Fun with Biblical Words and Culture

Unprovenanced cartoon from the early 1980s, courtesy of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Alumni Office
Unprovenanced cartoon from the early 1980s, courtesy of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Alumni Office

Biblical words. The Biblical world. And one consistent Biblical ethic. That’s what this blog is all about, in a nutshell.

 

Allow me to unpack the nut. And let’s see if we can have some fun as we do so!

Let’s start with words. We live in an age where words must be carefully defined. I learned this when a very moral, straight-laced friend of mine was asked as a joke if he’d ever had sex with a man. His answer: “Define ‘man’!” (I think he was hoping for the broad definition that includes both male and female.)

The Bible is like our U.S. Constitution. In both cases, it becomes important what every word means, and does not mean. A large portion of this blog will be devoted to exploring the meaning of numerous Biblical words via word studies. Words such as hayil, yashar, epithymia, and lēstēs are rich with meaning. Word studies can help the average reader discover a world full of meanings for those words. In one future blog post, we will see that shalom is not always peaceful; sometimes it means “payback” (!). In another post, we will see that yes, Jesus did speak one very potent word about same sex intercourse on his sin list in Mark (see my journal article, “Aselgeia in Mark 7:22” at https://www.bsw.org/filologia-neotestamentaria/vol-21-2008/in-mark-7-22/523/).

Sometimes it’s hard to find certain words in the Bible that are very important to us today. Just where should we look for the word “tolerance” in the Bible? Or where would you look for the word “depression”? Neither one of these words, or even the concepts, are as easy to find in the Bible as we might think. Or where can we find the word “happiness”? Plato’s word for happiness (which is similar to our modern concept thereof) is nowhere to be found in the Bible, and the word that our Bibles render as “happiness” is not Plato’s idea.

Depending on how we define “fun,” we’ll have some fun with Biblical word studies in this blog!

Another portion of this blog will be devoted to brief, surprising windows into the Biblical world. How much the ancient world to which God spoke was, or was not, like our own world today has an impact on our conclusions of what God intends to say to us. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” sends a totally different signal in our 21st century Western world than it did in the Biblical world. However, when we see that the ancient world had more sexual freedom than we have had in our own culture, then we have grounds to conclude that God’s word to us may be the same as God’s word was to them on that subject.

As we look at the Biblical time period, I particularly want to debunk the liberal myth that the ancient world was hyper-backward, and that we are so much smarter and more advanced than they were. The term for this is chronological snobbery. The method commonly used by chronological snobbery is to exaggerate the ancient viewpoint ad absurdum, then dismiss it. A closer look at such claims about the ancient world, however, will show many such claims to be exaggerated.

For example, we’ll take another look at the term “firmament” from the Genesis creation narrative. Did the Biblical world believe that the sky was a solid dome, or a thin expanse? Or what about the tanninim (usually translated “sea monsters”) from that same narrative – how can these be mythological, if God created them and declared them to be “good”? And if they were meant to be real animals, what were they? In the New Testament period, we’ll take a look at the rabbinic views on gender diversity, which are likely to have informed Jesus’ views on the subject. (Jesus was not shy about refuting rabbinic views with which he disagreed.) We’ll see how the Pharisees have been unfairly trashed by the ancient spin machine. We’ll also take a look at the surprisingly modern beliefs of the Epicureans, whose existence refutes the notion that the Bible’s writers were locked into a primitive worldview.

Did the ancients not know what we claim to know? Or did they reject views like ours, of which they were very well aware? We might be surprised how often the latter may have been true.

Finally, at the beginning of this blog post, I made reference to a single, consistent Biblical ethic. It is always dangerous (even if we are correct) to claim that we know exactly what God thinks on a subject. Yes, there are issues where God has not spoken, and we must not pontificate as if God has told us exactly what to think about any specific health care or tax bill (for instance). But sometimes God has spoken on a given ethical issue. It’s not us wildly stabbing in the dark. We don’t make it up. All we can do is discover what God has truly said.

So when we hear claims that the Bible contains a cafeteria of wildly diverse sexual ethics, and that the Bible sometimes endorses fornication, prostitution, and/or polygamy, my response is no, there is one consistent Biblical sexual ethic. We find it in a foundational verse from the Torah that is quoted by Jesus and re-quoted by Paul (a total of five times in the Bible). The other behaviors are aberrations or departures from this ethic, an ethic which is the standard by which the aberrations are to be measured. (See my book, What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?)

So when we hear claims that Abraham supposedly pimped his wife, we can say, Baloney! And when we hear the claim that wives in the Bible were nothing more than pieces of property, we can say, Skubala! (That’s the word we’ll be looking at in my next blog – see Philippians 3:8.) How can we become “one flesh” with a piece of property?

But maybe you’ve heard the objection that the Bible’s sexual ethic is surrounded by commands against eating unkosher food and wearing mixed fabric. Are these commands simply outdated baggage from the Biblical world? Were they commands that were intended only for Israel? Or are some of the Bible’s teachings timeless and universal? And how can we tell? We’ll probably take a blog or two to look into such questions, although I’ve already written a book on the subject. (See above.)

And even the Biblical teachings that are not direct commands to us can still inform our thinking. Proverbs 29:7 says that the righteous person know the rights of the poor. Because these rights were such common knowledge, the Bible never gives us a list of them. But we can try to reconstruct one! The question is: Will we then blow off our findings, with the excuse that times have changed?

Biblical words, the Biblical world, and the timeless, universal Biblical ethic that stands behind the whole of Scripture – we’ll have some serious fun unpacking these!

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