Ruth and I are reading through Genesis and I have to admit there are a great many texts that are difficult to understand in the book. Anyone reading through the first nine chapters is confronted with a host of statements that are puzzling and a bit confusing to say the least.
It is not only Genesis where we are confronted by statements that leave us scratching our heads and trying to understand what is being said. Throughout the Bible we run across texts that seem on the surface to be contradictory and just plain “weird.”
So how do we deal with these texts that seem so contradictory when reading the Bible? First of all too many of us are reading the Bible and not studying the Bible. I know, that sounds like heresy, but is it? We give a quick reading of a chapter then move on taking our puzzlement with us in our hurry to complete our reading for the day and we have learned very little.
When we come to confusing passages of Scripture we need to take the time to try and figure out what is going on in the passage. The first thing we need to ask ourselves is who are the original readers of the passage and how might the passage relates to those people.
For example, the first chapter of Genesis is often attacked because of its simplicity and its lack of scientific theory for the creation of the world. But, for the author of Genesis, how would he convey the world to an ancient culture that believed in a world created by a host of gods for their own pleasure? How do I know the ancient cultures believed that selfish and harsh gods were credited with building this planet through a host of supernatural and not so supernatural events? I simply looked the information up.
And that leads me to the second important aspect in figuring out what is going on in a text such as Genesis chapter One. Find out, if you can, what the cultures of the time of the writing were thinking and believing. This helps a great deal because we can now put the text in context to the world around it. For instance, if the ancient world understood the world to be egg shaped with earth like a flat pancake half way across the egg and the waters that contained dragons and monsters to be under the earth, then we can begin to understand a number of texts more easily.
When the seven-headed beast comes up out of the sea in Revelation it might seem weird to us, but to the cultures of the time it was what they understood about the earth and what was in the waters.
Lets go back to Genesis chapter one again. The Egyptians believed in something called Maat taken after the goddess Maat. It was the idea of harmony and law and order. Maat was the opposite of chaos, represented by the desert, and thus the two opposites, harmony and chaos, were kept in balance by the idea of Maat in their lives.
A number of Old Testament scholars believe that the writer of Genesis one was actually confronting the view of Maat in the writings. The writer was showing that originally the entire world was good and that chaos was overcome and conquered by a loving, caring creative God. The idea that the world was now full of law and peace on one hand, but chaos on the other, shows that there has been change and not change for the better.
The question that the readers would ask is “why the change.” The next chapters would explain the reason that the world went from perfect to chaos and that reason is sin or rebellion.
You are probably saying to yourself this is all interesting, but who has time or need to try and find out what was going on in ancient Egypt or what the texts meant to them? Of course we don’t have to know the historical background to a text to appreciate and love its message, but in many cases it helps a great deal to understand what was going on.
Once we understand what it meant to the original readers we can begin to understand the verse in light of the culture and what God was saying to an ancient world. Modern scientific theory, for example, would have meant nothing to an ancient world. Yes, God could have explained the creation of the world in terms that a modern scientist could understand and appreciate but it meant nothing to a 5th Century BC Egyptian.
The Bible has to be read in context as well. What do other texts say about what we are reading? No text should be used to uphold a teaching or doctrine without understanding how it fits into everything that is being said about the subject. Proof texting has its upside but can lead to some wrong conclusions as well.
If we try to understand what the text meant originally and place it in context to what is being said through similar texts we begin to understand what the context and meaning was originally. We then can draw conclusions for our own time with more confidence. We ask the question, “how does this text relate to me?” And in the case of complicated and hard to understand texts we have a framework in which to study.
One other thing, don’t be afraid to invest in commentaries and other works that can help explain the text. It is one thing to go away from a text after attempting to understand it without a clear knowledge of the text and a whole other thing when we don’t make an effort to understand it. Some things will remain a mystery to us, but the things we can understand we should try to know.
And of course, I am taking for granted that we pray over the text and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance. This does not mean, however, that everything that pops into your head is the Holy Spirit talking to you. This is why it is important to study.