What's in a name?
Of Palaces and Kings:
Reading the Bible from "another place"
Why Read the Bible?
Dreams and visions
Luke 1:46-55 & 1 Sam 2:1-10
Jesus Dreaming and
Visions of the Seventh Heaven
2 Corinthians 2:5-11
I rediscovered lost treasure in my Bible. As a missionary in Africa teaching the Bible, I discovered that my students read familiar passages differently from me. These African students taught me that where you read from is important.
So, where do you read the Bible? On the bus... in bed... It seems an odd question. Yet 'where' one reads from, molds meaning. Some meanings are possible; others cannot be seen. One reader sees one thing, another sees others. Reading from some 'places' distorts the message of parts of the Bible; while a passage can come alive with new clarity when read in another 'place'.
Let's illustrate this by looking at Jesus' story of the family with two sons
(Luke 15:11ff.). Modern Bibles often add titles to Bible stories. They call
this one "The Forgiving Father", "Two Brothers" or (the
name many of us heard in Sunday School) "The Prodigal Son".
Each name concentrates attention on certain aspects of the story. Like a spotlight
it picks out some things but leaves others dim. Naming is like reading, for
each reader focuses on some things while others are left an out-of-focus blur.
"The Prodigal Son" is pleasantly comfortable and traditional.
But look at what this name does to Jesus' story. It focuses on how the younger
son wastes the family wealth. This suggests that his sin is being prodigal.
The message of the story risks becoming merely "waste not, want not".
This sort of reading, which 'comes from' the pioneer, imperial world of a century
ago, is in danger of allowing concern for the misuse of capital to drive out
the gospel from Jesus' parable.
"The Two Brothers" is a name my African students would have
liked. It focuses on social relationships. This name risks limiting our horizons
to the human world. But it can, perhaps, lead us to discover how much we react
like the older brother. This may shame us, but it offers the hope of grace.
"The Forgiving Father" (the French version has a rather nice
variant "The Found Son") focuses on theology. With this title Jesus'
story tells about God - for, like this 'Forgiving Father', God welcomes back
repentant children. Yet, by focusing on the younger errant son we risk failing
to discover our own need to repent of our 'older brother' attitudes - and there
are quite a few older brothers (and sisters!) in Church.
So, where you read the Bible matters. Your point of view and presuppositions can colour or even distort God's Word!
This article is about the Bible, so get out your Bible!
Before we start, read Jeremiah 22:13-19.
Jeremiah is speaking to Jehoiakim (v.18), the king who presided over the fall
of Judah to the Babylonians. Jehoiakim, it seems, is building a new palace.
Jeremiah, rather unkindly, compares him with his father. "Do you think
you make a king because you can compete in cedar? Did not your father..."
(v.15). The root of the prophet's criticism is that Jehoiakim is unjust while
Josiah promoted justice for all.
As a result, says Jeremiah, no one will mourn him, indeed all he will get is
a "donkey's funeral" (v.19), "dragged off and thrown outside
the gates of Jerusalem"!
If you read the prophets with the help of the standard commentaries, written
in the comfortable Western World, you can learn a lot about the historical background.
One will tell you about the rarity of "upper windows", another about
the source of vermilion dye.
What these Western readers don't focus on is verse 16. Yet these are the very
words that a reader from Africa or South America will notice first.
They say that Jehoiakim's father, Josiah, "judged the cause of the poor
and needy" and ask "is this not to know me? says the Lord". When
the poor and oppressed of our modern world read this, they discover a God who
says to know him is to provide justice!
What does knowing God mean? Praying, reading the Scriptures, singing sacred
songs...? Not according to Jeremiah!
Western Christians search for security in retirement and a cheaper cup of tea
now, with new songs on the overhead and even newer Bible translations in their
hands. According to the prophet, we don't know God!
Sometimes it is painful to read 'from another place'.
In Luke 1:46-55, Mary sings a song. Anyone who attended an Anglican school
or Church will know it well. The Magnificat, it's called.
Mary's song is powerful poetry. It borrows from the Old Testament, weaving quotations and allusions together.
It starts simply enough, with Mary and the miracle God is working through her,
and in her. It moves on to a paean of praise to the God who is merciful and
strong, faithful to the promises he made long ago to the ancestors.
Making allusions and using quotations from here and there as it progresses,
Mary's song is always close to Hannah's in 1 Sam 2:1-10.
As Hannah sings, the survival of the Israelites is already threatened by the
Philistines and others. This will lead them to accept central, royal authority
in exchange for the caring community they knew in a society based on extended
family and clan.
Hannah's son, Samuel, will preside over the change. Though he is reluctant,
and only acts because the Lord commands it (1 Sam 8:6-9). Samuel knows that
even if kings bring safety, through military strength, they will also mean oppression
(1 Sam 8:10-18).
After all he, and his mother, could see the ways of the kings of the remaining
Canaanite city states (Jerusalem was still a Canaanite kingdom till the eighth
year of David's reign, 2 Sam 5:5).
Mary sings as Judea seethes under Roman rule. The rich become 'tax farmers', and richer through legalised extortion. Powerful, Sadducee, quisling priests make a mockery of the Jewish faith in the Jerusalem temple. While in the country towns and villages, stern and self-righteous
Pharisees impose impossible demands on the ordinary people in the name of God's
Neither woman's song reflects the world as it is.
Their real world was full of greedy merchants, corrupt judges and power-hungry
politicians. Their songs tell of a world where: "The bows of the mighty
are broken, the feeble gird on strength" (1 Sam 2:4); and God has "scattered
the proud in the thoughts of their hearts... and filled the hungry with good
things..." (Luke 2:51,53).
Like Martin Luther King's speeches to American black people in the sixties,
these women's songs do not reflect life, but dreams. For when we are set free
to dream of a different world, this one can be changed.
Mary and Hannah, like the other prophets, offer through their words, the power
to dream of a world that is different. For in dreaming, or at least when we
share the Creator's dream, such a world becomes possible.
Hannah and Mary celebrate what is not, and proclaim it, against what is, in the name of the one who makes all things new.
Dreams of this kind can offer the motive power for working for a different world, the impetus to live for the Kingdom of God. However, dreams alone change nothing. Their practice needs to be envisioned. (So in the next section/article we will be examining visions.)
Like dandelion flowers in a city pavement
Visions, in Leviticus?! - but that's the dullest book in the Bible, all old
rules about not cooking meat and milk together. No. Try it and see.... Turn
to Leviticus 25 and start to read at verse 8.
This passage is all about the year of Jubilee. Jubilee, in the Bible, is when all debts were canceled and every slave freed. What the laws in this passage try to do is codify the dreams that Hannah and Mary expressed.
In Hannah's world the poor in the fields end up owing ever more to the merchant
in the city, in the end more than even a whole harvest could repay.
All it takes is a small drought, or a recurring illness. When your debts are
that high, all you can do is sell the field. Work for someone else. A few more
bad years and you have to sell yourself, or your children.
In Hannah's and Mary's world, Israelites lose the land God gave, they even
become slaves. The Creator, whose dreams these women express, cannot accept
slavery - he freed the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The land he gives cannot
Enter the law of Jubilee. Such debts will be temporary. Come the Jubilee everything
and everyone returns.
What a vision! A world where there is no grinding ancestral poverty. Where
the poverty trap is broken, at least once in every generation. All this is laid
out neatly, codified, as only lawyers can. Even merchants are protected, look
at verses 15 to 17.
What a shame! The vision seldom came to pass. Jeremiah 34:8ff. tells of one
king's attempt to apply these laws - and of his inevitable failure.
So we still need the dream, for even among God's people the vision is often sullied or overlooked.
I'm an Old Testament teacher, people sometimes joke that I am stuck in the
two-thirds Bible. To prove them wrong let's look again at the New Testament.
We often read Jesus words as if they were law. Peter did. In Matthew 18:21 he expects law from Jesus. "How often should I forgive someone?
Is seven times enough?"
Jesus reply sounds, at first, like the practical vision of the lawyer. "No,
not seven times. What I say is, seventy sevens." Jesus, here, is not giving
the vision of a lawyer, he is a dreamer, like his mother.
In the creator's dream there will be no practical end to forgiveness - you
will both be in heaven (or the other place) before you have really used up seventy
sevens of real forgiveness!
So many of Jesus' sayings exhibit this extreme and ideal quality of the dream
that empowers and motivates action.
Paul, however, as befits a reformed Pharisee and practical missionary, usually
builds more down to earth visions, telling the details of what can be.
In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 he puts Jesus' dream to work. Someone has done something, so bad that they have voted punishment at the Church meeting (vv.5-6). Paul now asks them to forgive and even console.
It sounds as though the guilty party may have offended Paul (if you read v.1 with v.10). This forgiveness has a pastoral goal (v.7) and a theological reason (v.11).
Forgiveness was not in Paul's nature. Look at the sad aftermath of the glorious council of Jerusalem - Acts 15:37-39 - Paul here is so unforgiving that even the 'encourager', Barnabus, is driven away.
It is only the power of Jesus' dreams, deeply embedded in him, and the Holy Spirit's strength which enable hard, unbending Paul to write visions of forgiveness to Corinth.
So, in conclusion, reading the Word of God, we need :
to beware the narrowness which comes from where we stand,
to listen to those who read 'from another place',
to learn to share the dreams the Bible offers, lodge them in our spirits,
to share in building the visions which will change the world.
In all of this we surely require the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Holiness.
© Tim Bulkeley, 2003
All material on these pages is protected by international copyright, however I am very willing to consider requests to use all or part of any piece. The use of small quotations is (of course) fine, just give as reference (at least) my name and the URL (e.g. Tim Bulkeley http://www.ebibletools.com/angels/).
The other sites Tim runs Postmodern Bible - a hypermedia (hypertext and multimedia) Bible commentary project; Bible3 Ancien Testament :: Méthodes d'etude.
© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2002
All material on these pages is protected by international copyright, however I am very willing to consider requests to use all or part of any piece. The use of small quotations is (of course) fine, just give as reference (at least) my name and the URL (e.g. Tim Bulkeley http://eBibleTools.com/angels/).
The other site Tim runs Postmodern Bible - a hypermedia (hypertext and multimedia) Bible commentary project