January 21, 2014 by Chris French
In the post yesterday we talked about how to read your Bible, but there are some gaps in our understanding that multiple readings won’t fix. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament mostly in Greek so if you don’t understand those languages you’re going to struggle in some passages because some of those words don’t translate well. So when you have read the passage multiple times, but something still isn’t clicking, or it clicks fine and you want to go deeper, you need to check the original words. There’s a fairly easy way to mitigate these difficulties. Find some good resources! E-Sword is a great one. I’ve downloaded it on my iPad so if I want to check out what a word means all I have to do is pull up E-Sword and click on the word. They’ve got a desktop edition that is free and an app for Android and iPhone that’s only $4.99. I use it every time I study so $4.99 isn’t bad at all! There are all kinds of books (Lexicons) you can buy, they’ll cost you more than $5, but if you want the print copy I’d try out 2nd & Charles in Birmingham. Look for Brown-Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon and Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Most people agree that they’re the best.
Another “gap” we’ve got to bridge is the cultural gap. 21st Century America is about as far away culturally from 1st Century Palestine as you can get, that is unless you bring up ancient Jewish culture, then you’re really lost! For example, why was it such a big deal for the Samaritan to help the beaten man in Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable? Or why did a brother sleep with his dead brother’s wife in the Old Testament? If you’re in the middle of a story and you don’t understand what’s going on and you’ve looked at all the words in their original language try figuring out if its a cultural problem. A lot of cultural difficulties can be alleviated by just listening to lessons. Most preachers spend a lot of time during their lesson helping you understand the culture the passage they’re discussing comes from. You pick up on those things as you go, but if you’re trying to understand a passage you’ve never heard a lesson on before find a commentary you trust or a manners and customs of the times book. (Feel free to ask me any of these questions, I may not know, but I can find out for you and I’m sure the same goes for any of our ministers and elders). By the way the Old Testament Jewish man would marry his dead brother’s wife to provide her with children so they could grow up and continue his brother’s line (Deut. 25.5-10).
Another “gap” you’ll need to bridge is geography. Since we didn’t grow up in the areas the Bible talks about we struggle with putting all the pieces together. This wouldn’t be a big deal if you weren’t trying to know absolutely everything about the passage you’re studying. You should be able to put yourself in that story to the extent that you see, hear, smell and feel everything that character felt. It’s impossible to do that if you don’t know the geography. I love history so the cultural gap naturally interests me, but I struggle with geography so this has been tough. In John 4 Jesus leaves the region of Judea and headed for Galilee the only problem is that the region of Samaria is in between the two countries. Because of the shared hatred between Jews and Samaritans most Jews would travel miles out of their way so they didn’t have to go thru Samaritan territory, but Jesus went right down the middle. Without an understanding of geography it wouldn’t have been as apparent that Jesus was breaking all the cultural barriers down.
The last “gap” you’ll have to bridge to get inside of the text is the historical gap. If a passage isn’t making sense and you’ve looked at the original words, noticed all the cultural stuff going on, and worked out how it looked on a map you need to find a history book. For example, why did Pilate give Jesus over to the Jews even though he thought he was innocent? Why not put up a bigger fight? When Pilate first got to Jerusalem he made a big deal about worshiping the Emperor and of course that strained his relationships with the Jews who in turn wrote letters to the Caesar who reprimanded Pilate harshly. On another occasion Pilate takes money from the Temple to pay for a new aqueduct. When the Jews find out about it they’re furious, but Pilate has set up Roman guards in the crowd who beat and kill anyone who complains too loudly. He’s in hot water from Rome during Jesus’ trial. He’s offended the Jews one too many times and now he’s going to give them what they want so they don’t tell Caesar which would get him in even more trouble because he’s taking bribes and executing people without a trial, all of which was against Roman law. Self preservation is a mighty motivator.
In all of these gaps don’t forget that the best resource in understanding the Bible is the Bible itself. Read the verses surrounding your passage, read the entire book if you have to. If something isn’t clicking find every reference to every character or place in your passage in the rest of the Bible. Explore that passage. If you’re still needing help find a good commentary. By this time you should be able to spot what’s not happening in the passage, if the commentary says something that doesn’t make sense read another one. These guys are smart, but they aren’t always right!
In short read the text multiple times, but you need to get down into the text so you can feel exactly what the character was feeling. To do that you’re going to need to bridge the language, cultural, geographical and historical gaps.