If you haven’t read the first sections, I recommend you start here … and today’s chapter is the longest so far, so I hope you’re comfortable.
A KNIGHT there was, and that a worthy man,
And evermore he had a sovereign price
[The Canterbury Tales and Other Poems, by Geoffrey Chaucer – http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2383/pg2383.html)
Cultures change at a very rapid rate. Stop for a second and think about your parents’ generation. What things were popular when they were younger? What were some of their fears? Their priorities? Their realities of life? Now do the same thing for your grandparents; or how about for Shakespeare … and so on.
It is virtually impossible to relate to concerns felt by Catholic people living in England during the 1590s when it was a crime not to attend the Church of England and Catholic priests were being put to death. In the same way, for those of us not old enough to remember the Cold War, it is hard to think about constantly fearing a nuclear war could be touched off at any moment due to the constant build up of arms and retaliatory action between the USA and USSR.
Let’s look at a practical example to show the point in a more obvious way; Spider-Man. OK, so this may not be the most obvious choice of examples, but it works, so go with it. When Spider-Man was originally created by Stan Lee in the 1960s, it was the height of the Cold War. Stan Lee wisely drew on the fears of the day and created a superhero who developed his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. Now, fast forward to 2002, the year Sam Raimi re-developed Spider-Man for film. In this origin story, Spider-Man develops his powers after he is bitten by a genetically-modified spider.
It is a very slight difference, but it showcases how fears, concerns and the topics of interest in a given time period change. In this case, Hollywood wisely realized that radioactivity was not as much a concern in 2002 as it was in the 1960s and altered the story to fit its new audience. Had they stuck with the radiation theme, the movie likely would not have had the same relevance.
With every year we look back in history, we relate less and less to the things that people from that age were interested in and concerned about. The further we depart from our historical context, the more likely we will have to learn additional details about that generation’s historical context and culture in order to fully understand its art, writing and issues.
The bible was written in cultures very different from our own, both geographically and historically. In fact, the two testaments were also written in very different time periods from one another. In order to properly understand what it has to say to us, we should first strive to learn what it had to say to the people of that culture and time. The bible may become much more relevant and full of life if we can better understand its context. Digging into the context can help us avoid misunderstanding what the bible intends to reveal to us about God.
Look back at the text from The Canterbury Tales at the beginning of this chapter (be honest, how many of ye actually finished the entire quoted passage?). Think of how intimidating this poetry is even for someone with a good grasp of the English language. There are words no longer used, references to battles we are not familiar with and concepts of honour that are not entirely common to our culture. We may find a way to struggle through the poetry and gain an incredibly basic understanding of what Chaucer is trying to get across without digging into the context, but to actually make sense of the text, we must learn more information about where Alisandre, Prusse and Lettowe are – not to mention figuring out whatever “Alle besmotter’d with his habergeon” means.
The same is true of the bible. If we delve in only with our language and cultural context as a reference point, we will end up trying to make the bible speak our language and answer our particular concerns and questions. This is not a fair place to start and is likely asking far too much. Remember, their concerns and questions will not be all that similar to ours. In order to get the most from the Word of God, let it first speak for itself before attempting to place it within our 21st century milieu.
That is not to say biblical understanding should remain in past cultural contexts. The beauty of biblical inspiration is that while speaking specifically to their culture, the words are also eternal and speak to us today in very real ways. The words found inside are as relevant today as they have been for centuries. The simple fact remains that in order to best understand what these eternal words are meant to say to us, we would do well to ask what they originally conveyed or else we could misunderstand their intended meaning entirely by re-shaping the text to our cultural context. I believe looking at what the scriptures originally intended to say will assist us in gaining a better view of how the bible reveals God in a way that is relevant to all times and cultures.
In their book “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”, Douglas Stuart and Gordon Fee do a great job of walking people through the bible and the best ways to approach the literature found within it. While to some, their introduction to the book may seem obvious, in truth it is one of the key issues we need to address before going any further. This truth is the bible needs to be interpreted. They stress that “the aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the ‘plain meaning of the text’” (1). While this plain meaning may seem unique to someone who is hearing it read this way for the first time, the thing we are trying to do is make “good sense of the text”. The irony is that to find this “plain meaning”, we often need to do some work because of the nature of both ourselves as readers and the nature of the text.
Let’s start with ourselves. We have a tendency to believe that when we read things, we understand them and this understanding is exactly what the author (or the Holy Spirit) intended to convey through what was just read. As Fee & Stuart do a good job of showing, “we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas”. This means that “plain meanings” are not at all equally apparent to everyone reading the same passage. Depending on our culture, background, environment, et cetera, we will see different things as we read any given passage. In our attempt to discover what the “plain reading” actually should be, our goal is not to make the text say what we want it to say or to fit our cultural understanding, but to strive for better interpretation of its actual intended meaning.
The second reason interpretation can be so tricky is due to the nature of the bible. As mentioned above, the bible was written over centuries and in cultures/contexts that are very different from our own. It is also a book that, because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, is intended to speak not just to the time it was written in, but to us sitting here today. As James Kugel points out, “… even before the Bible had attained its final form, its stories, songs, and prophecies had begun to be interpreted. From very early times, sages and scholars in ancient Israel had made a practice of looking deeply into the meaning of these sacred writings, and, with each new generation, their insights and interpretations were passed on alongside the texts themselves.” These first interpreters saw the Bible as divinely inspired, relevant and harmonious, or unified in message, and all also seem to have shared the assumption “… that the Bible is a fundamentally cryptic document” (2).
While there may be many reasons for this, I would argue the main reason is the bible is first and foremost the story of God. As mentioned in the previous chapters, these ancient interpreters had not yet seen the climax of the story. Only with the arrival of Jesus to make God’s name known could any understanding of God be considered complete.
Getting back to Fee & Stuart, they suggest our view of what the bible is may also provide further insight into why we frequently have difficulty understanding the “plain meaning” found in the Bible. They say; “The bible, however, is not a series of propositions and imperatives … [God] chose to speak his eternal truths within the particular circumstances and events of human history”. In other words, God chose to root this revelation in human activities and as a result, this method of communication has a very real human side. We cannot separate the bible from the context that gives it meaning. Grounding his story in human activities has the effect of making it relevant to each of our lives by giving concrete examples of how God has spoken to people just like us in situations similar to our own.
Fee & Stuart go on to say;
“In speaking through real persons, in a variety of circumstances, over a 1,500-year period, God’s Word was expressed in the vocabulary and thought patterns of those persons and conditioned by the culture of those times and circumstances. That is to say, God’s Word to us was first of all his Word to them.” – How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p.18
This means it had to be spoken and communicated in ways THEY would understand. He inspired the writers to use terminology that people of that time would understand and points of reference that would make for a good starting point to understand who he was. This alone is perhaps the major reason we must learn to interpret the bible better.
“If God’s Word about women wearing men’s clothing or people having parapets around houses is to speak to us, we first need to know what it said to its original hearers – and why.” – How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p.19
No matter what section of the bible we are looking at, our ability to understand the “plain meaning” will be better informed if we start by attempting to discover more about what the text meant to its original hearers.
Here are two complimentary views of what the best ways to begin this process are, starting with Fee & Gordon;
- Context (both historical and literary) – What is the historical context of the text? What was the occasion and purpose for writing this particular book or portion of the book? Why was it written? What is the overall point of this book/section? How does it fit in the broader story of the book/biblical story as a whole? What is the overall theme and plot?
- Content – What do the words mean? How do the sentences fit together? What is this trying to convey?
In addition to these questions, Brad Cole (3), gives the following outline of things to keep in mind when reading any section of the bible:
- Context (see above)
- God meets people where they are (similar to the discussion above about the “human element” of the bible)
- “Truth” is progressively unfolded in the Bible – read the bible with a willingness to be surprised and to change (We do not get the entire picture at once. We will discuss this further in an upcoming chapter)
- God has an enemy (This will be unfolded in greater detail later in this book as well)
- The bible should be read primarily as a story about God. The climax of the story is Jesus
From here we can move on to what the bible means to us. Since the Holy Spirit was involved in the original writing and what the words were intended to reveal to its first hearers, we can then ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the “plain meaning” of the text and how it relates to us today.
Essentially what we do when we apply texts to our lives today is find ways to place ourselves within the overall narrative of the Bible. The Story of God begins with God creating, his creation rebelling against his perfectly ordered world – or, perhaps, their position within it – and by doing this they throw creation into chaos. From here we move to the overall theme found throughout the Bible, which is redemption. This is a story of a God who pursues his creation in order to restore it to the life it was intended to enjoy. He works slowly and patiently with His creation to bring it from where it has fallen to where he desires it to be. He sent his son, Jesus, to perfectly reveal what he is like and to show people what love looks like. He continues to pursue people today as all creation “stands on tiptoe” waiting for the sons of God to be revealed in their fullness at the end of this age. Our mission in interpreting what the Bible says to us is to find how we fit into this larger vision of God’s redemptive work in the world.
The Bible is filled with many different forms of literature. There are narratives, poetry, parables, genealogies, laws, prophecies, wisdom literature, letters and apocalypses, which are really foreign to our culture. Each form of literature contains its own set of challenges to interpretation and literary tools employed by the author under the influence of the Holy Spirit. If we do not understand how these are being used and what the overall theme is, we run the risk of pulling the content out of context and not discovering the “plain meaning” we were intended to see and, from that “plain meaning”, build a better understanding of who God is and what he is up to in the world.
To venture into potentially controversial territory in order to showcase the point, I’ll attempt to walk through the story of Noah’s Ark and showcase how when we better understand the literary form being used (or mimicked), our interpretation can allow the text to say what it means to say.
The story of Noah and the Ark tells a fairly easy to read narrative. God saw that the “wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually”. He was sorry for having created and decided he would remove creation from the earth. Thankfully, there was one man who found favour with God and so God spoke to Noah and told him there was going to be a flood that would destroy the world. He was to build an ark and take (at least) two of every kind of animal aboard the boat with him so that when it was all over, God would establish his covenant with creation anew through Noah. God sealed up the doors behind Noah and his menagerie and then opened the “fountains of the deep” and the “windows of the heavens”. Everything not in the ark was destroyed;
“… all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land whose nostrils was the breath of life died.” – Genesis 7:21-22
After being in the ark for just over a year, Noah finally was able to set foot on dry land again. God then established his covenant with Noah and put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this eternal commitment to never again destroy the world with a flood.
This story seems pretty straightforward and is written in a style that seems like a child’s bedtime story. This is despite its actual horrific content.
While we would not say this story is written exclusively as myth, it definitely borrows from mythological tradition. In fact, it is remarkably similar to two much older flood stories found in Sumerian and Babylonian mythologies (4). The Biblical story of Noah’s Ark is so similar to the older Epic of Gilgamesh, that most scholars agree the Hebrew story of Noah was based on this Babylonian myth (or at least drew upon the same cultural background).
Now, don’t get too concerned. The stories are similar, but with significant peculiar changes that, when we understand myth more clearly, we can begin to see what the writer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is attempting to convey to the reader.
Before we go any further, it is incredibly important for us to look at what I mean when I say “myth”. Even within our own time and culture, words can be interpreted in different ways and “myth” is one such word. The Princeton online dictionary contains the best definition of a myth for our purposes here. It defines myth as “a traditional story accepted as history; [which] serves to explain the world view of a people. (5)” Unfortunately, most people take one of the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions as their reference point, which defines a myth as “a widely held but false belief or idea” (6).
For our purposes here, when we describe this story as using or mimicking a myth’s literary form, we are referring to the Princeton definition. The way the bible speaks of it is not meant to convey a sequence of events, rather, it is far more interested in telling us something about the Hebrew worldview of this time. The Holy Spirit inspired them to rewrite the Epic of Gilgamesh in a way to show what God is like. With that definition of terms out of the way, let’s get back to how this literature reveals God in the Hebrew context.
The first point that must be made in reference to this story is well stated by Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis;
“The beginning point is to be clear on the character of the text before us … we do not have before us history, that is, a detailed account of what happened. No doubt, there are various historical reminiscences here of flood experiences, … but our interpretation will be distracted if there is an insistence on finding data to prove that this is a ‘historical’ narrative. Whatever historical memory lies behind the narrative likely cannot be recovered… This story is not concerned with historical data but with the strange things which happen in the heart of God that decisively affect God’s creation.
The Genesis narrative is not a universal statement but a peculiarly Israelite statement in the categories of covenant… What meets us here is proclamation, the announcement of what God has done about a fractured world … what God has done has decisively changed the situation of all creatures.” – (Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; p. 74-75)
So, understanding first and foremost that this is not a historical account, we can move away from fears of treating the text in such a way that we need to affirm each and every point as being “scientifically accurate”. In other words, the writer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is not attempting to record history, but to say something about God in the midst of human activities. With that, we move on to a second point.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was apparently one of the dominant myths in the ancient near east and would have most likely been seen as truth by the majority of people in this culture. What we have here is a Hebrew re-imagining of the flood narrative in a way that says something very specific about their God; Yahweh. The claims Israel is making about God can be found in the changes they have made to the text. Instead of simply saying; “you claim it was your God working in all this, but actually it was mine”, the Hebrew story portrays a unique vision of what God is like.
So, what are these major changes? (7)
1. The first major change is that in the Babylonian myth, there are many gods who choose to send the flood only to begin bickering and lose control of the flood’s affects. In the Hebrew account, the divine drama has been removed. The Hebrew writers are showing there is only one God and he does not have to worry about his creation overpowering. He is in complete control at all times.
2. The character of Noah in the Hebrew story has a name of no real importance (it appears to be related to the Hebrew word for “rest”), whereas in the other flood stories, the main characters had impressive names that spoke to their impressive heroism and long life (we’ll get to that in a second). In addition to this, you may notice that in the entire narrative, Noah does not speak, does not do anything except obey exactly what God tells him to do and is not actually the hero of the story. He is simply there. This is a very large change. The other epics have the human hero doing impressive things, including guiding and steering the ark, but Noah is simply a figure that obeys and gets in a box with no method of controlling it. There are no oars in the ark, and the shape is essentially one of a box.
3. The final major point of difference has to do with the outcome for Noah as compared to his counterparts in other stories. Other cultures were very concerned with immortality and the outcome of their hero’s navigation of the flood was to be granted immortality. In the Hebrew story, Noah does not achieve this same immortality. The promise in the story of Noah is one of covenant. God makes a covenant with creation to protect it and never again allow it to be destroyed.
In modern language, this type of a story that changes a prevailing myth or alters previously established facts is called a “retcon”, or retroactive continuity. It is done for a variety of reasons, but in order to even have a chance at believability, it must keep as much information from the original story intact as possible. If too much information is removed, the entire narrative may be rejected because it is deemed irrelevant and usually ends up discredited by anyone who likes the original story. The Hebrew writers appear to be doing the same thing. They keep the bulk of the Epic of Gilgamesh intact, but use it as a jumping off point to say something incredible about Yahweh.
This leads to the third point, which is that once we have context, we can begin to read the entire narrative and see what it’s content is trying to say to its original audience and, from that starting point, what it says to us today. What does the story of Noah and the Ark tell us about God? Having read the story in this new light, I would suggest the following.
We see a story of a God looking down at his creation and seeing it unravel before his eyes. When God sees the evil of humankind he does not respond angrily, but as a “troubled parent who grieves over the alienation” (8). The same word is used here to describe the “pain” God feels as was used in Genesis 3:16 to describe how women would experience pain during child birth. God is experiencing excruciating pain over the way his creation has moved away from him.
God is moved to action by the state of his creation and the story “is about the hurt God endures because of and for the sake of his wayward creation”. We see an undoing of creation, which is attributed to God (but we will get to that in a subsequent chapter), and a new creation borne from the chaos.
This mirrors the first creation account in Genesis 1. Humankind has undone God’s perfect creation, but God decisively enters into the chaos. He is not distant, but is determined to stick with his creation, no matter what the cost may be to him and his name. God has found a faithful servant, Noah, and determines to use this seed as a starting point for his covenant with creation.
I’ll now turn to Brueggemann more fully to conclude the story;
“The resolution comes by the resolve of Gods heart to fashion a newness … God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain his world, notwithstanding the sorry state of humankind. He will not let the rebellion of humankind sway him from his grand dream for creation. He will stay with his decision for a harmonious, obedient, creation … The flood has effected no change in humankind. But it has effected an irreversible change in God, who now will approach his creation with unlimited patience and forbearance. To be sure, God has been committed to his creation from the beginning. But … now the commitment is intensified. For the first time, it is marked by grief, the hurt of betrayal. It is now clear that such a commitment on God’s part is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world … In extraordinary resolve, God now says, ‘never again’ … We have seen that [there has been] a simple structure of indictment-sentence in which God resolves to punish the guilty. But that has now been changed. The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken … Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are now assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of creator to creature is no longer in a scheme of retribution. Because of a revolution in the heart of God, that relation is now based in unqualified grace… The first creation ends with the serene rest of God. The recreation ends with God resting his weapon … The telling of the story must focus on that surprising and irreversible turn. That is the substance of the gospel.” (Brueggemann, p. 80-85)
Whether you see God as actually changing his mind, as one might see implied in this quote, or simply view this as Brueggemann highlighting a literary device used by the the Hebrew authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to reveal Yahweh as different than other gods in this time and context, the meaning is the same. God has resolved to stick with his plan for creation and will do so at great cost to himself. We will see the fullness of just how costly this will be for Him on the cross. This is a loving God who grieves at the state of creation, but has resolved to stick with his plan in order to see creation redeemed back to him. While it would cause Him much less heartache to walk away, he is committed to seeing us reconciled to Him.
The use or mimicking of myth in the story of Noah presents a narrative to explain that the God of Israel is committed to his creation and has resolved to take action on his own to redeem us back to himself by his own gracious actions. The story of the flood uses human events to explain an incredibly important Hebrew worldview; God is committed to us despite the fact “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth”.
While I do not claim this is the only way to read the story of Noah and the Ark, I believe it should at least show that once we understand the context of the original audience, both historical and literary, we can begin to see there may be alternative ways of reading the text in our current context that allow us to perhaps be more faithful to the original intent of the author as they were acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Some may argue this is deviating from what the Bible says, but I would respond that this type of interpretation is actually attempting to be more faithful to what the Bible says. It simply takes the type of literature and historical context seriously in order to put on display what has been in front of our eyes all along. To me, this may well be the “plain reading” we are seeking.
In the next chapter we’ll look a little closer at the bible and what makes it such an incredible gift.
Coming Next: Chapter 5 – 100% God – 100% Human
2. A Brief History of God
3. Concentric Circles
4. Jesus & Judaism
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?
(1) This and other quotes are from “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”
(2) “Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as it was at the Start of the Common Era”
(3) Brad Cole leads a weekly Bible Study at Loma Linda University, this particular discussion can be found in his discussion on “How to Read (or Not Read) the Old Testament” – http://godscharacter.com/index.php/bible-study/introduction/how-to-read-the-old-testament
(4) Full text for the Sumerian Eridu Genesis can be found at; http://www.livius.org/fa-fn/flood/flood2-t.html . Full text for the Epic of Gilgamesh can be found at; http://www.livius.org/fa-fn/flood/flood3-t-gilgamesh.html
(7) Much of this section has been adapted from a message by Shane Hipps given on July 1, 2012 titled “Stay in the Boat”
(8) All quotes comes from Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation