The operating manual may be long (and even translated from Japanese), and it has to be read carefully, and each procedure carried out accurately and in the right order. But then the moment comes, and at the flick of a switch the power is turned on. Procedure is barren without power. But without proper procedure the whole thing may blow up.
Principles of interpreting the Bible are, perhaps, the equivalent of the proper use of the operating manual. But without the power of the Holy Spirit they can lead us into arid deserts indeed. Paul warned Timothy against those ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power’ (2 Timothy 3:5), and insisted that his message and his preaching were ‘not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Sprit’s power’ (1 Corinthians 2:4).
Nevertheless, Paul urged Timothy: ‘Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth’ (2 Timothy 2:15).
Reading and studying the Bible is a uniquely satisfying experience. Engaging not only the mind but also the heart, it speaks, from God, into our world and into our individual lives. But, more than that, it speaks with its own power. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it: ‘The Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Hebrews 4:12-13).
In one of the few passages in the New Testament that speaks of being ‘born again’, Peter explains to his readers that their conversion is not simply an act of faith, but a deep work of God: they ‘have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). In the old story of Jack and the Beanstalk, the feckless boy Jack sells the family cow for a handful of beans. His mother, in rage and despair, throws the beans out of the window. But, lo and behold, the next morning a vast and luxuriant runner bean plant has grown right up to the sky. The old storytellers knew all about the germ of life, hidden in the dry seed, from which springs new life.
Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the word he preached was actually ‘the word of God, which is at work in you who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13). So we must expect God to speak to us, to work in us, even as we study. We must allow God’s word to challenge, encourage, convict, guide and change us.
Much has been written over the centuries about ‘Listening to God’. While waiting quietly on God, in ‘listening prayer’, we may receive pictures, impressions, words, or verses of Scripture. But the most consistent way in which we hear God is through the prayerful, listening, reading of the Scriptures.
Let us not limit the work of the Holy Spirit. He is at work all the time – in the hearts of his children and often in the hearts of those who are not yet his children – and through the living written word.
We must be prepared for God to speak through the Bible to different people in different, and sometimes unlikely, ways, as these examples show.
A young man, deep in the life and lifestyle of a successful model, dissatisfied and seeking meaning and truth, was given a Bible by a friend:
‘I sat down and opened it for the first time in my life. What I read that day changed my life. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that God was real and that he cared about me. I felt this with my whole being, and it completely wowed me… My drug mentality thought, this is better than any Ecstasy, any acid, any coke I’ve ever had. This feeling of love, of peace – it was so new, so foreign to me. I knew it was what I’d been searching for, and what I knew so many others were searching for.’
The verse that spoke to him most directly was 2 Chronicles 29:11 (not an obvious choice for a special illumination!): ‘I was completely overcome with a sense of God’s presence and love for me, causing me to experience a deep warmth and uncontrollable weeping.’ It was a prophetic word indeed, for he is now a clergyman!
Isobel Kuhn, who became a pioneer missionary to the Lisu in South-West China, was faced as a young Christian by an ethical decision about whether to visit a phrenologist:
‘Impulsively, I pulled [the Bible] toward me. It fell shut and I reopened it at random… Inwardly I was wondering what the Bible said about phrenology, when my eye happened to fall on the open page and there, unconsciously, my left hand lay with a forefinger pointing at a verse. I read: “Keep me far from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7). It was as if a voice had spoken to me and I was so startled at the directness of the answer to my inward question which no one had heard that my distressed heart collapsed with relief… The piled-up heartaches of a whole year and a half of searching after God had reached a climax, and I could only sob until exhausted.’ (Isobel Kuhn, By Searching, China Inland Mission, 1957.)
A friend who was going through a time of turmoil and change sensed that God was prompting her to read Isaiah 55:
‘“Why waste your money on what is not bread”, I read, “and your labour on what does not satisfy?” I put my Bible down and exclaimed out loud, “I know you are telling me to change my job, Lord, but now is not a good time!” When I returned to the office after a holiday I was given 30 minutes to clear my desk – I was redundant! I then realised that Isaiah 55:2 had not been a polite suggestion from the Lord, but his way of telling me that even this job loss was in his plan for me and that he was going to lead me into labour that satisfied – which he did!’
Martin Luther had been a monk for about 15 years, constantly tormented by his own unworthiness, and struggling over the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ (Romans 1:16), when:
‘At last, by the mercy of God and meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’.” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith, and this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the Gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’ (Quoted in Peter Vardy [ed.], Great Christian Thinkers, Fount 1999.)
To one young man, who found God on his very first reading of the Bible, and to another, who had studied it and meditated on it for many years before a special illumination came to him, which changed the course of Church history, the Bible spoke with personal directness.
The Lord, in his sovereignty, can speak to anyone like this. But for most of us such experiences are rare, and it is as we engage with God through our regular reading of Scripture – responding to him as in a good marriage relationship, a relationship of security, love and trust – that he habitually speaks to us and we get to know him better.
The more we read the Bible well, seeking to apply sound principles of interpretation, the more deeply and richly the word will dwell in our hearts (Colossians 3:16). Our minds will be renewed, our lives transformed, and we shall know with greater clarity and power what God’s will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2).
I started, in the first essay in this series, by quoting John Stott, and I shall end with the same quotation:
‘In so far as the Bible is a human book, we read it as we would any other book, with our minds; but in so far as it is the word of God, we read it as we would read no other book, on our knees.’
Read Psalm 119:33-40 prayerfully and expectantly; then go back over the passage again, reading each verse into your current situation, and responding in prayer and praise.
Pray every day that the Lord will prompt you through your reading of Scripture. Write down anything that he seems to be saying to you, and where there are things you need to do, do them without delay. After a week or two look back at what you wrote, holding yourself accountable before God.
It may be tempting to think of secular cultures as bad, simply because they take no account of God. But contemporary Western culture has been grounded in and shaped by the Christian faith. In fact, the Reformation emphasis on the right of individuals to read and interpret Scripture for themselves was one of the main contributors to the ‘Enlightenment’ elevation of human reason above the authority of the church. Nineteenth-century writers and philosophers thought that it was possible to retain a Christian ethic while rejecting Christian dogma. And, over a hundred years later, some principles of that ethic remain as the acknowledged values of our society.
The apostle Paul’s example, and our own common sense, teach us that we cannot simply reject the majority culture that we live in. How we can use the Bible to evaluate that culture is the subject of this essay.
Our tendency, as we have considered in an earlier essay (Essay 3), is to select a verse or a few verses of Scripture that seem to us to address a particular issue, and quote it as though it provided the whole answer. We might, for instance, quote Romans 1:27 as ‘the biblical view’ on same-sex sexual relationships; or we might appeal to Paul’s description of worship in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 14:26-37) as a blueprint for all Christian worship. As we have seen, we need to get a grasp of the whole biblical revelation in order to get an accurate and balanced view.
Many theologians have proposed outlines for a biblical worldview. A very helpful approach is to consider the four ‘pillars’ of the Bible story, each of which gives us essential insight into the purposes and work of God. These may be listed as:
A beginning and an end – but in between hundreds of millennia of history. It is interesting that many evangelicals largely ignore the first and the last – Creation and Consummation – and focus on the second and third – Fall and Redemption. Thus, a summary of the ‘gospel’, the theme of many an evangelistic sermon, is: ‘You are a sinner; Jesus came and died to save you from your sin; put your faith in him.’
Remember those little evangelistic booklets – the ABC of the gospel? Admit you are a sinner, Believe Christ died for you, Confess your sin and Commit your life to him. Such a presentation has helped thousands to take a first step of faith, but a faith that comes to roost only there is an impoverished faith indeed.
Perhaps in a short essay the most helpful way to look at these great themes – and the most practical, in terms of understanding the issues of our own day – is to take a topic and examine it under these four headings. Such a topic could be something comparatively unimportant like wine, or something vast and complex like a political ideology or genetic engineering. Somewhere in between these extremes lies a topic that is of relevance to us every day – the topic of work.
Creation. Whether we take it ‘literally’ or not (see Essay 6), the creation narrative lays the foundation for all our understanding. The curtain rises on an avalanche of creative work, as a worker-God puts in place all the elements of the material universe. When he had finished, he looked at his work, said ‘Yes, that is good’, and took what we might consider to be a well-earned rest (Genesis 2:2-3). But Jesus reminded his disciples that ‘my Father is always at his work to this very day’ (John 5:17).
Lest we might think that because God created a world so perfect he created humans simply to sit back and enjoy it, Genesis makes it clear that, being created in his image (1:27), humans were to be workers, too. We may speculate interminably about what the ‘image of God’ may include, but it is clear that humans were given intelligence, understanding and creativity. And how these faculties were to be used can be inferred from what is often called the ‘Creation Mandate’.
‘God blessed them and said to them, “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish… and the birds… and over every living creature that moves on the ground”’ (Genesis 1:28). This is elaborated in the next chapter: ‘The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it’ (2:15). God’s authority is delegated to humans, to work with and for the material creation. But what might this clear responsibility entail? It must surely affirm the human ingenuity that has inspired people through the ages, not only to maintain but to experiment, discover, develop. But it must also affirm the human creativity that enables people to produce works of art and make artefacts of great beauty.
The creation narrative makes clear that work is intrinsic to the nature of human beings – both a duty and a privilege. But it also emphasises the importance of rest – a rhythm that sets human endeavour in the context of worship, and also, interestingly, enshrines a principle that our own 24/7 culture neglects at its peril.
Fall. In Genesis 3, everything goes wrong. Human rebellion against God distorts that which God instituted for good. An immediate effect is the destruction of human relationships, so that shared responsibility is usurped by self-justifying blame (Genesis 3:12-13). And it is on Adam’s work, among other things, that the curse of God falls (3:17-19).
The implications of this are illustrated by three stories that immediately follow the Fall. The diversifying of work is seen immediately in the story of Cain and Abel. Both men acknowledge God, bringing him offerings from what they have produced; but while Abel’s offering is accepted, Cain’s is rejected. There is nothing to suggest that animal husbandry was a better occupation than agriculture: the difference seems to have been in the hearts and motivation of the workers (see 1 John 3:12). Next we have two stories that illustrate the beginnings of technology – human skill devoted to making things. Noah builds the ark as a vehicle of salvation, under the direction of God (Genesis 6:11-22). The people who build the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), however, had very different motives: ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves’ (11:4).
As these stories show, productive work and the creative impulse survived the Fall. The image of God in humankind is not obliterated; rather it is distorted, so that what was intended for good becomes corrupted by the fallen human heart. And as we look through the rest of the Old Testament, and read accounts of thousands of years of global history, we see the same pattern – human work sometimes devoted to the glory of God (as in the building of the tabernacle and the temple) and the common good (though never with an entirely pure and disinterested focus), but also often corrupted by greed, envy, pride and a callous indifference to the welfare of others. Thus, coming right up to our own day, we see biomedical research serving the interests both of health and of biological warfare.
Redemption. The birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus make the impossible possible for those who find new life in him, and enable them to disseminate good in the world. Even so, we remain aware that, living in the ‘already but not yet’, elements of the fallen nature are still present in our lives. But we can be different, and our attitude to work can model a counter-culture in a fallen world. A biblical worldview can help us to answer the questions What? Why? And How?
What kind of work should a Christian engage in? A worldview that looks back to creation will convince us that any work (not necessarily a ‘job’) can be useful to others and glorifying to God. Some jobs are of course intrinsically more interesting and fulfilling than others. But what kind of fulfilment do we crave?
Why do we work? What are our motives? To make money? To make a name for ourselves? To make a contribution to society? All of these may be legitimate parts of our motivation, but an overriding motive for a Christian must be to serve and glorify God. The CEO can do this. So can the carer, the dustman, the office cleaner.
And how? The New Testament abounds in teaching about Christian character and behaviour, some specifically in the context of work, but all relevant to the work situation. Self-giving love, respect for others, conscientiousness, integrity. The Christian calling is more about the how than the what.
Consummation. Jesus is going to return, to judge the world, and to make all things new. These facts should influence our work. My colleagues will have to face judgment: do I seek to point them to Christ while there is time? And I too will be judged: will my work stand the test of the fire (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)? Jesus asked this question: ‘Who then is the faithful and wise servant whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns’ (Matthew 24:45-47). I wonder whether it is stretching this parable too far to note that the master doesn’t say that the servant’s work has come to an end, but rather that new opportunities for service will be opened to him (24:47). Jesus will return to make all things new, to establish his kingdom, but his servants are to work to usher in that kingdom.
The purpose of this essay is, of course, not to present a comprehensive biblical perspective on work, but to illustrate the usefulness of a biblical worldview perspective for understanding and evaluating the issues of our own day. The biblical story, from beginning to end, in its description and celebration of God’s unfolding plan of redemption, provides a beneficial means of reflecting on such matters.
Think about the work you do – whether in a paid job or in your home or the community. How far is your attitude to it influenced by the prevailing attitudes in our culture, and how far by a biblical worldview? Reflect on how the unemployed, even while out of work, can do their bit in following the ‘Creation Mandate’. Pray for any unemployed people you know.
As we go about our daily life, let us focus consciously on: (1) the works of God’s creation that we see around us, and reflect on what good, and bad, use people have made of them, and (2) the people we meet, live and work with, and pray for them in the light of Jesus’ second coming.
In Reading the Qur’an (C. Hurst & Co, 2011), Ziauddin Sardar, looking at the crisis in contemporary Islam, makes the perhaps revolutionary suggestion that the Qur’an should be read and interpreted in relation to the culture both of the time in which it was written and of the time in which it is read. Thus, when considering the teaching on women’s head covering, he points out that the Qur’an was written when, among many of the tribal peoples of the Near East, women would have been scantily clad, so the emphasis was essentially on the modesty of concealing a woman’s ‘private parts’. In the context of a contemporary understanding of gender and human equality, however, the veil, or hijab, may become a symbol not of modesty but of oppression.
Sardar’s approach, acknowledged in Christianity since the Reformation, is rare in Islam, but essential if fundamentalist Islam is not to become the dominant form of that religion. In some eastern cultures, an uncovered head may be perceived as an indication of loose morals, while in the West it has no such connotations. But, looked at another way, might we not see the head scarf as a timely challenge to the immodesty and provocativeness of much contemporary western fashion?
This is certainly the case in cultures where Christians live in predominantly Muslim communities. Even within traditional Christian communities in parts of Africa, women feel more comfortable, when they go out, to ‘tie head-tie’. My mother-in-law in South Wales never went out without a hat, and when I became a Christian in the 1950s, I wouldn’t dare go to church without one, though I would never wear it in any other context. (Incidentally, I had a friend at university who, in protest, used to wear a tea cosy to church. She ended up as a cross-cultural missionary in Spain. But that is another story.)
Are we in the West, who nowadays happily go bareheaded to church, being less true to Scripture? We seem to have succeeded in persuading ourselves of the irrelevance of Paul’s injunction to the Corinthians: ‘Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head’ (1 Corinthians 11:5-6).
This example illustrates the differences not only between one age and another but even in the contemporary world between one culture and another.
When we are teaching or preaching, and even in conversation, we have to take account of the culture of those we are speaking to. Insensitive cross-cultural mission has, over the centuries, led to terrible misunderstandings, or outright rejection of the gospel. We can learn much from the example of Paul, whose preaching to largely Gentile audiences, in Acts 14:11-18 and 17:16-31, was very different from his Old Testament-based preaching to Jews. We may be surprised that he had read the Greek poets, and took trouble to present the gospel in terms that related to their culture.
What applied to Jewish and Gentile cultures in New Testament times applies equally in our own day, as we seek to communicate with a generation which is largely ignorant of the Bible and has been conditioned by a secular culture whose gods are individual freedom and autonomy. Two opposite approaches may spring to mind: to insist that because ‘the Bible says…’ we must adopt not just its doctrines but also the
cultural practices that it describes; or to select from its teaching only what chimes with our contemporary worldview.
John Stott, in The Contemporary Christian (IVP, 1992), helpfully labels these two approaches to any particular cultural practice described or enjoined in the Bible as ‘wooden literalism’ and ‘total rejection’. Thus in the debate about women’s head covering we may claim that it is mandatory – though what Paul had in mind may well have been a veil, certainly not a hat. Even wooden literalists today wouldn’t insist on veils. So, many churches insisted on a hat as the nearest equivalent. (But does a hat these days, or even in the recent past, have the same symbolic association with submission as the veil at the time of the early church in Corinth?)
The opposite view (‘total rejection’) is that now that women and men are equal, the notion of submission is entirely obsolete, and head covering therefore no longer has any relevance. The wearing of hats is purely a matter of style and choice.
But is Paul making a more subtle point? Is there in this a principle that we ought to note? The passage about head-covering comes in the middle of several chapters of teaching about ethics and, particularly, about communal worship. Paul’s main concern is for order and reverence when God’s people meet together. He bases his teaching on some central scriptural principles and on the contemporary context of the Corinthian church. He reminds the Corinthians of the essentials of the gospel, and of their new status in Christ.
‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’, he writes (5:7). With this reference to the yeast-free bread of the Passover meal, Paul reinforces his teaching on discipline in the church. How this teaching is to be worked out in practice is clearly related to the culture into which Paul is writing. Churches, such as ours today, that are open to everyone cannot necessarily exercise discipline in the same way as Paul advocates in 5:4-5. (Still, the verses might remind us of the danger of becoming too tolerant of ongoing sin in our midst, and the need to tackle it.)
A few chapters later, Paul reminds his readers that ‘…there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and through whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live’ (8:6). ‘Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?’ (10:16). These truths had particular implications for Christians who had grown up in a culture of idol worship. Although for most of us today the specific issue is irrelevant, the principles – that God alone is to be worshipped and the Communion has a deep spiritual significance – should still shape our values and behaviour.
‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?… Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own. You were bought with a price’ (6:15, 19-20). Again, the particular issue here is sex with prostitutes, but Paul widens it out to cover all ‘sexual immorality’. We may perhaps argue about what constitutes immorality, but here the cultural arguments hold little water – if I recognise my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, the call to honour God with it applies across the span of centuries and to the many contexts in which Christians finds themselves today.
The teaching of the Bible is our guidebook for living. Its doctrines have inescapable implications, the ethical instruction that flows from them. That ethical instruction is inevitably embedded in the cultures into which it was given, but the principles it embodies are for all time and all cultures.
The examples above illustrate the necessity for the third option, which is known as cultural transposition. Compare Jesus’ two commands to his disciples in John 13: ‘Wash one another’s feet’ (13:14) and ‘Love one another’ (13:34). We need no help in knowing what to do with the second: ‘Love one another’ is an absolute, timeless obligation which applies across all cultures. But what should we do with ‘Wash one another’s feet’?
Wooden literalism says, ‘Make people take off their shoes when they arrive at your house, and perform the ministry of foot-washing’. Total rejection says, ‘This is irrelevant and can be ignored’. Cultural transposition asks, ‘What is the principle that Jesus was illustrating? Humble servanthood? Then how can I express this principle, not only to visitors but to everyone, in a form that is culturally appropriate?’
So we return to head-covering in 1 Corinthians 11. Space allows only three observations. First, this teaching is about appropriateness in communal worship. Second, Paul is refreshingly pragmatic: ‘Judge for yourselves’, he says (11:13); use your common sense. However, third, there appears to be a basic doctrinal principle behind it, the idea of headship (11:3). Scholars debate whether this should be understood in terms of ‘source’ or ‘authority’. Either way, how we can re-express this idea in a form that would have meaning today is the challenge of cultural transposition.
And that is how, in every age and every culture, people can relate to the gospel and seek to apply it to their lives.
Read 1 Corinthians 8:4-13. Identify contemporary issues to which Paul’s teaching might be applied, and reflect – in the context of your own culture – what the appropriate application might be.
Monitor your reactions this week to things you see on television or read on websites or in newspapers and magazines. How far are your responses shaped by ‘wooden literalism’, how far by your acceptance of the values of secular society, and how far by the principles of Scripture?
Most of us have had the experience of driving through the countryside on a bright sunny day, putting on a pair of sunglasses (I refuse to call them ‘shades’), and seeing the landscape transformed. But which is the true picture? We might be inclined to say: that which is perceived by the naked eye. But do all people’s naked eyes see a scene in exactly the same way? Appearance is, after all, simply appearance. Perhaps there is no ‘true picture’.
Similarly, we may be exasperated by someone who, we may say, looks at everything through rose-coloured spectacles – particularly if the object thus looked at is the object of a romantic passion. Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty depends on our perception of it. In this case, both are true, but there is a difference in perception.
Both appearance and perception are conditioned by one’s background. Our personal and family background is an important part of the cultural context within which we all live. This becomes apparent when we look at how people vote in elections. People tend to vote as their family has always voted, or according to their social class. Age also makes a difference, so we can speak of a ‘young adult’ culture as distinct from that of a more ageing population. And in our jobs, one company or school may have a different corporate culture from another: one focusing, perhaps, on community and another on competition.
But, at the other end of the spectrum, we may speak broadly of ‘Western’ culture, distinguishing it, for example, from Chinese, Islamic or Hindu culture. What might be the major presuppositions of contemporary Western culture? The autonomous individual, perhaps; the pursuit of liberty; the equating of the good life with material prosperity; and the deification of ‘progress’ (often attainable only through economic growth). Out of this culture has arisen the overarching desire for prosperity and the lack of restraint in personal and sexual ethics. Other cultures that have retained a stronger belief in authority and the importance of community, on the other hand, may be inclined to stifle freedom of thought and speech and the expression of individuality.
We all read the Bible through spectacles tinted by our own culture. And for Christians that may mean the culture not only of our society but also of our church or denomination. So we have to be aware not only of the cultures represented in the Bible but also of the culture or cultures that have shaped our own understanding. Many Christians in the West will be shaped, to some extent, by a liberal materialist culture; but their church culture may determine their attitude to society, to sexual ethics, to their use of leisure time. It will also influence their understanding of the biblical teaching on such things as church leadership and worship.
As far as we ourselves are concerned, however, we are so much conditioned by our own culture that we often become aware of it only when confronted by a culture that is very different. It’s rather like how we speak: I may think that I simply speak English, but if you speak it differently from me you have ‘an accent’.
The upbringing of children is an interesting example. Shaped by the contemporary understanding of child psychology, the prevailing official view is that corporal punishment should never be used in schools or even in homes. Whenever this issue comes up, the media will seek out Christians who will assert that ‘the Bible says “Spare the rod and spoil the child”’. In fact, this sentence never even appears in the Bible. The nearest to it is Proverbs 23:13-14: ‘Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish they with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.’
This sounds severe indeed. But it is worth noting that the poetic style of Wisdom literature is highly metaphorical. Proverbs of all kinds use specific, concrete language to express ideas. So we do not interpret literally ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ or ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ or ‘a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a thief’ (Proverbs 24:33-34). As an example of the figure of speech known as metonymy, the ‘rod’ is used in the book of Proverbs to represent discipline. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that physical punishment was the primary means of discipline in Old Testament times.
When my husband and I were working in Nigeria in the 1970s, our children went to the university primary school; the ‘naughtiest’ children were sent to the Head Teacher, who made discretionary use of the cane. As the only ‘Western’ member of the Parent/Teacher Association, I had to pass on the views of other expatriate parents to the Head. One European couple had a very disruptive son, who one day received a caning. The mother stirred up other parents against the school, and told me that I must make a complaint. When I raised the issue, a wise Christian member of the staff responded – not to say ‘The Bible says that we should use the rod’, but to explain the school’s policy. In Nigerian families, she said, spanking or beating children was the norm, and no other kind of discipline was taken seriously, but as people became more educated they were realising that it could be harmful and other methods were preferable; but ‘we are not yet ready to ban it’.
The Bible does consistently speak of the importance of discipline, as a means of training as well as an expression of love. We find again in Proverbs: ‘the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in’ (3:12). Paul is delightfully realistic, when he writes to the Ephesians, ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training (‘nurture’, KJV) and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4).
Modern ‘experts’ on the upbringing of children have differed widely on the question of discipline. Dr Benjamin Spock, in his 1946 book Baby and Child Care, advocated minimal discipline, so that children might be formed purely by love, teaching and example. In the spirit of the 1960s many parents took this much further, virtually eschewing discipline altogether. By the 1980s, however, the results of this approach caused Spock to ‘clarify’ his position.
As we read the Bible, therefore, we need to be aware of what there is in our own culture – the general culture, or our own family or church culture – that may prejudice our understanding. Prone as we may be to base our political opinions on those of our parents or our ‘class’, we may naturally agree with biblical passages that affirm strong, just leadership, or, on the other hand, the essential equality and potential of all human beings. We may differ on whether Human Rights is a biblical concept, or at least what those fundamental rights might be. Is there for Christians a ‘right’ answer and a ‘wrong’ answer?
Our contemporary self-indulgent culture inclines us to emphasise the love rather than the righteousness of God. Many contemporary ‘worship’ songs reinforce our individualistic self-regard. No doubt such things are a valuable antidote to the oppressive teaching of an earlier age that was obsessed with sin and judgment, but both extremes misrepresent the teaching of the Bible. How are we to judge between them?
As a book written by humans within particular historical contexts, the Bible is saturated with culture. So, likewise, are the human societies that have evolved throughout the centuries and throughout the world. How we use the Bible both to evaluate our own culture and to guide our behaviour within that culture will be the subject of the next essay.
Read 1 Corinthians 8:4-13. Paul, a Jew, is writing to a newly-established church composed of Jewish and Gentile believers. To the Jews, idol worship was anathema; to the Gentiles, it was a routine observance. What would the issue have been for each group? What conclusion does Paul reach? Reflect on some of the cultural differences we may find in church congregations today (for example, styles of worship, degrees of formality or informality, patterns of leadership). How might these differences be negotiated?
Seek prayerfully to build bridges between the cultures represented in your church, neighbourhood, or workplace, and to make genuine friendships with people different from yourself – whether in age, background or race. Learn to look at things through the eyes of others and judge them from their perspective.
What is culture? Long technical definitions abound, but one of the best I have heard was by Derek Warlock, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool: ‘Culture is the way we do things around here.’ If we still require something a bit more detailed, we may find this helpful:
‘Culture consists of the institutions, technology, art, customs and social patterns that a society evolves. Culture is the context within which every person inevitably lives his or her daily life.’ Leland Ryken, ‘Culture’, in David J. Atkinson and David H. Field (eds.), New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1995), 278.
One of our problems is that the word is often used in a more limited sense, to refer simply to the ‘arts’ – such as music, literature, and the visual arts like painting and sculpture. Thus we speak of someone as ‘cultured’, or even as a ‘culture vulture’ – the kind of person who goes to every exhibition, reads all the latest highly-rated novels, and enjoys nothing more than arty conversation.
It was of, course, God who implanted in human beings the creativity that has enabled them over the centuries to produce wonderful (and, sadly, degenerate) works of art. And we see the exercise of that creativity in the Bible, not only in the Creator himself but in the artists and craftsmen who made the tabernacle (Exodus 35:30-35) and built the temple, the musicians who accompanied the ark (1 Chronicles 15:16, 19-22) and marked the dedication of the temple (2 Chronicles 7:6), and the Psalmists who celebrated God’s creativity in timeless poetry.
Of far broader significance, however, is the understanding of culture as the complete ‘context within which every person inevitably lives his or her daily life’. A fish is totally at home in the water, the medium in which it swims, but it becomes frantic if taken out of that medium. In the same way, Moses, comfortable enough in the desert, might become frantic if translated into 21st-century United Kingdom, or even into 1st-century Jerusalem.
The Bible abounds in cultures. The nomadic, tent-living life of Abraham was different from that of the twelve tribes, newly finding their feet in the promised land, and different again from the court of King Solomon, who ‘was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth’ (1 Kings 10:23). With increasing wealth came increasing urbanisation, and an expanding gulf between rich and poor. In spite of all these changes, however, the people of Israel were governed by a single authority, the law, and held a single implicit worldview.
The proximity of the surrounding nations, however, presented continuous temptations to syncretism. Finally, as the author of 2 Kings reports, they ‘forsook all the commands of the Lord their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshipped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They practised divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, provoking him to anger’ (2 Kings 17:16-17).
God’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel was to deliver them to the Assyrians, who deported many of them and ‘brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites’ (2 Kings 17:24). Over a century later, a similar fate befell the kingdom of Judah at the hands of Babylon. Samaria was never to recover its Jewish identity, and when Persia conquered Babylon, and Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, the people had so far forgotten God’s law that when it was read to them by Ezra it was a revelation to them (Nehemiah 8).
When we come to the New Testament, we find a Jewish culture struggling to hold its own amid the cultures of the new colonising powers, first Greece and then Rome. In the intervening 400 years, the land had been fought over, conquered and reconquered, by neighbouring nations, but the dominant cultural influence was that of Greece. There were some tensions between those Jews who adopted Greek language and culture and those who stuck to Hebrew. Then came the Romans, who with superior might conquered the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. Intermarriages, often diplomatic, diluted the Jewish stock; and Herod, partly Jew, of Idumaean descent, was appointed King of Judea.
That was the situation when Augustus Caesar ordered a census, and when a couple – of impeccable Jewish lineage – travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register. There, Jesus was born. And as we read the gospels, Rome, the colonial power, looms over the narrative. Herod seeks Jesus’ death; the people’s lives are plagued by the ‘publicans’ who collect taxes for the Romans; Jesus, when asked, confirms the inevitable: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’ (Matthew 22:17-21); finally, he is condemned by a Roman procurator and crucified by Roman soldiers. The major contemporary understanding of the long-awaited Messiah was that he would come to deliver Israel from Roman rule; even after the resurrection the apostles asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6).
During the centuries of conquest and exile, Jewish people had scattered all over the eastern Mediterranean and even as far as Rome. But when it was safe to do so many would travel to Jerusalem for the great festivals. Thus, in the year of Jesus’ death there were in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Jews and converts to Judaism from all over the region: ‘Parthians. Medes and Elamites…’ etc. (Acts 2:9-11). When the Holy Spirit was poured out, all of them heard in their own languages of ‘the wonders of God’. I find it intriguing to wonder how the Holy Spirit rendered the same truth intelligible to people of so many different cultures.
In spite of Roman dominance at the time of Christ, the Greek language and culture maintained its sway in the region. Thus, we see early in the history of the church in Jerusalem a consciousness of difference between the Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking Jews (Acts 6:1). Outside Palestine, the Jewish diaspora would almost invariably have been Greek-speaking. As the church spread, the apostles went, in every town they visited, first to the synagogue, but then increasingly to the Gentiles. The Gentile cultures were vastly different from that of the Jews; but the common Greek language was a bridge for the message of the gospel.
The Acts and the epistles must be read with this cultural confluence in mind. The apostles’ message to Jew and Gentile alike was of the saving death and resurrection of Christ, to be appropriated ‘by grace, through faith’ (Ephesians 2:8). To Greeks, we read, the cross was ‘foolishness’, to the Jews a scandal and ‘stumbling-block’ (1 Corinthians 1:23; Galatians 3:13). The resurrection would, among the Jews, be broadly acceptable to the Pharisees, but not to the Sadducees, and among the Greeks it had associations with the old legends of gods coming back to life. The Gentiles were on the whole more ready to embrace the teaching about grace than the stricter Jews, for whom circumcision was the badge of membership (see Acts 15 and Galatians 5:2-6).
Paul was very conscious of cultural differences, as his preaching shows – his addresses to the people of Lystra (Acts 14:11-18) and Athens (Acts 17:22-31) being very different from those to largely Jewish audiences, when he could take for granted a shared knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Acts 2:14-36; 3:13-26; 13:14-41). The issues that the writers of the epistles address indicate, also, how residual cultural beliefs and practices affected the faith and worship of early Christian congregations. One example of this is the Corinthians, steeped in the practices of pagan temple worship and the Greek elevation of wisdom and intellect. Another example is the Colossians, who seem to have been influenced by teaching about the spirit world and perhaps by some early form of Gnosticism, with its emphasis on the subduing of the body.
All of this makes it quite clear that it is impossible to talk about ‘the biblical culture’, as if it was uniform and timeless. Nor can we necessarily say ‘the Bible tells us to do X’, because commands given at one time or in one particular cultural context may not have been applicable in another. Even on a topic where the teaching of Scripture seems to be consistent throughout, we may have to reflect on the cultures within which it was written, and acknowledge that our contemporary culture is so different that we need to rethink its interpretation and application. Examples of this might be slavery and the respective roles of men and women in the church and home.
This – the relevance of our contemporary cultures to our application of Scripture – will be the subject of the next essay.
Read the following verses – about eating and drinking – and reflect on the different cultural circumstances in which they were written, and whether it is possible to derive from these any clear-cut biblical principles that can be appropriate for today:
Go to a museum, explore the internet, or look at a book or magazine that illustrates differing cultures in either ancient or contemporary societies. If possible, take a theme like death or marriage and note the beliefs that lie behind different cultural practices.
What are to make of the innumerable narrative passages in the Bible? They conform to neither of the types of narrative with which we are most familiar – fiction and history.
There is ‘fiction’, of course. The parables are made-up stories. But they are not told for entertainment. They are perhaps somewhere between a fable (like the Hare and the Tortoise, of which the moral is ‘Slow and steady wins the race’) and an allegory, like The Pilgrim’s Progress.
But is there history? That depends on our definition of the term. Nearly half of the Old Testament is narrative. It covers increasingly precise periods of history, and meshes with events verified by other sources. In many places in 1 and 2 Kings, the writer or writers conclude a king’s life with the words, ‘The other events of X’s life are written in the book of the annals of the kings of Israel/Judah’.
The writers were aware of contemporary historiography, but they did not write ‘history’ in the common sense of the word. Rather, their theme was God’s dealings with his people, and their response to their special calling. Nor is the main purpose of biblical narrative to teach doctrine or to model behaviour. Sometimes there are clear lessons to learn, but our judgment must always be based on our understanding of the teaching of Scripture as a whole. We do not need the prophet Nathan’s parable about the ewe lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-4) or Psalm 51 to conclude that David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah was a gross sin. Ambiguous characters like Rahab and Samson are commended in Hebrews 11 for their faith, not their morality. But both were highly significant in the working out of God’s purposes.
So should we ever treat Old Testament characters as examples to follow? Or do they carry no more weight for Christians than any other characters in literature or history?
I am reminded of a young Scripture Union worker in Africa who, being very short of visual aids, used to borrow films of Shakespeare’s plays from the British Council library. Stopping at the point where Lady Macbeth finally persuades her husband to murder the king, he said, ‘So you see what happens when a man listens to his wife’. Faulty interpretation, we might say – Shakespeare doesn’t lay the main blame on the wife, but explores the growth of evil in Macbeth himself. There are plenty of lessons that we can legitimately learn from this example.
Is there, then, any difference between Macbeth’s situation and that of Ahab (1 Kings 16-21)? Both men were led into deeper evil by their wives. Is it legitimate to draw such lessons from these stories?
We learn that the wife was wicked and the husband weak, and both share the guilt. But there is far more to the biblical story than that. Jezebel, we read, was the daughter of a Canaanite king, worshipper of Baal. Ahab, king of Israel, was responsible to God for the spiritual welfare of a whole nation. Even before he was corrupted by Jezebel he was already set on evil, and in marrying her he was directly flouting God’s law. As if the law was not enough, Elijah comes on the scene to denounce Ahab’s actions. God’s perspective pervades the whole account.
It’s strange that, in the sorry roll-call of Israelite kings who ‘did evil in the eyes of the Lord’, Ahab’s reign is singled out for extensive treatment, marked by prophetic interventions and a flurry of miracles. Perhaps this was because things had got so bad that there was a real danger that the distinctiveness of Israel as God’s chosen people might be totally submerged. God’s direct intervention, in prophecy and miracle, pulls the nation back from the brink. We can’t be sure. But we can be sure that we should not extrapolate from this one story supernatural provision, fire from heaven or the death of God’s enemies. Sometimes God did act in this way; often he didn’t. What we can conclude, however, is that sin matters to God, that he cares deeply about his people and that he acts in fulfilment of his own long-term purposes.
The story of Jephthah in Judges 11-12 is far more ambiguous. Presented as a heroic deliverer, carrying out God’s purpose, he is not to be seen as a model, an example to follow. His proud vow that he would sacrifice the first living thing to come out of his house when he returned triumphant rebounded on him and his family. The Bible doesn’t imply that he was right to keep his vow and sacrifice his daughter. Indeed, it simply describes the event.
This is one of the main points about biblical narrative. It is descriptive, not prescriptive, not normative. Few of us, when appointing a new church elder, would follow the apostles’ practice of drawing lots for a twelfth apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1:23-26); though many a sermon has been based on the assumption that Luke’s description of the early church in the next chapter (2:42-46) is a model for the church in every age. How can we tell?
We can’t be purely arbitrary, rejecting the first and imitating the second. We should start, rather, by recognising that since both these passages are descriptive, they are not necessarily intended to be normative. Then we can judge them by other criteria. Nowhere does the New Testament recommend the drawing of lots in choosing people for important positions. We don’t know why the apostles did it then, but they used a different method when appointing seven helpers for the distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:2-6). In both cases prayer was the key, but the processes were different. Our reading of the New Testament does show us, on the other hand, that the activities described in Acts 2 were taught as key elements of the life of the early church. It is not, however, an exhaustive list (no mention is made of worship, for example). Would that all our churches were thus filled with the Spirit – but this description is not necessarily a blueprint for all time.
Our understanding of the Old Testament narratives is enriched when we see how their events are also highly significant as ‘types’. In Isaiah 43, the prophet uses the Exodus (43:16-17), as a type or model, as he prophesies the return from Exile: ‘I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland’ (43:19), and ‘When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you’ (43:2). Similarly, the writers of the epistles use the events of the old dispensation as means of understanding the new: hence, the gospel is presented as a new creation, a new exodus, a new return from exile.
And it’s not only the events but also the people that are understood as types. Paul, in Romans 5:12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, presents Adam as the type, of whom Jesus is the ‘antitype’ (though here the parallel is one of contrast rather than similarity): ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.’ Jesus is also the antitype of Moses (as prophet), Aaron (as priest) and David (as king).
As we come to the gospels, an awareness of the authors’ purpose explains many of the discrepancies that critics sometimes point out. John makes that purpose explicit:
‘Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not included in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (20:30-31). This throws light on the authors’ approach, their selection of what to include, and disparities in the chronology of events. In some cases, however, it may be simply that they didn’t all know the same things, or that they interpreted them differently. This only undermines our confidence in the inspiration of these texts if we are looking for strict historical accuracy.
God is the hero of the Old Testament narratives, Jesus the hero of the New. Our God, working in history and presented to us through vivid and personal narrative, comes across to us in the pages of Scripture as one who is deeply involved in the world and deeply concerned for his people. The unfolding story of the Bible provides the context and significance of the incarnation and saving work of Christ, and enables us to understand our place in God’s ongoing purposes for the world.
Read Romans 5:12-18. Reflect on the similarities and differences between Adam and Jesus. Respond in prayer.
On a day when a significant event has happened, buy two or more contrasting newspapers, such as The Sun and The Guardian, and see how they report the event. Try to identify the viewpoint, bias and purpose of the journalist. If possible, discuss your findings with someone else.
A minor character in one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels is Mr Quiverful, a struggling 19th-century clergyman with twelve children. What a strange name, we may think. But a knowledge of the Psalms will remind us of one of the expressions of the Lord’s blessing:
‘Children are a heritage from the LORD,
offspring [literally: the fruit of the womb] a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.’ (Psalm 127:3-5)
The image of the quiver is explained by verse 4, in which sons are compared to arrows in the hands of a warrior. So a quiverful represents a goodly number, as many as a man might need. But so many other questions are raised by these verses. Why are sons compared to arrows? Does this simile have any meaning for us today? What about daughters? Is it more blessed to have your children while you are young? Is the use of the word ‘heritage’ meant in a purely biological sense? If children are a reward, does this mean that the childless have in some way displeased God? Does God think of children purely from the point of view of the parents (that is to say, their fathers)? Do children have no worth in themselves?
The first answer to any such questions as these is that we must be careful not to make sweeping statements about ‘the biblical view’, let alone ‘God’s view’, on the basis of a single verse or passage of Scripture. The biblical view, where there is such a thing, is usually nuanced, perhaps not as clear-cut as we might wish. We must take account of the many other things that the Bible says on a topic before reaching our conclusions.
As we look at these verses from Psalm 127, there are significant cultural points to consider. In both Old and New Testaments, a human being is called a man, followed by the pronoun he. Until recently, our own culture has done the same. Some women take this purely as a cultural convention; others feel demeaned by it. Hence, the more-recent ‘inclusive language’ translations of the Bible.
In many cultures, even today, a man’s status is largely enhanced by the number of his children, particularly sons. The children are also seen as extra help in the house and on the farm, and as their parents’ insurance policy against penury in old age. Many of the Psalms were written in times of great instability, when the people of Israel were under constant threat of attack. So the image of the warrior signifies strength and security – universal concerns, though we would not express them in the same way. Sons born to a young man, still active in war, represented reinforcements and additional security.
For all these reasons, children were seen as a blessing; but Trollope’s poor Mr Quiverful seems to have found his children more burden than blessing. Nowadays, social security and contraception have changed the picture yet again.
An important issue that applies to our interpretation of Scripture, and indeed to all verbal communication, is how to understand and apply figurative language. Why, we may wonder, do we complicate communication by using picture language – metaphors and similes – rather than simply saying straightforwardly what we mean? It’s not as simple as that. Indeed, the function of imagery is to clarify, not to obscure, meaning. Familiar images help us to grasp the unfamiliar, concrete images illuminate the abstract. ‘She’s catty’, we say; ‘he’s like a snake in the grass’. A passage of prose writing may be described as ‘purple’, a piece of music in terms of light and shade. We get splitting headaches, pins and needles, a stinking cold. A course of action may have pitfalls, a political ideology be a recipe for disaster. The Lord is portrayed as a father, a shepherd, a light, a rock; the church as a family, a body, a building.
George Orwell, in an essay entitled ‘Politics and the English Language’, quoted a verse from the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11, King James Version). He then translated this into what he called ‘modern English of the worst sort’: ‘Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.’
We all recognise the style of Orwell’s parody: we hear it from politicians, read it in official documents and wring our hands over it in despair when all we want is to understand (and incidentally that phrase wring our hands is, of course, figurative). We don’t have to analyse the images in Ecclesiastes to understand exactly what the writer is getting at.
Going back to Psalm 127, we see two parallel statements in verse 3:
‘Children are a heritage from the LORD,
offspring a reward from him.’
This kind of parallelism is an essential characteristic of Hebrew poetry. In this case, the second clause says virtually the same as the first. We are not expected to analyse the differences, but rather to grasp the point: that children are a blessing from God. Among innumerable similar examples, here is one from Psalm 126:
‘Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.’ (Psalm 126:5-6)
In other instances, the parallel clauses may express a contrast. Thus, the writer sums up at the end of Psalm 1:
‘For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.’ (Psalm 1:6)
Or the second clause adds a further idea:
‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.’ (Psalm 84:5)
A further example of figurative language, much used in Scripture, is hyperbole – exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. We use hyperbole all the time in our everyday speech. ‘You said the supermarket was just round the corner, but it’s miles away’ (both statements, no doubt, hyperbolic). Because we believe that the Bible is true, we hesitate to accuse it of exaggeration; but hyperbole is intended to emphasise, not to deceive.
After the young, inexperienced David had killed Goliath, the women came out celebrating. ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’, they sang (1 Samuel 18:7). Solomon was unmatched in wisdom and wealth, and ‘the whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart’ (1 Kings 10:24). Jesus habitually used hyperbole. Did he mean it literally when he said, ‘If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away’ (Matthew 5:29)? Or ‘Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much’ (Matthew 19:29)?
We always have to be open to the possibility that we may be interpreting as literal things that are intended to be understood figuratively. The fact that something is expressed figuratively doesn’t make it untrue. If a mother says to her child ‘I could eat you up’, the love is genuine even though the expression is not intended literally.
One of our great obsessions today is with the interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis. The structure, particularly of chapter 1, might suggest that the writer has adopted a literary form and style that his contemporaries would have recognised as ‘poetic’. We, who do not necessarily recognise the form, may miss this clue. We may think that it is only in the past century or two that people have presumed to question the literal interpretation of the creation narrative, and may be surprised that the 2nd-century theologian Origen wrote: ‘Who could be found as silly as to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, “planted trees in a paradise eastward in Eden”? And when God is said to “walk in the paradise in the evening”… I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history.’
This may give us food for thought. The theological truth of the creation narrative remains intact, whether we read the text literally or figuratively. Job is another book whose narrative structure may suggest that it is a literary composition. The body of the book is framed by chapters that look like the prologue and epilogue of a medieval mystery play: a dramatic embodiment of the age-long battle between good and evil. We must not necessarily from this derive a belief that God literally hands over a virtuous man to Satan in response to a childish provocation. The main purpose of the book, with its soaring poetry, is, rather, to challenge the reader: When suffering comes, how will we respond to it?
Recognising figurative language is not a slippery slope that leads to a denial of the authority of Scripture. Rather, it liberates us to explore God’s revelation in greater breadth and depth.
Almost every verse of the book of Proverbs uses parallelism, sometimes for reinforcement, sometimes for contrast, and sometimes for adding a further idea. Read Proverbs 16:16-22 and consider the function of the parallel statements. Reflect on the application of verses 16, 18 and 19 in your own life and culture.
As you go through the day, look out for, and reflect on, examples of figurative language in other people’s conversation (and your own), and in advertisements, newspaper headlines and articles.
‘Half a league, half a league, half a league onward,
Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.’
‘600 cavalrymen massacred in attack.’
‘Here lies James Brown, 1830-1854.
Killed in action November 1854.
Three different records of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War – a poem by Tennyson, a newspaper headline, and a tombstone inscription. A single event captured in three styles of writing. One records the bare facts, one gives a dramatic, atmospheric description, and one commemorates an individual.
In Exodus 14:27, we read: ‘Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing towards it, and the Lord swept them into the sea.’ This straightforward account contrasts with the exultant song of Moses and Miriam:
‘The enemy boasted,
“I will pursue, I will overtake them.
I will divide the spoils;
I will gorge myself on them…”
But you blew with your breath,
and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead
in the mighty waters.’ (Exodus 15:9-10)
The psalmist places the same event in the context of the Israelites’ subsequent faithlessness:
‘The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
Then they believed his promises
and sang his praise.
But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.’ (Psalm 106:11-13)
And it reappears in the argument of the letter to the Hebrews: ‘By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned’ (11:29). This great escape was accomplished through faith; but, the writer argues, none of the Old Testament heroes of faith ‘received what had been promised’. Why? Because ‘God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect’ (11:39-40).
Again, a single event, treated differently, at different times, in different styles and for different purposes.
The Bible contains 66 books, written over a period of 1,000 years by writers of different backgrounds, different experiences and different personalities, and for various purposes. Their overall purpose, of course, is the same – to explore the majestic theme of God’s dealings with humankind. But their individual callings and specific reasons for writing differ vastly, as do the forms and styles in which they wrote.
Among the many types of literature in the Bible we may list: narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverbs, law, gospel, parable, letters, and apocalyptic. It is this variety that makes the Bible such a rich and rounded book. It speaks to our minds and our hearts. In a sense, it reflects the nature of the gospel itself, the many-faceted mystery of the Word made flesh. This we must always keep in view. The Word of God to us does not consist of dry propositions and categorical commands. Rather, it is God’s self-revelation to humankind, presented to us in various forms.
Sixteen of the books consist entirely of prophecy, and prophecy appears in many other books also. This is one of the most complex and controversial genres in the Bible. Our first problem, perhaps, is that we tend to think of prophecy simply as prediction of the future. That is how the word is commonly used in everyday parlance. Speaking to Moses, the Lord described the role of a prophet: ‘I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell [the people] everything I command him’ (Deuteronomy 18:18). Indeed, when Moses died, his epitaph was: ‘Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’ (Deuteronomy 34:10). So all the precise and systematic commands in the Pentateuch – whether or not actually through Moses himself – may be regarded as ‘prophetic’.
The role of the prophet was to speak to the people on God’s behalf. ‘Thus says the Lord’, they cry; ‘this is what the Lord says’. Most of what the Lord says in the Old Testament is self-revelation, encouragement and warning. God’s revelation of his character, and his love and concern for his people are, of course, of universal validity. How his character and his concern for his people will play out in practice differ hugely from one generation and situation to another.
This is one of the problems we face when reading prophecy: how much of this can we apply directly to ourselves? How far may we reinterpret it into our own circumstances? Or does a certain passage have nothing to say to us at all?
The biblical prophets speak first and foremost to the people of their day. Warnings of judgment were spoken to those who were disobedient, who worshipped idols, who cared primarily for themselves while neglecting and abusing the weak and the poor. Promises of deliverance were spoken to those in captivity, to urge them to remain faithful to God, and assure them that they were not forgotten, and that God’s promised blessing to them would be fulfilled.
The Lord spoke to the people of Israel in captivity through Ezekiel: ‘I will bring you from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered – with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath’ (20:34). The specific reference to the historical context here is unmistakable.
The more specific a prophecy seems, the more likely it is to have a specific historical reference. It would be very unwise to try to wrest a ‘word from the Lord for me today’ out of such verses. Would any of us, for example, take to ourselves Jesus’ prophetic words to Peter: ‘Before the cock crows, you will disown me three times’ (John 13:38)?
Many of the Old Testament prophecies do, however, have two or three layers of application. The famous ‘Christmas’ text – ‘the virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son’ (Isaiah 7:14) is followed two verses later with ‘Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste’. The ‘Servant songs’ throughout Isaiah 42 to 53 similarly look in two directions. In some, the servant is Israel, in others it is a messianic figure, and in others again it seems to be both. Another example is Ezekiel 37:1-14. The prophecy of the valley of dry bones uses resurrection language, which points to the very end of the age; but its immediate reference is to the return of the people of Israel from captivity in Babylon in the 6th century BC.
Most prophecy is written in poetic form. And this creates further questions for the reader. The interpretation of poetic forms and figurative language is the subject of the next essay in this series.
That prediction was always perceived as a part of prophecy is evident from Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 18:21-22: ‘You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.’ Most predictive prophecy, of course, can only be evaluated some time after it is given. Indeed, some of it will never be verifiable until the time comes when we shall know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). In the meantime, we need to use our common sense, humbly acknowledging the limitations of our understanding.
And the apocalyptic prophecies (often concerning the end times) are also highly symbolic. Deep divisions within the church have arisen over the centuries about the manner, timing and chronology of Christ’s return. Scripture is not concerned with these matters: rather, the Lord speaks through the prophets to encourage and warn people and to urge them to be steadfast and watchful.
What kind of literature is this? is one of the key questions we must ask ourselves as we read the Bible. This is more a matter of common sense than of academic literary criticism. Learning to ask questions of the biblical text is the key to the front door.
Read Psalm 95:7b-11, Matthew 7:24-27, and James 2:14-18. Reflect on the similarities and differences between the passages, including the literary form in which they are written. How do the different forms contribute to the writer’s purpose?
Watch a variety of programmes on television (perhaps a soap, reality TV, the news, a ‘docudrama’ and a documentary), and ask yourself, or discuss with family or friends, how the format is used to present a theme, and what the purpose (or agenda) is behind it.
One of the great losses of our generation, it seems to me, is a loss of a sense of history. It’s not simply that we don’t learn from the lessons of the past, but that we don’t know enough about the past to learn lessons from it. Nor do we have a strong enough sense of history to be able to make sense of our present situations and experiences.
The seemingly haphazard teaching of history in schools, with its focus on periods and events (often selected because of their perceived relevance to contemporary issues) fails to give us the perspective that might enable us to make informed judgments. Indeed, ignorance of – or disregard for – history is one of the main causes of the West’s recent disastrous misjudgments of the situations in the Gulf, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Throughout the centuries, a people’s history has been inseparable from their identity – identity as individuals and as members of a community or nation. In the Ashanti area of Ghana, for example, a formal occasion in the presence of the king (the Asantehene) will begin with the praise singers recounting the great events and deeds of the heroes of the past. This reminds the listeners that they are heirs of a great past and trustees of a great future.
This issue of identity has become acute in Britain today. While the Welsh and the Scots have a strong sense of who they are, the English flounder with little sense of self. This is sometimes attributed to England’s loss of its Empire, but part of the problem is that English history in schools was taught very much in terms of Empire and the achievements of the white Anglo-Saxon race. Little attention has been paid to successive waves of immigration and England’s tolerant absorption over the centuries of people of other races and cultures. In such a multiracial society this is part of the history that we should celebrate; this is the history that might defuse the new xenophobia in Britain and establish a new concept of ‘Englishness’ – so that all can understand who they are and how they belong.
For the Jewish people, their history is inseparable from their identity. To recognise this helps us to understand the current situation in the Middle East. It also helps us to understand the Bible.The great events recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament to Christians) are to this day rehearsed on communal occasions. The constant refrain, at celebrations and in prayers, is ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning’ (see Psalm 137:5). On the Sabbath eve, two loaves of bread are broken to symbolise the double portion of manna that the Israelites were given every Friday in the wilderness. The father blesses his daughters: ‘May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah…’ Perhaps most significantly of all, the annual Passover recalls the deliverance of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Unleavened bread is eaten, and bitter herbs. And the Hagada is recited: ‘in prose and verse – sometimes spoken, sometimes sung – we tell the evergreen story of the Exodus’ (Moshe Davis, I Am a Jew).
As we read the New Testament, we see how the past history of the Jewish people informed the understanding of, and provided the imagery for, the writers of the gospels and epistles. The first few chapters of John’s gospel illustrate this well. ‘The law was given through Moses’, John writes, ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (1:17). Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up’ (3:14). Again, in chapter 4, John tells of how Jesus, travelling through Samaria, came to a town ‘called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus… sat down by the well’ (John 4:4-6). When Jesus got into conversation with a Samaritan woman and offered her ‘living water’, her reply was, ‘Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself?’ (John 4:12). Interestingly, the shared ancestry of Jew and Samaritan formed a critical part of the Samaritans’ identity.
As Jewish followers of Jesus recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah they came to appreciate the continuity of the old story in a new way. It was as if, to them, the great river of God’s purposes took a new turn, and began to flow in a new channel. They were still Abraham’s heirs, inheritors of the Old Testament promises, still God’s covenant people, though now of the ‘new covenant’ not the old covenant (see Hebrews 8:6-13). ‘But now’, Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’ (3:21-22).
That phrase ‘all who believe’ is critical to Paul’s argument. Not only, he was saying, were believing Jews justified by faith in Christ (Romans 5:1), Gentiles who believed were justified too, and also became inheritors of the whole Old Testament story. ‘For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him’ (Romans 10:12). Illustrating this, Paul used the striking image of an olive tree (a familiar Old Testament metaphor for Israel; see, for example, Jeremiah 11:16): ‘If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root… you do not support the root, but the root supports you’ (Romans 11:17-18).
So where does this leave us, Christians (mostly Gentile) in the 21st century? We too are children of Abraham, God’s covenant people, children and heirs of God (Romans 8:15-17).
Children of God – that is our identity. Living in an age of ‘identity crisis’, when the shifting sands of our culture, helped by self-help gurus of all stripes, are creating deep uncertainties about who (or even what) we are and why we are here, we are seeking firm ground on which to stand. But just as ‘Englishness’ is only skin-deep if it depends on nothing more significant than a father, a birthplace or a passport, so being a child of God means little if divorced from the history of God’s people.
It is not only so that we may understand better the character and purposes of God that we need to understand biblical history. It is also so that we may understand ourselves, and, crucially, our place in those purposes. We are not spectators at the drama of God’s unfolding purposes: we are actors in it. We are part of a history in which each of us has a part to play.
This is rather what Paul meant when he wrote of what it means to be God’s heirs (Romans 8:17). We do indeed inherit the blessings, and many of our churches today encourage us to recognise, appropriate and rejoice in those blessings. But if we are truly identified with Jesus, we are also privileged to ‘share in his sufferings’ (see Philippians 3:10) – whatever that may mean in our own circumstances. Identification implies a complete submission to Jesus of our whole lives, just as actors, when on the stage, lose themselves in their roles. But we can look forward also to sharing in his glory. So whatever part we may have been called on to play in God’s unfolding drama, we shall be there at the grand finale.
In the meantime, we might say that we have come onto the stage in Act 4. In many of the great classical five-act plays, the key dramatic event takes place in Act 3. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, the assassination of Caesar happens in Act 3. The rest of the play (sometimes called the denouement) tracks the outcomes of the central event, until some kind of resolution is reached. In God’s drama, the Act 3 happening is, of course, the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Act 4 (a long act) is the history of the church. In order to understand Act 5 (which is what we sometimes call the Last Things), we need to follow the unfolding of Act 4.
So we need to have a grasp not only of biblical history but also of church history. What has happened during the past 2000 years? What issues has the church faced? How were they resolved? What lessons have been learned? What lessons have been ignored? Just as in politics, we should not make up policy as if in a time-bubble, but learn from the wealth of experience of those who have gone before, as God’s story continues to unfold.
God’s story is mine, too. This is my identity.
‘Whatever part we may have been called on to play in God’s unfolding drama, we shall be there at the grand finale.’ Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. How does this passage affirm our significance in God’s drama? Reflect on the implications of being an ambassador, and how you feel the Lord wants you to play to your part.
In conversation with a colleague or friend, seek to find out more about their background and past history in order to understand them better. Be willing, reciprocally, to open up about your own life. At the same time pray for them, that the Lord will bless the greater intimacy that grows between you.
In February 2008, Dr Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a lecture to lawyers at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Its title was ‘Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective’. Towards the end of a carefully developed discussion about the place of law in a pluralist society, he said that ‘a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters’ seems ‘unavoidable’. This was picked up by the media, and presented as a recommendation that certain aspects of Sharia law be authorised for the Muslim population in Britain.
Newspapers have a habit of taking out of context a single phrase or sentence from a politician’s speech. From this they may paint highly misleading pictures that do not represent the speaker’s intention or opinion. Sometimes this may be done deliberately, in order to discredit the politician or the party. Sometimes it is irresponsible rather than malicious – the newspapers love sensational headlines. In either case, though, it hinders the pursuit of clarity and truth.
Rowan Williams’s comments needed to be read in the context of his complete argument. It would then have been seen as an observation, not as a recommendation. And the full lecture made it clear that only a very limited application of Sharia in Britain could ever be permitted, subject to stringent safeguards. In all cases, moreover, it would be subordinate to the laws of the land.
Much the same applies to our understanding of the Bible. Every verse, every book, is part of a larger unit – the Bible as a whole. The context in which a book was written, and the purpose for which it was written, have a large influence on how it should be interpreted. And one part of it may be amplified, clarified or modified by another.
Many different principles come into play here – but perhaps the most fundamental is that the Bible unfolds a progressive revelation. Just as we see the people of God develop from a small nomadic tribal group in the 3rd millennium BC into the worldwide church portrayed in the book of Revelation, so God’s purposes, and our understanding of his character, unfold through the pages of Scripture.
The watershed, of course, is the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the one to whom the whole Old Testament looked forward, and around whom the whole New Testament revolves. The first two verses of the letter to the Hebrews make this very clear: ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.’
Martin Luther referred to the Old Testament as ‘the cradle of Christ’. Even more memorable, perhaps, is the saying of Augustine, commonly translated like this:
‘The New is in the Old concealed;
The Old is in the New revealed.’
God’s great story begins with the dramatic account of creation. However we interpret the first chapters of Genesis, the Bible is clear that God created the world, and that he did so for a purpose. In the lavish display of his creative power, he made intelligent beings, capable of living in relationship with him. The great tragedy told by the Bible is that human beings broke that relationship, by setting their wills in opposition to God’s will. The consequences of that disobedience work their way out through the pages of Scripture.
But alongside the universal and pervasive effects of sin, we see the working out of God’s plan for restoring the severed relationship. Choosing one man, Abraham, God promises him descendants who will become a special nation, who will acquire their own land and become a blessing to the rest of humankind.
Within a few generations, however, Abraham’s descendants find themselves in enslavement and captivity in Egypt. The Great Escape, known as the Exodus (literally a ‘going out’), after the inauguration of the symbolic meal of the Passover, takes the people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the desert, to Mount Sinai where God gives them the Law, and eventually to Canaan – the ‘promised land’. The images of captivity, Passover, Exodus, the desert, Sinai and the land recur throughout the Bible as symbols of God’s redeeming activity.
The incarnation, ministry and redemptive work of Jesus, however, bring a new understanding to these old themes. Things that in the Old Testament apply explicitly to the people of Israel take on different forms in the New Testament when applied to the church.
The theme of the Exodus, for example, starts with a specific event, at a particular place and time. As the Old Testament develops, the theme is used in many ways. The event is constantly recalled, generally for two main purposes: to reaffirm the Israelites’ confidence that they are the chosen people of God, as at Solomon’s dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8:16 and 53; and to warn them not to take his favour for granted, as in many passages in the prophecy of Jeremiah (such as 7:22-26; 11:7-8).
This image becomes particularly potent when the people are in captivity in Babylon, and the prophets use Exodus imagery, as in Jeremiah 31:16-17: ‘“They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descedants” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land.”’
In the New Testament, the image is constantly used, explicitly as in 1 Corinthians 5:7: ‘For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed’, and in the direct comparisons between Moses and Christ in Hebrews 3-4; or implicitly as in the 40 days of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). It is clear, however, that Jesus and the New Testament writers saw the continuing significance of the event not in terms of political or physical deliverance but in terms of deliverance from sin and its consequences, and the new life that Jesus won for his people.
Some Latin-American theologians of the mid-20th century, seeing their people trapped in poverty and impotence, looked back to the Exodus as their inspiration for a Theology of Liberation. One of the problems with using the Exodus to inspire a liberation struggle, however, is the fact that the heart of the Exodus account is God’s initiative and sovereign overruling of events, rather than a revolt by the enslaved Israelites (for which there is no biblical evidence). This is not to say that the Exodus account has no relevance to oppressed people today – indeed it is relevant in many respects – but that it cannot legitimately be used to justify an armed struggle.
By contrast, however, the Old Testament emphasis on the land does not appear to carry over into the New Testament era. To the Israelites the land was a powerful symbol of stability and security – the promise and subsequent possession of the land is one of the main themes of the Old Testament. To the early church, however, which so rapidly spread beyond the land and people of Israel into neighbouring countries and among different nationalities, land had little significance. In the Old Testament, the notion of kingship was inextricably bound up with the land. Jesus’ teaching, however, focused on the kingdom of God, and had nothing to do with territory or temporal power. The kingdom, rather, was the sphere in which God’s authority was acknowledged.
So what are we to make of all the Old Testament promises about the land? First of all, there is no clear warrant in the New Testament for the belief that part of God’s redemptive purposes is that the Jewish people should reoccupy the promised land. Old Testament promises have to be filtered through the gospel, through the redefinition and enlargement of the people of God, no longer exclusively as the people of Israel but as all who acknowledge the lordship of Christ – that is, to the church, in every country in the world. See, for example, the reinterpretation of Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3-4.
So are these promises of any application to the church? Do we have any right to claim them? Let’s look for a moment at 2 Chronicles 7:14: ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.’ It may be tempting to claim this promise of the healing of the land for our own countries in the 21st century. But the contemporary nation-state is not in any way comparable to the promised land. On the other hand, there are significant principles embedded in this promise – that God always hears the prayers of his people who are called by his name, and that he will pour out his blessing on the church in response to their repentance and humble seeking after him.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews presents Christians as pilgrims, travelling to another country. Referring to the Old Testament people of faith, he writes: ‘If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (11:15-16). So the Old Testament imagery of exodus and land has life in it yet. Christians are travelling, throughout their lives, through desert places, looking forward to the rest and security of our ultimate destination, in the new Jerusalem on the new earth.
Remembering the Exodus, meditate on this great hymn:
Guide me O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer,
Be thou still my strength and shield;
Be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bit my anxious fears subside:
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side:
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee;
I will ever give to thee.
Although there are no references to Christ and his work in this hymn, reflect on how the event of the Exodus and the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness symbolises salvation and the ongoing pilgrimage of the Christian life.
In your own church fellowship look out for those whose race, colour, class and gender are different from yours. Seek to make friendships based on our oneness in Christ, and seek to broaden the membership of your home group and social circle.
Stay up-to-date with LICC's latest news, events, videos and resources, plus enjoy our short weekly biblical reflections (Word for the Week) and blogs on faith and current events (Connecting with Culture).