Dovecotes and Devotionals
The dovecote was a circular stone building, with a flight of steps up to the enticingly-open door. We stepped into the cool, dark interior and were thankfully not met by the stench of centuries of pigeon-droppings, but by a semi-circle of people all waiting for the guide to begin his presentation.
He was an archaeologist, and he described how he had gone about investigating the history of this old - he thought probably mediaeval - structure.
As he spoke, it occurred to me that his method could easily be applied to the study of a passage of scripture.
First, he outlined the general history of dovecotes - he had a general working knowledge of the big picture, the sweep of the story that this building had to fit into.
Then he got down to particulars. He said he always starts by looking at the roof. Not wishing to stretch the metaphor too far, this would equate to a top-level (see what I did there?) read of the passage - what does it actually say? What are the most prominent parts? What do they tell us?
Next, he digs a trench and studies the foundations. What is it built on? What is underpinning it? As well as studying the kind of stone the structure is built of and the techniques used, he looks around for artifacts surrounding the building. [Aside - we complain about litter louts in our day, but it seems to me that mediaeval people were far worse. Archaeological digs are always able to identify the kitchen of the building by the bits of broken pottery lying on the floor - did these people never clean anything up? ‘Oops, there goes the water jug, ah well, just walk around it, maybe in a few hundred years someone will find it interesting…’ But I digress.]
So, he looks at the foundations of the building itself, which to me equates to looking at earlier sections of the Bible that the writer of your given passage might be building on. Then he also looks around for scraps of other contemporary evidence: what else was happening around the building/the writer at the time?
Once he has gleaned all he can from this, he goes to historical documents, both to check his conclusions and to see what else they might tell him.
Finally - and this was the point that made me think of Bible study - he sits in the building and just looks at it. For hours. Day after day.
Over the years, I’ve come to notice something: the wisest, godliest people I know, the ones who know their Bibles - and the God who authored them - the best, the ones with the deepest faith, richest prayer times and most joyful worship, will often use a similar turn of phrase. They will say ‘I’m in Ephesians at the moment’, or, ‘I’ve been sitting in the Psalms for a few months now’.
These people know their Bibles: they know Paul’s background and the other occasions when Ephesus is mentioned. They know what was going on in David’s life when he wrote a given Psalm, or where Jesus quoted it, or where it echoes something one of the prophets said. Usually they will have read some commentaries or listened to other Bible teachers and know something of the context into which the books were written: they know what it was like in Ephesus at the time of Paul’s writing, and they understand hebraic poetic forms and the geo-political context that the Psalms reflect and respond to.
Having gleaned all the external evidence, though, and learned all the facts they can, they still find value in just sitting in the passage looking and looking and thinking and praying and looking again and then, like the archaeologist, they discover incredible depths and come to know the passage intimately. It seems like a great model, and I loved our guide’s closing comment:
“It’s not what I thought originally, but now I’m 90% sure of the answer.”
Maybe one day I’ll be able to say that, too.