Saturday, August 28, 2010

A summary of human troubles in 15 words

One of the most insightful passages in all Scripture is from Jeremiah chapter 2:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils:they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
(Jeremiah 2:12-13 ESV)

This short passage gives an amazingly clear picture of mankind's basic problem, and a surprisingly concise summary of our history to date.

God begins His statement by calling the universe to pay attention to what He has to say. And when it does, it will be shocked by what it hears. The charge is outrageous - it goes beyond comprehension. But it's true nonetheless.

"My people" - When God says "my people" He's talking specifically about the Israelites, the Jews. These are the people God revealed Himself to and made promises to, and who He entered into a relationship with. These are the people who actually knew God, so they should have understood.

"Committed two evils" - These people - God's people - have done two of the stupidest, most futile, most self-absorbed and stubborn things possible.

Evil #1: What they could have had but refused
"They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters"

What is it they were offered? God describes Himself as a fountain. A fountain is alive, fresh, real. It's refreshing and life-giving.

But God is a specific kind of fountain - a living source of living water.
Living water - we can't define it, but somehow we know exactly what it is. The image is powerful and speaks to us in an undeniable, viseral way.

Evil #2 : What they took instead
They "hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water"

Instead of accepting what God offered, they decided to try something on their own. You can almost hear the thought process: "Yeah, that fountain looks okay I guess, but let's see how this stagnant-water-held-for-months-in-a-leaky-hole-in-the-ground thing works out first. You know, before we do anything crazy. . . "

Not only did they decide to go with the cistern (a cistern is a big underground pool with a hole in the top that holds runoff water), but they had to dig it out themselves, and (surprise, surprise. . . ) it didn't hold water very well after all.

So to summarize, they chose:
- A hole in the ground instead of a fountain
- Stagnant runoff water instead of living water
- Months of hard toil that ended in failure instead of a free gift that is perfect in every way

And what does all that mean in 2010-American? It means they chose to live by their own rules, their own choices, their own power, their own way. They chose to be their own masters. And so, they suffered.

But here's the thing - they're not alone in their foolishness. Every person ever born has had the same choice. And sadly, many choose the broken cistern. That's why we're so screwed up. Don't believe me? Try reading these words from the Apostle Paul, and see if they don't remind you of the 10 o'clock news. It's exactly the same message Jeremiah had, but this time it's about everyone.

They have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. . . . Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. (Romans 1:18-32)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hey, that's my eye!

I was asked once how to interpret that crazy old biblical injuction to take an eye for an eye.

If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth . . .

I think the implication was something like this: "That's not really what it means, is it?" Well, I think it is. Here are some things to consider.

1. Context
Here's that passage in full. Notice that its purpose and emphasis is much more than just "revenge gougings". It's about justice. It's about making sure that no one thinks evil actions with disastrous results are just something you do for fun. It is not about accidents, but about the community's response to malicious attacks.

Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death. Whoever takes an animal's life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him. (Leviticus 24:17-20 ESV)

2. Justice
To understand this law, we first have to rid ourselves of any false notions that justice involves any tolerance at all for evil. The true definition of justice is full & right payment for wrongs done. In the most literally accurate sense of the word, the most just response to someone willfully removing my eye is that I remove theirs.

3. From an age before Grace
Keep in mind that this is an Old Testament precept (and one that is actually forbidden in the New). In that age, God was the same, but dealt with people in a different way. It was an age, culture, etc we would hardly recognize now. In those days, the idea that someone should be treated with special kindness because (for example) they had a hard childhood was absurd. Humans had not yet received forgiving mercy from God (the originator and giver of all things), so they did not yet know to extend it to one another. This was an age when conquering armies cut open pregnant woman and smashed toddlers against rocks like we do rugs. That's how innocents were treated. What seems barbaric to us now was actually tame to people then.

4. Limitation
Many scholars believe this was actually a regulation of mercy, since the normal form of retribution was "death for everything". You poke out my eye, I kill you. You break my arm, I kill you. Etc. This kind of limitation was revolutionary at the time. It basically said, "You can't do anything worse to me in the name of justice than I did to you." This idea is pretty obvious now, but that was then.

5. Deterrent
Think about it. Wouldn't you rather someone think twice really hard before walking by and knocking your teeth out with a big stick? Many say that punishment is not a deterrent - that if someone's going to do something wrong, they're just going to do it. But I beg to differ. The ideal of rehabilitation aside, our current deterrent system (prison) is exactly the same concept with a different public face. And in my opinion, the visceral reality of the expected punishment (creating at least subconscious sympathy with the intended victim) in an eye-for-an-eye world is much more deterring than the abstract possibility of incarceration could ever be.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Bible is a book of truth communicated – Part 4

When we do exegesis the most important question we have to answer is this: "What did the author intend his original readers to understand?”

Before we can figure out what a text means for us today, we must understand what it meant for the original audience. Following these 5 rules will go a long way to helping us do that.

5 Rules for Exegesis

1 - Words
Consider the words that are used and how they are used. Different sentence order, punctuation, and verb tense are all things that could make a difference in meaning.

The basic meaning of words is also extremely important. If a word or phrase has several possible meanings, allow the context to decide which is correct.

2 - Author
The time & place the author wrote will often help determine the meaning of the writing. The way they wrote their message was influenced by their situations and cultures. Knowing history and culture open up meaning. For example, understanding the Jewish sects and the government that ruled Palestine in New Testament times increases understanding of Scripture. And understanding the connotations of positions such as the "high priest" or "tax collector" helps us know what others thought of the people holding these positions. Avoid reading the text as if it were written by a 21st century American.

Another thing to be aware of is that many words, phrases and even images had a different meaning 2000, 4000, 6000 years ago than they do now (e.g., idioms). Everything must be understood according to the grammar and meaning of the language in which it was originally written. For example, if a speaker of old English said you were "cute", he would actually be saying you are bow-legged. (And isn't that adorable!!)

A writer’s goal determines the character of his communication. We should always ask ourselves, why did the writer put the time & effort into the writing? What did the writer want us to take away from the text? Sometimes it's obvious (like when John tells us the purpose of his gospel is that we might believe in Jesus) - but often it's not.

3 - Style
Interpret words and phrases by the common meaning - not the philosopical or "spiritual". Do not try to read between the lines and find some "hidden meaning". Interpret words & phrases literally - unless the context gives reason to look for other meanings. Each genre of Scripture must be read differently in order to understand it. If you try to read poetry as history - or history as poetry, it will make no sense. We understand that we would be foolish interpret a menu, an advertizement, a street sign, a novel & a newspaper article all in the same way. We must understand what is said in terms of how it's said. For example, when Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, He was wrong. It's not. But was relative seed-size really the point of what He was saying? (Hint: No.)

4 - Context
A verse, passage, concept or entire book taken out of context can easily be interpreted in a way the author never intended. Don't isolate one text and force it to speak on its own. This is one of the most powerful weapon cults have - they take Truth out of context and make very believable Lies.

5 - Comprehensiveness
The Bible is one book, and there is an unfailing unity throughout. If understood correctly, the Bible will never contradict itself. If two statements seem to contradict each other, look deeper. A good example of this is when Mark 15:25 places Jesus before Pilate at the third hour, while its parallel in John 19:14 states it to be the sixth hour. We will not understand how they could both be true until we realize that Mark used Jewish time (counted from 6:00 am), while John used Roman time (counted from midnight). So actually, both record the event at 9:00 am. If your understanding of one passage is correct, it will fit with all others. You can think of the Bible as a jigsaw puzzle - when all the pieces are in the right place, the picture will be clear, consistent, comprehensible, and meaningful.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Bible is a book of truth communicated – Part 3

So, to pick up where we left off: What is the Bible?

Well, it's not magic. And it's not mystery. It's communication.
And like any other form of communication, to be of any use at all, the Bible must be understood.
And to be understood it must be interpreted.
And as we saw last week, anything that must be interpreted is subject also to misinterpretation.
And if the Bible really is crucial information given to us from God, just think how incredibly important it is that we not misinterpret.

What we believe, what we support, how we live, what we think, our goals, our hope, our eternal fate . . . all depend on correctly understanding what God has to tell us.

So we need to get it right.

But there's a problem.
As we saw two weeks ago, getting us to doubt, despise or misunderstand God's word is one of Satan's primary goals.
And based on what I see in the world (and even in the Church!) he's doing an extraordinary job.

If we're wise, we'll make getting an accurate knowledge and understanding of the Word of God our primary goal.

There are many ways we can approach, read, and interpret Scripture. But one really bad way is to force our own personal meanings onto the Word of God.

This kind of reading means we respect the author and His message so little that we're willing to assume we know what He means. (Or maybe we just assume He means exactly what we want Him to mean?)

And when we do that with the Bible we commit an act of defiance against the God who inspired it.

Because of this danger, we must be careful to read the Bible the way it was written. We have to know who wrote it, who they were writing to, why they were writing, the style they were using, what was happening in the world around them, etc. And doing this kind of reading is called exegesis. It's the process of properly extracting information from a written text.

Like many things, one of the best ways to understand what exogesis is (exo = take out) is to look at its opposite, which is isogesis (iso = put in).

A person who is doing isogesis approaches the Bible like this: "I know what I believe (or what I want to believe), and I'm going to find support for it in this book." When your attitude's like this, you'll have no trouble proving absolutely anything you want from the Bible. In fact, that's exactly how cults work. If you study the cults, you'll see it almost every time.

Finally, next week I will list and explain 5 Rules for Exegesis.