In the Present Tense

August 18, 2009

It Is Written. . .

Filed under: Bible study, Culture and the Bible, Inspiration — edoutlook @ 11:56 pm

No, this is not about the television program. Actually, my previous post concerning harmonizing Genesis 1 and 2 provided the stimulus for this post, and for its title.

When I was 21, I come to the place where I found typical Bible study insufferably boring. To this day, I cannot explain what I did at that time. Frankly, my Christian experience was not such that it would explain my request. Because what I did was to ask God to give me a hunger for his word. It never ceases to amaze me how God responds even to the most shallow believer, which is what I was at the time. Through a series of events, many of which I am probably unaware, that’s exactly what he did. He gave me a passion for understanding and sharing the Bible.

And after decades of Bible study and teaching Sabbath school classes, one of the most important insights that I have experienced is in the title this post: it — the Bible— is written.

Now, some of you are probably scratching your heads, wondering how that can be such an insight. It comes down to this: the Bible is a work of literature. Yes, I know it is made up of many different books, and these books were written at different times and places. Yes, we can talk about “oral traditions” all day. But time and again, the Bible demonstrates that it is a work of literature — that a human author carefully and with deliberate intent, crafted a work of literature.

While that may seem obvious, in fact we seldom treat the Bible that way. Many of us treat the Bible as though it were a sort of religious and ethical encyclopedia, where we can simply look up answers to questions that we have about God and about how to live. Many scholars treat the Bible more like a geological formation, with layer after layer having been laid down through the ages. Increasingly, contemporary audiences, including many Christians, treat the Bible as a sort of quaint artifact, a primitive book of theology and/or philosophy, which we have outgrown.

But for me, the most fruitful study always comes when I ask a few simple questions. First, what was the author trying to say? Not in my terms, not in terms of the questions I have today, but in terms of the issues he was facing, his audience was facing at that time. Secondly, what did this author believe and understand about God? Only after I answer those two questions can I think about what it means for me today.

And that very first question, what was the author trying to say, comes back again and again to the text itself, to the literary production. For example, a great deal of ridicule has been piled on Genesis 1 and 2, and those taking a “literal” reading of the text over at Spectrum magazine, and in a number of other online forums. Without exception, those ridiculing the biblical account have superimposed their own contemporary assumptions on the text. They assume that to read Genesis 1 and 2 literally results in nonsense, and they go about poking holes based on that notion.

Partially, this comes from a common scholarly view that Genesis was redacted several times. But suppose we begin our study with the simple notion that Genesis is indeed a literary creation which intended to communicate a message to the audience for which it was originally given. That’s what my diagram came from.

When we go back and study the worldview at the time the book of Genesis was written, the context into which the book was sent, then the two accounts don’t seem contradictory, but complementary.

Genesis 1 shows us the cosmic order; heaven and earth, land and ocean, creatures and creator. Genesis 2 shows us — let’s call it the domestic order — the relation of humanity to their home.

Now, of course, if you believe the book of Genesis was simply thrown together over a period of centuries by different sources, then you will find reasons to demonstrate that. But if it was written, if a human author crafted this message to explain the fundamental order of things, then we find a coherent, symmetrical, and I think beautiful exposition.

July 1, 2009

Messianic Prophecies Out of Context?

Filed under: Bible study, Inspiration — edoutlook @ 3:47 pm

One of my favorite questions. It’s a really good one, and it may take more than one post to answer.

3.  I am reading the Messianic prophecies, and many of them are entirely out of context.  David was not talking about Jesus’ death, he was talking about his own experience feeling hounded by his enemies.  Things where we point out and say, “See?  That is Jesus there!” in the OT are talking about something entirely different in context.  So in the OT, we don’t care about context, but suddenly in the NT, we care a lot about context.  Why the flip?

Several years ago, I wrote an article for SIGNS on this topic, titled ” Did Ancient Prophets Predict Jesus’ Birth?
Although constrained by the assignment I had been given, it still serves as a beginning point.

Here’s a short quote from that article

Take the passage in which Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7 about a virgin giving birth to a son: “ ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’ ” But the birth of that Child was recorded in chapter 8. How could it also be a prophecy of Jesus, to be born centuries later? Or what about the time Matthew cites the prophet Hosea: “ ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ ” In that passage, God told Hosea He loved Israel enough to deliver them from Egyptian slavery. How can that be a prediction about the life of Jesus, to come many years in the future?”

Matthew, in fact, is full of such hermeneutical shenanigans (Cofession time: I’m working on a Biblical narrative in which Matthew explains his gospel to a long-lost friend right now, so I’m kind of excited about this topic).

The first thing to realize is that Matthew’s Gospel is written for the Jews.  There is plenty of evidence for this idea.  Literally first of all, Matthew begins in the genealogy that demonstrates Jesus is a view, and a descendent of the royal line.  Another evidence would be the five very rabbinic sermons in Matthew.  There is a lot more evidence, and if need be, I will produce it.  But if you will accept the basic idea that Matthew was at the Jews for now, we can move forward.

This focus on the Jews makes Matthew’s Gospel different in a number of ways.  In Matthew, the Kings come to see the baby Jesus, but not the shepherds.  Only Matthew records the slaughter of the innocents.  There are many other ways where Matthew’s distinctly Jewish outlook shapes his account of Jesus’ life and teachings.  In the first five chapters of his Gospel, Matthew is endeavoring to demonstrate that Jesus is not just the fulfillment of a few Old Testament prophecies, but rather is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s history, all of God’s saving acts on behalf of his people.

In Matthew one, he shows that Jesus is the new king, and the King was always anointed, that makes Jesus the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah.  When he quotes Isaiah 7, about a virgin conceiving, Matthew was aware that the baby prophesied in Chapter 7, was born in Chapter 8.  But in Matthew’s view, that baby foreshadowed the baby Jesus.  It may seem far-fetched to us, but it made sense to his Jewish audience.  Especially when you consider the rest of the events that he notes.

In Chapter 2 of Matthew, the kings visit, seeking the newborn King, and with gifts fit for a king.  This is further evidence to Matthew and his audience that Jesus must have been a king.  Herod confirms that, by seeking to destroy his rival for the throne.  This action, for Matthew, indicates that Jesus is also the new Moses.  How can that be?  Because Jesus, like Moses, is the only one to survive in his generation.

Then Matthew tells us that Joseph took Jesus to Egypt, and thus reenacting the history of Israel. When Israel leftEgypt, it did so by passing through the waters of the Red Sea.  Matthew has Jesus returned from Egypt, and immediately passes through the waters of baptism.  He sees Jesus as reenacting all of Israel’s history.  When Israel passed through the Red Sea, it moved on to the desert.  In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life, Jesus goes directly from baptism into — you probably guessed it—in the desert!  While there, Jesus is tempted three times.  He answers all three temptations with quotations from Deuteronomy.  Specifically, from the portions of Deuteronomy that are looking back at the 40 years wondering in the desert.  Oh yes, and Jesus stands 40 days in the desert.

Just to make things even more interesting, while in the desert, the Israelites spent a full year at Sinai.  While there, Moses brought them the law.  In Matthew, immediately after the wilderness temptations, comes the sermon on the Mount.  In other words, the new Moses climbs a new mountain and brings a new law.  Lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus repeatedly quotes the laws of Moses, and either extends for overturns them.  Repeatedly, he says, “You have heard it said… but I say.”  And every time he is quoting the law of Moses.

I could go on, but this is getting somewhat lengthy.  I hope I have demonstrated that for Matthew, Jesus is the living fulfillment of all of Israel’s history.  So, when Hosea is told, “Out of Egypt have I called my son,” Hosea understood it as a past saving action of God.  Matthew does not deny that, but rather sees that earlier action as a foreshadowing of the greater saving action to be realize in the redemptive life of Jesus.

I hope I have given some understanding the answer to your question.  I certainly welcome feedback on this issue.  Anyone wishing to explore this further should read The Israel of God in Prophecy, by Hans La Rondelle, to which I am heavily indebted.

June 3, 2009

The “Position of Women” in the Bible-I

Filed under: Inspiration, Present Truth, Women in the Bible — edoutlook @ 3:59 pm

I’m rushing back in to Cindy’s first question today.

1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)

Not surprisingly, both because Cindy is a woman, and because many share her concern, the first– and only recurring– evidence of fallibility in her question concerns women. To paraphrase (Fairly, I hope): How can the Bible be true when it condones second-class (and worse) treatment of women?

Now, as my first post on this subject hinted at, the real question is, “Why doesn’t the Bible demand treatment of women that comports with what my culture views as appropriate?”

I share Cindy’s culture, more or less, so I understand her concern. My point is, however, that our view (Cindy’s and mine) is culturally conditioned as well. And “we’re right, they’re wrong,” or “we’re better, they’re worse,” may not be the only options. Forgetting that we have cultural conditioning is a quick road to error.

The next thing to consider is this: When we speak of the Bible’s “treatment of women,” we’re talking about the status and treatment of women in many different cultures over a span of roughly 1600 years. I’m speaking of approximate times when the Bible was written–the time period covered is considerably longer. Exactly how long, I don’t think anyone knows.

It seems only realistic to recognize that women in a nomadic, herding culture might have a different status than in a static, urban culture. That women in Egypt in 1500 B.C. would be treated differently than women in Rome in 45 A.D. Women of Chemosh-worshiping Moab would have a different status than women of Dagon-worshiping Ninevah. And so on.

So when we speak of “the treatment of women in the Bible,” to be fair, we have to take into consideration the treatment of women in the culture to which the prophetic message was given. That may change things radically.

A pertinent, and sad, example of how culture affects such things can be found in the history of Christian missionaries in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. European and American missionaries took the gospel to Africa. As part of their teaching, they thought to change the treatment of women. Some taught that polygamy was wrong, and that a man should divorce all but his first wife.

What they failed to take into account was that the surrounding culture didn’t have any way to relate to a divorced wife. Typically, a divorced woman had done something terribly wrong, and often the only way for her to survive was prostitution. The culture simply had no category to understand or relate to a woman who was divorced because her husband didn’t any longer believe in polygamy. So many otherwise innocent and conscientious wives were put in a terrible position.

In hoping to improve the treatment of women generally, and somewhat in the abstract, these well-meaning missionaries drastically worsened their actual situation. They had overlooked the influence of culture, both theirs, and the culture of the people they intended to help.

In the missionaries’ culture, divorce was common, and not a disgrace. Single women, even single mothers, could hold jobs and make their way. But the African cultures they were dealing with had no such categories or support mechanisms. When non-Christian members of the community saw a divorced woman, they saw a disgraced and unwanted woman.

A better way, perhaps, would have been to leave the existing marriages alone, and teach husbands to treat their wives better, while encouraging younger men and women to monogamy. But that would have left the missionaries open to criticism from many in their home culture, who after all were financing the missions, that they were not teaching “proper treatment of women.”

So the counsel of the Bible concerning the status and treatment of women must be understood in the context of the culture to which that counsel was given. God recognizes that humans can only change so much at a time. And even if an individual, say, a polygamous husband, may change his views radically and be willing to divest himself of all but one wife, the wider culture simply will not adjust so rapidly. And that could lead, as we have seen and God would have known from the beginning, to more harm than good.

I’m willing to take up individual examples, Cindy (and anyone else), but I felt first we needed to understand the crucial role of culture– both ours and others.

Hope this is helpful.

June 1, 2009

Culture and the Bible

Filed under: Bible study, Inspiration — edoutlook @ 3:20 pm

Today I take up Cindy’s* first question:

1. Is the Bible fallible? In any way? How much have human beings had a hand in the Bible, and how much of it is “culture?” For example, women are told to keep their heads covered. Our answer is that it was a cultural thing in the day. How much of the Bible was culture and not directly applicable? How much is culture and, frankly, wrong?? (Ie. position of women, hatred of gays, racism against other cultures, etc)

Despite  starting out with the question of fallibility, the word “culture” occurs in one form or another five separate times in this question. It appears to equate cultural influence with fallibility. And although I’m willing to take on the issue of fallibility, it seems to me the greater concern is something like this: “How does culture interact with inspiration?”

My short answer is, “Culture is what makes it relevant.”  “Culture” has gotten a bad reputation in some circles lately, because it has been used to justify certain practices  by some Christians that other Christians find unsettling. I believe that’s largely because “my” culture is largely invisible to “me.” When it comes to culture, we’re all like the college freshman who discovered he’d been speaking prose his whole life. “My culture” is just what I happen to do. “Your” culture is weird.

When we talk of cultural influences in the Bible, we tend to think of the same types of things Cindy mentioned, practices or attitudes which are foreign to us. But the Bible is saturated with various cultures, and in some ways saturates our own, so that we don’t notice them.

Let’s take one of the most prominent examples. “The Lamb of God.” Wonder how many think of that as a culturally conditioned reference? But of course, the Israelites to whom the sacrificial system was given were herdsmen.The principal of the school where I attended first grade pointed this out to me.

During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he had been a missionary to the people we used to call “Eskimos” in far north Alaska. They had no radio or TV in those days. A generation before the Alaska pipeline, there were no highways to most of their settlements. The only way in or out was by plane. These people had never seen a lamb. There were no sheep where they lived. So how could missionaries explain the concept of the Lamb of God?

The closest they could come was a baby seal. That communicated the innocence and helplessness of the sacrifice.

Now, you and I might have a lot of objections. For one thing, seals aren’t even clean! But that wasn’t the point.

The Bible is permeated with cultural references and influences we simply do not see. “Though our sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Obvious? How about in Tahiti? or Ghana? “I am the vine, you are the branches?” A lot more obvious in wine country than the corn belt.

So that’s the first point I think we need to realize when we talk about cultural influences in the Bible. They are present because God wanted to meet people where the are, to communicate His message in ways that could be understood by the receiving audience. When our culture is closer to the original audience, the meaning is more obvious. When our culture differs widely from the original audience, the meaning may be entirely obscured. So to really understand the Bible message, we need to get as close to understanding the culture to which the message was originally given as possible.  There’s a lot more to this topic, but I think I’ll stop here for today.

It’s better to take these things one bite at a time, at least it is for me.. And, to Cindy and all others with the question, I hope that’s really responsive to your concerns. Let me know.

Blog at