We can understand the Bible with the help of a community: the authors, initial audiences, and later audiences. In my last post, I emphasised the authors. In fact, the authors and initial audiences overlap. By looking at the authors Paul and Luke last week, we have already started to look at initial audiences. These missionary teammates were in each other’s audiences. Other examples are proverb-writer Solomon reading his father David’s Psalms and several prophet-authors working at the same time, like Daniel and Ezekiel.
In this post, while still following clues from the Bible itself (just the Old Testament for now), we will widen our lens and find that the initial audiences were big.
Now, because we are following clues from the Bible, some skeptics will cry foul. Just as a skeptical shopper questions the claim on the Weet-Bix box that ‘Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids’, a skeptical reader questions the claims a book makes about its own audiences. However, a reasonable reader finds clues in a book about its audience. This is how scholars of literature treat books in general. Just as the box of Weet-Bix in my pantry is a clue to my diet, my digestive system, and my demographic, a book’s style and type is a clue to the sort of people it was written for, the relationship they had with the author, and the place his message had in their lives.
What clues in the Old Testament indicate large audiences? Much of Moses’ books are covenant or agreement documents, formally outlining the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, complete with instructions for land use, holidays, an order of priesthood, concepts of purity and perfection and much more. In other words, they were written to a whole nation on purpose to define that whole nation.
The Old Testament books after Moses are also designed for immediate and wide sharing, from temple songbooks (many Psalms) to criticisms of the nation (much of the prophets) to practical proverbs about everyday life. Even the lyrical Song of Songs is dedicated to (or perhaps by) a king.
So we have large audiences right in front of the authors using books together for a range of purposes.
Contrast this with the opposite: a lone, isolated reader who doesn’t need to do anything about the book. When I was about thirteen I read Lord of the Rings. Afterwards I felt a little guilty, because my mother would report my achievement in glowing terms, yet I knew I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. I found it very confusing and scarcely followed the plot. Why was Aragorn the rightful king? Why did the Rohirrim ride horses into battle and not those giant tree-men? I could not have answered either of these to save my life. Fortunately, I did not need to answer these questions to save my life, or for any other urgent purpose. Again, I was a lone, isolated reader.
Yet the readers of the books of the Old Testament did use those books to support (or oppose) kings, organise battles, and do all sorts of other things. They could not afford to pose with the books and look smart one by one, like thirteen-year-old me with Lord of the Rings. They received the books as a group. The books called for an active response. And there are signs that the call got through. The books are full of clarifications in sophisticated detail. There are careful closures of loopholes in the Law of Moses, choir instructions in the Psalms, and shock tactics from angry prophets. The authors would only bother clarifying particular points like this if a lot of their message was already understood as they intended.
Each of those examples of clarification is a technique, and a set of techniques makes up a genre. A genre serves a big purpose. So, in the Old Testament, there are both clarifying techniques (like legal loophole closure, choir tips, and shock tactics) and purposeful genres (like covenant, worshipful singing, or king support) – both fine details and big ideas, all forced out onto the page by the drive to communicate. When we open those pages and read today, we have a chance to be a new audience, hearing the message again.
We should be grateful for the drive to communicate, and for the initial audiences who helped to stir it in the human authors’ hearts.
Next week, we’ll look at how balanced a portrait we get in the Old Testament about its audiences, why honesty is a much better explanation than skillful fiction, and how this, too, helps us to understand the text.