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Friday, May 13, 2011

Weekly Snippet: How History and Sociology Aid Biblical Understanding

I recently had a chance to visit with a couple who were working on getting ordination in the Assemblies of God church.  As we ate together, we got into a discussion of how secular historical documents, archaeology, and sociological studies can inform our understanding of biblical passages.

I have heard people say that the only thing we need to read to understand Christianity is the Bible.  Well, I do agree that the Bible is the only book that really contains everything that Christians need, and I do believe that if we never read anything else, we would be okay.  The Bible is not so full of complex language and rules that a child couldn't comprehend it.

However, there are good resources out there that can help us better understand what we are reading.  This is like having a teacher to explain what we read and guide our steps as we learn.  The teacher's words aren't more important than the material, and it is possible that, with enough understanding, we can reach a point where we can validly challenge the teacher.  This is why it is important that we all read the Bible ourselves and train ourselves to be experts about the material.

The Bible contains passages that describe people saying and doing baffling things, but it treats these events as mundane happenings.  Obviously we missed something, and that piece of information was known to the reader at the time the passage was written.

This is where secular historical documents, sociology, and to a larger degree, archaeology, all step in to close the gaps.  Although the worldview of these outside documents is not likely to agree with the Bible, they can reveal what was once considered "common knowledge" in a culture at a time in history that is now forgotten.  These things were so obvious to everyone that the author never thought it was necessary to write them down.

Take, for instance, the strange behavior of Ruth and Boaz in Ruth chapters 3 and 4.  First off, in chapter 3, the narrator never explains why Boaz put the corner of his robe over Ruth on the threshing floor.  We can gather clues from other passages in the Bible, such as the place where God instructed men to put tassles on the corners of their garments to remind them to keep God's commandments (Numbers 15: 37-39), but we won't fully understand what it meant to Boaz and Ruth until we understand how expensive it was to dye fabric blue at that time, according to the Biblical requirements for these tassels (as informed by secular archaeology).  To have blue thread in a tallit (tassel) was to be wealthy, so the tassel was in fact power and authority symbolized in a part of Boaz' wardrobe (sociology).  Basically, Ruth formally requested that Boaz use his power to rescue her from destitution, and when he put the corner of his garment over her, he was saying he would do what was in his power, because he cared for her welfare.  If you'd like to read further historical and archaeological exploration of the topic of these tassels, here is a fascinating article on the tallit.

Now, in Ruth chapter 4, Boaz performs the legal ceremony of the kinsman-redeemer.  There are a lot of complex laws being observed here.  Only one--the exchange of the sandal as the formal acknowledgment of the transaction--is ever explained to us.  There are others here that have no explanation, like the ownership of property in the land.  Under Mosaic law, the original clans owned different pieces of land, and it was not possible for one clan of descendants to permanently acquire the land of their kinsmen if someone died.  If a man left no heirs, someone close to him in his family would marry his widow, and her sons by this kinsman were the heirs to the dead man's property.  The duty of the kinsman-redeemer was to take care of the widow and the property, and to provide her with an heir to take care of her in her old age.  The underlying sociological information is that the widow was not an heir of her husband's property, and therefore completely penniless.  Without the kinsman-redeemer system, under the social rules of the day, Ruth and Naomi could easily starve.

One more tidbit about Ruth chapter 4.  The formal place for legal transactions was at the city gate, because there would be plenty of witnesses.  People continually passed in and out of that gate from morning until nightfall, and they got their news there (as informed by sociology, history, and archaeology).  To further insure that the other kinsman-redeemer couldn't change his mind, Boaz made sure there were respected elderly men in the community gathered there, many who may have known Naomi's husband and cared for her welfare, so that they could be special witnesses and could vouch for what took place.  They were probably gathered there to get their news and socialize, but they had special significance here as a legal body, and their words and blessings were like a formal legal document.

The Bible is peppered with such passages.  They make enough sense on their own, without the sociological background, but they become more real, and less distant, when we learn what was important and known to the people at the time it all took place.

The next time you find something strange in the Bible and wonder what it means, you should consider seeking out other sources to help you.  I have shared some in many of my older posts, if you look around.  Follow the tags at the end of this one.  Thanks for reading!