Reading the Scripture

These are the instruction notes from the first in a series of lessons entitled Lessons in Biblical Exegesis.

Reading the Scripture

Believers are persistently told to read their Bibles. While there is no doubt much is to be gained from this exercise, a plain reading of the Bible ignores several indisputable facts:

1) The text that we read is translated from languages foreign to our own. The Old Testament was originally authored mostly in Hebrew with a tiny portion written in Aramaic (Ezra 4:8-6:18 and  Daniel 2: 4b-7:28). The New Testament is mostly translated from Greek, though there is growing evidence that the authors, being primarily Jewish, authored the original text in Hebrew.

2) The text of the Bible is, at a minimum, almost 2000 years old. It was authored in a cultural and historical environment vastly different from our own.

3) The text of the Bible has over 200 different figures of speech, most of which are not visible to those unfamiliar with the language(s) of the original authors.

4) Because we are thousands of years removed from the period in which the books of the Bible were authored, there has been an abundance of time for errors in transmission, either due to scribal errors or deliberate deletions or insertions into the text.

In essence, when we sit down to read our Bibles as we are encouraged to do, there’s a good chance that we have very little actual idea about what we’re reading, much less what it means. At a minimum, there’s a lot that we’re missing in the text. To realize this humbles us tremendously.

           Starting from this very humble position, we need to re-examine how we read the Biblical text. A question arises: why is this relevant? The answer is simply this: if we hold that the Biblical text was given to its authors by the Spirit of God, then grasping as exactly as possible what was given to those original authors is of paramount importance. Many proclaim what they say, and even themselves, as “Biblical.” It is a great virtue of Christians, perhaps their greatest virtue, that they earnestly seek the meaning of the Biblical text.  Yet, a person who has little knowledge of the culture into which the text was given, or who has little knowledge of the historical circumstances of the people to which the text was given, or who has little knowledge of the meaning of the words in their original languages, and most of all, who has little knowledge of the literary arrangements (figures of speech) used by those authors, has little claim to call what he proclaims “Biblical.”

 

Three Types of Readers

In ancient Israel, education was almost 100% centered on the Scripture. A child at the age of five entered a Bet Sefer (House of the Book).  It was there that the TaNaK–the acronym for Torah (Instruction), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Kethuv’im (Writings) was committed to memory.   When the child reached the age of thirteen, he went to a Bet Midrash (House of Interpretation). It was there that he would study under a sopher (scribe) and would learn interpretations of the text from a point of view other than his own. Finally, at the age of thirty or so, some would move on to instruction under a teacher with s’mikah, one who had authority to interpret Scripture. They became talmidim (disciples) under that teacher, emulating the teacher both in word and deed, and becoming so much like the teacher that when someone saw them, they saw the teacher in them. This also applied to their mastery of Scripture. A few in each generation would progress to being seen as able to interpret Scripture on their own, just like their teacher.

Modern readers of Scripture fall into groups along the same lines. One group commits portions of the text to memory. This is not to say that they memorize entire passages, or even books, such as the ancient  Israelites did. Rather, they memorize verses spread across the books of the Bible. They are verse memorizers. This type of reading is learned as a child. Sunday schools teach this. It’s cute to see a child practice this. However, it’s often a reading style that carries over into adulthood. It’s not ” cute” when an adult comes to the conclusion that a verse “means what it means” absent any consideration of cultural, historical or literary context. And it becomes very misleading when someone tries to prove a point by jumping from verse to verse, book to book and author to author without examining the meaning of each verse in its context along the way.

A second type of reader is one who relies exclusively on others to explain the meaning of the text. This would correspond, in the ancient example, to the students in the Bet Midrash. It is not uncommon for any reader of Scripture to interact with others about the meaning of the text. Even the ancient Jewish sages–men highly skilled in the interpretation of Scripture–had vibrant discussions over the meaning of the text. Christians today regularly compare views over what the Scripture means. There is nothing inherently wrong with conferring with preachers, teachers or even peers in the search for meaning. However, a person who is completely reliant on the opinions of others is a person who has no capacity to discern for himself what he has read. He can be tossed from one opinion to the next depending on who he talks to.

There is a subtle offshoot of this type of reader in which persons become 100% reliant on translations in their native tongue. Translators regularly interpret the text for the reader and the reader is none the wiser because he lacks any knowledge of the original language in which the text was written. One need not be fluent in the original language in order to discern the meaning of the text. However, one needs the proper tools to crosscheck the translation against the Hebrew and Greek text on which the translation is based.

Finally, there is a type of reader that is equipped with the tools to be able to read and interpret the text on his own. This type of reader would approach in competency those among the ancient Jews considered to have s’mikah, meaning authority. This reader would have the ability to identify the context of passages, decoding the meaning of the text according to its literary arrangement, the impact cultural/historical factors as well as the ability to cross-reference the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek text from which his reading is translated.

It’s the third type of reader that we’re seeking to mold by this training.

Rules of Thumb

From this understanding emerges several “rules of thumb” when reading Scripture.

1) Always look at the text before and after a verse or passage before articulating the meaning of the verse or passage at hand. This may involve looking at several verses before and after the verse/passage being studied, and may even extend to text across several passages or even chapters. Chapters, and even verse numbers, are only there for our convenience. They did not exist in the original writings which were written as continuous text. Chapter and verse divisions did not appear until the 13th and 16th century A.D. respectively.

2) Always ask the question: Why is this text located here? Discern, by this, the context. The text did not assemble itself accidentally. Rather, it is assembled purposefully.

3) Always look for parallelisms in the text. This is the first step toward discerning the literary structure of the text. A parallelism displays a relationship of two or more lines/verses of text to each other. Thoughts, and often but not always, words, repeat, sometimes in the same way–a synonymous parallelism; other times in a contrasting way–an antithetical parallelism; other times the second line or verse reinforces/adds to the first or explains the who, what, where, why, or how of the first–a synthetic parallelism. Parallelisms are the building blocks of another important literary structure: the chiasm. Ancient Hebrews loved using parallelisms and chiasms .

4) Rely on a translation if we must, but always crosscheck it against the Hebrew or Greek text.

5) Always allow the text to say what it wishes to say, even if it appears to conflict with a firmly-held theological precept, or with a tradition. Not all text affirms every theological precept.

Application

We now look to apply these basic principles to text that has been presented in our church in recent memory.

“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

This is one of the most repeated verses in all of the New Testament Scripture. It is very often advanced as an encouragement to the brethren, very often in connection to giving.

What exactly does this verse mean, and how do we determine it?

What did Jesus mean when he said the words “all these things” (tauta panta)? Is there a parallelism in the text that might suggest what those things are? Consider this:

“For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)

“Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?'” (Matthew 6:31)

There are those who contend, or at the least imply, that Matthew 6:33 means that “all things” will be added to the one who seeks the Kingdom and God’s righteousness. By this it is meant that such a person would receive favor in his life, more often than not seen as the acquisition of wealth. Rarely, if ever, is this verse stated along with other text that provides context. The parallelism shown above, which comes shortly before verse 33 strongly suggests that “those things” that will be added (prostithemi, meaning to lay beside) are the basic necessities of life–food, water, clothing–not money, property or luxuries.

Widening the context, we can go back to verse 24 which reads: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (mammonas, an Aramaic term meaning “treasure one trusts in”).”

This verse is, in and of itself, a literary structure, a chiasm.

A– No one can serve two masters;

B– for either he will hate the one

C–and love the other

C– or he will be devoted to one

B–and despise the other

A– You cannot serve God and wealth (mammonas)

If one cannot serve both God and wealth, how then can seeking God’s righteousness and His Kingdom be a means of producing wealth for ourselves?

If mammonas is a reference to treasure, it corresponds to the Greek word, thesauros, used in verses 19-21.  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

What is a treasure that does not rust? The answer is found in verse 22. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.” What we read as a “clear eye” is a translator’s rendition of a Hebrew idiom meaning a “good eye.” Knowing something about Hebraic culture comes into play here. And what is a “good eye”? It is an allusion or hint (remez  in Hebrew) pointing those who heard the term to refer to Proverbs 22:9. “The generous will themselves be blessed,for they share their food with the poor.” The word generous translates the Hebrew tov ayin, meaning “good eye.” The one whose treasure does not rust, whose treasure is stored in heaven, is the one who gives to the poor.

Knowing this broader context informs us of Jesus’ point of view about wealth. We do not seek His kingdom and His righteousness in order to become wealthy. We do not solicit funds from the poor to build the church. Rather, as followers of Jesus, we serve God by giving to the poor.

This matter of Jesus’ point of view about the poor brings us to another popular story, found in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. It’s popularly referred to as “the widow’s mite.” Here’s the text from the Book of Mark:

 “Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’”

How should we understand this? Most people see a commendation here based on the widow giving “out of her poverty” compared to those giving “out of their wealth.” Many famous Biblical commentators say the same thing. The reader who exclusively relies on the interpretations of others will adopt the same conclusion.

Our task is not to exclusively rely on commentators for our understanding. Rather, we study the text on our own. That begins with looking “before and after” the text at hand. Beginning in verse 38, we find Jesus teaching about the scribes.

” As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.’”

Who were the scribes? As stated earlier, they were teachers of the TaNaK. They were important members of the religious establishment of their day. According to Jesus, they 1) walked around in flowing robes, 2) were greeted with respect in marketplaces, 3) had the most important seats in synagogues, 4) had places of honor at banquets, 5) made lengthy prayers, and 6) “devoured widows’ houses”.

Do you see something that repeats here and in the text of the original story? Widows. What about widows? There are numerous instructions in the Torah about giving to widows. Here are two of them.

“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” (Deuteronomy 26:12)

“You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (Exodus 22:21-3)

Widows were considered among the most vulnerable persons in ancient Israel. They were to be cared for. The consequences for not doing so would be dire.

Jesus said that the scribes “devoured widows’ houses. The ancient Israelites were for many generations a nomadic people. They lived in tents. It was their custom that the wife owned the tent, even if her husband was still alive. The scribes, important members of the religious establishment consumed the possessions of the widows.  According to Jesus, the consequence for doing so would be dire. “They will be punished most severely.”

It was on the heels of saying this that Jesus sat down across from the Temple treasury, whereupon he made his observation about the widow who put in all she owned, “all she had to live on”. Knowing what you now know, do you see this comment of Jesus as a commendation? Like the scribes, the temple “establishment” took all the widow possessed. Jesus, more than likely, was displeased by what he saw.

There’s more. To what was the widow contributing? The Temple. The very next verse following the traditional boundaries of the story finds Jesus exiting the Temple with his disciples. He tells them: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down.” (Mark 13:2) The very same Temple that the widow gave everything to would one day be destroyed. The story of the widow’s mite sits between two dire consequences–the scribes would be punished and the Temple destroyed. What sits in between is an expression of the cause: the mistreatment of widows, that which the Torah states would bring the LORD to anger.

The placement of the story of the widow’s mite is not accidental, but rather purposeful. Many churches use this story as an exhortation for generous giving. It should, however, be used as a warning against exploiting the most vulnerable among us. Jesus’ point of view is that we must not prey upon the vulnerable, counting among those the widows and the poor. Jesus was not looking to squeeze the last two coins from a poor man’s pocket, and as followers of Jesus, neither should we.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Scripture

  1. In this series Richard gives every serious Bible student the means to prepare for the task of Bible interpretation and what it would look like.
    Bible interpretation is a serious undertaking if for no other reason than we are handling the word of God, and the interpreter puts himself/herself in the position as an “oracle” for God.
    Scriptures are more than words (and chapters and verses). Bible authors wrote messages they received from God in various literary forms (like history, prophecy, etc) and structures (like parallelisms and chiasms). The literary form of a text or book determines how that text or book is the be interpreted – whether literally or metaphorically.
    Aside from the GAPS (historical, cultural, social, etc) that separate the modern reader from the original authors/readers 100s of years ago there is also the GAP of language with all its forms and structures. The challenge that faces the modern Bible student is huge!
    I might add that there are 2 levels of CONTEXTS than every interpreter needs to attend to: 1) historical, 2) canonical. HISTORICAL context has to do with the history that the text is describing. Technically, this is called “background” study – and it includes the socio-political culture of the day, geography and the like. CANONICAL context has to do with how the biblical author arranged his stories (or argument) that we find in the canon. The “canon” is the text that now appears in our (modern) Bibles.
    Proof-texting – what Richard calls using text here and there (whenever convinient) – displays a lazy approach to Scripture; it dishonors the divine author of Scripture. Avoid “cherry-picking” your way – just to prove a point!
    Devotional approaches to Scripture have their merits. But let us understand that these readings elicit PERSONAL INSIGHTS and APPLICATIONS for PERSONAL ENRICHMENT. Beyond this I urge everyone to “roll the sleeves” to dig for the “gold”! Here is the maxim I work under: “A text cannot mean what it never meant”!
    What I am encouraging interpreters to observe is GRAMMATICAL-HISTORICAL principle of biblical interpretation. And I am confident Richard observes the same!

    1. Amen, amen and amen! I love your comment, especially the item about “proof texting” dishonoring the divine author of Scripture. We should all faithfully follow what should now be called the “Basilio Maxim”: “A text cannot mean what it never meant!”

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