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Genesis Bible Study

Lesson One: Listening to the Text

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

In this series of studies in Genesis, we will begin with some preliminary considerations about how we view Scripture and how we go about reading and studying the Bible as Scripture. Of course, this involves a lot of issues that move outside the Genesis narratives. But they are issues that directly impact how we understand these particular passages. There are a lot of issues that could be covered. However, rather than trying to cover all the ranges of possibility for interpretation and try to define what is or isn’t right or wrong with all of the possible perspectives, this study instead will concentrate on one particular way of hearing the biblical text. It is not presented as the only way, nor even the best way, but only as one method by which we can hear the biblical message perhaps in new ways.

The Problem of Modern Thinking

In this first lesson I would like to focus on some principals or ways of thinking related to how we read and interpret Scripture. I think we need to do this before we move into actually working with the Genesis passages, because how we come to Scripture and the way we think about Scripture as we come to it, affects how we can hear it and what we get out of it.

Particularly the first three or four chapters of Genesis have tended to be battle grounds for all kinds of speculation, some good and some bad, some helpful and some extremely divisive in the community of Faith. The goal here is to move beyond the debates and the battles and hear anew these passages as the living and active word of God for the Community of Faith. By allowing the debates and controversies to dominate, and to stake out certain positions ahead of time and then come at the text through those positions simply guarantees that we will end up discussing things about the text yet never really get to the message of the text itself. We end up talking all around the text about what it should be, what it ought to be or, what we think it is and never really get to the point of hearing what the text itself is actually saying. I simply think that it is time for us to hear what the text itself says in relation to the Community of Faith that is bearing witness to us about its encounter and journey with God. That, I think, is what it means for the Bible to be Scripture for the Christian community today.

[The following comments refer to the graphic Three Triads of Biblical Interpretation. It might be helpful to print off that graphic or have it cached in the browser for quick reference in the following discussion.]

What we tend to do as we casually read Scripture is to approach the Bible as if it were a sequentially written historical account that is simply recounting events for us to follow through history. On the accompanying graphic, The Three Triads of Biblical Interpretation, this is illustrated in the far left hand column, in assuming that we read the Bible on that level of the history, the event, the individual stories. From this perspective, when we read Scripture we think we are accessing the Bible, entering into the biblical message, on that level of the historical event.  We than move from historical event over to application to our lives (on the chart the "down" arrows on the right side that lead to "Application for Spiritual Living Today"). We tend to think that the historical event relates directly to how we apply it to our lives: so as this happened to a certain individual, so it works that same way in our lives today.

Dealing With the Actual Shape of the Biblical Text

I think there is a serious problem with how we come to Scripture in this way of thinking, and I would like to suggest a different way of approaching Scripture. A much easier way to talk about this and illustrate it is to begin in the New Testament, since the difficulties with this assumption are much easier to demonstrate from the Gospel accounts where we have parallel accounts of the same events. Often we approach the Gospel narratives with these same assumptions, that we are reading a sequential historical account that is simply telling us in a matter of fact way what happened, what Jesus said and did. This is reinforced if we happen to be using a "red letter" edition of the New Testament. When we read those narratives and we see the words of Jesus in red, it is easy to assume that we are reading the actual words that Jesus spoke, especially since they are in quotation marks in our English Bible (none of the three languages in which the Bible was originally written, Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek have quotations marks; those are added by translators to conform to English usage, and are sometimes solely at the discretion of the translator where they are placed).

So, we read the text with the mental assumption that these are the very words of Jesus. This assumes that we are entering the Gospel accounts through the left side of the chart, through the level of historical event. In terms of simply reading the story as a historical narrative that superficial level of reading presents little difficulty.

However, when we move to study of the text for its theological message it raises serious problems. There are many places in the New Testament Gospels where we read the red letters, and then turn to a parallel passage in one of the other Gospels and find something different in some way.  For example, we can read something in Mark’s Gospel and find notes in the margin directing us to the other Gospels where a parallel account is recorded. Yet when we turn to the parallel, for example to Luke, we find that there are differences. Sometimes there will be differences of single words, sometimes there will be differences in whole sentences, sometimes it will be in a totally different historical context, or sometimes the event will be in different setting or location.

Take for instance, in Luke, the return of Jesus to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30). If we compare that event in Luke with the versions of Matthew (13:54-58) and Mark (6:1-6), there are significant differences in how the incident is reported and what is recorded that Jesus said (John does not tell us about this incident, which raises the same question from a different perspective; that is, why did John omit this incident?). For example, Luke tells us about the passage Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll, a feature omitted in both other accounts. Also, the comment that Jesus made about being accepted in his home town is very different in Luke than in Matthew and Mark. In fact, even the words differ between Matthew and Mark.

And it is interesting to note the very different placement of this event in the story line of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark both place this event well into the Galilean ministry of Jesus after he had performed many specific public acts. He had raised the dead (Jairus’ daughter), had healed the lepers, had cast out demons particularly around the area of Capernaum, and then had returned to Nazareth. Yet in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ return to his hometown is the first public thing that he does after his baptism. Luke knows of other activities of Jesus, but he clearly wants us to see his return to Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry. In Luke, Jesus first returned to Nazareth and was driven away from his hometown, and then he expanded his ministry into the area around Capernaum by casting out the demons and raising Jairus’ daughter. It is obvious with a little careful reading that not only are the words of Jesus different in Luke, the chronology is also very different.

Significance and Importance for Faith

What this tells us is that we are not really listening to the kind of history that we might think we are by only a superficial reading. It is not that this is something less than history, in the sense that it is based on the real life activity of Jesus. But it is not the kind of matter-of-fact reporting of details that we would expect in a carefully constructed, scientifically investigated, data-based reporting of historical fact. Obviously, something very different is going on in these writings, and it is a serious mistake to think that we are simply reading the same kind of history book that we would write to report the data of event.

What I would like to suggest is that we take these features of the biblical text seriously and direct our attention to what the biblical text itself actually does in telling these stories, rather than trying to impose on the biblical text our ideas of what it ought to be in terms of modern history writing. Here is the observation that will underlie this study: what we have access to in Scripture is not directly historical event, but the testimony of the community of faith to the ongoing significance and importance for Faith of that event. It is that significance and importance for Faith that the biblical witness is communicating, not just the historical details and data.

When we pick up this book, this Bible, we need to realize that it is a piece of literature, it is a writing. It is the written testimony of the community of faith as that community has already interpreted the significance and importance of the biblical events. In other words, we do not have direct access to the left column of history and event; we only have access through the middle column of literature and author and community as they bear witness of things they have seen and heard (1 John 1:1-4). The middle column suggests that what we have in Scripture is not directly the historical event but someone telling us about the historical event. What we have in the Bible is testimony in the form of literature. The access that we have to Scripture is on the level of literature, of reading what people, what the community of Faith, are telling us.

That still has connection to history. One of our primary faith affirmations as Christians, along with Jews, is that God has revealed himself in history. That means the Bible is not mythological, like the myths of the Greeks, Romans, and Canaanites that simply personified the processes of nature into gods and then told stories about those gods as if they actually existed someplace in the cosmos. The Bible is anchored solidly in human history, which is simply another way to say that we believe God revealed himself directly in human history. He doesn’t operate on some cosmic abstract level like the gods of the Canaanites or Romans, but he really meets people where they are. So that historical level is valid and important. We believe that Jesus walked in a physical body, in a physical place, at a physical time in human history; that’s why we talk about the Incarnation. God incarnated himself and revealed himself in history. It is not a myth or a story about the gods that helps explain why the physical world works the way it does.

Scripture as Testimony

Yet, what we have in scripture is a community of faith’s testimony to that history, not the history itself. For example, John’s Gospel, as well as the First Johannine epistle (referenced above, 1 John 1:1-4), clearly tells us that the author is selecting certain events and writing about the things that he has seen and heard. That is testimony. But it is testimony aimed at a specific purpose, and that purpose will shape how the story will be told, what is included or excluded, even to how events are remembered, arranged, and connected together, even to how the words of Jesus are remembered and told (since contrary to modern thinking, in the ancient world exact words were not recorded, but the intent or the message was remembered).

At the end of John’s Gospel he tells us: "There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the whole world could not contain the books that would be written." (Jn 21:25). And he had already told us earlier in the book: "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written that you might come to believe [or "go on believing"] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name." (Jn 20:30-31). He is selective and he represents a community of faith that is choosing certain aspects of history and interpreting them to instruct us in the faith. The focus is not on duplicating the exact events that happened in all their details, or even in getting the chronology of events all sorted out or making sure that the exact words of Jesus were repeated. The intent was to bear witness to who Jesus was and to call people to faith based on their acceptance of that witness. The writing serves that purpose, not the interests of our modern curiosity for historical data or details.

So, our access to Scripture is on the level of literature, which means we are really entering at the center column of the chart. As we read and study the biblical text, we are listening to literature written by an author who represents a community of faith. We are listening to the testimony of a community. That has several implications.

The biblical text is not direct reporting of history, it’s not just facts. Sometimes people make the comparison that history is like football scores because there is no interpretation of football scores. They are just data. But any sports fan will quickly tell you that the score does not always tell you the story of the game. In fact, the score may not at all reflect what went on in the game itself, or even the significance of the game.

What we are listening to in Scripture, at least in terms of the Gospels, is a community of faith picking and choosing events based on how that community of faith understood their significance, and what that community wanted or needed to say in relation to its own location in history. They knew the significance because they knew the end of the story. When we start reading in Luke, for example, the account of Mary at the birth of Jesus, we need to realize that Luke knows the end of the story when he tells us about those events. He is not writing it as it unfolds but he knows about the crucifixion and the resurrection. In fact, if Luke wrote the book of Acts as most scholars believe he did, he also knows about Pentecost and the origin of the church. Luke is actually writing somewhere around the year AD 80, or about 60 years after the crucifixion.

What Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus is shaped and guided by what he knows came later. So when he tells us that the Holy Spirit came to Mary, or the Holy Spirit came on Jesus at his baptism, or that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, or that Jesus returned from Nazareth in the power of the Spirit (features which the other Gospels omit!), we know that Luke is telling us those things from the perspective of the work of the Spirit at Pentecost and in the early church. He wants us to know the story from the perspective of God’s total work in the Incarnation, something that Mary or Elizabeth could not possibly have known at the time from their perspective. And he is emphasizing aspects of that significance that none of the other Gospel writers do. That means that we are not really listening to Mary and Elizabeth, but we are listening to Luke interpret those events from far the other side of the resurrection for his own purposes in the community of which he is a part. That is a crucial observation in understanding how to read biblical literature for its theological message!

The third (right hand) column on the chart simply says that the bottom line of what we are doing is theology. The reason we are studying Scripture is so we can learn something about God. We enter the biblical text on the level of literature as we listen to the community of Faith interpret and bear witness of the historical revelation of God. Yet, the purpose of listening to their testimony is to understand what they tell us about God, about ourselves, and our relationship with God so we can apply it today in our lives. We can understand, not just how God worked with them at a certain point in the past, but how he works with us now so we will know how to live, the application for spiritual guidance today.

The Implications of a Literary Approach

Now, it will be helpful for us to consider some of the implications of looking at Scripture through the lens of testimonial literature rather than trying to find historical details. Several observations will help us as we work thorough Genesis. One observation that we are not used to making as we look through the lens of historical reporting is that things are not always exactly as they appear on the surface in Scripture; it does not always just mean what it says!

This is one advantage of thinking literature as we read Scripture, because that lets us be sensitive to such literary features as sarcasm, irony, word plays, and narrative technique. It raises questions such as how an author in a community uses literature to communicate. That raises other issues, such as taking seriously the kind of literature with which we are dealing as a tool for helping us understand it. For example if we read Gulliver’s Travels and think we are reading a history of England, we are going to conclude some strange things about English history and never really hear what the author wants us to hear. Or if we pick up C. S. Lewis and read the Chronicles of Narnia or his space trilogy and think we are reading history on the one hand, or simply children’s fantasy on the other, we will have badly misunderstood the writing. Both assumptions will cause us to miss the beautifully true allegory of the Christian faith.

As a side observation at this point, we need to realize that there are two different levels of how we can read Scripture: exegetical study and devotional reading (See the article Devotional and Exegetical Reading of Scripture). Many people read scripture devotionally from a particular life situation as a means of communion with God. That is often reflected in statements like "God gave me this verse," or "This passage has always meant a lot to me." It is not that those insights or valuing of the biblical stories are wrong; it’s just that the "meanings" may not at all be related to the text itself because they are meanings imposed onto the text from a particular need and a particular life situation. And those "meanings" will most often differ widely from person to person even on the same verse since they are not really based on an understanding of the text itself.

Part of the reason we develop methods and techniques for exegetical study is to develop a common ground and common ways of reading the text. Hopefully, that will allow us to hear what the author is saying without going in all different directions or imposing our own needs and meaning onto the biblical text. That will not always happen, since we all work with certain assumptions and all come at the biblical text from a certain life situation that shapes what we ask and how we hear the answer, but hopefully in exegesis there is a little more common ground. I don’t think we can, in most places in Scripture, simply pick up the text and read it and understand the depth of its message. That does not say that we cannot understand Scripture or that it can’t impact our lives and change us. But it does suggest that to probe the depths of the truth of Scripture, and for it to become the living and active word of God, we will have to put out some effort to hear the testimony beyond our preconceived ideas and what we already think it means.

Theology as Story: The Role of Narrative

Since many of the guidelines we will be using in this study are covered in the article Guidelines for Interpreting Biblical Narrative, I won’t take the time to repeat them here. I will simply make a few additional observations and then address questions on the discussion forum that might arise from it.

Almost all the passages that we study in Genesis will be narrative, or will occur in a narrative context (e.g., genealogies). I have used the terms "story" and "narrative" interchangeably simply to designate a particular type of literature. "Story" does not suggest that it is false of fiction, only that it is narrative as opposed to prayer or prophecy or other types of literature.

Even by identifying this type of literature as narrative gives us some parameters for interpretation. Most narrative, especially narrative from the world of the Ancient Near East, intends to do something other than describe how things really are or "what really happened." Our scientific methodology tends to use descriptions to try to duplicate external reality. For example, if I were to ask someone to describe something or if I would ask someone to describe another person, we would try to describe the external "reality" of the other person in terms of physical appearance, such as how many feet and inches tall they are, what color of hair they have, etc. We would use physical descriptors to try to describe them in time and space and physical reality. It would probably take us a little while to get around to describing them in terms of more abstract qualities, who they are as persons beyond external appearance such as personality, likes and dislikes, etc., the qualities of the person.

What I am suggesting here is that the Bible is primarily concerned with qualitative description, and only rarely if ever directly concerned with physical appearance except as a function of that quality. -1- For example, Saul is described as being head and shoulders above all the rest of the people (1 Sam 9:2). We translate that into our way of thinking as a reference to how tall he was, and would probably start trying to figure out how many feet and inches (or meters) that would be. But in the narrative thought world of the Old Testament, his height was not a matter of appearance, and therefore physical description, but was a way metaphorically and in a narrative context to say something about the quality of the person; that is, they only told us this bit of detail as a metaphorical way to describe him as a leader (more obvious in 1 Sam 10:23-24).

Likewise, David is described as having a ruddy complexion which doesn’t just describe the color of his hair or complexion but tells us he is a very young, analogous to our expressions "red-faced kid" or "wet behind the ears." This feature is evident in several ways in biblical narrative, even showing up in the Hebrew language itself. In Hebrew there are no single words for color as simple abstractions; color words are words that relate to objects in life that exhibit that color, and when those terms are applied as descriptors in narrative, they become metaphors for aspects of objects that go beyond pigmentation.

For example, to say gray in Hebrew we would use a word that would also mean "old." Or, to put it the other way, to say "old" we could use a word that means "gray" (e.g., Gen 42:38, Deut 32:25, etc.). The same is true of other colors: green for freshness, newness or youth (Gen 1:30, Jud 16:7. etc.), blood for red which is then used to refer to violence, etc. This simply suggests a different way of thinking, a different approach to reality. All of those descriptors we read about in the Old Testament are not just physical descriptors, they are quality descriptors. They are not trying to draw for us a picture of the external world, but they are trying to involve us in understanding what it is like on an experiential level. Biblical narratives are not trying to duplicate external reality, they are trying to share experience and then call us to respond to that experience.

Features of Narrative:  Two Horizons

Narratives have particular features that can be used to identify them as narrative. The type of literature, the genre of literature called narrative, can usually be identified by three major features: a setting, characters, and a plot or the flow of the story that moves from stasis (or equilibrium) to conflict to resolution (climax and dénouement) to anticlimax or restored stability. Sometimes even recognizing these features of a narrative is important in understanding the message of the story.

The setting includes the historical, cultural, and social context of the narrative, and sometimes will even include aspects like geographical location that are factors in the narrative. One of the most difficult aspects of setting with which readers of Scripture must come to terms in understanding biblical narrative is that there are always two different historical contexts at work in the story. First, the setting of the narrative itself must be taken seriously as the immediate context of the story. It does not matter whether the context is improbable or illogical, because the setting of the story itself tells us how the story is to be heard. Some passages may require an attempt to find out more, if possible, about the historical setting in order to understand the narrative, but it must be kept in mind that the historical setting is just that: a setting. The truth or message of the passages does not lie in the historical setting.

The second setting of the narrative is the setting of the narrator telling us the story. He is situated in his own historical, cultural, and social context, and we need constantly to be aware of the "voice" of the narrator in the story. We will miss much of the significance and message of the story if we forget the role of the narrator, or forget that often the events or narrative being presented is being recounted by an author, a community, sometimes hundreds of years after the events themselves are presented as occurring.

This is easy to see in much of the historical material of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which are obviously telling Israel’s history from the perspective of the Babylonian exile. We have already observed the same features at work in the Gospel narratives, in which the Gospel writers are recounting the narratives about Jesus 60, 80 or 100 years after he lived. That means we have two historical settings and two political realities with which to deal. For example, it is fairly obvious in John’s gospel that they are hearing and telling the events about Jesus’ life in the context of various severe persecutions in the church under which they were suffering toward the end of the first century. They are applying the Gospel message to the needs of that community at that time, and understanding that second context helps us understand the biblical text in John.

These two time references of the setting of the story and the setting of the narrator are sometimes called the two horizons of the text. It is a wise and skilled reader of Scripture who is constantly aware of both horizons. There is also a third time frame that we must consider in interpreting biblical texts. That is the time frame of the reader, us, as we bring yet another horizon or perspective to the text. Sensitivity to these different time frames of the text will not guarantee a correct interpretation, but neglecting them will almost insure an inadequate if not wrong interpretation.

As we will see, cultural setting will also play a very large role in some texts, as in the first chapters of Genesis. That cultural setting is not obvious directly in the text, but when we become sensitive to the cultural context in which the Israelites lived who are telling us this story, the features of the text that seem obscure take on new clarity. How we hear certain kinds of words and metaphors comes from a cultural background, and we have to realize that the cultural background of the biblical text is not ours, and that it is simply assumed and not explained in the biblical text.

At this point, we will have to put forth some effort to understand the world of the ancient Israelites. Sometimes it is hard for us to realize that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is an oriental book. We live in a Western culture. The thought world of   Oriental culture is radically different from the thought world of Western culture, particularly when we recall that there is a period of three thousand years between us and that culture. We have to keep reminding ourselves that this is not our world, and this is not our culture. Again, this does not mean that we can’t understand Scripture; it simply means we are going to have to put out some effort to understand the cultural background. They were writing from within their culture for that time. They were not writing three thousand years in the future for our time and our culture. That’s why they are not writing about evolution in Genesis 1; that’s 3,000 years in their future. They were not concerned with evolution in Genesis 1. They were not concerned with our problems nor were they trying to answer the questions we would ask.

The next question is, with what were they concerned? What were the issues facing that community? The answers to this crucial question will begin to emerge as we work thorough the Bible study. The clues to those concerns are in the biblical text that we will be studying, if we continue to remind ourselves that the authors of this text were Israelites who lived 3,000 years ago! They lived in a radically different world than the one with which we are familiar. Yet, they encountered God in ways that allowed them to understand him and bear witness to us of that understanding, an understanding that we still affirm as true after 3,000 years! It is that truth that we seek to hear anew in this Bible study.

Notes

1. "One of the most interesting features encountered in the reading of the Old Testament is the almost complete absence of visual descriptions of person or objects. In reading the description of the Garden in Eden, we search in vain for a pictorial view. In the description of Noah’s ark we completely fail to form a mental picture of what the ark looked like based on the biblical description. And even the more intricately detailed description of the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings fails adequately to describe the Tabernacle visually." Dennis Bratcher, "Hebrew Thought Forms," Unpublished Master’s Thesis, 1977.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2011, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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