Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Bible Says

A few weeks ago, I got a message from a friend. She said she had a question about a particular topic, and she needed to know "what the Bible actually says." She wanted me to assure her that I had accurate resources and knew how to use them - and I do, so I did. And then I set to work answering her question. 

But the truth is that what seems like a fairly easy question isn't actually all that easy of one. There's no such thing as just knowing "what the Bible actually says." Not from just the words, anyway. It's not as if finding a different translation into English for the Hebrew or Greek will (or can) suddenly turn a light on and tell you what you want to know.

The Bible cannot simply be consulted; it has to be studied. 

In fairness to this process and in order to give you a foundational understanding of what it means to really "know" the Scriptures and "what they say," I thought I would take a few days and walk you through the process of answering this question from a friend. 

Even though it doesn't end there, it certainly begins in the language. Many Bible questions come out of a place that's already read what the English has to offer and is in some way unsatisfied with the answer...or finds it, at best, incomplete. As we should. The English very rarely captures the depth and breadth of the original languages. English is just not as precise as many other languages are. Just think of how often we have to clarify what certain things mean or identify the way in which we are using a word or phrase. 

So you start, quite obviously, with whatever is obvious but not satisfying, whatever piques your interest in terms of what you are able to read and understand in the Scriptures. 

The next thing you have to do is figure out the linguistic context of that passage. That means you have to look around, before and after, whatever's gnawing at you and see what kinds of things the Bible is talking about in that general area. There are some laws in Leviticus, for example, that are included in lists of things you wouldn't naturally group with them. This says something meaningful about why these things are sinful. The prohibition about burning your children as an offering to the god Molech is sandwiched in a list of sexual sins. That tells us something that we don't get from the words themselves about what this disgusting ritual entailed, either physically or symbolically. 

We like to piecemeal the Bible, to pick and choose here and there what we're going to focus on and what we're going to take from a story. But when we put it in context, we can't do that any more. And often, we find something that surprises us. 

After that, you start looking for cross references - what other passages in the Bible talk about this? One of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible (okay, it's not really misunderstood, but it is frequently twisted to make a political/cultural point that isn't justified) is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. What really was the sin there? In recent times, it's become fad to say the sin of Sodom was inhospitality - not welcoming the stranger - and not homosexuality. But Ezekiel writes about Sodom and says their sin was both. If you don't read what Ezekiel says, you'll just have to guess at whatever you can gather from the story itself. Other verses often shed light on dark corners, so it's important to figure out who else is talking about what you're talking about because trust me - you aren't the only one to be talking about it. 

All of this can be done in the English. It takes time. It's an investment, but it's worth it. If you have the resources and understanding, then you start to do these same things in the original Scriptural languages - Hebrew and Greek (primarily). You do the same things. You identify words and verses, figure out what words and phrases are being used, cross reference them to see where else they are used and what they mean across their usage, and start to put together a picture of what these words and phrases might mean in the passages you've identified. You find some really neat stuff this way. In Malachi, for example, the English often says the priests "despised" God's altar, but the Hebrew suggests something closer to "thought too lightly of." Those are very different ideas, so it matters what you discover in this way.

So that's the first step - just look at the language. Look at the context of the words. Look at what's being said around your passage and what's being said about your passage. We'll look at another step in the Bible study process tomorrow. 

1 comment:

  1. This is what I need to learn to do, but learning to do it online has been a challenge. I need a tutor....hint...hint.