Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seminary CM4: The Cultures of the Bible

This is the fourth post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series, The Pastor as Leader.
1. Last week we looked at how culture works. There is probably a tendency among Christians to think of the Bible as somehow removed from culture, as if its words all stand in some timeless bubble outside of the time-bound nature of culture. However, this is not the case.

For one, we humans cannot escape culture. If the Bible were somehow removed from culture, it would be removed from us. God does not bring us up to his level when he reveals truth to us. Rather, he meets us where we are. This is the principle of incarnation. God is in the business of taking on human flesh. He becomes us. Jesus is the Word of God par excellence, God become flesh (John 1:14).

Every word of the Bible is incarnated revelation. Every word of the Bible is truth in culture. Those who think the Bible stands outside of culture inevitably think that they know the true meaning of the Bible. So since they are in culture, they are unknowingly implying that their culture has finally arrived. They are implying that they are on God's level, and all the other cultures up to this point have fallen short.

Beyond this reasoning, it is simply the case that the books of the Bible fit overwhelmingly well against the backdrop of the societies and cultures when they were written. The socio-cultural dimension of the Bible is the piece of the puzzle most overlooked in interpretation, as we have a tendency to interpret its words in ways that make sense to us. And the ways that make sense to us are inevitably the ways of our culture.

2. We presented a framework that can be used to analyze culture in the previous entry. It amounted to 1) your identity, 2) your relationship to others within and outside your groups, 3) the significance of the surrounding world. These understandings are reflected in 1) stories, 2) practices, 3) symbols, and 4) ideas.

As far as identity goes, there is no question but that the identity of Israel in the Old Testament and the default identity of those in the early church was collectivist in nature. In Genesis, we have the clans of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham is said to have migrated from Ur. Genesis ends with the clan in Egypt, from which they migrate in Exodus, finally infiltrating Canaan in Joshua.

A clear indication of collectivism is the fact that the sins of the fathers made guilty their children. "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" (Exod. 20:5). When Achan sins in Joshua 7, his entire family is put to death to atone for it. Psalm 44:7 suggests that Israel was destroyed not because of its own sins but because of the sins of its fathers (cf. 2 Kings 23:26-27).

A move toward individualism is apparent in Ezekiel 18:4 where it will now be the person that sins that gets punished. No longer will it be, "Our fathers ate sour grapes but it is our teeth that hurt." Yet even in the New Testament, there is still debate about whether some physical problems could be the result of a parent's sin (cf. John 9:1).

3. Certain practices set the tribes of Israel apart from the surrounding peoples. Like the Egyptians, they circumcised their male children. Unlike the Egyptians, they were shepherds. The prohibition against pork was probably another distinction between Israelites and the surrounding peoples of the early Iron Age.

In the early Iron Age, Israel took on a king. Before that point, they were an amphictyony, a loose collection of related tribes. Benjamin, Judah, Ephraim--these were the primary identity markers.

4. The New Testament church began as a Jewish sect. Throughout the New Testament, all the New Testament authors understood themselves to be part of Israel. Gentile converts to Judaism saw themselves as becoming "Gentile Jews" of a sort, as it were.

Bruce Malina has suggested that ancient Mediterranean identity was a matter of gender, genealogy, and geography. [1] We are thus not surprised to find some gender differentiation in the later books of the New Testament. The geography of Christian identity was clearly linked to Judea.

However, the early Christian movement held within it the seeds of a new race. Because Christian identity cut across visible and inherited identity, Christianity held within it the seeds of individualism. Similarly, Galatians 3:28 holds within it the seeds to unravel genealogy as an identity marker. Christians become part of a new clan, a new extended family. Baptism is a ritual of incorporation into a new identity with new brothers and sisters.

5. The culture of the Old Testament was the culture of the Ancient Near East (ANE). In the oldest layers of the Old Testament, we can hear the traces of child sacrifice. The Akedah of Genesis 22 is a striking deconstruction of that practice, as God prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac.

The ANE was of course a polytheistic context, as all the surrounding worlds of the Bible. Abraham's ancestors were clearly polytheists (Josh. 24:2). At least from the days of Moses on, the tribes of Israel were increasingly henotheistic, worshiping Yahweh as their patron deity. [2] Nevertheless, well into the monarchy the prophets still struggled to stamp out the worship of other Canaanite deities like Ba'al or Asherah. An eighth century inscription found in a cave in eastern Sinai refers to "Yahweh and his Asherah."

Under King Josiah (reigned 640-609BC), a concerted effort was made to centralize the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem. However, since Jerusalem was destroyed in 586BC, this centralization was short lived. However, it would be the norm of the post-exilic period.

6. The nature of ancient sacrifice is debated. Its most basic function would seem to be reciprocity, a time of fellowship with the god and with those participating in the sacrificial meal. So atonement was not the sole function of sacrifice, perhaps not even the primary function. The life-giving power of the blood is the key to atonement (cf. Lev. 17:11). In the Day of Atonement ritual, the uncleanness of Israel is transferred to a goat that is let go into the desert.

Uncleanness is a category often difficult for Westerners to grasp, as is holiness. We are a culture largely devoid of sacred space. [3] Mary Douglas' famous dictum that "dirt is matter out of place" suggested that ancient Israel had a clear sense of "kinds" of things, categories of things. Violations of these categories made things unclean. Clean birds, sea creatures, and creatures fit within these boxes, while unclean ones did not.

Holiness is similarly a matter of belonging to the god in question or touching his or her space. Space that is holy is space that pertains to the god. The fundamental meaning of sanctification and holiness in the Bible is thus belonging to God, being set apart as his. Anything that is in this "space" is holy and thus requires special treatment and consideration. The idea of purity is thus derivative of the connection with God.

3. Recent decades have seen a rich set of sources to help us understand the cultural background of the New Testament world. [4] Here are just a few of the key categories:
  • As a collectivist culture, the New Testament world was an honor-shame world, not an individualist world. Words like glory, honor, shame, blessing, cursing are all in this domain.
  • Family was the most basic unit of culture. Families were extended in nature, not nuclear.
  • The evil eye of envy or jealousy was a key concept. Envying others was akin to placing a curse of sorts upon them.
  • Reciprocity and patron-client relationships were a cornerstone of the culture. Giving expected return, a never ending cycle of friendship. Grace in the New Testament should be understood in these terms.
  • Economics functioned with a sense of limited good. There was only so much to go around and thus the accumulation of wealth at a certain level was akin to stealing.
Understanding these sorts of dynamics is key to understanding the original meaning of the Bible. Since most pastors preach from modern cultural assumptions, we can assume that a good deal of the interpretation made from pulpit and pew is fundamentally skewed, at least as it relates to the original meaning. (I believe we also have to assume that God makes texts come alive within our cultural assumptions if we are to believe that direct speaking takes place to us today.)

For example, attempts to find financial guidelines in Scripture for today are only as helpful as the common sense of the interpreter. Since the ancient world was agrarian and functioned on the notion of limited good, any attempt to find biblical principles on money is bound to be skewed in one way or another with regard to the original meaning of these texts. However, the Spirit may meet those interpreters where they are, giving insights that are true, just not what the biblical texts actually meant.

Next Sunday: Culture 5: The Church and Culture

[1] Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996).

[2] Henotheism accepts the existence of multiple gods, but considers only one God as appropriate for worship. "You will have no other gods before me" (Exod. 20:3).

[3] A pioneering work here is Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966).

[4] I have put the picture of the pioneering work above. Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

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