Reading Scripture creatively shouldn’t be speculative, says Christopher Ash, but we can and should draw on the Bible’s own rich store of helpful imagery.
For this issue’s Bible Toolkit, I want to write about how to read Scripture with Bible-shaped imagination. First, we should acknowledge that it is possible to read a passage of the Bible in a two-dimensional way, so that we grasp what the text says but, if we’re honest, it feels flat and dull. On the other hand there is a way of reading that is full of imagination and goes something like this: “I wonder what so-and-so felt at this point of the story.” And by Bible-shaped imagination, I do not mean this kind of imagination. Too often this is uncontrolled and speculative; it says more about the one doing the imagining than about the Scriptures. The unkind, but probably true, response is to say, “Well, you can wonder all you like; but the Bible doesn’t tell us!”
To explain what I do mean, let me give an example. I had the privilege of preaching recently the early chapters of the book of Joshua. I had two consecutive weeks on the crossing of the Jordan (chapters 3 and 4). As I prepared, I found myself wondering, “What does it mean?” It is not difficult to grasp what happens: the people couldn’t get to the other side, and then, by a miracle, they could. But what is its significance? Not just “what?” but “so what?”
When preaching chapter 1 we had considered the significance of the Promised Land, the place that foreshadowed the New Creation, the place that is “inherited” (to use the Old Testament verb picked up in this sense in the New Testament) by all in Christ, the place in which our deepest longings are fulfilled and consummated. But what about crossing the river Jordan to get there?
It is important, I think, first to bear in mind in general terms the significance of water as the place of chaos, danger and death. (In the thought-provoking richness of Bible symbolism, it can also mean life-giving waters; but that is not the case here.) The River Jordan is here the river in flood and signifies a River of Death.
But then I meditated on other Bible scenes in which death-waters are crossed in one manner or another. The most obvious is the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14 and 15). Psalm 114 explicitly links these two crossings. The point of the story, at one level, is that the people who had been “baptised into Moses” (1 Corinthians 10:2) at the Red Sea, passing through death on their exodus from slavery, are now “baptised into Joshua” as they pass through death in their entrance to the Promised Land. There is the small-scale crossing of the Jordan with Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 2:8), signalling that Elijah too, like Moses and Joshua, is a leader who can go through death into life. And then there is Noah, in whose ark “a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water” in a way that somehow corresponds with baptism (1 Peter 3:18-22). In each case a leader takes people through waters of death; this is the leader we need.
I found myself thinking right back to Creation, in which human life is possible because there is a separation of the waters (Genesis 1). So life in the midst of death-giving waters is somehow a fundamental Bible motif. And then the references to baptism made me think of the Lord Jesus going into those same Jordan waters at his own baptism, and coming out to a life of Spirit-energised ministry. I thought of him crossing the stormy Sea of Galilee (a part of those Jordan waters) and proving himself to be the Leader who can take his people through waters of death (Matthew 14:22-33).
All this began to help me view the wonderful miracle of Joshua 3 and 4 in a broader and a brighter light, in the light of Creation and, above all, the light of Jesus Christ. He is the Forerunner who enters the waters of death (foreshadowed by the Ark of the Old Covenant) for his people and, by his death, destroys the one who has the power of death, that we too may travel from death into life.
I take it that Joshua 3 and 4 — but perhaps more clearly the crossing of the Red Sea — are suggestive of our conversion journey from spiritual death into life. But I take it also that this crossing at the very least hints at the final journey of the believer from this age, through death, into the life of the age to come. If this is so, then Bunyan got it right in his river crossing scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Christian hymnody is right to use this imagery of the death of a believer (e.g. “On Jordan’s Stormy Bank I Stand”).
I may be wrong, but I suspect all this wider Bible imagery helped me imagine the scene as the people crossed the Jordan with a Spirit-guided (because Scripture-guided) richness of imagination that a simple account of the crossing would lack.