Although we might mistake it for a monolithic text that talks down to us from on high, the Bible is actually a collection of texts that all call us to draw near, to listen, to see anew, and then to act rightly. Sometimes, though, I find that we aren’t sure how to read the Bible in a meaningful way. And this is sad, because in Scripture we can find not only stories that challenge us and teach us, but also, concealed in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament, Jesus Christ himself. We are meant to be caught up in the drama of Scripture, to be changed by it, and then to impact those around us through our growth in charity.
How do we study the Bible? Traditionally, the Church teaches that every story in the Bible has four senses, or ways of reading it. Remembering these four senses can give added weight to our experiences studying the Scriptures at Mass and at home.
The Literal Sense
Real people told real stories about real events, in ways that made sense to them. Solomon really built a temple, and one of the prophets really did write about it happening. Real people kept that story alive by reading it and copying it and reflecting on the awesome way in which Solomon gave glory to God and the condescension of God to come down to dwell in the house Solomon built.
The Holy Spirit was also the author, so we can be confident of the following three spiritual senses also being present as well:
The Allegorical Sense
On the road to Emmaus, Jesus encountered two disciples who could not comprehend Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27). Everything in the Bible reveals something about Jesus. Jesus really did say that the Temple would be destroyed and rebuilt, but when He was talking, “he was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 3:21). The wonder we had at Solomon’s efforts to give glory by providing a house for God now illuminates Mary, who laid her life down in the service of God to provide Him a home, and the condescension of God we saw in the Old Testament has become total kenosis: the self-emptying of the Son of God in becoming man.
The Moral Sense
St. Paul says to Timothy that “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). In another letter, St. Paul takes the image of the Temple and says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). The Holy Spirit desires for us to live differently. Temples are places of sacrifice, of reconciliation, and of bringing together all of creation into a well-ordered microcosm. “Do I treat my body like a temple?,” “Do I look at other people as if they are temples?”and “What would be different if I did?” These are questions to help uncover the moral sense of Solomon’s Temple. One of St. Augustine’s rules for studying Scripture was that any true interpretation had to lead to greater charity. “In what way does this story show me how to love more like God does?”
The Anagogical/Upward Sense
Moses records on Mount Sinai that the tabernacle was to be made according to what he saw in the heavenly vision: “And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:8-9). Scripture leads us to heaven, and the stories in it all point to heavenly realities. As St. John discovers in the vision of heaven he received, “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). Solomon’s Temple is a preparation for heaven. The delight the ancient Israelites had in their Temple is a foreshadowing of the delight of heaven.
And this ‘works’ for all of Scripture, from creation through Revelation. The fruit of the tree of life is Christ offered on the cross, and offered to us (if we are willing to receive Him) at Mass. Name a story, whether it be the most pleasant or the darkest, and find in it the presence of Christ, the presentation of a choice for us right now, and a foretaste of heaven. Whether we’re listening at Mass, joining a small group for study, or reading on our own, the living word of God is waiting to pierce through the page into us. People throughout all of the ages meditated profitably on the stories that came before. You can bet when you’re reading about Joseph in Genesis that he reflected on the stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father, respectively. You can bet that David kept those stories in mind, as well as the stories of Moses, Joshua, and the judges of Israel, as he ruled Israel. And you can bet that one of the things that made the bad kings of Israel and Judah so bad is that they never took time to meditate on these stories. Great kings, great leaders, and great men and women of faith have found strength in these stories; why not us, too?
Start with the literal—figure out what the text means—and then start asking: “Where is Jesus in this story?” “How should I live differently now because of this story?” and “What is this saying about our final union with God?” We’ll encounter Jesus in new ways, we’ll find new areas to grow in, and our hearts will learn to live in hope when we do.