It’s Not A Nice Book

If you think the Bible is full of encouragement, joyous events and all round sweetness and light, can I suggest that you are not reading it very carefully.

Just think about the book of Ruth for a moment. It is often portrayed as a sort of Biblical RomCom (well, perhaps not so much Com, but a lot of Rom). A foreign girl settles with her mother in law in the land of Israel, she works hard, meets a nice man whom (against the odds) she marries and, wonder of wonder, she becomes King David’s great-grandmother. Yes, but…

This is how the book of Ruth starts

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him.  The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.

Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.

There was a famine that was so severe, that a family were driven from their home to a foreign country. Elimelech was almost certainly a peasant farmer and he would only have forsaken his fields and possessions if things were truly hopeless. We’ve all seen footage of refugees in famine struck lands; this isn’t the stuff of a nice romantic comedy. Despite everything, they made it to Moab and even settled down to make some sort of a living, but within ten years, three of the four refugees had died. That’s three quarters of them; just pause and take this in. Naomi and her daughters-in-law were left with nothing and no way to keep body and soul together, so Naomi decided to go back to her homeland; a refugee in reverse.

Yes, the story works out well, but it is a story soaked in pain and suffering. Even the nice sounding bits about ‘gleaning in the fields’ are really all about hard, back-breaking work.

The thing is, the Bible was written out of situations like this one. It’s a book which was written by people who lived under foreign occupation, who knew the realities of war, who suffered famine and who, all too often, met untimely deaths. Because of this, the Bible speaks to people who know these situations today; it is a realistic book, a painful book, but not a nice book.

In our nice comfortable Western world, we like to sanitise the Bible; to do away with the difficult bits, but we do it an injustice if we do. The Bible was written by people who lived hard lives in tough situations, it reflects their experience and speaks to people who face the same issues. This is why the Bible continues to be so respected and sought after around the world.

A Bit of A Rant About Bible Verses

I like the Bible, I really do. But I have to confess that I am becoming more and more allergic to Bible verses on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

Before you report me to the heresy police, let me explain. To make life easy for us, the Bible is divided up into chapters and verses. This means that when we need to refer to a passage of Scripture we can use a reference such as Philippians 2:5-11, rather than pointing people to that bit in Paul that talks about Jesus being willing to be humble and dying.

Let’s face it, without the chapter and verse notation, most of us would never find passages in Leviticus.

The problem is that having divided the Bible up for ease of reference, we all too easily start quoting verses in isolation, as if they had a life of their own outside of the context of Scripture. The most obvious case of this is the way that John 3:16 is used, generally without any reference to what Jesus was actually saying to Nicodemus. I picked up on one particularly egregious example of this tendency in the early days of this blog.

The thing is, the Bible was written as a connected narrative, not a series of disjointed sayings that can be quoted at random. Even passages which do seem to stand on their own, such as some of the proverbs, make more sense when read in the whole context of the book they are found in. Often two proverbs will balance each other out, providing nuance. Simply quoting an isolated proverb will often not do justice to the teaching of the whole book.

Another problem is that it is all to easy to pick a verse or passage that says what you want to hear, rather than telling some of the harder, more challenging truths of Scripture.

Let’s take an example:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

This verse is often quoted to indicate that although an individual or group of people might be going through a tough time, everything will work out all right in the end. The problem is, this passage wasn’t written to that particular individual or group, it was written for an entirely different bunch of people altogether and there is nothing about this passage which says that it can be applied generally.  What’s more, this is only a partial quote. The preceding verse indicates that the nation of Judah will be in exile for 70 years before God’s plans come into effect. Almost everyone to whom this encouraging passage was originally addressed would be dead long before the encouragement came true.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quote the preceding verse as an encouragement!

“When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.” Jeremiah 29:10

It’s not that I don’t believe I fully believe that God has good plans for us and that he will work them out. He does, but often we will not see them come to fruition this side of eternity.

When we take passages out of context we tend to take the nice, warm and friendly verses and not the ones about denying ourselves, taking up our cross, sharing in Christ’s sufferings and that sort of thing. But a rounded approach to Christianity cannot ignore the tough stuff.

If we only look at the bits of Scripture that make us feel good; how can we look our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Pakistan and other trouble spots in the eye?

I found this piece in a recent Daily Telegraph to be very challenging:

The Gospel is hard, and it contains within it, not the fear but the absolute certainty, that persecution and misunderstanding will always follow in its wake. It is based on the idea of dying in order to live; of losing life in order to find it; of taking up the cross, that instrument of torture, and finding therein not merely life but glory.

If we just pick the passages we like from Scripture we risk missing this vital truth about the nature of our faith.

/rant off

Why Is ‘That’ In the Bible?

Just a quick thought for the day; have you ever wondered why the Bible writers included the stuff they did when they came to write down their accounts?

The obvious answer is that they were inspired to do so. But the Bible writers weren’t simply dictation machines; taking down notes without actually being aware of it. It is very clear that many of the writers took time to research and think through what they were going to write. Take this quote from Luke for example:

I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:3-4)

So, why did they include what they included and why did they not include some other stuff? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

The Bible Is Foreign

English speakers are fortunate; we have more translations of the Bible available to us than anyone could reasonably study in a lifetime. However, the fact that we have easy access to the Scriptures in our language can make us forget that they are essentially a very foreign series of documents. They written a long time ago in a country far, far away.

This makes life difficult for us; like it or not, we tend to read the Bible through our own cultural spectacles. It is easy to make the Bible fit into our own setting, rather than to make the step to read and understand it on its own terms.

One example of this is the Nativity story. So often we see Joseph as a noble, but disorganised bloke who dragged his heavily pregnant wife off to a strange city; only arriving there at the very last moment. His poor wife had to give birth alone and lonely in an animal shed.

However, if you look at this story through ‘Eastern eyes’, it is rather different, as Rachael Pieh-Jones shows:

Joseph, a man of courage and faith, realizes that his fiancee is in serious trouble. She could be stoned any day by the villagers because she is pregnant and not married. He is not required to bring Mary along to be counted in the census because she is a woman but he decides to tie his name to hers, tie his reputation to hers, and saves her life by taking her out of the village until the baby is born and emotions can simmer down. Who knows if they walked or rode donkeys but there is a distinct possibility that they rode in a cart. In any case, they arrived in Bethlehem before the day of Jesus’ birth. The Bible says: While they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. The Bible does not say: the moment they arrived they frantically pounded on doors.

He is wise, planned ahead, and is a hero. Not merely a background character, indistinguishable from shepherds in most nativity scenes.

Rachael goes on to paint this lovely picture:

Mary didn’t give birth alone. No place in the Bible is this written or implied. More likely she was surrounded by women. A midwife, Joseph’s relatives, neighbors. Shepherds came and found the child and his mother and left rejoicing because not only had they seen Grace and Mercy in the flesh, but they had seen a woman and child well-cared for and surrounded by caring women. Otherwise, they more likely would have praised God for that Grace and Mercy and then said: What are you doing here alone and cold?! Come with us, our women will care for you! No way would they have left a young mother and infant in that state and left rejoicing.

One of the great advantages of living in a different culture is that it gives you eyes to see new things in the text of Scripture. Go on, read the whole post; give yourself a treat.

I wrote a bit more about the Bible being foreign here.

Do We Need The New Testament?

From time to time I post something about my perception that Evangelicals, even Bible translators (or a talk here), don’t pay sufficient attention to the Old Testament. However, it isn’t often that I come across someone suggesting that we may not actually need the New Testament; but that is the excellent issue that John Goldingay raises in this excellent article.

Do we need the New Testament because the Old Testament focuses exclusively on Israel and we would not otherwise know that God was concerned for the whole world? Did God not reveal his concern for the nations before Jesus came? In fact, that concern for the nations goes back to the beginning. God created the whole world and was involved with the development of all the nations. The aim of God’s appearing to Abraham was not simply to bless him but to drive the nations to pray for blessing like Abraham’s. God’s judgment of the Egyptians and the Canaanites does not mean God is unconcerned about other nations, as God’s judgment of Israel and God’s judgment of the church does not mean God is unconcerned about Israel and about the church. Prophets look forward to a time when nations will flock to Jerusalem to get Yahweh to make decisions for them. Psalms repeatedly summon all the nations to acknowledge Yahweh with their praise. (Emphasis mine.)

Though he doesn’t actually say that we don’t need the New Testament, Goldingay successfully points out that there is less difference between the two testaments than we sometimes suppose and that some of the things which we see as being specific to the NT are actually shared by both. It’s a great read.

If you are a reader, then you might enjoy Goldingay’s web page which has a wealth of articles on the Old Testament as well as on a wider range of theological and biblical issues. If you are not a reader (and shame on you) then you can see him lecture on whether we need the New Testament in a video that I posted yesterday.

Scripture Tools for Every Person

I don’t often post other peoples’ press releases, but this is important and I want to make sure it gets lots of exposure.

Tyndale House Cambridge Launches Beta-version of Scripture Tools for Every Person (STEP), a new free Bible study resource.

24 July 2013, CAMBRIDGE, UK Today the STEP development team of Tyndale House Cambridge launched the Beta-test version of a new free Bible study resource at www.StepBible.org.

STEP software is designed especially for teachers and preachers who don’t have access to resources such as Tyndale House Library, which specialises in the biblical text, interpretation, languages and biblical historical background and is a leading research institution for Biblical Studies.

The web-based program, which will soon also be downloadable for PCs and Macs, will aid users who lack resources, or who have to rely only on smartphones or outmoded computers.

About STEP

The project began when STEP director Dr David Instone-Brewer created the Tyndale Toolbar for his own use. It became popular among researchers at Tyndale House and is now used by thousands of people across the globe. The Beta launch of STEP invites users to try out the new tools and give suggestions for improvement.

“STEP represents the most comprehensive yet user friendly tool for Bible Study I have seen in over 35 years of research,” said Dr Wesley B. Rose. Tim Bulkeley, a contributor to the project, said “I wish I was just starting to teach in Kinshasa now, with STEP and a smart phone. Students would find learning Hebrew and Greek, to read the Bible directly, so much easier.”

Almost a hundred volunteers worldwide have contributed to this work, including 75 who helped to align the ESV, used with the kind permission of Crossway, with the underlying Greek and Hebrew. All their work will now be freely available for other software projects. There are many exciting features in the pipeline for others to get involved with.
Try it out at www.StepBible.org.

Further information

The special problems of the Majority World have inspired some unique technical solutions. The whole database-driven program is designed to be downloaded onto computers as diverse as decade-old desktops and Android phones. This download, which is still being tested, enables it to continue working when internet access goes down.

Ten language interfaces are available and another 83 are ready for volunteers to work on. Bibles in many languages are already present and agreements are in place with the United Bible Societies and other organisations to add hundreds more. Someone using a Swahili browser can see buttons, menus and Bibles in their own mother-tongue.

Some of the features are unavailable on any other software, and the ease of use belies its extraordinary complexity. Even in Basic View you can get answers to questions like: Which other verses use the same original word found here? This works for every Bible in all the available languages without requiring knowledge of any Hebrew or Greek. In Advanced View one can see multiple interlinear texts with word-by-word alignment in English, Chinese, Hebrew and other languages. Information about grammar and dictionaries is also given at three levels so that someone wanting quick information isn’t overloaded with the complex details, which are also available.

Edit:

Simon just posted this comment on FaceBook

I’m glad that people are excited about the Tyndale STEP project and all, but one of the things that STEP promised, hasn’t (yet) delivered, and the world badly needs, is freely available, permissively licensed, machine-readable Biblical studies data, so people can build their own tools for Bible study.

Support and promote STEP by all means, but to avoid duplication of effort, it’s a great idea to also support people who are already working on this.

Me and the Bible

A few months ago, I was interviewed by the wonderful Jason Ramasani on the streets of London. The interview – about my attitude to the Bible – was great fun, but rather stretching. Jason wanted something that would be useful for teenagers in schools. I’ll leave you to judge whether I or not was successful.

If you’ve not seen Jason’s book, Life Changer, you really should

Books I Have Read: Inspiration and Incarnation

If truth be told, I wasn’t planning to read this book, but on balance, I’m glad I did. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns looks at three big questions related to the Old Testament.

There is a lot of similarity between some Old Testament stories and contemporary stories; for example the Genesis story of the flood bears a lot of resemblance to the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic. Does this mean that the Old Testament is no more inspired or sacred than related texts?

There are times when the Old Testament seems to disagree with itself. Some of the Proverbs are contradictory and at times the details of stories in Chronicles differ from the same stories in Samuel and Kings. What does this mean for our understanding of the nature of the Old Testament?

The New Testament sometimes quotes the Old Testament in ways that the original authors could never have envisaged. What does this have to say about the way in which we interpret Scripture?

I’ve seen treatments of these questions before, but to be honest, most of them just tend to explain the questions away which might feel comforting, but it is far from satisfactory.

Enns takes the questions very seriously and certainly doesn’t try to explain them away. He sees challenges like these as helping us to really understand the nature of the Bible as a book with both divine and human origins. It is the human side of the equation that means leads to the issues that Enns is dealing with. It is not that Scripture is flawed, but that it reflects the cultural contexts out of which it arises. A longish chapter is devoted to each of the questions and Enns demonstrates how the issues that we find difficult about the Bible actually arrive naturally out of the cultural milieu out of which it arises. It is good stuff.

If you have questions about the Old Testament or are interested in the nature and inspiration of Scripture, you could do far worse. This isn’t the easiest book to read; it takes a bit of concentration, but it is well worth the work involved.

For those who are interested there is a Kindle Edition.

Tolkien, Shakespeare and the Bible

I’m a great fan of Lord of the Rings. It’s a phenomenal book and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read right through it. I thoroughly enjoy dipping into Middle Earth, immersing myself in the world of elves, ents and hobbits. However, much I enjoy Tolkien’s creation, I never actually mistake it for reality. I sit by the fire and visit Middle Earth for a wee while, but when I put the book back I am quickly back into the reality of my life. Fiction is smaller than we are. It is a subset of our lives, something we can dip into and then quickly come out of it again. One of the reasons that fiction is so limited is that the stories are finished. Many people have wanted to write a follow up to Lord of the Rings, but in truth, the stories were finished forever when Tolkienn died. The story of the Bible is not like that, it isn’t finished yet. Don’t get me wrong, the Bible itself is written and can’t be added to, but the story it tells is still going on.

Imagine that you have gone to watch a Shakespeare play and have got really immersed in the story. Suddenly, about half an hour before the end, William Shakespeare himself strides onto the stage and tells the actors to stop. Then he addresses the audience, you, and says; “now it’s your turn. I want you to write and act out the next part of the play. When you have done that, the ending will be played out”. In many ways, this is what the Bible is like, because we are still living in the story.  God hasn’t stopped doing the things he did in the Bible and as we get to grips with the story, the story grows.  The Book of Acts ends Paul in prison in Rome but the growth of the church and the work of the Spirit didn’t stop there. We are still living in the Book of Acts. When you read The Lord of the Rings, you never actually get to meet Gandalf.  However, when you read the Bible, you encounter the central character and you start to learn that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is also your God.  The experiences that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob lived through are repeated in our lives as we grow to know, love and serve God.  The Bible story goes on with us as participants.

Bible and Mission Links 26

Myths and Bible Translation

Dan Wallace has a list of Five More Myths about Bible translation. In the space of a short article, he manages to take on Dan Brown, Islamic views of textual transmission and those people who think that verses printed in red are Jesus’ exact words. Good stuff in a small space.

Meanwhile, in a post which will comfort some and frustrate others,  Joel Hoffman talks about the Mythical Value of Reading the Bible in the Original languages.

More generally, the notion that studying Greek (or Hebrew) leads to a better understanding of the original texts is predicated on the idea that a student can do better than the professional translators. While, unfortunately, Bible translations tend to be of lower quality than other translations, they are still good enough that it’s pretty hard for all but the most expert students of Greek and Hebrew to find a true mistake.

What usually happens instead is that a professional translation takes a variety of factors into account while the student misses some of the nuances. Most people, unless they intend to become an expert, will understand the Bible better in translation. Worse, because of their limited knowledge, they’ll think their own reading is better than the accepted translations. This is a case of the clichéd way in which a little knowledge is dangerous.

Simon, meanwhile has reveals the shocking truth that the Bible isn’t new to him in any language:

I have heard many pastors and preachers tell of how much they love reading the Bible, how it’s a living word to them, and how every time they read it, it comes alive to them and they get something new and fresh from it. I have a dirty secret; that doesn’t happen for me. Yes, I love reading the Bible, but what generally happens is that I pick it up, and I go: I know this. I’ve read it, many many times, forward and backwards, in English and Japanese, Greek and Hebrew. This is not new information for me.

But I’m not sure that I actually need a fresh revelation right now. And I’m not sure that’s what God wants for me either. I don’t think God wants me to come up with a new, creative interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan; he just wants me to love my neighbour. I don’t think I need to notice something new about going into the world and making disciples of all nations; I just need to go, and do it.

Finally in this section, Mark and Laura Ward reveal the fallacy that lies behind some of the arguments used by proponents of the King James Only movement.

Missionary Life

A Faith to Live By gives us the extraordinary words with which Adoniram Judson asked his future father in law for his daughter’s hand in marriage. In rather more colourful language, Jamie gives her advice to anyone who is thinking about becoming a missionary (advice, I heartily endorse). Basically, Jamie says, start off by getting a real job:

A real job will teach you to live on a real budget. Because if you say to your real boss, “Hey, can I have some more money for a new car this week?” They’ll say “Um…No.” And then you’ll have to save your money, like a normal person, and buy the car later. Or not buy the car. … I know. It’s cRaZy!
A real job will help you learn not to be an entitled, self-righteous bunghole. Because if you act like that at a real job, they will kick your ass to the curb.
A real job will help you understand time management. Because, your real schedule will not likely allow you to spend three hours every Friday afternoon with your friends or your kids, – even if you call it “discipleship” on Facebook. Actually, that reminds me, your real job won’t let you call any time you spend on Facebook “work”. Not “support development”, not “communication”, not “team building”… Nope. No matter how you say it, Real Job does not approve.

A Bit of Controversy
Mark Woodward has some interesting thoughts on the subject of the Good News for the Poor.

What is the good news for the Bajaj driver, who works long hours to earn more than the $60 a month he pays to rent his vehicle, so he can make ends meet? What about the porter working in an electronics store, earning $50 a month carrying equipment around? What is the good news for the young men at the bus terminal, making small change packing bags into buses and selling phone credit?

Ben Tredaway, a recent University Graduate has some challenging things to say about evangelism. I don’t agree with all he has to say, but it’s well worth a read.

I’ll finish off with this great picture from Exploring Our Matrix.