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).
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.
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.
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).
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?
The 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?