The Bible is a collection of books written by various authors. Some record in their own words what they experienced. Some recount stories handed down through generations. Some are historical in nature, recounting actual events, while others are allegorical, intended to teach us by example. Many recount spiritual experiences – experiences of God that by definition cannot be explained in mere words. Some of the writers were conservative, while many were more liberal. One of the most beautiful features of the Bible is its diversity of voices.
So it is that we have so many varying descriptions of God: Moses sees a burning bush; Elijah hears a still, small voice; Abraham and Sarah sit down with Him and have dinner. There is no single experience of God, and thus we should not expect our own experiences of Him to conform to those of anyone else.
Yet if the voices are diverse, the message is cohesive. The meaning of the Bible can be summed up in the words of Jesus himself, from Mathew 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
From this it is clear that the teaching of the Bible is love. If what you hear taught is not love, it’s not Christianity. If it’s not love, it’s not Jesus.
The diversity of voices suggests something else about the Bible. Some people read it as they would a novel, with a single plot-line. If that is true, then all of what is written leads up to its closing act, the Book of Revelation. Revelation happens to be one of the most frightening and difficult to understand books of the Bible. It appears to tell of the final battle between good and evil, and the end of the world as we know it. It is difficult to make sense of the Bible if the rest of the story exists only to lead to this final apocalypse. And it is difficult to conceive of a novel whose chapters were written by dozens of individual authors.
The Bible is more akin to a collection of short stories, all consistent with the larger theme, but each independent of the other. There are issues and plotlines that recur throughout, and many of the later works rely on the earlier ones. But taken as a whole, the Bible is not a single narrative. It is a collection of works written over the whole history of a people, each with its own point of view.