As it is with all actual conversations, this one has taken some twists and turns. If you missed the fall out from ‘the Devil is in the Details’ last week , we talk about reading the history parts of the Bible as history, the poetry as poetry, and try to make space for those who read some parts literally and others who read those parts (the Book of Job, Jonah, Ester, Genesis 1-3, etc) more figuratively or as parable.
I wanted to just run over a couple of thoughts about all of that and next week we will get back to those 4 verses about the Kingdom and life before you die (from two weeks ago).
Figures of Speech
Sometimes we are incredibly intuitive about interpreting lyrics of songs and stories. Sometimes were are not. When it comes to interpreting passages of the Bible it can be a steep incline because we are translating through A) two jumps in language (translation) B) two jumps in culture C) two centuries of distance. That is a big deal and can not be overestimated.
It is impossible to overstate the difference when it comes to Jesus saying “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) . The disciples who originally heard this and those of us who read it A) in English B) on the other side of the Atlantic and C) two thousand years of church history later are not having the same experience with this idea . We live in towns that do not have walls or gates and they did not know of the Roman Catholic church. So it goes without saying that interacting with that saying is different for us than it was for them.
Some people object to the idea of interpreting passages in the Bible. Jonah and Job are my two favorite examples. My feeling on the matter is that if you want to take those stories and literal, that is fine with me – just realize that it is not the only way to interpret those texts and that ,in fact, if you are interested – there is an entire library of resources from history about how to read those texts within their literary genre.
To me, it is like people who listen to Bob Marley singing “No women No Cry” and think that he is saying that if you don’t have a women – you won’t cry. They miss that he is singing TO a women about living in a government slum.
Things have to be interpreted. They are written to be. The authors expect it. They build it in. It is part of art and beauty and symbol and style.
That is why we read history as history – and poetry as poetry – and apocalypse as apocalypse. It is also why we don’t read them as newspaper reports… because they were not written to be.
Oftentimes when people object the idea of doing any of this with the Bible, it is helpful to point out verse in the Christian new testament that they can recognize themselves in.
Romans 16:16 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
1 Corinthians 16:20 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
2 Corinthians 13:12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.
1 Thessalonians 5:26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.
So four times scripture tells us to do this and we as North American christians don’t. Why is that? It is not because we are not ‘Biblical’. It is because we understand that it is cultural.
7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.
8 I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.
9 I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.
So Paul is saying this as an Apostle. It does not seem to be up for debate or something that will change over time…. and yet we do not (generally) lift our our hands when we pray – we bow our heads and close our eyes. Why do we do that? Bowing your head and closing your eyes is not a Biblical way to pray. Of the many postures of prayer in the Bible – it is not one of them.
Godly women braid their hair. They wear gold. They own pearls. Why is that? It’s not unbiblical… it’s cultural.
and yet when it comes to women being pastors or women who were divorced before they were christians wanting to serve communion… godly men who do not lift their hands when they pray or greet me with a kiss… transform and become biblical literalists.
And this to me is the problem. We have not thoughtfully approached how we interpret scripture. We have lazily adopted what we were told and we have reacted. I am not sure that it is working for us – especially not in the modern world.
I had a conversation with someone the other day about Moses. I love Moses. I think that most people I talk to have a real fondness for his story. But there is a perfect example of interpretation in the passage about his calling.
You will remember the incident of the burning bush and you might also remember the part where he throws down his staff (he was a shepherd after all) and it becomes a snake, then he picks up the snake and it becomes a stick of wood again.
Now those of use who read that part as literal history have a little problem when it come to application. What is the application of that story? We are not looking for burning bushes, not literally – we are looking for signs from god. In fact, I would council someone who was looking for a sign from god to NOT look for burning bush. 1) because it only happened once in all of scripture – so you could be waiting a while 2) you don’t live in a place that has those same kind of bushes – and god works with what you have in your context.
and when it comes to that snake staff – what is the application for the modern day believer? Are we to throw sticks on the ground in front of government officials? (like Moses did to Pharaoh) Are we to pick up snakes if we are hiking and need a walking stick? NO! The application for those of us who read this part literally is to believe that ordinary things can take on extraordinary capabilities when god is involved.
So my friend is not so sure about the historical accuracy of the events of Genesis and Exodus. He thinks that they are more like parables. What is his application for these two passages? The same as mine! To trust that God gives signs as well as callings and that ordinary instruments can do extraordinary things when God is involved.
You see, I take a literal story and derived spiritual principles out of it. I read it literally and then translate it poetically or allegorically. My friend reads it allegorically and applies it as such. BUT we end up with the same thing!!
That is why I say that there has to be room at the table for those who read the Bible very differently – I don’t think that reading a section of scripture like the Exodus as a certain type of parable disqualifies you from A) being a christian or B) contributing to the conversation.
I think that the burning bush incident really happened. My friend is not so sure. But either way – I am not looking for burning bushes to decide how to follow god. and neither is my friend. I could be a stinker and say that he does not believe the Bible – but he could say that I do not throw sticks on the ground and even if I did they would not turn into snakes – so he could question how “Biblical” I am anyway… for all our bluster about “believing the Bible” or “reading it literally” the truth is that we follow God the exact same way!!