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Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Read the Bible, Part 3

At this point in the series, we are really getting into parts of the Bible that need a "guided tour," because some passages make a lot more sense when viewed in the context of the original languages and cultural practices. An experienced scholar could point out things that are not obvious in translation, such as the fact that the name "Adam" is very similar in sound to the Hebrew word for "dirt, earth," so his name is really a reference to the fact that God formed him from clay. In fact, most names in the Bible have meanings that comment on the significance of the place or the character of the individual. As for cultural practices that need explaining, there are instances in the Old Testament where men had multiple wives, children fought over their birthright blessings, people's heads were anointed with oil, things are measured in "cubits," and so forth.

Sometimes the Bible doesn't clearly explain the meaning of the symbol or the reason why something was so important, because it was obvious to the people at the time that passage was written. Good for us that we have historians, linguists, and archaeologists who have devoted their lives to rediscovering what these things meant so that we can understand those passages better. I am always thankful for Bibles that are printed with enlightening footnotes, but just in case you don't have one like that, you might want to check out Bible reference books like the ones I discussed in "Studying Your Life Instruction Manual".

God's Perfect Plan, Worked Through Imperfect People

If you've been following along, you have now read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Acts, Romans, Hebrews, Genesis, and Exodus. Today I'm focusing only on the Old Testament.

You have read about how God made the earth perfect in six days, and on the day of completion (the seventh day), God rested. Then humans messed it up by disobeying Him. When that happened, God didn't give up on His creation, but rather He dealt out punishment mixed with mercy. Even at the moment God was carrying out justice against Adam and Eve, He was promising that He had a plan to fix what they had done and restore His fellowship with mankind, and He was going to carry it out through the course of history. In God's curse on Satan, the serpent, God said,
"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3: 15 NIV).
This didn't mean that from then on, all women would be mortally afraid of snakes and teach their sons to kill them. It meant that one day, a son born of a woman (an Eve), but not of a man (a virgin birth), will do battle with Satan. Satan will do harm to the man, but ultimately be destroyed by that man. Who are we talking about? Jesus, of course. So, three chapters into the Bible, Jesus' victory has already been predicted.

Much of the Old Testament is, in one way, a straight historical telling of how certain men or women lived and what these persons did, but on another level, it is a narrative of how God accomplished His plan for redeeming mankind through the lives of imperfect people, culminating in the life of His own perfect son, Jesus. These people demonstrated a right way and a wrong way of living, so they are examples of righteousness and unrighteousness that we can take lessons from. Much of what happened served also as a symbolic prediction of Christ's life and ministry. When Jesus said that He had come to fulfill the law and prophets, He was telling the truth.

So, in this post, I'll say that the next books a new Bible scholar should read are those that follow Old Testament historical figures, because these narratives make the symbolism more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with it. I think that's why my earliest Bible education focused so much on the people in the Bible, adding the more abstract concepts later when I could link them with real individuals. There are many books to choose from, and you don't have to read them in any particular order. The most I can do is try to put them in historical order for you with a brief explanation after each one.

Heralds of Christ

  • Genesis and Exodus--You've already read them. Note the funnel-like pattern of the narrative. We see good people and bad people, but the focus always narrows to the good person, that is, the child of promise or the one person who obeyed God. God selects the people through whom He will carry out His plan, and begins narrowing that down to a specific family line who will eventually include Christ.
  • Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--Much of these books outline ceremonies, genealogies, and laws which Christ later fulfills. These passages may be baffling. If that happens, skip that section and continue reading the narrative parts about Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and others as you follow the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the land where God will carry out His plan for the nation. You can come back later to read the rest.
  • Joshua--Follows the man who was selected after Moses to lead the nation of Israel and puts the nation into the context of all that was happening in the region at that time. Also, note the appearance of Rahab, who is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Bible, since she is in the line (family) of Christ.
  • Judges--Follows multiple leaders of the early nation of Israel, before they had a centralized "royal" government. The nation had been delivered from Egypt as a whole, but here we begin to see, what can I say, a "culling" of the nation, or the elimination of bad people. God's promise to preserve Israel doesn't mean a promise to protect them from the consequences of sin.
  • Ruth--a woman in the line of Christ. The theme of redemption is strong here, paralleling Christ's redemption of anyone who will trust in Him.
  • Job?--Some place this story sometime in Genesis, between Noah and Abraham's times, which makes it the oldest book of the Bible. Job deals with the problem of suffering as a follower of God. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • First and Second Samuel--Covers the last great Judge of Israel, and the anointing of the first kings of Israel. The symbolic element in these books is the difference between what people want or think is the right thing, versus obedience to God and submission to His will. Samuel's and David's lives are parallels to Christ's life, especially David, who was in the line of Christ.
  • First and Second Kings--Call this the good kings versus the bad kings. There's a spiritual battle going on here for the souls of Abraham's descendants, which is also played out in the historical context of civil war and apostasy. Who will the people choose to follow--God, and His anointed human leaders, or Satan, and the sinful leaders who follow after his rebellious practices?
  • First and Second Chronicles--More kings and their reigns, but here we see the historical context surrounding these kings. Abraham's descendants are delivered into the hands of a foreign power because they refuse to obey God.
  • Daniel--the first half of the book is easy to understand, how God raises up people in bad situations to do His will. The second half, Daniel's visions of the future, should be saved for later.
  • Esther--chosen to marry a foreign King, Esther is used by God through her position as queen to rescue her entire people from certain destruction. Very much a "type" for Christ.
  • Ezra and Nehemiah--Chronicles God's miraculous delivery of his people back to their homeland, and their return to following His direction. As narratives go, Nehemiah is interesting since parts of it are written in first-person, almost like a diary.
  • Jonah?--I'm unsure of the time period, but I think this book comes after Israel returns to their former homeland. His prayer, the length of time in the belly of the whale, his mission, and other things are fulfilled symbolically in Christ's death and His purpose on earth. This is so critical to understanding Jonah that Jesus even mentions him as an example of what He came to do (Matthew 12: 38-40).
As a professor of mine used to say, just put the needle down wherever you want to start. Have fun reading the Bible and discovering God's miraculous plan for mankind!

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