Contact Us

Finding God in the Bible

30 November, 1999

God speaks to us in the Bible. But, in using human writers, of necessity He speaks in human words, in a variety of literary forms, and in a culture that is different from our own. Jim McPolin SJ explains how we can find meaning in the Bible for us today.

‘God, where are you?’ The question is hardly a new one. Many before us have asked it. It is a question that calls for an answer that will have a profound impact on the direction we take in life. One certain and important answer to this question is: we find God in the Bible.

The road to God
As Christians we believe that the road followed by people in the Bible is a sure road, indeed the road of God, the road to God. Therefore, Christians see the Bible as the great help in the attempt to analyze the reality of their lives and they find answers for the questions raised by life.

We study the Bible, not just to find out what happened in the distant past, but also and primarily to get a better grasp of the sense and purpose of what is happening today in our lives, in our history. We also believe that when we read the Bible God speaks to us, that the Bible is, as it were, a living presence of God among us.  We find God in the Bible because God tells us above all about himself.

God acts in our history
But the Bible nowhere gives us a ‘proof’ or definition of God. It speaks to us about a God who acts in and through the history of his people, who discloses himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who acts as a liberating God through Moses, freeing them from a life of slavery and oppression in Egypt and guiding them as they wander through the wilderness to a homeland in Palestine.

We hear him speak through the prophets as they call the people to a life of faith, love and justice within the concrete circumstances of their religious, social and political life. Finally, and most importantly, the Bible speaks to us of God who discloses himself to us in and through Jesus, his Son.

In Jesus, God discloses himself in a very special way. Thus, the Bible speaks to us of a living, personal, active God who is close to us, to whom we can cry out in every need and who also calls and summons us to be more humane, to be more like God himself.

One book, many books
As you now open the Bible at its table of contents, you will notice that it is one book and at the same time a collection of seventy three books! This complete list of books is called the ‘canon’ – a ‘canonical’ book is one which the Church acknowledges as belonging to its list of sacred books containing the word of God, as inspired by God and as having special value for our faith and Christian living. The list includes forty six for the Old Testament and twenty seven for the New Testament.

‘Testament’ is a word used to describe the special relationship between God and human beings, a certain enduring relation of a unique character between God and those who will accept him and his word.

 The Old Testament consists of those sacred writings which set forth God’s relationship with his people Israel in the centuries before the coming of Christ. Jesus came to create a new relationship (‘Testament’ or ‘covenant’) between God and his new people (the Church) – a relationship which is new and yet in continuity with the ‘Old Covenant’ (relationship).

Therefore, we have to read the Old Testament with reference to and in the light of the New Testament and at the same time the New Testament cannot be understood apart from the Old. This becomes very clear to us when we read the Gospels in which Jesus himself frequently refers to the Old Testament. Besides, both Testaments are the word of God.

The Bible: a human word and a word of God
Another reason why we find God in the Bible is: it is the word of God. However, this word of God did not fall down from heaven. It reaches us only through human words. So the Bible is both a human word and a word of God. 

The books of the Bible are written by human authors in human language. Nearly all those of the Old Testament were first written in the Hebrew language, some few of them in Greek. All the books of the New Testament were first written in Greek.

Besides, when we read the Bible we are inclined to think they were all written in the same way. In fact, the Bible contains a great variety of communication in written form (called ‘literary forms’) such as prose (written narrative), poetry, history, some legends, prayers, laws, proverbs, parables, letters (or epistles) and also a whole host of other literary forms for which no equivalent exists in modern writing.

But even today we do have a variety of written communication in each culture, for example: poetry, letters, writings about the history of our country. It is important that in our reading of the Bible we are able to recognize differences in the forms of writing so that we will be able to interpret the Bible correctly. For example, it is clear that if we read a parable or a legend as if it were a story about historical events (that is, as if they were events that really happened), then we will misunderstand the Bible.

The human language of the Bible
The authors of the books of the Bible express the word of God in the language of their time, according to the conditions of their culture and in the various forms of writing used at the time.

The style and personality of these writers are thoroughly human. Their whole background, their whole mentality and outlook have coloured their writing through and through. They thought like people of their time. For example, if all the people of their time thought of the earth as the centre of the universe, as a kind of flat disc with a covering or dome through which the rain came down, then it is natural that the writers of these books expressed themselves in that way too (as they did, for example in Gen 1:6-8). Therefore, the approach of these writers was the approach of a particular civilization (called ‘Semite’ i.e. of Palestine and some surrounding countries) and mentality.

Often, when people of modern cultures are presented with a story such as that of the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, the Flood, their first question is almost certain to be: ‘Did it really happen?’ The Semite, when told a story, asks: ‘What does it mean?’

The biblical authors belong to this Semite culture, even the New Testament authors. They write with the firm conviction that the meaning of the story is the most important, the most interesting thing about it. This does not mean, of course, that they are going to invent facts or deliberately falsify the facts at their disposal. But their eye is on the spiritual or theological meaning of the traditions or stories they are dealing with, and not (as ours is) on their historical accuracy.

The Bible as human history
We cannot consider the Bible as a book of holy legends. As a human word it is related to human history, to concrete events, to the life of real people. It covers a very extended period of time: from the beginnings of the Jewish people, from the time of Abraham and the clan descended from him, about 2,000 B.C., to the time of Jesus and the spread of Christian communities.

The God described in the Old Testament is a God of human history, who is understood and experienced within that human history: “Then the Lord said: ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt…. Indeed, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.'”(Exodus 3).

Some glorious years of strength, expansion, growth, prosperity, power, especially when the people occupied a land, Palestine (about 1250 B.C.), mark this history.

At the same time the Bible is the story of a people often struggling, oppressed and suffering, enslaved in Egypt, then, later on, crushed by foreign powers (Assyrians and Babylonians), dragged off into exile and then, once again, invaded by and subjected to Greek and Roman overlords.

In Jesus’ time, his country was occupied by the Romans. No wonder that, even today, oppressed peoples find strength in that story. The climax of this story is the liberation promised and offered to all, especially to the poor and all victims of injustices with the coming of Jesus, who came to bring a kingdom of love, justice and peace. 


This article first appeared in The Messenger (January 2000), a Jesuit publication.

Tags: ,