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Lost Treasures of the Bible

reading "from another place"
reading for a change

What's in a name?   
   Luke 15:11ff.

Of Palaces and Kings:
Reading the Bible from "another place
"

   Jeremiah 22:13-19

Why Read the Bible?
Dreams and visions

   Luke 1:46-55 & 1 Sam 2:1-10
   Leviticus 25:8ff.

Jesus Dreaming and
Visions of the Seventh Heaven

   Matthew 18:21
   2 Corinthians 2:5-11

What's in a name

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!

Of Palaces and Kings
Reading the Bible from another place

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'.

Why Read the Bible?
Dreams and visions

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 law.

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.)

 

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 be lost.

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.

 

Jesus Dreaming and
Visions of the Seventh Heaven

Jesus Dreaming

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.

Visions of the Seventh Heaven

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 :

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.

E-mail Tim

 

 

© 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

E-mail Tim