Saturday, December 06, 2008

Studying Scripture: What did the original listener hear?

As I have been preaching through Genesis I have been stressing that to understand the text one must, to the best of their ability, try and hear what the original audience heard. We may hear more but we cannot hear less and also what we hear should not deny what they heard. This is applicable to both the Old Testament and the New Testament and is of great value. Much of the troubles we have in interpreting scripture comes from not taking this principle into account and thus coming up with interpretations of scripture that the original listener would never have understood or even have contemplated. Again this does not mean we will not see more but this would come from God revealing more through His Word over time.

Also, all too often we read the text of scripture, especially narrative texts such as Genesis, as sort of a travelogue rather than a message from God. By attempting to see the text through the eyes and ears of the original audience it opens up a new world of understanding, understand that I believe is that which God desires us to have. It will also help us to move past simply knowing more about the text to understanding how it is to affect our lives as it was to affect the lives of the original audience.

So, when it comes to Genesis we need to understand that this was written by Moses, in all probability, as the Hebrews were wandering through the wilderness preparing to enter the promised land. Moses is both trying to educate as to God’s work in the world up to that point in time and to give the Hebrews the hope and insight they needed as they headed into a pagan land with all sorts of issues. Pagans that would be enticing them to abandon the God that created them, release them from Egypt and was now promising a new land.

When they read Genesis chapter one and hear words such as “day” (yom) the Hebrews of course would understand it as the twenty four hour day they regularly experienced. If Moses wanted to convey a different thought he could have and would have done so. Moses wanted the Hebrews to see the magnitude of God’s creative power and revealed that to the Hebrews, through the inspiration of God, by letting them see God as the creator and sustainer of all things. A God that created in a manner that would relate to their week and the Sabbath they celebrated. This would add meaning to their days and in process give great hope to them in their up coming journeys.

They would also understand the bareness of the world at the beginning of creation by the bareness they saw around them on their journeys and so this is how they would understand scripture. This they would gain hope that as God turned bareness to fruitfulness so could God do the same for them, what a great hope to hold on to. For us to try and see things that they could not see and had no reason to see would be to do the scripture an injustice and not give the hope that the Hebrews were to gain as they headed into a pagan world.

As I have studied Genesis it has amazed me how relevant this text is to today as we believers are constantly bombarded by the pagan world we live in. While I think it is important to understand the “how” of creation we only make much of it because we do not take it as fact as the Hebrews did. I would suggest that Moses did not delve into the “how” because by simply telling the Hebrews that God created all things in the same twenty four hour cycle the Hebrews daily experienced they were to see this as fact and no extra information was needed. When we try and see the text other than intended and argue over it we then begin to miss the greater point and that is that God is the creator of all and the one we owe all to, something that needs to be grasped when faced with pagan thoughts that question this paradigm.

This integral part of interpreting scripture is vital if we are to see and hear all of what God is saying. To ignore this principle of hermeneutics (the art and science of biblical interpretation) is to be historically arrogant. By this, historically arrogant, I mean we tend to think we simply know better than those before us but often I find this is not so. We need to understand God’s word to the original listener to hear what He has to say to us today. While this was only a short and probably inadequate explanation of this principle I pray that the next time you read a text one of the first questions you will ask is, “what did the original audience hear or read.” I pray this will help you understand what God is really saying.

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