Category Archives: How to Read the Bible

Reflections on “18 Obstacles to Personal Devotions in the Digital Age” by David Murray

Yesterday, while going through my twitter feed, I ran across the above named aritcle. I enjoy reading David Murray’s blog, as his posts are biblical, thoughtful, and challenging. (I’m also excited to begin reading his new book, which came out just after I made my fall reading list). This particular post struck a cord with me, and so I want to share it and some thoughts on it. Before reading my reflections, please take a moment to read David Murray’s post here, as I will only comment on a few of the 18 obstacles.

To briefly summarize, Murray contends that despite all of the good (or perceived good) of the digital age, the habits created by the pervasiveness of technology and information can actually be quite detrimental to our spiritual lives. Murray is concerned not only by the distractions produced by our always-on-hand devices, but also by the way our consumption of and access to information is seemingly changing the way we think in general. (Lest you think Murray is being an alarmist, Nicholas Carr was discussing this issue back in 2008). Thus, Murray lists 18 obstacles that the wonders of technology present to Christians’ devotional lives, and thus their spiritual health.

Two of Murray’s points particularly resonated with me:

Murray writes:

9. Loss of quiet: Constant beeps, buzzes, and updates reduce undisturbed time for the brain to rest. Unlike other revolutionary media like radio and TV, the Internet is ubiquitous. We never get even a few minutes waiting in line with our own thoughts but turn to the smartphone to fill it up.”

I can certainly relate to this. I have noticed I used to chat with people in a line or think about an issue that was on my mind, now I just check twitter. This can also be a killer to my devotional life, because anytime I hear an alert on my phone, I want to grab it and see what it’s all about. To combat that, I try to always silence my phone when I’m reading or studying my Bible. If I forget to turn the volume off, I simply ignore it until I am done reading. Chances are whatever the alert is, it can typically wait fifteen minutes.

This next point by Murray struck me on an even deeper level:

“17. Loss of humility: In This is your brain on GoogleKate Shellnut wrote: ‘These days, we still say things like “I don’t know how” and “I can’t remember it,” but our ignorance rarely lasts long. Seconds later, it gets pulled up on Google or YouTube. The information we don’t know is so close—quite literally at our fingertips—that we forget we don’t know it.'”

As I think more about my social media habits, I find that much of the reason I spend so much time on twitter is because I want to be “in the know.” Somewhere, deep inside I am terrified of being “late to the party” and looking silly because I found out about something three hours after everyone else. I don’t want to not know. I want to have seen the tweet, read the blog, watched the video, so if someone says “Hey did you hear about (insert new pressing thing here)?” I can calmly (and smugly) answer, “Oh yeah, I knew that.” That is insecurity. That is pride. That is me wanting what only God has: omniscience. And that is sin. For that I must repent. Which is a sure sign I need to spend less time on twitter, and more on my knees.

This is a pretty big issue for Christians, and one of which I think many are unaware. We can often feel that we don’t have time to sit and read God’s Word, and when do, we often find it so difficult to focus. As it turns out, some of that may well be caused by the environment that live in; by that very patterns of life we’ve come to accept as “normal.”

The truth is, growth in Christ is something that takes time, a lifetime in fact. We can’t Google ourselves to spiritual maturity. It takes the work of Holy Spirit moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ. My prayer and hope is that articles like this one will help me and you identify those things which would distract us from Christ and build the discipline to press further into Him, even if that means disconnecting, unplugging and not being the “first to know” the latest news.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out David Murray’s follow-up post: “20 Tips to Personal Devotion in the Digital Age.”

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Shadows of Christ in 2 Samuel 15

On several occasions,  Jesus made the claim that the entire Old Testament (OT) is about Him (Lk. 24:44-48; Jn. 5:39).  I believe that the Old Testament speaks of Jesus in a number ways, but primarily by direct prophecy, foreshadowing, and typology (i.e. where an event or person represented or reflected something that was to come in the life of Jesus).  With this view of the OT in mind, I came across an interesting episode in the life of David that foreshadows an event in the life of Jesus.

2 Samuel 15-19 contains the narrative of the rebellion against King David by his son Absalom.  In chapter 15, we read about Absalom’s (whose name ironically means “My father’s peace”) conspiracy, his coup, and his march toward Jerusalem, David’s capital city.  The second half of the chapter (vv.13-37) record David’s flight from Jerusalem.  The text notes that during David’s flight he crossed the brook Kidron (15:23) and then went up the Mount of Olives (15:30).  There on the mount, David is met by Hushai, a man the text specifically labels as David’s friend (15:37).  Hushai, in his loyalty to David returns to Jerusalem and plays a vital role in downfall of the rebellion (see 2 Sam. 17).

Interestingly, Jesus, the long expected Son of David (Mt. 1:1; Lk. 1:32-33; Rev. 22:16), experienced an event much like this one from David’s life.  When Jesus came to earth, He was a King (Jn. 18:33-37) who found Himself in the midst of a rebellion.  As David’s son, his own flesh and blood rebelled against him, it was humanity, those whom Jesus created in His own image that were in rebellion against Him (Jn. 1:10-11; Rom. 5:8-10).  Like David, in a desperate time, Jesus and his closest followers left Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron (Jn. 18:1) and  ascended the Mount of Olives (22:39).  While on the mount, Jesus also was met by one he called a friend (Mt. 26:50).  Yet, unlike Hushai, Judas came to betray his master.  While David re-entered Jerusalem as the victor, Jesus re-entered the city in bonds.  While David defeated Absalom’s rebellion with military strength, Jesus defeated the rebellion of sin by dying on a cross and rising again on the third day.

Now, some may argue that Jesus and David traveling the same route, being met by a friend, and the like is not much more than mere historical coincidence.  After all, no one Gospel presents all the details as I have reconstructed them above.  Yet, despite these and other arguments that could be made to the contrary, I contend that no detail in the text of Scripture is coincidental, and that what we have going on in these events in the life of David is an intentional foreshadow to a similar event in the life of Christ.  Perhaps the Gospel writers even  included the details they did to make a subtle connection for their reader’s to this OT account.  The question then remains, so what?

I would say this foreshadowing accomplishes three things.  1) It demonstrates that David’s life, not just his writings and the promises made to him, point to Christ.  Thus we ought to read these accounts with an eye for theology, not just looking for a nice, neat moral interpretation.  2) It demonstrates that all Scripture bears witness to Jesus Christ.  3) It causes us to look for the one Son of David who suffered rebellion, yet defeated it and brings peace in chaos, forgiveness to His enemies, and healing to brokenness.  This we find in Jesus, the One who ties all Scripture together.

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Filed under How to Read the Bible, New Testament, Old Testament

From the Shelf: The Art of Biblical Narrative

In this edition of From the Shelf I’ll be taking a look at Robert Alter’s The Art Biblical Narrative, an interesting an influential little book on the narrative techniques of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

Originally published in 1981, Alter’s little tome was a bit of a watershed moment in Old Testament studies, exerting an influence that is still felt today.  In this work, Alter takes an approach to the text of Scripture, that for a non-evangelical (or non-conservative Jewish) scholar was rather radical: that the books of the Hebrew Bible ought to be viewed as carefully and skillfully composed texts, as opposed to simply a patchwork of contradicting ancient sources, which were haphazardly thrown together.  In this regard, this book has greatly shaped literary approaches to and studies of the Bible.

Thus, Alter employs his skills as a literary critic and Hebrew scholar to explore the various techniques that the Hebrew authors used to convey their message in Scripture. Persoanlly, I found chapter 5 on repetition and chapter 8 on the omnipotent narrator to be the most helpful and insightful.  Especially intriguing is Alter’s discussion of how the slightest change of a word or phrase in otherwise verbatim repetition carries with it some shade of meaning. These two chapters alone are worth the price of the book.  Further, his critiques of the shortcomings of historical-critical scholarship are accurate and valuable, especially coming from a non-evangelical scholar.

While I appreciate Atler’s respect for the texts of the Old Testament as unified, purposeful documents, his careful reading of those texts, and keen eye for detail, there are a number of issues where I disagree with him.  Primarily, Alter and I disagree on our foundational presupposition of the text.  I clearly view the text of Scripture as the inspired, inerrant, Word of God.  Dr. Alter, on the other hand, approaches the text as merely the creation of men, containing irreconcilable contradictions, and oscillating between being either “fictionalized history” or “historicised fiction.”  He does, however, insist that these texts convey the theology and worldview of ancient Israel, so hold value for reader today, and can give insight and meaning into life.  This, however, proved to be a valuable exercise on my behalf, because it forced me to critically ask myself, “If I agree with Alter about a certain technique, how do I reframe my understanding or articulation of that point so that it agrees with my view of Scripture.”

Overall, if you’re interested in learning more about how OT narrative “works” to convey its message, I would commend this work to you.  The authors of the OT were brilliant writers and masters of their language, and Alter really brings out that point.  While I don’t agree with everything Alter says or his fundamental view of Scripture, on the whole his book encourages us to be more careful readers of the text of Scripture, and that is never a bad thing.

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Out With the Old in With the New? Christians and the Old Testament

DSC_4094Recently, I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend in the way that lots of Christians view a large portion of the Bible, what we call the “Old Testament.”  Since the Old Testament (OT) comprises 39 of the 66 total books in the Bible (roughly 60%), it seems we might want to have a correct understanding of those books.

It seems to me, however, that a majority of Christians have one of two responses to the Old Testament: either they simply moralize the text or they just neglect it all together.  After all, (the thought goes) it is “old” so what do we need it for anyway?  Don’t we have something “new” and better?  Unfortunately, these two “approaches” to the text of the OT trickle down into books, Bible studies, Sunday School lessons, and sermons.  Even the mention of the OT often conjures up images of crusty old scholars in dusty offices droning on monotonously about ancient Hebrew culture.  So why spend our time on that, when we can just skip to the good stuff?

For example, a popular book on how to study the Bible claims that less than 2% of OT prophecy is messianic (i.e. about Jesus Christ), less than 5% describes the New Covenant age (i.e. all the time after Christ came), and less than 1% concerns events yet to come in our time (Stuart & Fee, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, 182).  If that’s the case, then no wonder people ignore it.  What does have to do with us anyway? (Not to mention that gives a pretty shaky foundation on which to build a belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah). But, since there are still a lot of words there, we should talk about it some, and there are nice stories, so let’s just read the nice stories and talk about how they tell us to be better, nicer people.  But, there is something flawed with this view: it doesn’t at all agree with the New Testament’s (NT) take on the OT.

First, and foremost, we need to realize that the OT is theology.  Far from being a collection of nice moral stories, it is the self-revelation of who God is and what He is up to in His creation and in history.  That being the case, it is better to ask of any OT passage, “What does this teach us about God and about humanity?”  And from there we can apply the text to our own lives.  In that way, we let the theology of the text teach us, instead of simply trying to find the “moral” of the story.  For example, maybe the account of David killing Goliath is less about how God can use anyone to do His work if we just let Him, and more about God demonstrating His power and sovereignty and zeal for His glory.

Second, to neglect the OT in favor of the NT leaves us with a less than complete understanding of the NT.  Neglect is wrong because as Paul makes clear, all Scripture is inspired by God and useful (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Moreover, the OT is foundational for understanding the NT, because in it we read about where we came from, how we got in the mess we’re in, and God’s plan to do something about it through Christ.  And, with all due respect to the gentlemen named above, more than a small percentage of the OT is about Christ: all of it is.  Jesus (Luke 24:44-49), John (John 5:39-40), Paul (Acts 26:22-23), and Peter (1 Peter 1:10-12) seem to agree that all of the OT testifies about the life, death, resurrection, and continuing mission of Jesus Christ.  Now, this does not mean that every single word of the OT is about Christ, but that every book -whether narrative or poetry- points to Christ in various ways, some obviously more direct than others.  These verses instruct us that Christ is the lenses through which we are to now read, interpret, and study the OT.  Christ is the great theme of the OT, the one through whom God will accomplish His mission of redemption. In others words, not only does the OT teach us theology, but it is supremely Christology.

If that is the case, then the OT has much to say to the church today.  It gives context to what is revealed in the NT.  It explains why the Good News of the Gospel is actually good news.  In fact, the NT writers were so throughly entrenched in God’s Word (our OT), hardly a paragraph goes by in the NT without some reference or allusion to the OT.  So, how do we best understand the NT?  How do we better come to know the God we worship, lovingly obey, and serve?  By reading the OT.  So, let me encourage you to spend some time in the OT, reading it, studying it, wrestling with it.  It is the foundation of our faith, it is a treasure trove of Christ.

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Narrative Technique and Genesis 12

Recently, while doing some translating, I came across an interesting little feature in the narrative of  Genesis 12:11-20.  This passage records the account of Abraham’s journey to Egypt during a time of severe famine in his new home of Canaan.  Abraham’s wife, Sarai, was very beautiful, and he feared that the Egyptians would kill him and make her one of Pharaoh’s concubines.  So, to allay his fears, he convinced Sarah to lie and tell everyone that she was Abraham’s sister.  A tension then arises in the text, as the lie goes into effect and Sarah is taken into the house of Pharaoh.

What caught my eye was the way in which the narrator (Moses, I would say) chooses to refer to Sarai throughout the account.  Sarai is only referred to by name twice in the account, once when she is first mentioned (v.11) and again in the pivotal v.17.  Throughout the rest of the narrative (10 times) she is referred to by the Hebrew term ‘ishah, which can mean either “wife” or “woman”.  I would suggest that by playing on the varied meanings and identical sound of ‘ishah, the author is highlighting, by literary means, the tensions and ambiguities brought about by Abraham’s lie.  To illustrate this, let’s look at each occurrence of ‘ishah in this passage.

In v.11 Sarai is introduced as Abram’s (Abraham’s name before God changed it) wife (‘ishto).  Abram observes that Sarai is a beautiful woman (‘ishah).  Then, in v.12, as he paints the hypothetical scenario necessitating their lie, Abram anticipates that the Egyptians will realize this beautiful lady is his wife (‘ishto), and so kill him.  So, far the uses of ‘ishah are pretty straight forward, which sets the stage for a reversal of meaning in v.14.

In vv.14-15, Abram’s fears are realized as the Egyptians see Sarai, believe the lie and spare Abram, and take Sarai to Pharaoh’s house.  However, in these verses Sarai is referred to merely as “the woman” (ha’ishah).  It is here, I suggest, that we see the author’s literary skill.  By previously referring to Sarai as Abram’s “wife” (‘ishah), the narrator introduces an ambiguity here by referring to her as “the woman” (‘ishah).  The effect of this subtle wordplay is to heighten the tension of the situation.  From the Egyptians’ perspective (and from what they are told), this attractive lady is just some woman (‘ishah), yet we the reader know she is actually Abram’s wife (‘ishah).  The use of the identical Hebrew word, then, brings the reader much more into the messiness of this tense situation.  A word with a possibly ambiguous meaning is used to heighten the ambiguity of the scene.

In v.17, Sarai is once again named, as she is referred to as “Sarai, the wife of Abram” (‘eshet Abram).  It is here that the narrative turns, and Abram’s lie is foiled, as the Lord sends plagues on Pharaoh’s house because of the lie.  I would say that Sarai is referred to by name, in order to highlight the fact that the jig is up, the lie is exposed, and everyone knows that Sarai is not an eligible woman, but Abram’s wife.

For the rest of the narrative (vv.18-20),  Sarai is referred to four more times, each by the term “wife” (‘ishah).  The play on the term ‘ishah is especially brought to the fore in v.19, when Pharaoh exclaims that he was going to take Sarai as his wife (‘ishah).  After all, as the reader is well aware, he assumed she was an available woman (‘ishah)!  Then, to drive home the deviousness of Abram’s lie Pharaoh tersely proclaims, “Behold your wife! (hinneh ‘ishetka) Take her and go!”.    The ambiguity now gone, Pharaoh declares the truth of Sarai’s identity and brings the force of the wordplay fully to bear, as if to say, “She’s not just a woman, she’s your wife!  Now take your lying self and go!”

While no great theological point is at stake if we miss this wordplay, I think this subtle tool reveals a lot about the way that the inspired Biblical authors operated.  First, it demonstrates that they were masters of their language, able to faithfully recount historical events in a way that artfully and cogently expressed the truth and message in those events.  Second, it reminds us to be careful readers of the text of the Bible.  Third, it demonstrates how God chose to reveal His truth in both a meaningful and creative way (and that is just cool to me).

You don’t need to know Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to be a careful reader (although those are good, helpful things).  If we will slow down, and become observant readers, aware that the authors used the literary techniques at their disposal, we will gain a deeper and fuller understanding of the Bible’s truth.  So, read on, read with care, and remember in the Bible, nothing is written by accident, even the little things matter!

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Filed under Genesis, How to Read the Bible, Old Testament