Friday, September 3, 2010

The Bible, What is It? Part III

My very insightful wife commented on Part II of this post asking for more details about how one determines what the text of the Bible means for us "now" and how modern Christians are to interact with it. 

We are working with the concept I laid out last time, that the texts of the Bible are the culturally conditioned word of God.  That means that these texts belong to a specific time in history and to a specific cultural context.  Therefore, one cannot just pick up the Bible and read a text and automatically apply it to one's life.  Instead, one must first determine what a text meant in its original context (what scholars call exegesis) and then translate that meaning into meaning for the present. 

It must be noted that this translation process (what scholars call hermeneutics) is one of the most contentious areas of biblical scholarship.  There are all sorts of theories of hermeneutics, and one must admit that hermeneutics is an art and not a science.  There is no ultimately objective Bible critic.

Let us move to the example I talked about last time, Genesis chapter 1.  A typical example of just picking up Genesis 1 today and reading it and taking meaning from it goes something like this.  You pick up the text and read it.  It appears as if the author is merely presenting information.  The language is propositional, God did this, God did that.  It sounds like a modern newspaper article.  Therefore, one reads it like a newspaper article and since it is in the Bible it has authority and one concludes that the world was created in 6 days.  This is what happens when one skips the step of exegesis. 

Exegesis on the other hand reveals several interesting aspects to the text.  One, reading it in the original language, one notices poetic language.  The earth was formless and empty (tohu va vohu).  One also notices the extremely structured nature of the creation.  It is not just a random 6 days of creation, but days one through three address the formlessness (tohu) of the earth.  Days four through 6 address the emptyness (vohu) as God fills what he has formed on days one through three.  Moreover, day one corresponds with day four, day two with day five, and day four with day six.  This is starting to look less like a newspaper article.

Another thing exegesis would turn up is that the scientific view of the ancient Hebrews, and really all in the ancient world was far different than our worldview.  In the ancient worldview, the world was flat.  When one looked up, one saw what looked like a giant dome above one's head.  Beyond the dome was the sun, moon and stars.  Below the earth was the underworld, the place of the dead, sheol, hades, etc.  This was the scientific view of the time based upon observation.  The ancients are not to be faulted that their view of the world is less advanced than ours any more than we as moderns ought to accept the ancient view of the world.

So, I still have not answered the question on how to translate this ancient meaning into meaning for today?  Well, one has to look at the ancient context.  In our present context some parts about the ancient context need to be removed and others highlighted.  The scientific view of the the ancients needs to be removed.  Genesis one was clearly not a scientific treatise, but it did presuppose the ancient worldview and thus aspects of that worldview do not hold meaning for us today.  Also, the reading of the text as a scientific treatise with outdated science will not hold meaning for today either.  One thing that does need to be highlighted from the ancient context is the poetical and metaphorical nature of this creation account.  This account was meant for didactic purposes.  The Hebrews were teaching us about some very important things and they did this in a memorable and poetic manner.  One last thing, in the ancient context, this creation narrative was polemical, that is, it was in competition with other creation narratives.  Looking at this narrative in comparison with other creation narratives one notices some big differences.  It is these areas of difference that point to areas of importance.  One of the differences is that this is a monotheistic account of creation, one God created the earth.  Another difference is that humans are created with dignity (in the image of God), not as servants to the gods (as in the Enuma Elish).  So, looking at the ancient context (exegesis) lets us see where to highlight meaning for our day and age. 

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