This is the third of three short posts about reading God’s word which first appeared in Partnership Perspectives.
What Do We Need to Do?
The most important and fundamental thing that we can do when coming prayerfully to God’s Word is to “read the text carefully”. (Fee & Stuart, p. 26) Here we return to Bruce’s statement earlier, that we have to ask what the text is actually saying; not what we want it to say, or what we have heard others say, or what it would be nice if it said.
This is especially difficult in familiar texts. For example, in Genesis 1, God expresses that his creation, at various stages, is ‘good’ (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). At the culmination of creation, he expands upon this thought by describing the finished creation, following the creation of humanity as ‘very good’. The question we need to ask is, “what does this phrase mean?”
The Hebrew phrase used means, quite simply ‘very good’. Hence the traditional translation appears a good one. However, to leave it at that would be to beg the question of what ‘good’ means in this context. If we take the approach that what we have heard before must be right, we might gloss this as ‘perfect’, probably a time without death. In other words a description that is moral at heart. There are, though, difficulties with this interpretation, in that ,”Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible [very good] describes qualities of beauty, worthiness or fitness for purpose but never absolute moral or ontological perfection.” (R.E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014, p. 29) For example, Numbers 14:7, reads ,”‘The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good.’” This is the land which contained giants! But it was still very, very good.
The better interpretation of this phrase, then, is probably to see it as one of complete satisfaction with the creation of a world which was fit for the purpose that God had for it.
The story of Tamar in Genesis 38 gives us an example of what can happen when we fail to recognise the purpose and context of a passage. Right in the middle of what we usually consider to be the story of Joseph, at the height of the tension which comes from his being taken to Egypt, we then have the somewhat disturbing story of Judah and Tamar. It is probably true to say that this is omitted from many sermon series on these chapters on Genesis, perhaps because of its sexual nature. But perhaps also, because we have forgotten what this part of Genesis is about. We think of its being about Joseph, but in Gen 37:2 we are told the section is about Jacob’s family line. If the Messiah is to come from Judah, then Judah’s actions in failing to provide an heir threaten God’s plan of redemption. Tamar takes things into her own hands and is rightly described by Judah as “more righteous than I” (Gen 38:26), and as a result of her actions has the honour of a place in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Mat 1:3). This maintaining of Judah’s line is, therefore, central to the story of who God is and what he is doing, a centrality which is emphasised by the writer placing it at such a crucial, tense point in Joseph’s life.
God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity, this is a miracle in and of itself. We have the privilege of being able to read his Word and apply his Word to our lives, a privilege we should never take lightly. We believe that what God has revealed is true and reliable, therefore has to be taken seriously and wholeheartedly. As Craig Keener says,
We trust whatever God speaks as reliable, and, because we share the view that Scripture is God-inspired…, that we stand in awe of it… and therefore devote our most diligent interpretive effort to honestly discerning and embracing its message. (C. Keener, Spirit Hermeneutics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016, p. 198)