“We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” – Anais Nin
What this coming (long) series of posts is going to explore is, simply put, God’s character – who is this God and what is he like?
While this may sound like an incredibly large – if not impossible – topic to tackle, I am mainly writing for people who have struggled with the God of the Old Testament. And, I should point out if you were not already aware of this, I am one of these people. This book is in essence a summary of 10-15 years of my life that have brought me to where I am today … and that is not at a finished state, but at a place where I am much more comfortable engaging the bible as a whole and I feel I am starting to understand the God it describes a bit better.
Before I start tackling this discussion, some introductory statements will hopefully help set the tone for what is to come. In a way this is an “Intro to the Mind of the Author 101”.
Foundation #1 – It is OK to disagree
I do not expect everyone to agree wholeheartedly with what will be expressed in the posts to come. People disagree – about a lot of things.
The bible contains multiple descriptions of “heroes” of the faith disagreeing on significant issues – and never resolving them. One of the key examples can be found in the story of Paul and Barnabas. You may remember Barnabas was the person who literally risked his life to meet with Paul after his conversion and offered his personal assurance that Paul had in fact converted to a number of understandably nervous people who were concerned this was a ploy by Paul to kill more of them. Had he not taken this risk, much of the New Testament as it currently stands would not exist.
Now, fast forward to Acts 15. Here, Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement over whether or not John (called Mark) should be taken with them on the next portion of their journey. Their disagreement was so severe that they “separated from one another. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.” And with that Barnabas disappears from the pages of the bible, never to be heard from again. Of course, that is not the end of the story …
Mark goes on to become the writer of the Gospel of Mark, the gospel which appears to have been used as a basis for Matthew and Luke as well. Barnabas was the encourager. He was willing to take risks and invest in people. Although this led to disagreements, we have much of the New Testament thanks to his willingness. Paul may have disagreed with Barnabas (and later Peter), but again, God used him to reach much of the known world and inspired him to write a significant portion of our bible.
My belief is that God is more interested in how we respond to the people around us than affirming a particular doctrine. God is love and he desires us to display his love in our daily lives – especially where we have differences.
This God values relationships more than rules!
Foundation #2 – The bible should be read first and foremost “as it was” and not “as we are”
It can be very hard to accept just how much we are shaped by our environment. While as individuals, we are free to discover on our own and develop, but we are also very much a product of our world and experiences. This is not to say we do not have the ability to change our circumstances, but our experiences help shape us.
In our current modern and post-modern society, at least in North America, we have a very rational and scientific view of the world. The major “languages” in our world include economics and mathematics. We are very interested in how and why things work the way they do and are always looking for quick answers, not unknowable mysteries.
This is important to recognize because the bible was written in very different cultures from our own. The Old Testament is made up of many different forms of literature grounded in an Ancient Near Eastern worldview while the New Testament was written in a Roman-dominated culture with a mix of Greek influence and a traditional Judaic worldview. These are environments that are very different from our own and yet we ask the bible to answer questions from our era that it never intended to provide comment on.
To give but one example, in an oral culture, specific details were not as important as repetition. In order for things to stick in a person’s mind, simplicity was more important than details. We must let the bible speak to what it intended to say and avoid reading into it what it never intended to explore.
In order to best understand what the bible has to say about God, we should accept it for what it is because only then will we be able to hear the revelation God provided to Israel. The revelation is shaped by its environment and some of the inspired revelations only make sense when put into their original environments.
Foundation #3 – The bible, by its very nature, requires interpretation, which makes it open to possibilities
Have you ever used an online translation service (such as Google Translate) only to find the resulting, translated, sentence makes little-to-no sense. You may be able to figure out what is being said, but to really grasp what is meant, you’ll need to learn a lot more than what a “literal”, word-for-word translation can offer.
Any form of communication (including words, writing, language and most art forms) exist to communicate ideas. The words, letters, sounds and symbols have no meaning unless both the communicator and the audience are able to agree on a common method of interpretation. In order for a word, such as “hippopotamus” to have any meaning, it must be connected to an idea (or definition) of what it is. It is that meaning that is important – not the word itself. This is what makes poetry so difficult for many people to understand. The words are easy enough to read, but their meaning is often not as easily deciphered and the audience may not be able to put themselves inside the mind of the poet in order to see what is intended as meaning. The same could be said of many art forms.
The bible was written in languages that are foreign to us today and even the best translators in the world often have to make judgement calls about what the author intended to convey in the written words. Add to that the fact each culture has its own set of colloquial terminology and understanding a document becomes a real task.
What this means is that even before your eyes read the words on the pages of a bible, it has been interpreted by someone. They have looked at the wide-range of meaning each Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek word can have and determined the best possible intended usage in this situation is _____. The sacrifice made in placing that decision on paper is that all other possibilities must be discarded or at the very least minimized to a footnote that most people will never see. Also, it assumes that the English word ____ is the equivalent to that Greek/Hebrew/ Aramaic word, despite the fact that those older languages often had words infused with deeper meaning we would need sentences to explore in English. According to the Oxford Dictionary, while it is impossible to count the total number of words in any language, it can be said that English language is likely approaching 750,000 words (although as many as 600,000 would either be no longer used and/or different senses and tenses of the same root). In contrast, there are approximately 8,000 Hebrew words used in the Old Testament and just over 5,000 Greek words used in the New Testament. Needless to say, these oral-focused languages would have been infused with meaning our languages would struggle to easily replicate.
And then there is you; the reader. Words mean slightly different things to different people. For example, the word “spoiled” could carry either playful or rotten connotations depending on how you have seen it used and used it yourself in the past. Saying a child is “spoiled rotten” could evoke either of these images depending on your history, environment and understanding. The same could be said for many words found in the bible – for example “father” or “king”. Your environment will shape how you respond to these words as descriptions of God, and both may be completely unlike what was intended by the original author.
This is why, by its very nature, the bible requires interpretation. There are any number of possibilities and each possibility provides a slight difference to the theme of the passage.
So, with that out of the way … come back tomorrow where we’ll get started and introduce the scope of the problem I am hoping to address.
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
5. As It Was vs. As We Are
6. 100% God – 100% Human
7. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt1)
8. Revealing God or Revealing Culture? (pt2)
9. A Gradual Revelation (pt1)
10. A Gradual Revelation (pt2)
11. Checklist Time
12. Wrath + Love
13. The Vindication of God
14. Who is God & What is He Like?