Literary Tips to the Bible - Episode 14
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
Ever got stuck reading through the Bible at Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy? In this episode of Ultimate Questions, Jon explains the most ignored genre of the Bible - the Law.
Produced by Laura Saad and Tiffany Lou-Hing Sound & Editing by Laura Saad
Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. For the past while we’ve been diving into how to read the Bible, and for the past few episodes we’ve focused on literary context. We’ve gone through a bunch of the different genres found in the Bible, and today we’re going to wrap up the genres by taking a look at what is probably the most ignored genre in the Bible, Law. Then we’re going to go into how to evaluate the surrounding areas of a passage to better appreciate the literary context.
So to dive right in, what is “Law” when understood as a genre in the Bible? If you’ve ever tried to read the Bible from beginning to end, I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point, you’ve gotten stuck, and had difficulty continuing. I can also pretty much guarantee that this happened around the area of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, which are books that are right near the beginning of the Bible, meaning people who start reading the Bible from the beginning will run into them quite quickly. These are the sections in the Old Testament that go into details about what laws should be put in place for the ancient nation of Israel. While that might sound obvious, the important thing to note here is the part that focuses on, “the ancient nation of Israel”. These laws need to be understood in the historical context, so to do that, we need to be aware of the historical narratives that surrounds them, because, these laws are found in the middle of Israel being delivered from slavery, and being formed by God into a powerful nation. Once again, historical context becomes very important when understanding these laws, because they were to a specific people in a specific time and place. Ripping these laws out of context, and trying to apply them to our lives today, can be quite dangerous. The goal here in studying the laws is twofold. Firstly, we can get a good understanding of what the Israelites went through, and what ancient Israel would have looked like. Secondly, we can look at the general ethical principles, and better understand the heart and character of God. This doesn’t mean the laws themselves are rules we should follow, but instead, that the heart of those laws shows God’s attitude in various ways. I know that’s probably a new idea for you to handle, so don’t worry, we’ll go into that in a bit.
Let’s deal with that first element, where we need to understand what the ancient Israelites were going through, in order to get a good feel for what ancient Israel would have looked like. Surprisingly, this can be very helpful in apologetics, because it sheds some light on some of the really strange things we find in the Bible. For example, the other ancient cultures around Israel were pagan, like the Canaanites, and would worship false gods, for things like fertility. They would do different regular sorts of tasks, but in a specific way, in order to please their gods. We find this, even today in different parts of the world, where people will, for example, only wear white, as a way of appeasing their pagan gods. For a biblical example, the pagans would at times deliberately plant two types of seeds in a single field, as a way of pleasing their gods. Now in Deuteronomy 22:9-11, we find some strange laws. This passage of scripture is a very popular passage among atheists, because they love to use it to make fun of the Bible. Basically, the passage says that you shouldn’t plant two types of seeds in one field, and that you shouldn’t wear clothing made of linen and wool. Now there is some debate about this topic, but at the very least we can see by studying ancient cultures in the area that it looks like they had different religious and magical rites they would perform that would involve things like planting two types of seed in a single field, or mixing fabrics when making clothing. If that seems strange why this would be a religious thing, you can think of fertility worship, and the idea of “two becoming one”. If you plant two types of seeds in a single field, the two become one, so it’s a way of worshipping fertility, or possibly a way of doing magic to get your field to be more powerful, and produce better crops. So even though this verse seems quite strange, when you understand the historical context of this law, it helps you realize it’s less about agriculture and fashion, and more about paganism. Essentially, God was telling the ancient Israelites not to act or worship like the pagans around them.
So then does this passage of law apply to us today? Are we not allowed to wear multi-fabric shirts? The important thing to note here is, we are obviously not in the ancient nation of Israel. When we understand the historical context, it makes sense why God would give that law. However, the context no longer applies, because we’re in a completely different context, where the reasoning behind the law doesn’t make sense anymore. Additionally, biblically speaking, we are no longer bound by the Law of the Old Testament. This is the theological concept of the old covenant vs the new covenant. Without going too much into the depth on this issue, essentially, before Christ died for the sins of humanity, we were bound by the Law. Following the Law was an impossibility, and so everyone ends up guilty before God. Then, Christ set us free from that, paying the price of our sins for us. Now, we do not find ourselves bound by the laws in the Old Testament, and instead, we are in good standing before God, even though we’re guilty, because Christ paid for our crimes. We are found in the “new covenant”, because a new system has been put into place, because of the death of Jesus Christ.
Now with all that said, even though we are no longer bound by the Law, we can still get ethical truths from it, because the Law shows the heart of God in many ways. Basically, even though specific laws in the Old Testament might not be applicable today, there were reasons God instilled those laws into ancient Israel. If we can understand those reasons, we will get closer to understanding the heart of God, and thus, we can glean some ethical truths from the laws, even if we don’t directly apply the laws to our lives today. To return to our verse about planting two seeds in a field, or wearing clothes made of two fabrics, by making this a law, God was essentially saying that He didn’t want them to even resemble the pagans, and He definitely didn’t want them participating in their pagan worship practices. It shows the “jealousy” of God as part of His character, where He wants all of us, and doesn’t want our attention divided between Him and worldly things. We see this concept in various places in Scripture. So here, we can see how understanding the genre of this section of Scripture can be important, because appreciating that it is a law of ancient Israel can help us better understand the purpose behind it, and see how it applies to us today. While the specifics of ancient Israelite laws don’t apply to us, the general ethical principle of the jealousy of God, and the sinfulness of idolatry in any form, and the sinfulness of God’s people acting like those in the world, is still very much applicable.
Let’s look at another great example of how to grasp of the genre of law, so we can do our best to understand the context, which will help us gain further understanding of a passage of Scripture. In the Old Testament, there is what appears at first glance to be an absolutely horrendous law. Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says that if a man rapes a girl, and she isn’t engaged to be married, then the rapist must marry his victim, and he’s not allowed to divorce her. Now in our context, this is barbaric. How can we demand the victim marry her rapist!? However, if we understand the context, we see this is actually a case where God was creating a law to protect the victim. If a girl wasn’t married or engaged to be married, and she was raped, then no one would want to marry her. In reality, in that culture, she would then be worthless, and would be forced to either beg, or go into prostitution. Now this is definitely a flaw in their culture which our culture no longer has. However, if we appreciate the fact that this is the situation they were in, it actually works in the girl’s favor for the rapist to marry her, because now she will be provided for. The fact that the rapist wasn’t allowed to divorce her is actually showing that he is obligated to care for her, for the rest of her life! If that still seems strange to you, there’s actually an example in 2 Samuel 13, where a girl is raped, and claims this law to defend herself. She actually says that, if the guy doesn’t marry her, then that would actually be even worse than the sin of rape he had committed! With this law, God was creating a way to care for this vulnerable person. Here, even though it’s a very strange verse to us today, we can still see the heart of God, in that He cares for the vulnerable in society, which we see in many other verses.
In these cases, it really helps us to understand that these laws are not ethical statements, but instead, were a part of a legal system for ancient Israel, and thus, no longer apply directly to us. However, we can still gain a lot of theological and ethical understanding from them, if we do the hard work of understanding the reason why the laws existed. You’ll notice that in much of the Law, there was no reasoning given. This is because it was just the brute rules to live by, and wasn’t meant as ethical teaching. That’s the nature of the Law as a genre. In order to glean ethical truths from the laws, we have to do further study.
Before we move on, I wanted to comment on genre in general, which will hopefully be helpful for you. Each book of the Bible deserves to be evaluated in and of itself, to determine what its genre is. However, it gets a little sticky at times, because there are moments where a book will switch genres, right in the middle of it. The good thing is, this is usually quite obvious. So for example, when we read the Gospel of Matthew, it is mostly historical narrative, because it’s describing the historical events that happened in Jesus’ life. However, when Jesus sat down to deliver a moment of teaching, we recognize this is now a different style of literature. Yes, it did historically happen in the sense that Jesus actually did in fact deliver this sermon, but, the writing of the sermon itself is not historical narrative, because Jesus wasn’t describing historical events. Yes, I know that’s confusing. As an example, when we read Matthew 12, we can tell it’s mostly historical narrative. It’s just describing the events that took place. However, about a third of the way in, Jesus quotes prophecy, so obviously that would be a short paragraph where the genre would be prophecy, because that’s what He was quoting. Then, when we go into chapter 13, the opening of it is a parable, which gets treated differently, because the genre changed. After all, it’s not as though Jesus is telling us of literal historical events that happened; He’s just telling a story to make a deeper point about some spiritual or ethical concept. Then, it goes into Jesus giving a moment of teaching about why He speaks in parables, then He quotes prophecy again, and then He goes back into telling parables. Then at the end of chapter 13, it goes back to historical narrative, describing the different events that took place. Here we can see multiple different types of genre, all within a small portion of Scripture. While that might sound confusing, the good thing is, it’s fairly obvious where the genre changes. The important thing is to remember to keep genre in mind when we read Scripture, so we can be more aware of how to treat the passages we’re studying. This is why ripping a verse out of context can be dangerous, and why making an effort to understand the genre of what you’re reading is so important.
Now as I mentioned, it’s important to look at the literary context of what you’re reading, so that you can tell what genre your specific verses are. This is another big way that literary context can help, and that’s by looking at the surrounding areas of the passage. When we look at this example I gave of the genre switching between historical narrative, parables, and teaching, all we have to do is read the surrounding areas of that book to see what genre we’re currently dealing with. We only run into problems when we rip a verse out of its context. Here, the important thing is to evaluate the surrounding passages, in order to better understand your current passage. I can use a silly little nursey rhyme we all know to express this point. Probably everyone listening to this podcast has heard “Mary had a little lamb”. Now when we hear this, we automatically assume it means that Mary owned this lamb. However, without the context of the rest of the rhyme, we actually can’t tell what “Mary had a little lamb” means. It could mean she owned a lamb, or it could mean she had some lamb meat. Or Mary having a little lamb could be an allegory for Jesus in the manger with His mother. It could also be that she “had” a lamb, implying that she lost it. Mary could also be a sheep herself, and it could be saying she “had a little lamb”, in the sense that she gave birth. It could also be talking about a mother, Mary, having a little lamb, in the sense of a well-behaved child. If we rip the statement out of its context, any of these interpretations are equally valid. In order to find the original intent of the author, it’s crucial to look at the surrounding areas of the statement, to see what the literary context was. A great example of this is a popular verse used by Jehovah’s Witnesses, where they argue that Jesus is a created being, because in Colossians 1 it says that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation”. Now at first glance, that seems fairly convincing, however, if you read the rest of the passage, you can see what the idea of “firstborn” is referring to. Later in this same passage, it calls Jesus the “firstborn” again, but it says that He’s the “firstborn from the dead”. Theologically speaking, Jesus was the first to be resurrected from death, and He is the hope that Christians have to be resurrected as well. Basically, Jesus defeated death, and rose from the dead, which shows us that we too will be resurrected from the dead, if we put our faith in Him. So when it calls Jesus the firstborn of all creation, He is the firstborn from the dead that gives us hope. We now look forward to being a new creation in the resurrection, which Jesus was the first of. Just by reading the rest of this passage we see that the point isn’t to declare that Jesus is a created being, but instead, that He created the universe, rules and reigns over everything, and that He has power over death, being the first to rise from the dead.
While this idea of making sure to read the surrounding bits of a passage seems incredibly simple, and obvious that you should always do it, you’d be surprised how often people bring up “problems” in the Bible, when all they need to do is read the surrounding bits of Scripture. One time, years ago, just for fun, I looked up a big list of Bible verses that an atheist organization claimed were contradictory. The list would give two Bible verses which, at first glance, seem to be saying opposite things, in order try and show how silly the Bible is, because it constantly contradicts itself. As I read all these apparent contradictions, it was amazing to me how many could be solved merely by reading the surrounding areas of Scripture. As an example of this, some claim that the Bible gives two rules on divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-2 says that divorce is permissible, but then in Matthew 19:6 Jesus says that divorce isn’t permissible. Here, the person has ripped these verses out of their context, and claimed they contradict each other. So, the first thing we do, is we read the surrounding areas of these passages, to see if it helps illuminate the situation for us. What we find in Matthew 19 is that, immediately after Jesus spoke against divorce, the religious leaders asked Him about this other verse from Deuteronomy, where divorce was allowed. They were confused, because Jesus seems to be contradicting that law. Jesus then explains that there were laws regarding divorce because the people had “hard hearts”, in other words, because people are sinful and evil, and divorce is going to come about regardless, there were rules put in place to help the situation be less horrible. He even states that divorce was not the original intention of God. So these verses don’t contradict each other, and all we had to do was read the surrounding area of Scripture to realize that. In this way, the literary context has helped us in a different way.
I’ll give one last example of the literary context of the surrounding areas of Scripture being helpful to understand a potentially difficult verse. When having discussions with Muslims about the Bible, a common tactic they’ve learned from their teachers is to claim that the Bible prophesies the coming of Muhammad. The passage Islamic apologists use to try and make this point is John 16:7-13. In these verses it says that, once Jesus leaves, God is going to send the Helper. This Helper will convict the world, guide people to truth, that He will say whatever He is told to say, and that He will declare the things that are to come. Muslims claim that this is clearly referring to Muhammad, and if you rip the verse out of its literary context, I can see why someone might think that this is a possibility. However, if we check the literary context of the passage, it becomes painfully obvious that this is about the Holy Spirit. Even when I told you about this verse, if you were brought up in a Christian culture, you probably knew this was the passage about the Holy Spirit, and you were probably quite confused how anyone could think it could be referring to Muhammad. So let’s look at the context. Now first of all, if we merely continue to read, and read the following verse, it says that this Helper will glorify Jesus. Islam teaches that Jesus was merely a man; a prophet, but still just a man, and not deserving of worship. To say the Muhammad glorified Jesus would be blasphemous in Islam. However, there’s even more to say here. Earlier in the Gospel of John, in chapter 14, Jesus was also referring to the fact that He was going to leave, and that the Father would send this Helper once He left. Jesus said the Helper would be with His followers forever, that it would be called “the Spirit of Truth”, and that the Helper will be in all of Jesus’ followers. It also explicitly calls this Helper “the Holy Spirit”, whom the Father will send in Jesus’ name. Then, in Acts 2, we see this prophecy realized, when all of Jesus’ followers literally sat around and waited for this Helper called the Holy Spirit to show up, because that’s what Jesus told them to do. Then, the Holy Spirit does come down upon all of them, exactly as Jesus said would happen. So simply by reading the rest of the book, we get a better picture, then if we read the rest of Scripture, we get an even better picture. This passage in John 16 is clearly referring to the Holy Spirit, and we can tell that by getting a better picture of the literary context of the passage.
For the next episode of the podcast, we will close off our time of how to study Scripture by having an interview with Dr. Ben Shin, a professor at Talbot Seminary of Biola University. He’s actually the one that taught me hermeneutics during my time at Talbot, and I found his class incredibly insightful. Many of the points I’ve brought up in this section of the podcast on how to study the Bible have come from him. So I hope you’ll join me next time for a discussion on cultural context, with Dr. Ben Shin, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.