Looking into the misunderstanding of cultural language in scripture
We spend a lot of time trying to interpret the wording found in sacred scripture when it is certain someone is telling us to read what it says. One warning our scripture professor said; “the bible doesn’t mean what it says, it says what it means.” Therein is the absolute guide we should use when teaching sacred scripture to novices.
One return to be shared with religious groups who knock at your door attempting to proselytize you is to ask them about the creation accounts in Genesis. Which one should we follow? We have to remember that the Old Testament writings are composed of four historical traditions. They are Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomic. Each tradition contains different viewpoints and their own manner of calling God by their own name given him.
In Genesis we find three of the different traditions interwoven throughout this book. They are the Yahwist as the most important because of its teaching. The Elohist tradition is found in fragmentary form only. It depicts God’s manifestations through visions and dreams rather than theophanies. Angels are God’s intermediaries with men. Then there is the Priestly tradition containing elements of data, lists, genealogies.
The Yahwist tradition structures everything in a pattern of warmth and personal emphasis, while the Priestly tradition structures its nature as a well-structured system with everything in its place. So, when we read through Genesis if we are not careful the different traditions may cause confusion. It isn’t as if some portions are incorrect, they reflect a tradition that appears as a different approach to the same background and must be absorbed as such.
Each time one chooses a new book to read in the bible, reflect upon each section as another chapter with a different outcome in the same story. Usually one section will follow the one preceding it unless the historical emphasis requires a change of characters or periods of time within the impact of the central character(s).
Our bible has an inerrant meaning; without error. Set aside time to read the bible as a collection of many books, but not reading it as a novel. Choosing different sections (individual books) to read and study is a wonderful manner in learning God’s instructions for you. Sharing the bible via book study groups or classroom entities is good, but the individual attention by yourself may find you in personal dialogue between you and the Lord. This is at times a wonderful way to reach God through contemplation.
A most disturbing entity is when the scripture speaks of close relatives of Jesus as brothers and sisters, as blood relatives such as siblings, when in fact it is a controversy that has no basic foundation. Here are three principal views; (1) they were actual siblings, that is half-brothers. (2 they were children of Joseph from a previous marriage, therefore becoming step brothers. (3) that they were cousins on his mother’s side, according to some, or on Joseph’s side according to others.
There is no clarification to these views, but it is in the understanding of cultural interpretation that through different translations the language changes as well. Do not become so fixated that the ultimate story of our redemption through the Incarnation and Passion of Jesus has infected the outcome of our redemption and ultimate glory that Christ has ready for us.
Ralph B. Hathaway