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Layering Bible Study: A Workshop or Program

This layered approach to Bible study may be used as a training or program idea with teachers and other leaders involved in Christian education and formation. It is presented here in a program format. The printed story and supporting lesson plan are included in pdf.

Click here for "A Dip in a Dirty River: Why Naaman's Story Details Matter."

Click here for "Lesson Plan: A Dip in a Dirty River."

Bible study is one of the means of grace; that is, one of the Christian practices by which we can come to know and love God and to discern God's directions for our own lives. Sometimes it's hard to understand how some ancient story or theological concept has relevance for today, for my life. How can the biblical story be today's story and my story?

Try using this layered approach to Bible study. By way of example, we look at the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-27), a commander in the Syrian army. The story includes an uncharacteristically wide range of detail, as well as all the usual elements that make a story compelling: an eccentric hero, intrigue, mystery, suspense, anguish and healing, the help of a good woman, a central figure with his own flaws, and faithful sidekicks!

Level One: "Just the Facts"
The Bible says what it says. Sometimes we are well enough acquainted with the culture and history of the original audience to understand what the Scripture meant to them. Sometimes we have to dig. But, initially, we have whatever the story offers on the surface. This is what we can know (or think we know). For example, we know that Naaman was a Syrian and a military man. We know that he had leprosy and that he wanted to be cured. The story says so; we don't have to speculate.

Many passages in Scripture are quite succinct (such as, "and there they crucified him"). The original audience would have understood the underlying details, although we may not. Nevertheless, we first need to look closely at every little detail the story does offer.

Level Two: Read Between the Lines
Starting with what we know, what is then implied? Begin with the people in the story or telling the story. For example, Naaman was commander. What does that mean? He could say "come and go" and expect it to happen. Or, in a letter by Paul that discusses issues, not people, what can we assume about Paul's intent?

After investigating the people "between the lines," analyze the implied action. What must have happened first, or what circumstance must have been in place for the action to happen? For example, a slave girl told Naaman's wife that a Hebrew prophet could cure Naaman. We can posit the prior action that the Hebrews lost a battle at Naaman's hand, which is why Naaman had a Hebrew slave. If the Hebrews suffered a loss, it could be likely they would not be kindly disposed to help Naaman with his personal problem.

Next, identify what other questions are raised. First we identified what we know and what we think we can know by a little extrapolation. What remains unknown? For example, the Hebrew slave girl spoke freely to her mistress about her master's affairs. Was this a dangerous risk? Might there have been dire consequences for, say, impertinence? If so, what? Where was Naaman located relative to the king of Israel and to Elisha? How long did it take him to get there? What sort of entourage did he need to carry all that stuff with him?

Level Three: How Is All This Related to My Life?
Next determine if you can relate personally to any of the characters in the story – if not with the specific details, then with something comparable. For example, Naaman has power and a disfiguring and debilitating disease; is forced to listen to people considered "beneath him"; is accustomed to getting what he wants and is angry when things don't go his way. Can you relate to Naaman or to any of the other characters?

Determine also if you can relate to the experience or circumstances. Again, using Naaman's experience as the example, have you ever learned of something potentially life changing from an unlikely source and have you been open enough to follow through with it? Have you ever walked away in a huff because something was different from what you thought it should be and you were not willing to compromise or listen? Have your assumptions and prejudices ever been challenged and found to be in error – and to your detriment to hold on to?

If there are ways to relate to the character and/or to the experience and circumstances (and there usually are), the third step in this level is to identify situations in your life that have some similarity to the Bible story and the ways you might apply any learning from the Bible story. This self-discovery stage will be considerably easier if you have had the "running start" that Levels One and Two provide.

Level Four: How Does the Story Call Me to Grow and Change?
Here's the opportunity for growth and action. A simple inventory can bring the insights of the story into clear view. Knowing what I learned from God's action in the biblical narrative and my own ways of relating to the characters and circumstances, what can I draw from it that lays a claim on my own faith and behavior?

What Next?
Practice and have fun with this process! Having taken Naaman's story as an example, try your wings on something new. Now, an important point to remember: The Bible is an ancient document that holds timeless truth. Nevertheless, it was written at a particular time and in particular circumstances that are not immediately obvious. Nothing in this layered approach to study can replace responsible research. Use the Bible tools available: study Bible notes, commentaries, dictionaries, comparisons between different translations, and so on. And do not think that the Spirit will be silent. God will lead you to the understandings you are ready to gain and will prepare you for understandings yet to come.

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