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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Plain Reading

It is not an uncommon thing to come across a text in the Bible that simply seems to make a lot of sense on its own. Many of the Proverbs are like this, as are a great number of narratives available to us. There is not much particularly difficult about the stories of Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David. The pithy, timeless statements of wisdom are usually easily decipherable or require little thought when left to themselves. These are texts where a plain or natural reading is generally sufficient. We don't feel like we're drowning in information when Jacob is tricking or being tricked, or when we hear that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Even much of the story of Jesus (provided you don't do much cross-referencing between gospels) is fairly straightforward. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" is read very naturally both by those who suffer and those who don't.

But sometimes a plain reading is inadequate. Taking words at their face value occasionally renders them incomprehensible. Any sort of apocalyptic literature (Ezekiel and Revelation, for example) leaves us with the impression that animals can talk, giant sky-bound wheels are normal, and dragons are real and have multiple heads. Sometimes the natural reading leaves us in states of being the judges rather than the judged, or with the ability to justify human indecency (e.g., Eccl. 7.16-17).

But even some texts with a plain reading can be misunderstood simply because of the incredible difference in time and location. The plain reading of the early parts of Genesis, for example, creates (pun!) the idea of a world where all living things were vegetarian, the heavens pour out like waterfalls, and people lived fantastic life spans. If we know nothing of other early creation stories of a similar time period and geographical location, we may not fully appreciate the emphasis of the text.

Thus comes the necessity of interpretation. I grew up with the notion of "speak where the Bible speaks, and keep silent where the Bible keeps silent." I eventually discovered this was not a particularly honest position, especially when we were told to stay away from drugs (not mentioned in the Bible) and that alcohol and sex were bad (quite the opposite impression of the whole of the Bible). We have been left an ancient and difficult book (or collection of books, rather) which requires that we interpret it for each new generation. The Apostle Paul could not possibly have foreseen a world where one can send a message to another thousands of miles away in mere seconds or less; where sex can be viewed with relative anonymity; where the population has reached billions; where homosexuals fight harder for marriage than most heterosexuals, among whom there is a very high divorce rate; where slavery is not only frowned upon, but illegal in most places globally. His world is so vastly different from ours of smartphones, air conditioning, and symphonic orchestras that we must be ready to interpret his words and the words of his peers and predecessors.

I was once told, "The Bible is more than words on a page; it's also what happens between the page and your nose." We have to think about what's on the page, because the words themselves are not always so obvious. When Jesus says we must hate our families, is this a plain concept or does it require that we think about what he said and why? Was there something special about the 10 plagues that hit Egypt beyond their miraculous occurrence? How do we understand the prophet Obadiah without any knowledge of his circumstances?

We cannot afford to simply say to every situation, "The Bible tells me so." It has been too easy to justify actions of oppression with this line of thought. Once we know "what the Bible says," we cannot leave it there. We must delve deeper, and we must do something. We do not have the luxury of leaving interpretation to the hands of fate. So let's get digging.

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