative mixed with music, drama, poetry, and prose, then why didn't God choose lists instead of art?
I began to wonder if the ancient Hebrews would have understood this intrinsically, if they would have sat around watching plays and reading poems knowing this is where real truth lies, and if our age, affected by the Renaissance and later by the Industrial Revolution, by Darwin and the worship of science, hasn't lost a certain understanding of truth that was more whole. If you have a girlfriend and you list some specifics about her on a piece of paperher eye color, her hair color, how tall she isand then give her this list over a candlelight dinner, I doubt it will make her swoon. But if you quote these ideas to her in a poem:
She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
It makes you wonder if guys like John the Evangelist and Paul and Moses wouldn't look at our systematic theology charts, our lists and mathematical formulas, and scratch their heads to say, Well, it's technically true; it just isn't meaningful.
If you ask me, the separation of truth from meaning is a dangerous game. I don't think memorizing ideas helps anybody unless they already understand the meaning inferred in the expression of those ideas. I think ideas have to sink very deeply into a person's soul, into their being, before they can effect change, and lists rarely sink deeply into a person's soul.
After taking John Sailhamer's class, I thought about the difference between meaning and truth. I wondered if when we take Christian theology out of the context of its narrative, when we ignore the poetry in which it is presented, when we turn it into formulas to help us achieve the American dream, we lose its meaning entirely, and the ideas become fodder for the head but have no impact on the way we live our lives or think about God. This is, perhaps, why people are so hostile toward religion.
Reprinted by permission of Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, TN., from the book entitled Searching for God Knows What copyright date 2004 by Donald Miller. All rights reserved. Copying or using this material without written permission from the publisher is strictly prohibited and in direct violation of copyright law.
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John Sailhamer teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Searching for God Knows What is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
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