If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 13, 2014

Interpreting the Bible in Context: Numbers 12:1-16; Mark 12:38-44; Revelation 1:1-3, 9-11

*This sermon was presented at Albany Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 12, 2014. Below is a list of contexts for biblical interpretation.

Ever notice how someone’s words can be quoted out of context to make them say the exact opposite of what they meant? This happens in politics, entertainment, advertising and even religion. Technically these are called contextomies; excluding the surrounding words of a text or quote which distorts the meaning. In 2010 the magazine Vanity Fair’s Mike Ryan, an entertainment writer, described the TV show Lost as "the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous —yet somehow addictively awesome — television show of all time." Looking for blurbs for the show ABC edited the quote a tiny bit. These words appeared on our TV ads for Lost: “the most addictively awesome show of all times---Vanity Fair.”

There is a similar practice in Christianity. It is called proof texting. Texts are yanked out of context in order to prove a preconceived position. There was an illiterate Christian, who did not want to learn to read or study the Bible or listen to anyone else’s opinion. So, he quoted to everyone from 1 John: “You need not any man teach you, for the Spirit teaches you…” Problem is the context of 1 John lets us know that this text is about false teachers and not about reading, learning, or listening to another person’s viewpoint. Context is everything.

You can make the Bible mean anything you want it to mean just by taking verses out of context. For example, a man seeking God’s will used his Bible to discern what he should do with his life. He opened his Bible and put his finger on the text “Then, Judas went out and hung himself.” He was a bit shocked. “Jesus, that can’t be God’s will for me,” he thought to himself. So, he randomly opened his Bible again to another place, put his finger on the text, which read: “Jesus said, “Go thou and do likewise!” Out of desperation he tried again for a different message and to his dismay read this text: “What thou doest, do quickly!” Context is everything.

Context is a key element of interpretation, particularly when it comes to the Bible. I should probably rather say “contexts,” in that there are numerous contexts to consider in biblical interpretation. I have included in the church bulletin a list of the various contexts that will assist us in interpreting scripture. I hope you use them in your study of the Bible. The first context for interpreting a text is its location within the Bible beginning with its closest context and moving on to a broader context. Start by reading the surrounding verses, its location within the chapter, within the particular book, within the testament it’s located, and finally within the whole canon of scripture. Each one of these contexts may shed light on the meaning of the text.

Sometimes simply reading a text within its surrounding verses can open up new interpretations of traditional readings. A good example would be the story of the widow’s mite in Mark 12. The traditional reading of this story presents the widow as a model of giving. We drag this poor widow out during Stewardship campaigns to shame people into giving money. Poor, poor widow. She had only two small coins, but she gave her all, like Jesus, who would give his all on the cross. Why can’t we all be like the poor widow! But, if we would simply read the verses that precede and follow this story, we might just come to an alternative interpretation.

The verses that surround this story should be seriously noted. First, the story is sandwiched in by stories that reflect Jesus’ condemnation of the temple system. The temple was not simply a place of worship, as we tend to read with our Western eyes that separates religion from economics and politics. The temple represented not just religion, but an economic and political system. Preceding the story of the widow’s mite Jesus says that he will be handed over to the “chief priests and the scribes,” who will condemn him to death. This particular elite class of religious leaders, not representative of all Jewish leaders, were clients of imperial Rome. This is the context for Jesus overturning the tables of the moneychangers, a symbolic prophetic act against the temple as a system of economic exploitation. The temple had become not a house of prayer, but a “den of thieves,” a place where money stolen from the poor population was kept. This is followed by Jesus saying that if someone had enough faith they could say to this mountain, that is the one on which the temple stood, be cast into the sea. Not too complementary of the temple system! Jesus is like the prophet Jeremiah who also decried those who trusted in the temple system, which in his day had also become corrupted.

Following the story of the widow is another anti-temple story. The disciples marvel at the grandeur of the expensive temple buildings, but Jesus tells them that the temple will be destroyed. There will not be one stone left on top of another. The temple was destroyed in the year 70. The temple and those connected to it are portrayed in Mark as an institution that exploits the poor population and is worthy of destruction.

Second, immediately preceding the story of the widow the scribes are described as hypocrites. Some of the scribes supported the priestly aristocracy, who collaborated with Rome. They liked to walk around showing off their long expensive robes, wanted places of honor and who….get this….“devour widows’ houses.” This is probably a reference to these scribes being entrusted with widows’ estates and siphoning off money from them leaving the widows impoverished.

So, does the context lend itself to another interpretation than being a story about Jesus commending the widow for giving her last cent to support the temple? Could this story in its context simply be Jesus pointing out the sad state of affairs of the widow as she, in her desire to honor God, is impoverished even further by the temple system and its wealthy leaders by giving away all that she had? I think this is very possible.  Instead of a tone of cheerful celebration and a commending smile, imagine a tone of sheer sadness and a concerned frown as Jesus says, “She gave all that she had.”

Does the context present us with an alternative interpretation of the story of the widow’s mite? I’ll let you decide. But if we take the traditional route in interpreting this story, we will need to put the story into our own context, a context where poor widows today get behind in their bills, get their heat shut off, don’t have enough food, because they give their welfare checks to wealthy TV evangelists and their lucrative ministries! Then, after we have placed this story firmly in our context we should go out and apologize to all those poor widows for having rolled our eyes at them or judged them for such generosity. If we think this a model story of giving by a poor widow, liberal apologies should be forthcoming. Put that in your context!

Interpreting scripture requires awareness of our own and the Bible’s social and cultural contexts. In other words, we need to read ourselves as we read the Bible. Honestly, we can’t help but read the Bible with Western eyes. Those are the glasses we have been given in our culture. But, we can misread the Bible with our own cultural lens. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien have written an interesting book entitled Misreading the Bible with Western Eyes. Their conviction is that “all Bible reading is necessarily contextual.” We often misread the Bible with the context of our Western culture while the Bible was written in the context of ancient Near Eastern cultures. Their social customs, family structures, religious practices, economic and political situations were different from ours. If we assume the world of the Bible is basically the same as Western or American culture, we may misinterpret certain biblical texts. So we must read ourselves as we read the Bible.

For instance, take the story of Moses marrying a Cushite woman in Numbers 12. It would be easy for us to interpret this story in light of our contemporary understanding of race. By doing so, we have interpreted this story through the lens of modern racism. Moses married a Cushite woman. She was from a land south of Ethiopia in Africa, and most likely dark skinned. Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, complained against Moses’ wife. What do you think their problem was with this African woman? If we consider that, according to the story, God cursed Miriam with white skin (and why not Aaron as well?), then it would seem like God is being a bit ironic. Miriam, you don’t like her blackness, so you wanna be white? Well then, check out your new skin color, Snow White! In other words, if Miriam has a problem with the Cushite’s black skin, then God will make her skin white. So, there does seem to be an issue here with skin color. But, is it the very same issue as modern racism?

At first glance the story appears to be a case of racism in a modern sense, that is, relegating a people to a lower social status based on skin color. According to this traditional interpretation, Aaron and Miriam don’t like Moses’ interracial marriage because his wife is black and therefore of lower social status, which doesn’t seem to bother God. But, does this story fit with a modern understanding of racism?

The problem is that race is a modern social construction. By that I mean, race, as we understand it in modern Western culture, was created as a way to classify human beings by skin color, physical features, and country of origin beginning in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Although differences in skin color, ethnicity, class, tribe, and nationality were recognized in ancient cultures, race was not a way people classified one another. And although they may have had their own prejudices based on skin color, it was not the same as our modern understanding of racism. Race is not a biological reality. There is so much difference within the so-called “races” that classification becomes practically useless. Except that it is used in our white societies to relegate other races to an inferior status.

Modern racial classification was used to reinforce racism. Within those classification systems White Europeans were considered higher on the human value scale than other groups. Racism is different from personal racial prejudice. Racism is prejudice plus the power to enforce those prejudices by those who hold the power and privileges within society. So, racism per se is not primarily a personal issue, but a systemic issue. It is a modern issue, not an ancient issue. And because it permeates the systems, institutions, and power structures of our society, controlled overwhelmingly by a white majority, racism, in the context of the US, is primarily a white problem! Racism in the US is designed to maintain white supremacy.

To read these modern understandings of race and racism into the Bible is to misread it. We have historically read race into the story of Noah’s curse of Canaan (not his father Ham, as some have understood it) in Genesis. Read through the lens of race and racism Noah’s curse was understood to be upon the dark-skinned African people. Slavery was their assigned lot by God. This is a misreading of the Bible through our own racial prejudices.

We read the story of Moses and his African wife through a modern understanding of racism. So, we assume that in the story Aaron and Miriam are expressing a problem with Moses’ marriage because his wife is someone of lower social status because she was a black African, when it has more to do with a mix of class and color.

From his study of African cultures NT scholar Randall Bailey argues that the African woman in Numbers 12 would have been considered of a higher social status than Moses. In the Bible Africans are viewed in a positive light; for instance, the Queen of Sheba and the Ethiopian Eunuch. We might consider what John Kerry said concerning his wife during his presidential debate as applicable to Moses. Kerry said, “I married up!” In this view Aaron and Miriam complained because they thought Moses has gained status before God by marrying up because she was a black African woman. In essence their complaint is: “Does Moses think he is better than us by marry up? Does God only speak through him?” They are exhibiting a prejudice based upon the class or social status of Moses’ wife as identified through her color and nationality.

The subtle differences are still significant between ancient prejudices based on skin color coupled with class and nationality and our modern understandings of racism growing out of a racial classification system based on skin color, which reinforces white supremacy. We can read our modern understandings of race and racism back into the Bible, even though they are really modern Western constructions. We unconsciously interpret the Bible through the modern lens of race and racism because we forget to read ourselves and our culture along with reading the Bible and its culture.

Consider how race colors our religious imagination: How many of us were imagining Moses as a white man marrying a black woman? Moses was a dark-skinned Semite, probably of Afro-Asiatic descent. How do we imagine Jesus? Just take a look at all the watercolor Sunday School pictures of Jesus. He’s as white as Rush Limbaugh! But don’t you dare portray him as a black man! God forbid! And what race do we imagine God to be? Surely not an old Asian woman! The images we have created based on race influence our faith formation and interpretation of the Bible. Modern understandings of race can be easily read back into the Bible and our religious imaginations. Awareness of our own and the Bible’s social and cultural contexts are crucial for biblical interpretation.

Reading the Bible with a collective lens can help us avoid some misinterpretations. Western culture has been shaped by the Enlightenment of the 1700s. This is the period during which our nation was established. One of the key principles of the Enlightenment was individualism, the focus upon the autonomous, isolated individual and their inborn rights. This focus on the individual is reflected in the famous saying of the Enlightenment philosopher Descartes, I think therefore I am. It was personal independence that spurred the pioneers to move West for gold and farmland. Even the contemporary US economic concept of “rugged individualism” grew out of Enlightenment philosophy. This is the idea that individuals can succeed on their own without government assistance. It is also known as “bootstrap philosophy,” meaning that individuals can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. With only a few resources, a lot of hard work, determination, and stick-to-itiveness, anyone can succeed in life on their own. We were not suckled on an “It-takes-a-village-philosophy.” And any political idea that is collective or for the common good is readily condemned as “socialism” or “communism.” Our culture has been deeply shaped by individualism. It permeates all aspects of our mindset, beliefs, and cultural practices.

So, when it comes to reading and interpreting the scriptures, we tend to read it through the lens of individualism. Last week I mentioned that the characteristic American approach to the Bible has been an individual, devotional approach; studying the Bible on my own and finding out what God has to say to little ol’ me. Not to say that this is a bad thing, but to recognize that this is a typical Western, Enlightenment approach to our sacred writings. The cultural contexts of the Bible were non-Western and viewed life more through a collective lens. Biblical cultures thought more in terms of nations, peoplehood, tribes, extended family units, and “it-takes-a-village.” This is still the case within most non-Western cultures today.

For example, an anthropologist studying a tribe in Africa proposed a game to the children.  He put a basket near a tree and told them that the first person to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat down together and enjoyed the fruits. When the anthropologist asked why they ran together, since one person could have had all the fruit, they said, “Ubuntu, how could one of us be happy if the rest of us are sad?” This collective worldview presents a different slogan than Descartes “I think, therefore I am.” This Ubuntu mindset of the African tribes can be summed up as “I am because we are.” It might be helpful for us Westerners to try and read the Bible through the lens of Ubuntu.

If we read and interpret the Bible through a more corporate, collective, communal lens, we might be surprised not only how we might misread the Bible, but how we might gain new insight and illumination in our reading. Let me share with you a simple illustration. We are all familiar with the verse from the book of Revelation in which Christ is depicted as standing at the door knocking. The verse from Revelation 3:20 goes like this: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock and if anyone hears my voice and opens the door; I will come in to them and eat with them.” Our Western minds paint a sentimental evangelistic picture of Jesus gently knocking on the door of our hearts. If we would only open the door, then Jesus would come into our hearts and save us. Hallelujah!

The problem with this picture is that we have read this verse through a Western individualistic lens. For whom was the book of Revelation written? Individual Christians? No. It was written to seven churches in Asia Minor, modern Turkey. That is the context of this verse within the book. Now, let’s look at this verse in its more immediate context. It is found within a scathing indictment of the church of Laodicea. The church is lukewarm, like warm milk you spit out of your mouth. They are wealthy and independent, but are blind to their own spiritual poverty. They are in need of repentance and correction. Then….comes our famous verse….Behold, I stand at the door and knock….Is Christ standing at the door of an individual’s heart knocking to come in? No! This is an image of Christ standing outside the door of the church knocking to gain entrance! And church is not a building, but the gathered community. This is no sentimental picture of the evangelist Jesus softly tapping on the door of an individual’s heart.  This is a startling image of a prophetic Jesus left outside by the church! That’s a powerful image, a shocking indictment of the church at Laodicea or any church which becomes lukewarm, wealthy, self-sufficient, and spiritually impoverished; a church that leaves Jesus outside in the cold!

Context is everything. It can free us from interpretations that reinforce injustice. It can open our eyes to our own preconceptions and prejudices. It can change a sentimental, evangelistic image of Jesus for individual sinners into a shocking and potentially transforming image of Jesus for a church community that has left him outside its doors. But, the same context can create an invitation for us today to open our church doors to Jesus, in whatever guise he might come to us, so that he might dine with us and us with him.

And if you quote anything I have said today, I just hope you keep it in context!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s holy word.

*This sheet on contexts was included as a bulletin insert

Contexts for Interpreting the Bible

Leo Hartshorn

Interpreting the Bible in the context of...

1. Life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ- A Jesus-centered interpretation (an Anabaptist perspective) is an important interpretive stance for the Christian. This approach does not treat the Bible as a “flat book” with equal authority throughout.

2. Canon as scripture- A prerequisite for rightly interpreting the Bible is a recognition that it is scripture, the sacred texts of the church. 

3. Discipleship- Another prerequisite for rightly reading the Bible is to be an actual or potential follower of Christ (an Anabaptist understanding). How can one rightly interpret scripture without the will or desire to follow in the way of Christ?

4. Bible- It is very important to interpret texts within their various contexts within the Bible: a) within the surrounding texts; b) within the particular book; d) within the Old Testament; d) within the New Testament; e) within the whole Bible; f) in relation to similar biblical texts. Look for clues to the text’s meaning within its biblical contexts.

5. Literary genre- What is the genre of literature in which the text is found? Poetry? Wisdom literature? Prophetic? Apocalyptic? Gospel? Letter? The type of literature may have a bearing on how it is to be interpreted. Example: Apocalyptic literature, with its own unique characteristics, is not about predicting the future. Apocalyptic literature speaks truth about the current situation of the writer through this fantastical, visionary genre.

6.  Original languages- Without having to know Hebrew (OT) and Greek (NT) there are commentaries and bible dictionaries that give insight into words and concepts in the Bible. These help to illuminate the original meanings.

7. Historical- Knowing something about the history of the times in which biblical books were written can illuminate their meaning.

8. Political- The books of the Bible were written during various political reigns that shaped the writings of the Bible (e.g., Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman). Example: What does the early confession “Jesus is Lord” mean in the context of Caesar as ruler of the Roman Empire? It is also important to be aware of our own present political contexts that can impact our reading (e.g., capitalism, democracy).

9.  Religious- Knowledge of the beliefs and practices of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, in their various forms, as well as the surrounding religions (e.g., Baalism, polytheism, Greco-Roman religions, Gnosticism, etc.) are helpful in understanding biblical texts. Example: ancient Hebrews had a different understanding of the afterlife than the early Christians.

10. Socio-cultural- The cultures and practices of the ancient biblical cultures and social practices help clarify meaning (e.g., collective vs individual, honor/shame cultures, economics, peasant and agrarian societies, patron/client relations, benefactors, patriarchy, family systems, slavery, etc.)

11.  Worldview- Ancient worldviews (e.g., polytheistic, flat earth cosmology, non-scientific, taboos, etc.) is different from out modern, Western worldview. Reading either one into the other can skew our biblical interpretation.

12. Contemporary contexts- Most of these contexts that help us understand the Bible have contemporary counterparts. Our own contemporary context can both enhance and hinder proper interpretation of the Bible. There is no getting around reading the Bible from within our own current contexts. But, awareness my temper it some. How do my personal experiences shape the way I read texts? Does my religious tradition override what the Bible is saying? Am I imposing my worldview, politics, culture, preferences and biases upon the text?

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