Toward a Better Understanding of the Bible (I): Asking the Right Questions

Understanding the Bible is something that many people think is beyond them.  Not long after the establishment of the church, it appears that a professional clergy developed, which took it upon itself to do the understanding for the people.  This priesthood concept was nothing new, and traced its origins to Jewish and pagan practices.  It was only natural, though perhaps unfortunate, that such an institution arose.  Throughout the history of the church in all of its forms and brands, in almost all denominations, there is a clerical caste that acts as teacher and interpreter of scripture for the collective members.   Again, this is somewhat unfortunate, in that it takes the responsibility for study and understanding off of the rank and file and places it in the hands of a few, usually self-selected experts, who may or may not rightly divide the word of truth. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about understanding the Bible lately, and why there is so much misunderstanding.  I cannot help but think that part of that is due to the fact that we have fallible humans—humans that may have agendas—teaching and preaching. 

I have to admit, the Bible is a difficult read in places.  From the difficult to pronounce names of places to the difficult to pronounce names of people, to the difficult to reconstruct lineages, to political intrigue, plots, and affairs, the message sometimes gets lost in the details.  Yet the details are present to testify to the truth of the message.

I am no trained theologian, although the field fascinates me.  I never took a course in hermeneutics, or ancient languages, or translation principles.  I have picked up a few pointers here and there over the years, and I have learned to compare and contrast differing views on the meaning of a passage of scripture to try and come up with a reasonable understanding.  As a scientist by training, I respect the process.

As I pondered the process of Biblical interpretation, I decided to do a quick search for “rules” to guide the process, or as I think about it, to simply reach an understanding.  One site listed five rules, another, eight, and still another, 16.  Some of the points overlapped.  All stressed showing reverence for the text and letting the text speak.  One specifically mentioned searching for the Author’s Intended Message (AIM), which I thought was a nice way to remember what we are trying to do.

But as I thought about this process, every one of us who has ever been to grade school in the last few decades already has much of the training we need to begin to understand any passage of scripture.  Really?  Yes, really.  Do you remember “The Five W’s and the H?”  Of course you do: they stand for “who, what, when, where, why, and how.”  Of course, the professionals have ways of making what they do sound far more complex, and in some respects it may be.  But fundamentally, they are really only using the Five W’s and the H to get at the meaning of the Bible.

Whether or not you accept as literal the Genesis account of creation, most of the information needed to understand the significance of the message, indeed from start to finish, is found in Genesis 1.  In fact, much is found in the first 10 words of the Bible:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Who? God.

What? Created the heavens and the earth.

Where?  The obvious inference is “here.”

When?  In the beginning.

Later, we see how:  “And God said…”

The “why”, though, is perhaps more elusive.  Perhaps it was to show God’s supreme excellence: “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1.31).  Or maybe the reason is found in that often quoted passage, John 3.16, “For God so loved the world….”  Or perhaps the reason comes much later in the canon, in the book of Revelation, where in 21.3, it is recorded, “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.”  Maybe God created everything to love and be loved, to dwell among his children. 

Of course all of this talk of the “why” of it all is purely speculation.  But I am not the first to ask it, nor will I be the last. In Psalm 8.4, and echoed in 144.3, the Psalmist muses, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Of course, great volumes could be written on these topics.  But I wish to spend a few words considering the concept of textual and contextual fidelity in our understanding of scripture.  How many times have you been sitting in the audience as a preacher talks about the importance of keeping comments and verses in context, but within the next or a few breaths, violently breaks that principle in the application of a disjointed proof-text?  Either we believe in maintaining context or we don’t.  We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot condemn others for doing the very thing we have built entire doctrines on.

To show what I mean, I wish to present two examples, although there are many more than could be explored.  First, Jesus’ lesson on the Rich Man and Lazarus has been used to describe what happens after death.  Please read Luke chapter 16 carefully and ask the Five W’s and the H. 

Contextually, Jesus is talking about the dangers of riches, in short, materialism.  In verse 14, Jesus’ arch- detractors make their appearance, and upon hearing his teaching, “derided him.”  He tells them in verse 15 that their hearts were not right, that they attempted to justify themselves before men.  But what men hold in high esteem, God finds to be an abomination. 

In verse 19, the actual story begins.  Based on the context, to whom was it addressed?  The Pharisees.  What happens?  You know the story: the Rich Man lives sumptuously, while Lazarus (from the Hebrew name, Eliezar, “God helps”), is a poor diseased beggar.  They both die and the result is a reversal of fortunes: Lazarus is comforted in the “Bosom of Abraham,” while the Rich Man is in torment.  The Rich Man, who has never paid any attention to Lazarus before, at least in any positive way, now wants to use him, exploit him one more time, to comfort his tortured existence, and then to offer warning to his living brothers to change their ways to avoid his fate.   Abraham says the brothers have as much instruction as they need, Moses and the Prophets, and yet they would not change their ways even if someone were to rise from the dead.

Now, various commentators have suggested that the Rich Man represents the Pharisees, or broader still, the Jewish people, who were rich in their knowledge of God, and failed to share that blessing with their Gentile neighbors.  Others see the story as a morality play warning of the dangers of riches and the failure to concern one’s self with the plight of the poor, whom God had championed throughout the pages of the Hebrew Bible, and through those pages, still does today.

While these interpretations are both possible, the take-home message that some people get is not in the players or the action, but in the setting:  the Rich Man’s torment must be indicative of eternal conscious torment in hell.  Or, they may say it is merely the anteroom to what the wicked will face in the real hell. 

But the story is not about hell at all.  How can we know?  If the Rich Man is in Hell, then some important things were left out, like the Resurrection and Judgment.  The physical torment that might be alleviated by a single drop of water on the physical tongue belies the description of the resurrection body as noted by Paul in I Corinthians 15, which contends that body will be as different from the present one as a wheat plant is to the grain of wheat from which it grew.  The story is told to Jews from a Jewish perspective by a Jew.  Some say that Jesus co-opted a common story of the day to use as his setting.  That is debatable.  But if it is true, it could account for the variance we see with other end-time discussions. 

The real message of the story, however, may be that life is the time to do what is right, help the poor, use your wealth as a resource for good rather than hoard it to no real use.  The Pharisees loved wealth, remember, which gives us an answer to “Why?”  After we die, we cannot change things that we did or didn’t do while living.  The die will have been cast at the point, and one’s fate will be sealed.

So “How” can one escape the fate of the Rich Man? Contextually, this story has little if anything to do with specific teaching about Heaven and hell, and more with how we live and treat each other.  Listen to Moses and the Prophets, and especially to the one who would be raised from the dead.

Continued in Part II

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