I want to address the issue of how the Bible is read. In particular, I want to look at the Hebrew Bible, or what we know as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. I want to argue that cultures of the south Pacific, that is, Māori and Pacifika cultures, offer us valuable windows into these ancient texts and we need those windows.
There are two premises upon which my address is based:
- The Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, is generally poorly understood and frequently misinterpreted, both within and outside the Church.
- We need help to read the Old Testament well, and that some of that help is at hand in the form of the Māori and Pasifika cultures that remain a somewhat marginalised voice in our church and society.
Let me address each of these premises in turn.
(Mis)Reading of the Bible.
My first premise is that the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, is generally poorly understood and frequently misinterpreted.
Let me illustrate by asking you a question – What do you think is the most common question students have when we study the creation stories in Genesis ……… How does this fit with Evolution? The second one is, what does it have to do with the origins of the universe? ……
The problem is not so much the question but the reason the question is raised. It stems from a misconception, the assumption that an ancient prescientific text must immediately and simply respond to our ideas about human origins (or the Big Bang Theory). It makes as much sense as reading the opening pages of a textbook on mathematics and asking what it has to do with evolution or the origins of the universe. Mathematics is quite applicable to the study of evolution and the origins of the universe, but the connections are complex and they are going to take you way past the basics of your average mathematics textbook.
The opening chapters of Genesis can also speak to the origins of humanity, or the universe, but it is not a straight-line connection. Neither is it an automatic head-butting exercise where the Bible and the scientist are on a collision course. Yet so many of the theological students I teach are programmed to think there is a basic problem, one is right and the other is wrong. The idea is rooted in some misunderstandings about the nature of Genesis. My students have been taught poor reading habits by church and wider society. I could multiply examples from over thirty years of theological education, but I need to move on.
Now some people might say the problem is not a misunderstanding, it is lack of attention to the Spirit of God. That all that is needed is to be truly open to the Spirit and all is solved. However, the Spirit is not a magic bullet that solves all our reading problems, who immediately overcomes our ignorance or biases. A pivotal moment in the story of Jesus in the Gospels is when Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus responds by telling Peter that his insight is a revelation. Peter’s confession was revealed by God. Then Jesus begins to tell his disciples that as Messiah he will be arrested and executed. Peter rebukes Jesus and gets told off soundly by Jesus in response. Peter has had a revelation, but his presuppositions mean he misapplied that revelation. His assumptions, along with many first century Jews, were that the messiah was a conqueror not the victim of an occupying power. So, Peter and the other disciples struggled with understanding Jesus as Messiah and it took the crucifixion and resurrection for them to begin to understand better. It is much the same for us, whatever we read in the Old Testament it is a mix of insight and misunderstanding. Greater knowledge of the Bible leads to greater understanding. The church has always presumed that education is a part of the discipleship process and that it is one of the means the Holy Spirit uses to guide us.
Why is our reading often misreading?
Why do we, who are highly literate people with ready access to more information than any previous generation, regularly misread the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular?
The short answer is a gap, actually a chasm, an enormous breach between the kind of literature we know and the kind that is in our Bible. It is a chasm of chronology, chasm of language, and a chasm of culture.
Reading is a highly complex skill that requires us to use all of our ability with symbolic manipulation to translate marks on paper or shapes on a screen into meaningful ideas. So, we start with learning that those shapes we call letters equate to sounds and that combinations of those letters equal combinations of sounds that are the words we use in oral communication. However, once we grasp that we have only just begun, we now learn there are different rules for different kinds of reading. Some literature is description, like a report, and intended to be taken literally. Some reading is fiction, a purely invented story designed for entertainment not information. Still other reading is poetic, composed of compact sentences, dense with allusion and metaphor that opens varying possibilities for interpretation.
We need to learn there are different styles of writing, or genre. Different genres have different rules of interpretation, we need to master not only the mechanics of reading but also the rules that govern meaning in various genre. That means building a background knowledge of literary forms and their rules of engagement. Some genre we know because of the way they are introduced. The words “once upon a time…” signal a particular genre we call a fairy tale, regardless of whether fairies appear in the tale or not. Others signal their genre by how they are presented. Poetry often consists of brief lines, while news is often formatted in narrow columns. Other styles are apparent by the title, or cover page, or categorisation on a website, or topic. Some styles of literature we only get to identify by reading carefully while looking for clues. Cleaver satire, for example, can imitate other styles and so figuring out whether we are reading a news report or a cutting critique of the news can be a challenge at times.
So, we need the skills to read a sentence but also, the skills to recognise that the sentence is presented in a particular kind of literature and its context in that literature will influence the meaning we derive from it. For example, Psalm 96:12 has the phrase “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” This is Psalms, it is poetry, we read this a metaphor not as a literal statement. We don’t read this verse as making some kind of impossible claim about trees singing because the kind of literature affects how we understand what we read.
There is yet another dimension to reading. We as the reader come to the text with a certain set of experiences and ways of thinking. That means our reading is not just affected by our reading skills or our ability to recognise the genre and therefore the reading rules that apply, but also by our worldview. Our default mechanisms about how the world works impact on our reading. The way our unconscious assumptions affect our reading is an area that is increasingly being identified as an issue in how we understand and apply the Bible. Feminist scholars have taught us that patriarchal assumptions frequently colour our reading. At its extreme this has led to errors in the translation of the Bible. More recently a number of scholars have argued that our western enlightenment ideas of mastery and independence distort every aspect of theology from our reading of the Bible to its application in life.
Let me give you a simple example rather than delve into the complexities of philosophical theology. Psalm 9:1 “I will praise you O LORD with all my heart.” From our modern perspective, where the heart is the metaphorical centre of our emotions, this suggests a deeply felt, emotive praise. However, in an ancient Israelite world the heart was the centre of the will, the place where decisions are made. The Psalmist is expressing praise because he has reasons to praise the LORD, which are detailed in the rest of the Psalm. We tend to want to separate head from heart, in popular thought things have to get from head to heart to really affect our lives. In the ancient world of the Old Testament that division is not assumed. The heart is the seat of all thinking and of emotional reaction. The word “heart” in the Old Testament, when used metaphorically for our inner being, assumes the mind as much as it does emotions – often with the mind emphasised. So, Proverbs 2:2 encourages the learner to incline their heart to understanding, that is not a call to intuitive understanding, but a call to set the mind to understand. This is also why the command in Deuteronomy to Love the LORD our God with all our heart, all our soul and all our strength (Deut 6:5) is changed when it is repeated in the New Testament. Mark’s version says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). Mark is writing in Greek so he adds the word “mind” to make sense of what the Old Testament intends to communicate.
In the complex we call reading, many elements affect how well we read. These include our skill with the mechanics of reading words and sentences, our ability to recognise genre and apply the rules of genre when interpreting meaning, and our worldview, that is, how much we allow our basic assumptions about how the world works to influence the meaning we derive from the text we read.
The problems with reading the Old Testament.
The Old Testament confounds our modern western ability to read in a number of ways, it derives from a different time, some 2500 years ago. It was written in different languages, is based on different worldviews and uses different literary conventions. Most of us know this in theory but when we open a book, that looks like other books, and read it in a language we know we get seduced into thinking it works like the literature we are familiar with. Because it is in our language, we think the writers thought like we do and communicated like we do. What is written about in the Old Testament is somewhat recognisable to us because of our common humanity. So we read the books Genesis or Exodus and we presume they are analogous to our history books with a few of the rules bent a little. We read the prophetic books and think they work a bit like horoscopes do, slightly cryptic predictions of the future. We presume that books were written by one author in one published form and have remained the same ever since. None of those assumptions are correct.
The people writing parts of the Old Testament in 500 BCE did not think like we do. Their worldview was entirely different, they had very different assumptions about how the world worked. Their ideas about literature were vastly different from ours. Some were so different we don’t really have anything that is even vaguely analogous.
There are many examples of that difference we could note. The first section of the Old Testament is known as torah in Hebrew. We translate torah as “law”, but that is a loose translation. Torah can mean law, direction, or guidance. It overlaps with our idea of law but even then, the ancient world did not think of laws in the way we do. Further, law codes were not used as the basis for justice most of the time. So to think of a book like Deuteronomy, which translates as “second law” as being just like our laws is not particularly helpful. The book is actually a mix of an ancient law code, an ancient treaty and a series of sermons. We don’t have modern books that are analogous. A more extreme example of the lack of modern analogy is the second half of the book of Daniel. This material scholars call apocalyptic. It often communicates in terms of visions about fantastical creatures and heavenly events that have devastating consequences on earth. There are a number of examples of this kind of literature in Judaism. We do not have any modern literature quite like it. Little surprise that Daniel is some of the most misunderstood and wildly misused material in our Bible.
The gap in time, language and worldview leads to misunderstanding. We get it wrong, all of us, not just the average Christian reading their Bible but the scholars who are supposed to be the experts. We scholars can also let our worldview assumptions blind us to what is going on in a biblical story. The Book of Ezra tells a story where Ezra, the main character, responds to a crisis by enacting a mourning ritual. He goes into the public square, rips his clothes, pulls out hair from his head and beard and sits in lament. When the time of evening prayer came, he prayed a prayer of repentance. One modern western scholar decries Ezra’s reaction as that of a poor leader who has no idea how to deal with the crisis and relied on the gathered community to help him sort out what to do. What this very good scholar has missed is the power of ritual in ancient society. Ezra’s actions effectively galvanised the community into action. He set the agenda and led by his actions. The more we learn about the ancient world the more we find we have to adjust our ideas. Even the best of scholars can misinterpret.
In short, we need an entire reset in our assumptions and reading strategies when we begin to read the Old Testament. Little in our normal education has prepared us for reading the Old Testament so it is not surprising that we misunderstand. What is surprising from my perspective is how often we get it roughly right.
My attempt to deal with the problem when teaching the OT.
Paradoxically we live in a time when there are more resources for reading the Old Testament in an informed way than ever before, yet our worldview and life experience is more removed from the world of the Old Testament than ever. So, while we can analyse and examine with precision, we can easily overlook the implications of what we discover. Like Peter’s insight into Jesus as Messiah, our presumptions mean we run the danger of misunderstanding and misapplying what we see.
I am a biblical scholar who has been trained in the western tradition of biblical studies and I value so much of what it has given me, but I am increasingly finding that listening to scholars whose assumptions and life experience are very different from mine is opening up insights into the Bible. These are voices that have largely been marginalised from interpreting the Bible in the past. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that listening to non-western perspectives is important for understanding the Old Testament well. In our context, Māori and Pasifika people have insights to help our reading of the Old Testament.
Traditional Māori and Pasifika cultural worldviews are not the same as those of the Old Testament but they are in several instances, somewhat closer to the Old Testament Israelites, than a modern western view. Learning from those worldviews is a significant contribution to understanding aspects of the Old Testament. Important notions like whakapapa, along with experiences such as indentured labour and colonisation mean Māori and Pasifika readers have a perspective on the text that we all need to hear.
At this stage I need to say that I am a thoroughly westernised New Zealander of European descent. What I share is my imperfect understanding of things that my colleagues and students have helped me begin to explore. I am immensely grateful to my St Johns colleagues and students who have shared their culture and ancestral stories with me and our Old Testament Introduction classes. In doing so they have given us valuable windows into an ancient culture. We are richer for the insights shared in class.
As many of you will be aware St Johns trains people for Anglican ministry. The Anglican church is structured into three streams or tikanga: Tikanga Māori, Tikanga Polynesia and Tikanga Pākehā. Students from all three tikanga sit in the same classes. As a college we are committed to increasingly integrating the perspectives of all three tikanga into all aspects of the college. It is this ethos along with the conviction that Māori and Pasifika perspectives offered insight into the Old Testament that led me to make changes to how I teach our Introduction to the Old Testament course.
We have a very simple procedure in the class. At the beginning of certain sections of the course one or two of my colleagues come and share something of their culture or background. Then the class will look at an aspect of the Old Testament text and discuss the similarities and differences. Out of that we identify the ways these ideas help us read the Old Testament with greater understanding.
To explain, I’d like to return to the creation stories in Genesis. Normally two colleagues share about this, so the class hears one Māori and currently one Samoan creation story and learn about the role of creation stories in worldview formation. In most traditional cultures, creation stories form worldview. They explain why things are the way they are, what the links are to particular places, why certain worship practices apply, why people live a particular way or believe certain things, etc. Māori and Pasifika creations stories do this and so did the biblical creations stories in ancient Israel. The OT class after hearing the Pacific stories then read the biblical stories and we discuss similarities and differences. What I have found is that by doing this several things happen, first Māori and Pasifika students begin to grapple with the relationships between their traditional stories and the biblical ones. Modern western imperatives give way to a closer attention to the type of literature and its role in worldview formation. The discussion focuses around what the stories say about an ancient Israelite worldview and what that worldview says to a modern contexts. The very first time I did this I almost got through the whole session on creation stories without one question about evolution. Almost! I was just summing up when a student asked the inevitable question. However, I found it much easier to respond because the student was already reading the text in a more genre appropriate way. Rather than insisting it had to be read from a scientific perspective she was already aware that was not the primary focus of the creation stories. So it was not so hard for me to distinguish the type of literature and its message from the aims of scientific questions. Thinking of creation stories as complementary to science rather than conflicted seemed more easily grasped. By starting with traditional Pacific creation stories, we read the Old Testament text much closer to the way it should be read, a way appropriate to its genre. Māori and Pasifika cultures are windows into the ancient Hebrew text.
Another example is genealogy. We mostly skim over Old Testament genealogy, yet they are very important to the ancient context. Their significance in the world of ancient Israel is highlighted when we observe the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles is all genealogies. With the help of insights into Māori whakapapa it becomes much easier understand what these genealogies are all about because they serve similar functions. We can discuss how they are a means of including outsiders into a community as well as defining who belongs and in what ways. Whakapapa ties people to land and place as much as to people, it recognises connectedness to both the material and spiritual worlds. The Old Testament does much the same thing. In Genesis we find that the book is structured by whakapapa links. Ten times Genesis starts a section with the phrase “These are the generations of…” The first of these is, ”these are the generations of the Heavens and the Earth”. This is something that makes little sense to western ideas but is right at home in Māori and Pasifika cultures where creation can be presented as Whakapapa (and is the foundation of whakapapa.) Texts that are generally deemed irrelevant by modern western views have some rich content from other perspectives. They make more sense to Māori and Pasifika people because they resonate with their more relational worldview. At the same time hearing about them from that perspective brings our reading horizon more closely in line with the horizon of the text. We have a greater understanding of the message conveyed by the Old Testament through having a greater appreciation of the role of notions of connectedness in ancient societies.
There is another aspect to this which is not so much an issue of culture, as of worldview derived from heritage. This is a gift offered by Eseta Mateiviti-Tulavu telling her family story. Like many Fijian Anglicans, Eseta is the descendant of Melanesian indentured labours, trafficked to Fiji and put to work in the sugar-cane plantations. Her story and the impact of being the descendant of a slave people on her life and motivations gives insight into how and why the Israelites held on to their story as the descendants of escaped slaves. Eseta’s story, told alongside the Exodus story adds depth to its place and significance in Israelite society. Similarly, the experiences of colonised peoples offers insight into the an Old Testament that was shaped by the experiences of colonised Judeans.
This leads me a final point, I want to say that all cultures and a vast array of experiences offer insights into the Old Testament. Other cultures and experiences would offer new and helpful insights in areas that Pacific cultures do not. It is my conviction that the more input we have from more cultural and experiential perspectives that are sensitive to the OT and its context the better we will read and understand it. There are many gifts left to discover but here and now, in this context Māori and Pasifika cultures offer windows into the OT that we need.
The Old Testament is a unique book in our modern world, one that is comes from an ancient world very different from our own. It is a world we are increasingly distanced from and for that reason, we are all too prone to misunderstand and misapply what we read in the Old Testament. While our modern world offers some very helpful insights our worldview also blinds us to much the Old Testament communicates. Māori and Pasifika worldviews and experiences are also very different from much of the Old Testament but in key areas they are much closer than modern western ones. Incorporating Māori and Pasifika perspectives into classes on the Old Testament opens new understanding of the text to all. Māori and Pasifika students find their worldviews offer valuable insights. Others of us gain helpful windows into the world of the Old Testament. I am convinced we will all read the Old Testament with more understanding if we are open the insights that Pacific voices offer.