Quick! What’s the basic message of the Bible? Summarize it in as few words as possible and say what first comes to mind.
Here’s how I would answer the question:
Boy meets girl.
No, I am not joking. We see it in the happy ending of Revelation, which shows us a wedding between Christ and the church and tells us that they live happily ever after. We see it in Adam and Eve all the way back in Genesis 2, which–as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5–refers fundamentally to Christ and the church. When we read in Luke 2 of how the Spirit will overshadow Mary, we realize that the description of the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1 involved the same theme. From beginning to end , this theme of boy meets girl pervades all of the Bible.
Twice in Genesis, once in Exodus, and once in an incident reported in both Joshua and Judges, we see a man coming together with his wife in association with a well or spring of water. Abraham’s servant meets Rebekah, the future wife of his master Isaac, at a well. She gives him a drink and waters his camels, demonstrating that God has chosen her to be the bride. Jacob meets the shepherdess Rachel at a well. He rolls away the stone that is blocking the spring and then waters all her flock. Moses meets his future wife Zipporah at a well. He defends her and her sisters (who all “just happen” to be shepherdesses, just like Rachel was) from bullying shepherds, then waters their flock. Caleb offers his daughter Achsah to the man who defeats the Canaanites in Kirjath Sepher. Othniel captures the city and wins the bride. In receiving her, he also gains some land grants from her father. Due to her petitioning her father, the grant is expanded to include springs of water.
So when Jesus meets a woman at a well, in Samaria, what are they going to talk about? Even if you have never read John 4, the answer should be inescapable. When Jesus meets this woman at a well, they are going to discuss her marital status. Indeed, Jesus rescues her from a much more dangerous threat than bullying shepherds.
There is much else to support this basic biblical theme. Space would fail if I were to mentions the Song of Solomon, the role of Wisdom in the book of Proverbs, and the way Proverbs culminates with the portrayal of the ideal wife. Neither could I list here all the times Jerusalem or Israel is called God’s wife, setting us up for the identity of the church as the bride of Christ.
There are two things we have to keep in mind if we are going to understand the Bible as God’s literary masterpiece. First of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of providence: God is in complete control of everything that happens in history. As we read about the events recorded in the Bible, we must apply this doctrine by bearing in mind that not only what God is said to have done in these events, but also the events themselves, are part of His message. God could have brought about Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well in some other place, but he predestined it to take place there. It is not simply what Jesus said that reveals god, but the entire situation in which Jesus acts.
Second of all, we must keep in mind the doctrine of inspiration. Every word, every jot and tittle of Scripture, is the very Word of God. It is not merely the overarching truths that are inspired but the words used to express them. With the woman at the well, John could have summarized what Jesus said about the Spirit without quoting the metaphor of water or mentioning the well where He spoke. He could have overlooked what Jesus said about her marital history. But by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John set down those statements.
If we remember these twin truths, we should be able to navigate between two common errors. Many conservative evangelicals, who (rightly) affirm the inerrancy of the scriptural record of events, treat the events themselves as virtually meaningless. The fact that the same things keep happening is simply ignored. Liberals, on the other hand, sometimes do much better at seeing the meaning in events, but they treat the Scriptures as a fictionalized account that cannot be trusted for historical veracity. For conservatives, the woman at the well really happened, but her encounter with Jesus is important only in that it gave Jesus a chance to say some things He could have said almost anywhere else. For liberals, the woman at the well fits nicely into the themes and theology of the Bible, but her encounter with Jesus probably never really happened. Rather, it is the work of a novelist.
But if we acknowledge that God is the great novelist, then we need never choose between meaning and truth. God is more creative than any human being and can make His novel work better than any merely human book. But God is also all-powerful and sovereign over history. Thus, God can make history be His novel. Therefore, He can make a truthful Bible work better than fiction, even while remaining completely truthful.
As characters in God’s novel, we usually don’t see how our problematic lives can possibly be leading to the kind of tidy plot resolutions that we find so satisfying in a narrative. But the Bible can function as a corrective to our lack of faith. As we see what a well-woven tale the Bible is, how it is all true, and what its story is about, we can believe that our own stories will make sense because they are tied to that story. We have to trust the Novelist to finish His work and vindicate His graciously chosen protagonists. Ultimately, He is going to win the girl.