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There are some very strange stories in the Bible. Why are they there? What are they proving?

There are some stories in the Bible that are VERY strange to us, and that can make the Bible very hard to read sometimes.  That's totally natural.  After all, the vast majority of things we read in our day-to-day lives, like the newspaper, memos at work, and emails, were written in our native language, usually by people from a similar social class and level of education, and often from a cultural background that's similar to ours.  When we pick up the Bible, though, we're reading something that's translated from an ancient language few of us know (Greek or Hebrew), and by someone whose cultural background and historical circumstances are very different from ours.

When I encounter a story in the Bible that sounds strange, the first thing I do is I try to find out as much as I can about anything from the historical or cultural background of the passage that might explain what I'm seeing.  I've got the advantage of many years of study and an extensive library (well, that part's not so much of an advantage when I move ...), but you've got the advantage of being at a church with staff who have many years of study and extensive personal libraries.  The first thing that I'd do is shoot off an email or make a telephone call to one of those people to see what s/he thinks and what resources s/he has to offer.

It's not a bad idea to build up your own resources as well. I highly recommend the Harper Collins Study Bible, which you can see in the resources listed down the right-hand side of this page. It's got the best notes of any study Bible I've seen, and it's the one that I get whenever I give a study Bible as a gift.  Those notes may help you with many questions you have about a passage.

A good commentary also might be able to help you with questions you have about a particular book. Some commentaries are better than others, and some are more readable than others too. I'm always happy to recommend one, if you're looking for a commentary on a particular book in the Bible, but generally speaking, I find that commentaries from the Sacra Pagina series (like the Luke commentary in the sidebar on the right-hand side of the page) and the paperback (woo-hoo!  They're cheap!) Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (like the 1 Corinthians commentary in the sidebar) are good ones for people who don't know Greek or Hebrew and don't want to get bogged down in too many details. For the gospels and for the book of Revelation, I can't recommend highly enough the paperback (see above "woo-hoo!" on cheapness) "Social Science" commentaries in the sidebar. A one-volume commentary on the whole Bible clearly won't be able to get into the same level of detail as a commentary on a particular book or just two or three books, but they can be handy to have as a desk reference. The one I recommend is the Harper Collins One-Volume Bible Commentary.

If you're interested in exploring the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible more generally, that could make comprehensible a lot of stories that seem strange from our cultural perspective. Bruce Malina's The New Testament World is short, pretty readable, and very helpful, even for understanding Old Testament cultures (which, like the ones in which the New Testament was produced, were what anthropologists call an "honor/shame culture"). K.C. Hanson's and Douglas Oakman's Palestine in the Time of Jesus is another paperback written for folks without much prior background, and it's got excellent information. And for a great treatment of what Jesus' and Paul's ministries were about in their historical and cultural context, I recommend Richard Horsley and Neil Silberman's The Message and the Kingdom.

But even when you do know a lot, some stories in the Bible are strange, in part because they're getting at something that scholars of religion call "the numinous," things that are on the border between the world as we usually experience it and the other-worldly. Personally, I'm grateful for the things that make me say "huh?" that I encounter in the Bible because they bring me back to the community, where we can wrestle with questions in the presence of the Spirit. In the end, I think that's one of the most important things that reading scripture does for us.

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