Monday, 28 October 2013

Biblical interpretation

As well as being the 22nd Sunday after Trinity this Sunday is also designated “Bible Sunday” in the church of England.
The Bible is a magisterial collection of books that are central to Jewish and Christian religion. In fact the Law (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) and the psalms are also reckoned to be part of the Muslim canon of Holy Scripture.
I have written and so have thousands of others about the Bible but what was the purpose of it?
I would say that the whole purpose of the Hebrew scriptures was to galvanise a community, to teach them how to live together in harmony, to live according to the will and purpose of God. In that respect the Christian New Testament carries on that raison d’être.
The community, the people of God, Israel, the people that struggled with God was all important to the Jews. Salvation itself was communitarian. Israel was saved together or not at all, a completely different approach to our highly individualised understanding of salvation (the “I am saved” approach, which is our modern individualistic approach of Western society being projected onto the Bible) and this community emphasis is carried on in the ministry of Jesus. In fact you could say that Jesus didn’t bring anything new to the faith but amplified various teachings already there in the Bible.
The two instructions that make up the Jesus Golden rule of Loving God and loving your neighbour were already there in the Bible in different places, but Jesus brought them together.
The Bible is a book that can attract or repel. In modern times it has repelled as many people as it has attracted, especially with its bloodthirstiness and supposedly God ordained violence and arcane laws.
For example one of the favourite stories that we tell to children is Noah’s ark - a homely tale of God ordained genocide against the entire human race when everyone in the world was deliberately drowned apart from one family – and we tell it complete with lovely pictures of smiling giraffes and hippos walking happily two by two into the ark. Once a child starts to reason, what are they to make of that?
Taken too literally, or without insight, The Bible is a powerful book which cut off from the community and the context in which it was written has the potential to be a very dangerous book. Many a lunatic from David Koresh at Waco to Jim Jones in the Jungle, to organised religions like the Jehovah’s witnesses and the Moonies to us and the Salvation army and everything else in-between; we all draw our inspiration from the same book.
So you see interpretation is absolutely key. Interpretation is everything. When he read the scroll from Isaiah in the synagogue Jesus was interpreting the Bible by applying it to himself. Because the Bible is so important and central to Christianity how we read and interpret it is the most important question for us all.
And central to that question is “Where is God in all these tens of thousands of words?” How can you discern the Word amongst all the tens of thousands of words?
Does God sit down and read the Bible story of the flood and reminisce and chuckle and think, “Yea, that was a good one – I did well there”
Or dare we think that the flood was not ordained by God as a punishment for sin in the first place despite that interpretation given by the original writers, but that a possibly actual event deep in the race memory banks – one already written about in an even older book “the epic of Gilgamesh” is being used and interpreted by the writers of Genesis to provide a symbolic story that says something about the human condition?
And what that something also open to interpretation.
Words are symbols that have a hinterland that can represent a world of ideas. The same word or phrase can be heard differently by a dozen different people because what they hear is filtered through their own world view and understanding.
The reason we have someone like me speaking about the readings on a Sunday morning is that the meaning of most texts are rarely plain and clear but require an interpretation.
In my interpretation what am I trying to uncover? Well, no matter what genre of writing I am looking at – a parable, History, poetry, a letter, the law, a prophesy or whatever it may be I am trying to discern that still small voice of God, gently speaking to us in the words, through the words and sometimes beneath and behind the words. I am trying in Biblical interpretation to discern the Holy Spirit of God speaking to us today. A living active presence. The breath of God beneath the surface of the stories.
It is that breath that raises dead inert words and gives them life and makes them useful to a community that is gathered around God and seeks to see his face and hear his voice. The Hebrew word for Spirit is the same as for wind or breath – ruach.
When scripture is read in this church the reader is speaking words that have the capacity to reveal God’s Spirit to people – a living presence that is not always clear, because God is not so easily pinned down and neatly packaged.
God is wild and free as the winds we are expecting this evening. Trying to nail Him down is like trying to catch the wind.  You’ll never do it but you can feel the power in the wind. You know the life giving properties of every breath you take, but if you try and trap your breath by holding it you’ll die. Neither can we trap God and cage him or prod him and examine him, but we can try and discern his presence through nature, through sacrament and through the words brought to us in the Bible Sunday by Sunday.


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