What Is the Bible All About? Part 2

Jewish DNA

Not Just Words on a Page

In our last post, we talked about the fact that one cannot simply pick up a Bible and recognize the meaning of any given book in the collection. Without some training in Biblical interpretation, we are at a loss regarding the meaning of the Biblical writings. We cannot simply pick up a Bible, consult the table of contents, and know what the Bible is all about.

Why is this true? Because we don’t understand the background of the material we are reading. We don’t know the author, the original readers, the events surrounding the writing, or even the original language in which the text was written! A new Bible reader has none of the necessary background that will allow him/her to understand what is going on in the text.

It isn’t enough to simply pick up a Bible, turn to a particular book like Leviticus, Proverbs, First Corinthians, or James, and expect to understand what is written there. Without knowing who wrote these books, why they were written, and what genre of literature they represent, we are guaranteed to miss the point of the writing.

This isn’t because we are stupid. I’m not impugning anyone’s ability to read with comprehension. It is simply a fact that, unless we live in Israel, or were brought up in a Jewish educational facility, we were not trained in the history and culture of ancient Israel. We were trained in modern Western civilization, according to principles that were set in place during the Renaissance (the revival of Greek culture and philosophy in the 14th-17th centuries) and the Reformation (16th century). More than that, Most of us have zero comfort with the Hebrew language! We were too busy learning Western European languages, like French, Spanish, and Latin.

Instead, our schools teach us all to think like good, Greco-Roman Westerners. We learn to value abstract thinking, and to do geometry. We learn truth tables in philosophy class. And when we read stories, the classics of Western literature, they are fiction, designed to teach lessons in morality. We learn about pied pipers, fairy princesses, evil witches and talking animals (a là Aesop’s fables).

Books of the Bible

But the Bible was not written by Westerners, people who live for charts and tables. It was written by people who lived in the ancient Near East. They had a different world view than we do, and different expectations of what constituted “normal”. Even their style of passing on information was different, being more oriented towards verbal communication rather than written. They taught important concepts through stories, rather than equations. Their pace of life was much slower than today, and they knew nothing of the industrialism we take for granted.

When we think about it, we begin to see hints that there are differing perspectives from which to choose—different world views. One’s world view dictates everything else—everything—we infer from a text, including the assumed problems, resolutions, use of humor and metaphor, etc. This is often summed up as the contrast between Western mindset versus Eastern mindset—a characterization that certainly has merit. However, there is another factor that also needs to be addressed as we approach the Scriptures.

The Bigger Picture

We must not forget that the Bible is not the story of just any group of people who happen to be of Middle Eastern descent. We talk about having a Western mindset versus an Eastern mindset. But, more importantly, we are talking about reading the Bible as simply words on a page versus reading it as the record of one’s very own family.

For most of us, the Bible is basically a collection of words. Words that can be parsed, juggled, and dissected. Words that can be gathered into lists and used to stimulate all sorts of different ideas. The result of such examination has led to ideas from the sublime to the silly. We find a common English word used in different parts of the Bible, and assume we can build a whole theology by using one of those verses to interpret the other. Just a few days ago, I was involved in a lengthy discussion where some of those involved relied on their ignorance of Hebrew to critique an article written by a Rabbi. Their complaint? He dared to disagree with their theology!

You may have heard me refer to people who, “turn the Bible into a Rorschach test”. This is what I mean when I use that expression. We find unrelated texts, overlay them with an outline that would have never been imagined by the authors, and come up with something completely alien to anything with which the Biblical writers would have been familiar.

So, we come to the question we set out to address:

How do we avoid turning the Bible into some sort of “spiritual Rorschach test”?

In our previous article we highlighted the need to identify an organizational principle that would allow us to accurately interpret the Bible. We called that principle the “bigger picture”. But what is that bigger picture? It clearly doesn’t lie in the order of the writings as they are positioned in the Bible. So, how do we identify the frame that will outline this bigger picture?

Words on a Page Represent a Life Lived

If you have been following the Mishkan David for any amount of time, you will realize that we spend a great deal of time talking about keys to proper Bible interpretation. We regularly comment about taking a word or a verse out of context, crashing it against another verse in a different part of the Bible, and creating a new meaning completely from whole cloth, like a sort of “spiritual Rorschach test”. Using this procedure, it is possible to create any meaning one wants to find, and claim the view is “Biblical”.

But there is just one problem with this technique. It ignores the meaning intended by the original author, and substitutes the random ideas introduced by the reader! This puts the text at the mercy of the reader, rather than training the reader to understand the original significance. The resulting view may be internally consistent, but still have absolutely nothing to do with the thoughts the writers meant to communicate.

The scary thing is, this is precisely how many of us were taught to “do” theology in good, conservative Bible schools. I once sat in a class on hermeneutics (how to interpret the Bible) where we were explicitly taught, “As you read, look up the meaning of the word in place. Then, look up other usages in the same book. After that, look up other usages by the same author, if any are available. Finally, research other uses of the same word in other parts of the Bible.”

This approach sounds quite reasonable—I accepted it without question back in my youth! But the effect of this methodology is to “flatten out” all uses of a word into a single meaning, without recognition of nuance, linguistic development, or historical setting. It leaves no room for context, or even the use of non-literal language, like puns and metaphors. Worse, it leads us to the practice of treating the Bible as a random collection of words that we can piece together at will, like a collection of puzzle pieces. When we find the same word in different contexts, we become prone to assume we can push together completely unrelated passages, and make some sort of previously unidentified correlation between the two.

All too often, we are encouraged to pick up a Bible, read whatever English translation suits us, fill in the information gaps from their own culture and church experiences, and think we automatically have a firm grasp on the meaning of the Scriptures. This is the way it has been done for centuries, and it seems to work just fine… Except for one thing—it’s wrong. It is a fine way to perpetuate a set of beliefs, but a lousy way to determine what an ancient author intended to pass along.

So, if a masterful analysis of the text results in Rorschach tests and Rubik’s cubes, where does that leave us? Have we nothing more positive to offer? As a matter of fact… we have.

When we focus on the text, we miss the point.
The value lies in the story being told, not in the text.

Does that little aphorism surprise you? I’m sure such a statement is shocking to many of my readers. After all, haven’t we been taught all our lives that the inspiration of Scripture is the cardinal doctrine upon which all other beliefs stand? To suggest that we need to rely something other than the verbal, plenary, inspired “Word of God” is a devastating attack upon the faith of many. However, let’s take a further look at what that statement really means.

Dusty Old Book?What if I were to suggest to you that the words on the pages of your Bible are not the real point in God’s revelation to mankind? Would that be surprising to you?

Rather than take a Bible, find certain words or short stories, and create a systematic theology from a random list of verses, there is a completely different approach that must be tried.

The Cure

If honoring every word of the sacred canon, giving full weight to every syllable, results in erroneous doctrine, then what are we to seek for a better approach?

It turns out that the key to proper interpretation of the Bible is to read it as the history of a nation, rather than a collection of random words that can be rearranged at will. When we start at the beginning, follow the development of historical events, recognize the musings of the Israeli sages, and see Yeshua stepping onto the stage of history set by those sages, we arrive at a very different perspective than we get when we start at the end, apply a gnostic world view, and read 2,000 years of supersessionist theology into the material.

Even within the Torah, we are forced to recognize the passage of time. While the whole collection of five books was written by one man, that one man’s story spans 120 years of dramatic change. He prefaced his own story with the background that set the backdrop for his era—the Creation and the Patriarchs. Then came Moshe’s own birth, life, and calling. He lead his people out of slavery and set up a centralized system of worship at the Mishkan, along with a priesthood to serve at the altar. He took them into combat, fought off vicious enemies, and brought his people to the brink of entering the territory that had been Promised them.

As time moved on, we see eras and time spans that are characterized by unique traits. There is the period of the Judges, during which “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”. There is the launching of the monarchy, with its fits and starts as we move past Saul and quickly settle on David, “the apple of my [God’s] eye”. But only a generation later, after David’s son, the nation is quickly thrown into complete disarray, being split by the rivalry between the Davidic heir, Reheboam, and his competitor, Jereboam. This rivalry and division sets the stage for all that comes later.

After the split, the Northern Kingdom maintained its existence and identity for a little over 200 years. At that point, it was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire, and dispersed, never to be restored again as an independent nation. The ruling house of Ephraim passed from the scene forever.

The Southern Kingdom of Judah survived a little better. Owing to the character of its founder, there were periodic revivals, and an expectation of restoring the throne to the full glory that existed under David and Solomon. However, when the Babylonian Empire breezed onto the scene, even Judah could not stand against her might. But her injuries would not be terminal. Owing to the promises made to the House of David by Hashem, the tiny nation was assured of restoration and regathering under the hand of “David my servant” who “shall be king over them” (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 37:24).

Wait… What???

Weren’t we working on a cure for misinterpreting the Bible? Didn’t I say we needed a cure for supersessionism and systematic theology? What has all this stuff about Jewish history got to do with anything??? Where is this “completely different approach” I promised to share?

As it turns out, this historical review of Israeli history IS the completely different approach. You see, every time we pick up the Bible and read a passage, we should be asking certain questions about the text we are reading:

  • Who wrote it? Who was it addressed to?
  • What was going on at the time it was written?
  • Where was the author sitting at the time? Where was his audience?
  • When was the text written?
  • Why was the material written? What relevance did it have to the situation facing the audience?

Most of you probably recognize the standard set of questions we were all taught to apply when reading any non-fiction material. This is doubly appropriate when reading ancient writings that contain truth claims regarding events from times long past. If we fail to read with these questions in mind, we are doomed to fall into the habit of cherry-picking texts that resonate with our modern ideas that come to us from our Western culture and our recently developed systems of theology (covenantalism and dispensationalism).

This seems like a daunting task. I am well aware that I am asking much of the average pew-sitter. What I am suggesting is that we must all learn the over-arching story of Israel in order to understand the Bible. But this is a vital chore that we must undertake with all our vigor. Without a good sense of the flow of Jewish history, we are guaranteed to misunderstand the verses we strip from their historical setting and try to randomly apply to our lives.

Identifying major time periods and events in Israel’s history enables us to recognize the significance of the words we read in the Bible. The Bible is, after all, a collection of books that were penned largely for the singular purpose of preserving Israel’s history. What makes us think there is any other way to properly understand this material than by getting a solid grasp of the history recorded in those books?

Jewish DNAThe Bible is the story of Israel. Israel is the manifestation of the truths described in the Bible. The two are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other. The story of the bible is encoded in the DNA of the Jewish people. Think about what it would mean if either were to cease to exist. More importantly, ask yourself which one we could better do without? What would your answer be?

The View from the Mishkan

Don’t forget to join us each week at “The View from the Mishkan! If you live in the Salem, Oregon area, you can visit with us on the radio, at 1220 AM each Tuesday afternoon at 5:00 PM. If you live elsewhere in the world, you can join us on the web at http://www.hebrewnationonline.com. Just point your browser to the site, and listen in!

Mishkan Logo“The View from the Mishkan” offers a Messianic Perspective from David Negley, who has been part of the Messianic community since 1981. Some of the programs will be topical discussions, and some will be based on particular Bible texts. Right now, we are working through the “Besorah of Mattityahu” (you might know this better as “The Gospel of Matthew”).  In this study, we are highlighting the numerous Jewish features employed by the author, including the use of gematria and other forms of rabbinic commentary, as well as the tremendous emphasis on the House of David and its role in the Messianic Expectation.

Some of what we share will be affirming, and some of it will challenge your most dearly held views. Be sure to set this time aside each Tuesday at

  • 8:00 PM Eastern
  • 7:00 PM Central
  • 6:00 PM Mountain
  • 5:00 PM Pacific

You’ll be thrilled, challenged, inspired, and occasionally irritated… all at the same time!

The Art of Jewish Prayer

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Jewish Prayer and a
Theology of Restoration

After nearly two months of technical difficulties, we are finally back on track with archiving our radio shows!

On our radio program, “The View from the Mishkan”, we have been discussing the traditional Jewish prayer known as the “Amidah”. You can find our last episode of that series at one of the two following archives:

What Is the Bible All About? Part 1

Books of the Bible

When you first started reading the Bible, how did you begin? Did you randomly open to passages, and just start reading wherever your finger landed? Did you open the Table of Contents, and pick a book that sounded interesting? Perhaps you asked a friend for advice on which book of the Bible you should read first? I can still remember some of the early advice I received as a very new Christian back in 1979.

  • Start with the Gospel of John. Why? Because it is the easiest book to read, and it will teach you about the life of Jesus.
  • After John, read Romans. That will give you the theological understanding of what Jesus meant to the early Christians.
  • After you’ve read John and Romans, read the Psalms. That will develop your devotional life as you meditate on the poetry of King David.
  • If you can’t get focused on any one book, just read anything. Reading something in the Bible is better than reading nothing.

Now, ever since I was young, I realized that taking a look at the table of contents in a book often gave me great insight regarding what I would find in the work. So, working off that assumption, I headed straight to the table of contents in my Bible. But, as I considered where to begin in my Bible study, I quickly realized that the table of contents was pretty useless. After all, there are sixty-six books in the Bible, and the Table of Contents doesn’t do much to show us how they relate to one another.

Bible Table of Contents

Old Testament

Genesis2 ChroniclesDaniel
ExodusEzraHosea
LeviticusNehemiahJoel
NumbersEstherAmos
DeuteronomyJobObadiah
JoshuaPsalmsJonah
JudgesProverbsMicah
RuthEcclesiastesNahum
1 SamuelSong of SolomonHabakkuk
2 SamuelIsaiahZephaniah
1 KingsJeremiahHaggai
2 KingsLamentationsZechariah
1 ChroniclesEzekielMalachi

New Testament

MatthewEphesiansHebrews
MarkPhilippiansJames
LukeColossians1 Peter
John1 Thessalonians2 Peter
Acts2 Thessalonians1 John
Romans1 Timothy2 John
1 Corinthians2 Timothy3 John
2 CorinthiansTitusJude
GalatiansPhilemonRevelation

I don’t know about you, but a bunch of names of people and places doesn’t do much for me. What is an “Isaiah” or a “First Chronicles”? What significance is there to a “Second Corinthians”? What’s a “Corinthians”, anyway??? And, more directly relevant to some of the advice I was receiving… “What do I care about some guy named John, or a city in Italy, called Rome?”

In short, I found myself asking a very interesting question, even as a lad of 19 years…

What is the organizational principle guiding the contents of the Bible?

Part of the problem is that the Bible is not a book, addressing a single specific topic in each chapter. Rather, it is a library of books—each book addressing a large topic, or even several topics. As time went on, I found that those before me had created certain categorical groupings. These seemed to help a bit. At least now I had a mere dozen or so categories to understand, rather than sixty-six individual units.

Bible Table of Contents,
Christian Grouping

Old Testament

Law/Pentateuch

Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy

History

Joshua
Judges
Ruth
1 Samuel
2 Samuel
1 Kings
2 Kings
1 Chronicles
2 Chronicles
Ezra
Nehemiah
Esther

Major Prophets

Isaiah
Jeremiah
Lamentations
Ezekiel
Daniel

Minor Prophets

Hosea
Joel
Amos
Obadiah
Jonah
Micah
Nahum
Habakkuk
Zephaniah
Haggai
Zechariah
Malachi

Poetry

Job
Psalms
Proverbs
Ecclesiastes
Song of Solomon

New Testament

Gospels

Matthew
Mark
Luke
John

History

Acts

Pauline Epistles

Romans
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
Galatians
Ephesians
Philippians
Colossians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
Titus
Philemon

General Epistles

Hebrews
James
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John
Jude

Prophecy

Revelation

But I still had no idea what relative significance should be assigned to each section. And what purpose does each category serve? And what is the message of each book inside the category? It seemed like none of my peers—or even my Sunday school teachers!—were able to help me out with those questions.

After I had been a believer for about three years, I came across a military chaplain who shared with me a great deal of valuable insight. One of the things he taught me was to, “Always strive to see the ‘Big Picture’. And when you think you have the ‘Big Picture’, look for an even bigger ‘Big Picture’.”

His point was to show me that everything needs context in order to be understood. No scene, no statement, no word can be properly interpreted unless we know why the action was being taken, why the words were being spoken, and in what context. We must know what went before, what consequences followed, and what the characters involved thought about those events.

Based on this early encouragement to gain perspective by identifying the “Big Picture”, I have always made it my goal to “zoom out” when reading the Bible. I have worked to avoid developing myopia, seeing only the immediate details of the text at hand. Sometimes, this has invited allegations that I tend to over-generalize. After all, if I am not focused on the immediate details, then I seem to run the risk of ignoring pertinent data. But I believe the trade-off has been worth the risks. I would actually say that it is better to have a very good grasp of the overview perspective than to get lost in detail. If one must err in either direction, always go for the big picture. This will usually help clear up the questions that arise in the details.

But we still haven’t answered the question I have posed, have we?

What is the organizational principle guiding the contents of the Bible?

In other words, why does the Bible contain the books it does? And how do we we understand these books in relation to one another? How do we know when it is legitimate to bring two texts together in developing a theological point? How do we prevent turning the Bible into a giant “spiritual” Rorschach test? How do we know when a novel idea goes beyond the realm of reasonable interpretation?

The answer may surprise you. It might even alarm you. Especially if you have always been taught that the answer to every question can be found within the Bible.  In this case, we find that the answer to this particular question lies outside the canonical texts we are trying to understand!

So, now we have established the importance of asking certain questions about the contents of the Bible that will help us understand the meaning of each text . Be sure to come back next time to get the rest of the story! How do we answer these questions? What is our guide in determining the meaning and value of all these books we find in the Bible?

Books of the Bible

 

Welcome to Paradise

PRDS

Our Rabbis taught:

Four men entered the ‘Garden’, namely, Ben ‘Azzai and Ben Zoma, Aher, and R. Akiba.

R. Akiba said to them: “When you arrive at the stones of pure marble, say not, ‘water, water!’ (which would prevent forward progress). For it is said: ‘He that speaks falsehood shall not be established before mine eyes’.”

Ben ‘Azzai cast a look and died (known for simple piety). Of him Scripture says: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”

Ben Zoma looked and became demented (entertained strange and unreasonable topics of study). Of him Scripture says: “Have you found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for you, lest you be filled therewith, and vomit it.”

Aher mutilated the shoots (became an apostate).

R. Akiba departed unhurt (set the standard for accurate Torah interpretation).

(Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 14b)

» Read more..

Anti-missionary Defense, Part 4

Ani Ma'amin (I Believe)

Many of you may be aware that, since August 2014, I have been doing a radio show called, “The View from the Mishkan”. The primary topic of the program has been the “Besorah of Mattityahu” (“Gospel of Matthew”).

During the month of January 2015, I have taken some time off from Mattityahu, and created a short mini-series on the significance of Talmudic knowledge in order to defend against some of the arguments presented to challenge our Messianic faith.

In this fourth and final episode, we continue to emphasize the need to credit the sages of the Babylonian exile with defining the office of mashiach, while also providing responses to some of the standard anti-missionary challenges.
» Read more..

Anti-missionary Defense, Part 3

Ani Ma'amin (I Believe)

Many of you may be aware that, since August 2014, I have been doing a radio show called, “The View from the Mishkan”. The primary topic of the program has been the “Besorah of Mattiryahu” (“Gospel of Matthew”).

During the month of January 2015, I have taken some time off from Mattityahu, and created a short mini-series on the significance of Talmudic knowledge in order to defend against some of the arguments presented to challenge our Messianic faith.

In this third episode, we continue to emphasize the need to credit the sages of the Babylonian exile with defining the office of mashiach. Whatever we may like to think about getting all our support directly from Scripture, the fact is, Yeshua operated within a framework defined by the sages of Israel. We also offer specific responses to some of the standard anti-missionary challenges.
» Read more..

Anti-missionary Defense, Part 2

Ani Ma'amin (I Believe)

Many of you may be aware that, since August 2014, I have been doing a radio show called, “The View from the Mishkan”. The primary topic of the program has been the “Besorah of Mattiryahu” (“Gospel of Matthew”).

During the month of January 2015, I have taken some time off from Mattityahu, and created a short mini-series on the significance of Talmudic knowledge in order to defend against some of the arguments presented to challenge our Messianic faith.

In this second episode, we continue to emphasize the need to credit the sages of the Babylonian exile with defining the office of mashiach. Whatever we may like to think about getting all our support directly from Scripture, the fact is, Yeshua operated within a framework defined by the sages of Israel. Once we accept that fact of history, much of the modern anti-missionary argument against Yeshua is de-fanged and de-clawed.

So, we continue the series on strengthening the foundations of our faith in Messiah Yeshua. Give it a listen, and see what I mean! And stay tuned for coming episodes in this series…

Anti-missionary Defense, Part 2

Anti-missionary Defense, Part 1

Ani Ma'amin (I Believe)

Many of you may be aware that, since August 2014, I have been doing a radio show called, “The View from the Mishkan”. The primary topic of the program has been the “Besorah of Mattiryahu” (“Gospel of Matthew”).

During the month of January 2015, I have taken some time off from Mattityahu, and created a short mini-series on the significance of Talmudic knowledge in order to defend against some of the arguments presented to challenge our Messianic faith.

In this opening episode, we start off by affirming the need to credit the sages of the Babylonian exile with defining the office of mashiach. Whatever we may like to think about getting all our support directly from Scripture, the fact is, Yeshua operated within a framework defined by the sages of Israel. Once we accept that fact of history, much of the modern anti-missionary argument against Yeshua is de-fanged and de-clawed.

So, this is the introduction to the series on strengthening the foundations of our faith in Messiah Yeshua. Give it a listen, and see what I mean! And stay tuned for coming episodes in this series…

Anti-missionary Defense, Part 1

Kosher Why?

No Fry Zone

Have you ever heard it said that, “We keep kosher because it is healthier for us”? This always sounds impressive. Whenever someone has said this in my hearing, I have always noticed almost everyone in the room positively affirms this idea.

However, this sort of reasoning is not » Read more..

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