I was reminded of this post all over again while reading Jesus: A Theography this weekend. Although I’m only on chapter three, I’m already recommending this book to everyone I know, and I’m already learning new things about the meanings of words in our sacred texts.
For instance, in Genesis 2 God tells Adam to cultivate and keep the garden. “The Hebrew word for cultivate is abad, and the Hebrew word for keep is shamar,” write the book’s authors. “These same Hebrew words are used to describe how the priests cared for the tabernacle of Moses….In addition, we are told that God walked in the garden (Hebrew, hawlak) during the cool of the day. God also walked (hawlak) in the midst of the temple.”
Or consider the often-misunderstood idea of God “resting” after creating the world. This does not mean he took a nap. Instead, the verb is used almost exclusively in writing of that time to describe how divine beings take up residence in their temples. God wasn’t taking “me time” with his DVR and some chips; he was filling the new creation with his presence for the first time.
Can we believe without knowing these facts? Of course. But they enrich and sometimes change our understanding of the God we follow. In examples like the ones mentioned below, they can also affect our theology and raise questions about our pet doctrines.
How should we use an old text to lead 21st-century faith and practice? How do we do it with integrity but without doctoral degrees in ancient Hebrew and Greek? I still struggle with the questions from this post, so I’m sharing it again.
Like many sincere Christians, I want to obey God and please him and become like him and even be blessed by him. And, like many Christians, I look to the Bible to tell me how to do that.
However, the Bible was written thousands of years ago to other people of other cultures with different customs, beliefs, languages, social norms and worldviews.
So, if I want to follow God, and if I believe the primary way he’s revealed himself to us is the Living Word (Jesus) and the written word (the Bible, which, incidentally, is our primary record of Jesus), then I am faced with understanding a centuries-old text written in ancient languages and open to many differing interpretations.
In my high school youth group we were often reminded of the reliability of the scriptures, especially when the number of good ancient copies of biblical books is compared to the number available for other books by writers like Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and Homer. I agree there’s much to be said for the integrity of the texts, and that isn’t my main issue here. What concerns me is the fundamental problem of how we are (and are not) supposed to use them today.
Let me explain, using one issue and two examples.
First, for my friends who believe the Bible is sexist and misogynist, I loved the explanation of 1 Peter 3:7 I recently heard Randy Gariss share. (You know that verse—husbands treat your wives as the weaker partner and all of that.)
Randy shares that for the people to whom Peter was writing, everyday pottery was very heavy and durable. However, if you wanted something more valuable made by an artisan, you went to a Weaker Shop. Weaker meant precious or delicate. Peter is using a pun, telling husbands to treat their wives as a valuable gift, not demeaning women as less important or less intelligent.
So this passage, which is not many women’s favorite because we (quite naturally) interpret it negatively, may actually have had a very different meaning to the first audience — a meaning many women would welcome. But without someone digging into the anthropology and original word meanings, we’d never know.
Next, here’s one for my friends who think those other friends are too liberal. I’ve been reading I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 In Light of Ancient Evidence by Richard and Catherine Kroeger. I KNOW you know those verses—women should be quiet and should have no authority over men and will be saved through childbearing. Ring a bell?
The Kroegers argue that a few of the specific words used in these verses, including the verb for “assume authority,” have a number of different meanings, each of which completely changes the meaning of the passage. In addition, the authors point out the predominance of Gnostic and other religious practices in which only women could serve as priests or communicate religious truth and the primary deities were female mother goddesses.
(By the way, everyone—male and female—learned in silence, and the phrase “in silence and submission” was a common phrase implying a willingness to obey instruction. Every culture has its repetitive phrases, and this was a gender-neutral one of theirs.)
The Kroegers suggest a reading of the passage that is not a blanket prohibition of any woman teaching or leading any man, but one which does not permit women to teach that they are the authors or the creators of men—a concept we might find strange, but one that would have been a real issue with the original audience. (This interpretation also makes the following verses much more understandable.)
Are they correct? You will all have different opinions on that, which is exactly the point. These issues are real because our churches, their leaders, and us as individual Christians use passages just like this to make huge decisions about what’s allowed, what’s wrong, and where the boundaries are.
But often we don’t know the real meaning of the original text. Often we’ll never know because we haven’t gone to seminary. Often we rely on the English translation, with all its inadequacies and errors, to shape our most fought-for doctrines.
I’m not sure what to do about this. I don’t have the time or the inclination to study ancient cultures. Even if I did, and could spend my lifetime learning about these issues and developing an opinion I feel good about, it would take a lifetime and the wars over women in ministry, homosexuals, the doctrine of hell, etc. are happening right now. And even if I had the time and there was no current kerfluffle, that’s just me—what about the 99.9% of the population who will never see Randy’s videos or read the Kroegers’ book, much less devote their life to Biblical study?
If God intended the Bible to be the bible for our lives, why is it so inaccessible and easily misunderstood? And what’s the solution?;