Our surroundings influence how we look at Scripture
Living in Jerusalem certainly gives one an interesting perspective about the Bible. One has to admit that living here is just a little different than say in London, England or Los Angeles, California, where I grew up.
I think it is safe to say that if we were to objectively compare Los Angeles and Jerusalem, the person in Jerusalem would probably have a better chance of having a slightly richer understanding of the Bible?
I think most people would probably agree with that. My surroundings influence how I look at Scripture (both the Old and the New Testaments).
I am not alone.
One’s surroundings strongly influence their view of the Bible. Let me give you a very simple example.
Note this seemingly uninteresting and unimportant text from Ruth:
“And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. (Ruth 2:14 ESV)
Now the word I have italicized is “wine” which here in Hebrew is חומץ (ghoh-metz)
You find this word translated in the King James Version generally as “vinegar.” (see Numbers 6:3; Ruth 2:14; Psalm 69:21; Proverbs 10:26 and 25:20
You can refer to the following website which gives a good run down of how many scholars and Bible translators have looked at this point: http://bible.cc/ruth/2-14.htm
There is no problem with translating this word “vinegar”, but it could also mean something else and depending on your perspective, you may be influenced on what you think this word means.
“Vinegar” is the common interpretation, but if you were from Jerusalem, you might look at this verse and potential meanings a bit different because of the foods that you see commonly eaten around you.
One of these foods is hummus.
Many people may be familiar with this dish made of chick peas which are cooked and then crushed and mixed with sesame seed oil, lemon, paprika, salt and eaten with bread.
It is certainly not the same thing as vinegar.
Now, the interesting thing about this is when you start to look at Hebrew dictionaries because you will find that the word for “chick pea” (from which hummus is derived) is: חמצה (Ben Yehuda’s Pocket English-Hebrew Dictionary (Pocket Books, 1961,1964).
This is quite similar and from the same root word as that mentioned above. So, were Boaz and Ruth, like many couples continue to do today here in Israel, sharing a plate of hummus, not dipping their bread in vinegar?
I am not saying that they were. But I do wish to make a point.
What difference does it make? Hummus or Vinegar? So what? So who cares? What difference does it make whether it was hummus, vinegar or bread dipped in wine (as the ESV has it)?
It can make a big difference because we all are influenced by our surroundings.
Many of those translators or grammarians who never visited the Near East or spent any time in Israel will often not be willing to look outside of their own rigid 21st century views. They don’t have firsthand knowledge. They have limited terms of reference and perspectives and they are influenced by their surroundings. They may also have specific agendas behind their translation approach.
They would never in a million years even think of hummus!
Their minds may just not be focused on that even as a possibility.
Now, this is a small example and it is something which does not have a majorly significant impact on daily life. But what about passages that do have major impacts on daily life?
What about passages that influence human relationships one with another? What about passages that influenced how parents treat children? What about passages that influence how men treat women?
With the little example I am giving here, I hope you can see how important it is to get these things right or at least not be so dogmatic that you know the truth 100%.
Intellectual honesty demands that one leave the possibility that he or she may not be correct. I think this is exactly what St. Paul is telling us when he said:
“Let God be true though everyone were a liar” (Romans 3:4 ESV)
None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12 ESV)
This I think is where we who love the Bible can learn some lessons about our own biases and perspectives.
We are all carrying baggage which influences how we look at things.
This is where we have to be humble and admit that at any time any of us might be teaching error or falsehood. I pray that is not the case, but I have to tell you that in Paul’s appraisal of himself, me and you, we are “liars”. Thankfully, we are not under condemnation for this because we don’t know that we may be thinking or believing something that is false. I hope we are not, but I think we need to be like the five wise virgins in the parable and make sure we have extra oil in our lamps! (Matthew 25)
Let’s consider another example.
Review now Leviticus 10:9:
“Drink no wine or strong drink, you or your sons with you, when you go into the tent of meeting, lest you die. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. (ESV)
Now, here the ESV agrees with most of the versions we know who can be found here: http://bible.cc/leviticus/10-9.htm.
Commentators go to great length mentioning various theories about what this “strong drink” is.
Let me be clear.
When we Americans read this (who have all visited a Costco or a Walmart and seen aisles of "strong drink:"), we immediately think of something stronger to drink than wine. I know because I asked several of my friends who confirmed this.
Here we definitely have in mind alcoholic beverages like rum, vodka, whisky, etc.
Some translations even add the word “liquor.”
Any problem with translating this word “strong drink”?
No, not really, but in fact, when we go back to our Bible perspective and ignore all of the Western civilizational influences, we find that according to that same dictionary I quoted earlier, the Hebrew word שכר (sheh-chahr) means exactly “beer”, and nothing stronger.
In fact, if anyone would simply even study the matter in the most simple of ways, one would find out that modern spirits that we are familiar with today, were simply unknown in the Biblical period!
In fact, modern distillation of spirits is not even 1,000 years old! In addition, it may not even be 600 years old according to one of my scholar friends, Prof. Randall Heskett, who along with another colleague has authored a book on wine in the Bible. Check it out. http://www.amazon.com/Randall-Heskett/e/B001HOF9VS/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
This “strong drink” is in no way the equivalent of whisky and translations that use the term "liquor" are wrong!
It is in fact a beverage which had lesser alcoholic content than the previously mentioned word in that passage, which is “wine”!
Now to the point: these are simple examples which are innocent and have some interesting elements of teaching in them, but the important point is this. We Christians, especially those of us who are not experts in understanding the Bible in its original context, need to make sure as best as we can that we understand what it is that we believe about we think the Scriptures are teaching us.
As I have shown in my book, “Thy Rod and Thy Staff, They Comfort Me; Christians and the Spanking Controversy” (get it free here - http://whynottrainachild.com/2013/06/22/download-martins-book/), much misunderstanding exists in what people believe the Bible teaches about the issue of the “rod of correction” and about familial relations in the Biblical period.
My point in that book was to help provide additional information about what the Bible may be teaching regarding these important issues.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I believe that the Holy Scriptures do have them and that it is up to us to discover what it is that God wants us to do and what God wants us not to do in today’s world.
This also extends to what God wants us to believe versus what He does not want us to believe.
We better be sure that if we are not even 100% sure what people were eating and drinking or even the clothes they wore in ancient times, we probably have to admit that we are not 100% sure how they were raising up their kids.
I think if we all agree to handle two of our most treasured possessions, our children and God’s Word, with the utmost care that they deserve, we will be on our way to having a better relationship with both.