Understand the Bible, Rule #3: The Clear Interprets the Obscure

Bible Study Foundational Principle 3: The clear interprets the obscure.

For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.

Hebrews 7:18

At face value, this verse seems to be saying that some old commandment was weak and useless, so God threw it out, but which commandment? It is generally assumed that it’s talking about the Old Covenant, including the Law of Moses. Most people believe it’s only the ceremonial laws pertaining to the Levitical priesthood that were weak and useless, while others believe it was the entire Law of Moses.

But is that really what this verse is saying? If we look at the context of the whole Letter to the Hebrews, it seems like a plausible explanation.

To summarize:

Jesus is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, to whom Abraham gave a tenth, and by whom he was blessed, and Levi through the loins of Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Perfection is unattainable through the Levitical priesthood, so we needed a a priest like Melchizedek instead of like Aaron, and if the priest changes, the law has to change too, because Jesus, who is like Melchizedek, came from Judah, not Levi.

So a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness, because the law can’t make anything perfect.

Former priests died, made daily sacrifices, and were weak in themselves. But Jesus guarantees a better covenant, because his priesthood was established by an oath from God, he lives forever, and sacrificed himself once for all time.

Now, that summary might seem a little confusing, but I honestly think the original is even harder to understand.

The writer of Hebrews assumed that his readers already possessed substantial knowledge of Jewish tradition and Levitical law, something that very few Christians in any age could claim to have. I’m a decently intelligent guy who’s been studied Torah for nearly 20 years, yet I still struggle to make sense of much of this book. 

Anyone who tells you that Hebrews is straightforward is selling snake oil.

At no point does the writer spell out exactly what he means by “the former commandment” in verse 18, though it seems clear it must have something to do with the Levitical priesthood. What does he mean by “weak and useless”? Didn’t the divine presence rest in the Tabernacle while Aaron and his sons offered their sacrifices there? Surely God wouldn’t give the Israelites weak and useless rules for his personal house in Israel! Paul himself wrote that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). God isn’t a politician to make useless laws to appease the masses.

The third fundamental rule of interpreting the Bible is this: the clear interprets the obscure, and never the other way around. If one or more passages makes a very clear statement about a topic, while another passage makes a convoluted or ambiguous statement about it, the clearer passage should normally take precedence. 

(In practice, we also have to take into account the context, format, and intent of each statement. For example, we can expect a legal judgement to be quite clear, while a personal conversation might involve hyperbole and sarcasm which doesn’t always translate well across in print and across languages. Such personal communications are usually much easier to take out of context and misinterpret. Poetry must be treated as even further removed from the literal.)

Are there clear passages that talk about the strength and usefulness of the Levitical priesthood or its durability? 

  • Exodus 28:43 And [the priestly garments] shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.
  • Exodus 29:9 And you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.
  • Leviticus 6:22 The priest from among Aaron’s sons, who is anointed to succeed him, shall offer it to the LORD as decreed forever. The whole of it shall be burned.
  • Leviticus 9:6 And Moses said, “This [the initial offerings made by Aaron in the Tabernacle] is the thing that the LORD commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you.”
  • Leviticus 16:34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the LORD commanded Moses.
  • Leviticus 24:3 Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron shall arrange it from evening to morning before the LORD regularly. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.
  • Joshua 1:7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.
  • Psalms 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple…
  • Matthew 5:17-18 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

There are many, many more statements like these scattered all throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. According to hundreds of passages, the Law is personally and nationally transformative and enriching, the rituals of the priesthood and the priesthood itself are enduring, as well as preserving the lives of the priests, atoning for the sins of the priests, the nation, and the individual, and enabling God’s presence among the people. 

There is nothing about the Law of Moses that is weak or useless!

What does Hebrews 7:18 mean, then?

If it doesn’t mean that the Law or the Levitical Priesthood were weak and useless, it seems to me that there is only one reasonable interpretation that doesn’t make the text hopelessly convoluted.

Hebrews 7:18 means that the Levitical Priesthood and the sacrificial system of that law was weak and useless for attaining eternal salvation. That was never its purpose! For this, we need a better covenant with a different kind of priest to mediate it. We can’t earn eternal salvation through the blood of bulls and goats, but we can through the blood of the perfect Son of God! There is one law that pertains to the daily sacrifices, Yom Kippur, and the appointing of the sons of Aaron, and there is another law that pertains to the one, eternal sacrifice for all our souls, and the appointing of the ultimate High Priest in Heaven.

So like setting aside a hammer, which is a weak and useless tool for driving screws, when working on this eternal task, we set aside the Covenant and Law of Sinai and pick up the Covenant and Law of Calvary. 

The Sinai Covenant isn’t thrown in the dustbin because we have a new covenant. Paul wrote that “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified (Galatians 3:15).” It’s merely relegated to its proper place, which is as a witness against sin, a judge of sinners, and a guide for righteous behavior.

The Clear Interprets the Obscure

Sometimes this rule is given as “The Explicit Interprets the Implicit.”

A great many passages in the Bible can be confusing or deceptively simple when taken on their own, but no passage exists alone. Every word must be understood in light of every other word, and the obscure must always be subordinate to the clear.

Go back to Foundational Principle #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture.

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Understand the Bible, Rule #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture

I can rob banks without getting caught, jump off cliffs without getting hurt, and run through traffic without getting hit by a truck because I can do all things through him who strengthens me!

Right!? It says so right there in Philippians 4:13, just plain as day.

Of course, only the mentally unstable and the most virulent atheists would insist that Paul meant we could literally do anything at all. Yet people still quote that verse in all kinds of situations as if they did. If you are in this group, you are likely already a serious Bible student, and you know what Paul really meant. It probably seems silly to you that Paul meant we can do stupid, harmful things. But how do we know he didn’t?

Because Scripture interprets Scripture.

We know that Paul didn’t mean that we can commit sin through the power of Christ without penalty, because in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he also wrote, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?”

But what about soccer games? Can we win every game through Christ who strengthens us? Apart from the logical conundrum of both teams claiming that God is going to help them win, we have to use the same principle of Bible study here too. Does Scripture say that Philippians 4:13 means we can win every soccer game through the power of Jesus?

Understand the Greater Context

In order to understand what any particular passage means, we have to understand what it meant to the person who wrote it and to the people to whom he wrote.

Paul was the penultimate Bible scholar. He probably had the first five books of the Bible (aka Torah) memorized in Hebrew and much of the rest of the Bible too. He spent decades studying with the greatest Jewish scholars of the first century. So in order to be confident that we understand what Paul meant by anything he wrote, we also have to be very familiar with the rest of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

Next, we have to understand the world and circumstances in which Paul wrote the Epistle to the Philippians. From chapter 1, we know that Paul was writing to fellow believers who lived in Philippi (v1), that he knew the intended recipients well and considered himself to be their spiritual mentor (v3-11), and that he wrote from a Roman prison (v12-14).

Understand the Immediate Context

In chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 Paul discussed the purpose of suffering for the sake of the Gospel and what a great witness it is to suffer without resentment and to keep working for the Kingdom of God despite persecution. He then praised Timothy and Epaphroditus for their hard work and perseverance despite their own hardships. In chapter 3, he continued the theme of rejoicing through suffering, adding a few words of condemnation for those who had turned away from the faith.

In chapter 4, Paul first told the Philippians to set aside their personal differences and join with their fellows who have worked to further the gospel. He thanked them for their concern over his plight and for the financial assistance they had provided for his ministry. This is where we find the verse in question, but no verse exists in isolation. Every line is written as part of a greater whole.

Understand the Genre and Structure of the Passage

Here is the structure of the passage, Philippians 4:10-20:

  • v10 – Gratitude for concern
  • v11 – Contentment in whatever situation
  • v12 – Low and high, any and every, plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
  • v13 – I can do all things through him who strengthens me
  • v14 – Gratitude for concern
  • vs15-20 – Gratitude for financial assistance

If you are familiar with the concept of chiasms, you might have noticed something interesting in this outline. A theme in verse 10 (gratitude) is repeated in verse 14, a theme in verse 11 (whatever situtation) is repeated in verse 13 (all things), and verse 12 contains what almost reads like a poetic Hebrew parallelism.

To make it more plain:

A chiasm in Philippians 4:10-14 illustrating Paul's intent in "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Let Scripture interpret Scripture.

If verse 14 reflects verse 10 and the four clauses of verse 12 all echo each other, it follows that verse 13 reflects verse 11. In other words, Paul meant “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” to mean essentially the same thing as “I have learned to be content any situation.”

Put It All Together, Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture

The overarching theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is perseverance through suffering, a theme which is carried through the trials of Abraham, the slavery of the Hebrews, the testing of Job, and all the other writings of the Old Testament, not to mention the sufferings of Christ himself.

The context of the letter, the structure of the passage, and the testimony of the rest of Scripture all tell us that Philippians 4:13 means “I know that I can persevere in the faith through good times and bad because God is with me.”

Does that mean God won’t help you win your soccer game or survive jumping from a cliff on a dare? Nope. Maybe he will. It only means that this verse doesn’t apply to those situations.

I chose this passage because it was relatively easy to parse, so it served as a good example to demonstrate Scripture interpreting Scripture. In general, you will want to follow this plan:

  • Be familiar with the whole Bible before being too confident in your ability to interpret any particular difficult passage.Know the historical context and the genre (letter, history, poetry, etc.) of the book or passage you are studying.
  • Know the contents and purpose of the book (or passage for long books with distinct divisions).
  • Dissect the passage to be sure you know the theme and structure.
  • If there are uncertain words, check to see how the same Hebrew and Greek words are used elsewhere in Scripture.
  • This should work for most passages, but be flexible. Be prepared for ambiguity, hyperbole, and even sarcasm. Although every book in the Bible was inspired by God, the authors were still humans communicating with humans, and they wrote like it.

Go back to Foundational Principle #1: The Bible Was Written to Be Understood.

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Understand the Bible: Rule #1

Common Sense Bible Study Foundational Principle #1: The Bible was written to be understood.

Three principles of Biblical interpretation are absolutely foundational to helping you understand the Bible. Without grasping these three rules, you will be blown around by doctrinal winds and fall prey to theological pied pipers.

Principle #1: The Bible was written to be understood.

Every sane person who publishes a book or writes a letter does so to communicate with other people. He writes in such a way that his intended audience will understand his message.

If he only wanted to work out personal frustrations or ensure he didn’t forget something, he could write it in a journal and use whatever obscure code he wanted. He could make up his own alphabet or use nicknames to hide his true meaning from snoops.

Real Meaning

But there’s nothing like that in the Scriptures. Everything in the Bible was written to be understood by someone other than the author. Some passages are obscure due to linguistic or cultural differences and others were written using veiled language for political or prophetic reasons. Those factors certainly complicate the process of interpretation, but you will never need a secret decoder ring to work it out.

If you understand who the author was, the cultural, linguistic, and historical context in which he wrote, and who his intended audience was, then the meaning shouldn’t be too difficult to tease out.

Real Language

The author won’t have invented his own words or new meanings for words that were already commonly used. He would write with words that were already familiar to his audience, and he would primarily use them in the context his audience would expect. He might use idioms or religious jargon, but only if he thought his audience would know what he meant. If he used a word in an unexpected way, you can expect him to explain it or give some kind of hint in the text.

Real People

Was the author a king, farmer, or priest? Did he live in times of peace or of foreign subjugation? Did he live in the shadow of the Temple or did he live in a distant land? Did his intended audience consist of relatively new converts or people who had grown up in the synagogue, attending every festival in Jerusalem? All of these circumstances and more will have profound impacts on the language and imagery he uses in his writing.

Yes, you can understand the Bible. You don’t need any secret algorithms, mystical diagrams, or urim and thummim. The only secret decoder ring you need is sufficient background information.

Up next… Foundational Principle #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture.

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How to Treat a Destitute Brother

You shall open wide your hand to your brother... Charity among believers

Bad things happen. It rains on the just and the unjust alike, and fellow believers will come on hard times. We’ve all known someone (and probably know someone still today!) who is so poor that he can’t afford the basic necessities of life. He’s homeless, wears worn out clothes, or can’t afford to buy food for his family.

How much should I help? At what point does help stop being helpful? How should I give charity? Should I donate to an organization? Should I give charity at all?

These are hard questions, and probably can’t even be answered thoroughly without an intimate knowledge of the person’s specific circumstances, but the Bible does give us some basic guidelines on how to help someone in need. Leviticus 25 gives one of the clearest sets of instructions.

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger [ger: a foreigner living in Israel, whether a naturalized Israelite or a temporary visitor, such as a migrant laborer] and a sojourner [toshav: an Israelite who is temporarily landless], and he shall live with you. Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

“If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him ruthlessly but shall fear your God.”

Leviticus 25:35-43

This passage isn’t talking about someone who can’t afford a new television or a nice car. It’s good to be generous to all people, especially to those less fortunate than yourself, but that’s not the issue at hand here. These instructions concern someone who is truly destitute, in desperate need of food, clothing, and shelter for himself or his family.

The basic rules for dealing with a destitute brother can be summarized as below.

The Treatment of a Poor Israelite

  1. Support him like a ger and a toshav. See the Leviticus quote above for more detail on what ger and toshav mean. There are a number of rules given for how to treat a ger, and only a few about a toshav, but all of the rules for the toshav are included with the ger, so we only need to talk about the ger. I’ll go into more detail below on exactly how we are supposed to support them.
  2. Do not lend to him interest. If he asks to borrow money or material, give it to him if you can spare it, and don’t demand any interest. Elsewhere, we are told to lend to our brothers on the honor system, without expecting repayment. (See also Deuteronomy 15:7-11.)
  3. Sell food to him at cost. God has additional rules on providing the poor with food, but, at the very least, we are forbidden from selling food to the destitute for a profit. This doesn’t mean we have to give every person who claims to be poor a steep discount at the grocery store. Remember that these rules apply to the truly destitute, to those who can’t afford to buy even the most basic foods, not to people who can afford rice and beans, but prefer pizza and ice cream.
  4. If you buy him as a slave, treat him as a hired worker, and release him in the 7th year with generous gifts. Slavery is nominally illegal in the United States today (except as punishment for a crime), so this law doesn’t apply directly. A person could certainly borrow his way into a very bad situation, especially with non-dischargeable debt, like student loans, but even in those cases, he only has the threat of slavery (prison) hanging over his head, and strictly speaking hasn’t sold himself. (See also Deuteronomy 15:12-18.)

The first rule is meaningless without further explanation, so I’ll go into that more below, and the fourth rule doesn’t apply in today’s United States. However, rules two and three apply, but are followed so rarely as to be almost unheard of.

The only people who give interest free loans to the poor are close family members, but God says that everyone who has the money to lend should be ready to do it. Not only should we lend freely, but we must be ready to forgive the loan in the shemitah year no matter how much he has repaid. How bizarre and revolting that feels to American sensibilities!

Yet this is how God wants his people to treat one another.

There are many places where you can buy new clothing at (or near) wholesale prices and used clothing at far below retail, but there aren’t many places where you can buy food at cost. Grocery stores will often reduce the price of goods that are near the end of the shelf lives, but they don’t reserve those products for the destitute. They are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis, just like the rest of their stock.

Some restaurants and grocery stores will donate old or excess products to charities, but that’s not exactly the same thing. Giving away food is fine–and even commanded–to an extent, but that shouldn’t be the only option available to the poor. Handouts and government welfare programs shouldn’t be the primary means of supporting the poor. Jobs and low-cost necessities promote better habits while maintaining self-respect.

So what about the ger?

The Treatment of a Ger

Remember that a ger is a foreigner who has joined himself to Israel, but has no land of his own, or else a foreigner who is temporarily living with Israel. Some of these commandments also include the toshav, who is a temporarily landless or itinerant Israelite, but there are no rules for a toshav that do not also apply to a ger.

  1. May celebrate some feasts and must celebrate others. (Exodus 12:48-49, Leviticus 16:29, Deuteronomy 16:1-17, 26:1-19)
  2. Required to keep the weekly Sabbath. (Exodus 20:10, 23:12, Deuteronomy 5:14)
  3. Not to be treated like a slave…unless he is a slave. (Exodus 22:21, 23:9)
  4. Not allowed to eat blood. (Leviticus 17:12)
  5. May eat animals that died of natural causes or was killed by another animal. (Leviticus 17:15, Deuteronomy 14:21)
  6. Abstain from sexual immorality. (Leviticus 18:26)
  7. May glean the corners and leavings of the fields. (Leviticus 19:10, 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-21)
  8. Love him as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
  9. Must not blaspheme the name of God. (Leviticus 24:16)
  10. May worship and bring offerings. (Numbers 15:14-16, Numbers 19:10, )
  11. Must keep and be protected by the same standards of justice as the native-born. (Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:26, 35:15, Deuteronomy 1:15-16, 24:17, 27:19)
  12. Give him food and clothing if he needs it. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 14:29)
  13. Must keep all the commandments (Deuteronomy 31:9-13)

How Charity Works in God’s Kingdom

There are times for outright charity, times to make things available to whomever is willing to do the labor, and times to hire and offer produce at a discount. Which option is appropriate in any given circumstances will depend on the individuals involved, and nobody can know that except those individuals. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that can be dictated from thousands of miles away. Charity should be local and almost always voluntary. (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give to people far away, only that you should start near at home.)

Note also that Biblical charity comes with some strings attached. Everyone in Israel is expected to keep God’s commandments, and those who refuse are to be cut off. In some cases that might mean exile or shunning, and in some it might mean death. I’m not saying that charity should be dependent on perfect behavior or that anyone should keep a score sheet to determine eligibility. What I mean is that no Israelite should ever be expected to support financially an enemy of God or Israel.

To be eligible for charity from Israel, one must be eligible to live among Israel, which primarily means keeping God’s appointed times and Sabbaths, and abstaining from sexual immorality, idolatry, and blood. Interestingly enough, the three prohibitions are the exact same requirements that James and the council of Jerusalem gave for new converts to come into fellowship in Acts 15.

God requires his people to give charity generously. Although he didn’t specify any penalty for not giving to the poor, he commanded it multiple times. The Prophets, Yeshua, and the Apostles all repeated those instructions.

Give to people you know personally. Give to charities that uphold God’s standards. Give to the poor, widows, orphans, and sick. Charity is not an option for God’s people, but charity shouldn’t be indiscriminate and irresponsible, either. Whenever possible, it should be local, personal, and relational.

The Importance of Primary Sources

The importance of primary sources in finding the real truth.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a newspaper out there that employs unbiased reporters and never confuses reporting with opining. I know that’s a stretch, but let’s pretend anyway. We’ll call it The Daily Truth.

If you want to know what’s been going on in Congress you have four choices:

  1. Read the Congressional Record, which is a play-by-play created by people who were there and participating.
  2. Read the Politics section of The Daily Truth, which may or may not include reporting by people who were present at the events, but certainly includes narrative based on the Congressional Record.
  3. Read the Opinion page of The Daily Truth, which includes personal opinions about the news reported in the Politics section written by people who definitely weren’t there.
  4. Check Facebook, which is like the Opinion page in the junior high student newspaper. You’ll be lucky if anyone even knows The Daily Truth exists, because it’s not allowed on Facebook.

Now, the Opinion page will certainly have content relevant to current events and even to specific and important political issues, but opinions aren’t facts. If you want to know what actually happened as opposed to what some pundit thinks about what happened, you only have two reasonable options: the Congressional Record and the Politics section of The Daily Truth, and most of the Politics section is probably written by people who don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the events they’re reporting.

So, if you want to get the bare facts–or as close to the facts as possible–then you have to go to the primary sources.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a record of events by someone with first-hand knowledge. Examples include meeting minutes, personal diaries and letters, and first-hand accounts of historic events.

A secondary source is opinion about a primary source. Examples include most news articles, history books (not written by witnesses), academic papers, documentary videos, and commentary.

A Facebook post is a quip about headlines about opinions about primary sources.

Secondary sources can be interesting and informative, but they will never be anything more than opinion about someone else’s reporting of the facts. If you want to know the actual facts, and not opinions, you have to go to a primary source.

Of course, that doesn’t mean secondary sources are useless.

All translations of primary sources are, to a great extent, secondary sources, because translations are always affected by the knowledge and biases of the translator. Many words in one language have no direct equivalents in other languages, and sometimes the same word can have multiple meanings. If you were to translate a personal letter from Russian to English, you would have to make some guesses about what the author meant by some phrases. You would have an even harder time with translating across very different cultures in different eras.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, etc., are almost always secondary sources and can have huge disparities in their reliability.

The solution is to consult primary sources whenever possible and to consult several secondary sources when necessary. Make it your habit to compare Bible translations, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, and commentaries. Over time, you will cultivate a good feel for which of these resources are reliable, which are interesting, and which are safe to ignore completely.

Even then, remember that the most reliable secondary source is still someone’s opinions about a primary source. They might be excellent opinions, but they’re still just opinions.

See this guide from the University of Massachusetts Boston for more information: description and examples of Primary vs Secondary Sources.

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Be Aware of Your Assumptions when Reading the Bible

Everyone assumes.

That’s not a bad thing in itself. We have experiences and we’ve been taught things about the world, and we use this information from our past to help us understand what we experience in the present and what we expect from the future. We will never know everything there is to know about any event in our lives or that we read about, but we make assumptions about things that we can’t see based on what we have seen in similar circumstances before.

If you see a masked figure running from a bank, the movies you’ve watched, the news you’ve read, and your personal experiences with masks and banks will probably lead you to assume that the person has just robbed the bank. You’d probably be right.

Without assumptions, we’d be paralyzed by every new event. We would never be able to make decisions about anything because we’d have to analyze every detail and every detail about those details.

Unfortunately, our assumptions aren’t always right. Maybe there’s an employee costume party going on at the bank or the running figure was a horribly disfigured man late for an appointment with his plastic surgeon. Neither explanation seems likely, but they’re both possible.

The farther a situation is from our personal experiences, the more likely it is that our assumptions about it will be wrong. The passing of only a few decades or a few thousand miles can mean dramatic cultural changes.

Consider the differing experiences of farmers across the world in the same year. The work of a coffee grower in Indonesia, a Chinese rice farmer, a corn farmer in Iowa, and a greenhouse grower in Massachusetts has significant similarities. They plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell, but the differences are also significant. One might be a technician with an advanced degree in botany or biology, while another might be an illiterate slave. They speak different languages, use different tools and methods, have different values, follow different growing seasons and development cycles. They would not use the same vocabulary to record their life stories, nor the same metaphors to communicate their thoughts about God.

War, mass migrations, changes in language, economic conditions, technology… the potential complications can get…um…complicated. Now, extend that across thousands of years, a hundred generations and dozens of genocides, the rise and fall of empires and religions.

Welcome to Bible study.

The Bible was written over the course of 1500+ years, in multiple languages, by people with vastly different personal experiences and assumptions about the world. When you read it, you need to be aware of the historical, cultural, linguistic, and personal context of the original text, and even more aware of your own presuppositions.

If you approach the Bible wearing your modern American assumptions over your eyes, you are going to see much that isn’t there, and you will miss much that is. Your study will tend to reinforce what you think you already “know” rather than reveal what actually is.

Surviving through Trials, Prospering by Faith

The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (6) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.
Leviticus 25:1-7

And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ (21) I will command my blessing on you in the sixth year, so that it will produce a crop sufficient for three years. (22) When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating some of the old crop; you shall eat the old until the ninth year, when its crop arrives.
Leviticus 25:20-22

Every seventh year, called the Shemitah, God wants the land to rest from laboring for mankind. He promised that if his people allow the land to rest in that year–no sowing or reaping–then he would provide a triple harvest in the sixth year, enough to still be eating it in the ninth year.

This can all be a little hard to grasp when you don’t live in an agrarian culture, so I charted it out to see why we would need a triple harvest in the sixth year when we are only supposed to skip planting and harvesting in one year.

  • The GREEN BARS represent the time from planting until harvest.
  • The YELLOW BARS represent the harvest period.
  • The BLUE BARS represent the time in which that year’s grain harvest is stored and used.
  • The GRAY BARS represent the periods in which the fields are left fallow or are growing other crops.

The barley crop is in a darker shade than the wheat.

As you can see, the barley and wheat crops are planted beginning around the month of Cheshvan, roughly around October, and grow for 4-8 months before harvesting. The barley begins to ripen around the end of Adar and the beginning of Nisan, which is around March or April.

According to Leviticus 23:10-14, no barley from the new harvest may be eaten until after the wave offering that is done a few days after Passover. This wave offering is sometimes called Early Firstfruits.

The wheat harvest begins almost two months later at the beginning of the month of Sivan, just before the holiday known as Pentecost, Shavuot, or Later Firstfruits.

Each of these harvest periods lasts from one to two months, and that grain has to last until after Passover the next year. The crops from year 5 are stored and eaten up until the harvest of year 6.

Barley and wheat were the primary staple crops of the ancient Near East, including Israel. They were the main source of calories for almost everyone. Although God allows the people to eat what grows of its own in the 7th year, he does not allow mass harvesting for sale or storage, and there wouldn’t be a lot of grain growing on its own. Since there is no planting or harvesting in year 7, the harvest from year 6 has to last at least two full years or people will begin to starve.

If the people follow this plan, God promised that there would be a triple harvest in the 6th year. Why triple if only two years are required to get through the Shemitah year? Because a double harvest is the bare minimum to survive, and God wants to reward his people for their faithfulness. He doesn’t want us to barely get by.

In its plainest sense, this law only applies to those living in the land of Israel, and it requires that you leave your fields fallow in the 7th year and only eat what you have stored up and what grows on its own without cultivation. Don’t buy fresh produce at the grocery store. Don’t import avocados and tomatoes from Mexico. Just trust divine Providence.

However, the principle applies more broadly: God rewards those who trust in him and demonstrate their trust by keeping his commandments, even when they don’t make sense.

The rewards of the Kingdom of God are not stored up for the religious, the popular, the powerful, or even for those who suffer the most. There is nothing virtuous about self flagellation. No, the rewards of the Kingdom are stored up for those who trust in God.

I’m not saying that you will always be rich. Sometimes God makes you poor, like in the seventh year, so you’ll learn to trust in him more. Sometimes he makes you sick or takes away everything you have, like Job, but he only does it so that you will have the opportunity to grow into the great man or woman of God that he knows you can be.

Consider Joseph. When he was young, he was tactless and possibly a bit foolish, but he trusted God. Despite that trust, his brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. In Egypt, he was abused, slandered, and imprisoned.

He thought he would become the patriarch of a large and wealthy family. Instead he became the top prisoner in a dungeon, and a servant to white-color criminals. Despite many years of injustice and misery, Joseph kept his faith that God was in control and that justice would ultimately prevail.

But then Pharaoh had a nightmare that no one could interpret, and one of those criminals remembered the young Hebrew seer who worked in the prison. Joseph was brought up from the pit and–after thirteen years!–rewarded with status and wealth beyond anything he had ever dreamed.

It’s hard to see the finish line when your course is through valleys, jungles, and swamps, but if we could always see exactly what reward lay at the end, we’d have no need for faith.

Great trials build great faith, and great faith brings great rewards, but the timing and the forms of trial and reward are God’s to decide, not ours.

Jacob Becomes Israel

When Rebekah and Isaac sent Jacob to his uncle Laban’s home to find a wife, Jacob stopped to rest at a place called Bethel. There, he saw a vision of angels going to and from Heaven. He vowed to serve God and God vowed to see him safely back home again to the Promised Land. (Genesis 32:10-22)

Many years later, as he was returning, God met him on the road again, but this encounter wasn’t as peaceful as the first. God appeared to him in the form of an angel and they fought all through the night. Jacob refused to let the angel go, until the angel seriously injured him.

After they wrestled, the angel told him (in Genesis 32:28), “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” However, the narrative continues to refer to him as Jacob and not Israel for several more chapters, only using the new name to refer to Jacob’s descendants. More years passed, and Jacob went on with his life.

Why did God give Jacob this new name and then not use it?

I believe it’s because Jacob wasn’t ready to be Israel, yet. Through his whole life to this point, Jacob had been passive. He was manipulated by his mother, by Laban, and by his wives, Leah and Rachel. The only times he actively pursued his own interests, he did so through treachery, sleight of hand, or flattery.

Jacob wasn’t an evil man, but he wasn’t a strong man either. He certainly wasn’t the kind of man you might expect to be the founder of a nation. He was a paragon of the beta male.

Idolatry was rampant in his house, and although Jacob might not have taken part in the worship of inanimate objects, his relationship with Rachel was, in its own way, idolatrous enough. She was the focus of his life. He doted on her to the detriment of the rest of the family, but fell short as her husband.

When she died, he merely put Joseph and Benjamin in her place and then left town to sulk by himself. His son Reuben took advantage of his absence to attempt a poorly planned and executed coup. His daughter Dinah began running with the wrong crowd, and got herself into a very bad situation. Finally, two of his sons sacked a city, killing or enslaving all of its inhabitants.

It was true then, as it is now, that profound personal growth rarely happens without profound personal pain.

After all of these troubles were piled on his head, God called Jacob back to Bethel (Genesis 35:1) where he had once pledged to serve YHVH (Genesis 28:20-22). Despite all of the trouble and conflict, God had kept his side of the bargain and brought him safely back to the land of his fathers. But Jacob hadn’t kept his.

Jacob Turns a Corner

With this reminder, Jacob finally began acting like the father and husband he should have been decades before. He commanded his family to give up their idols and he led them all back to Bethel, where Deborah, Rebekah’s old nurse and the last remnant of the previous generation, died.

Jacob finally took the helm of his own family and began to become Israel.

That’s when God repeated the promise of a new name as well as the promises Jacob had inherited from Abraham.

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”
Genesis 35:9-12

This is also the point at which the Biblical narrative begins to refer to Jacob as Israel.

Jacob became Israel, but he didn’t become perfect. He continued to make bad decisions and the narrative switches back and forth between the two names. Jacob was human, and no mere human will ever be perfect in this lifetime.

This shouldn’t discourage us, though. Our weaknesses are no barrier to God’s anointing.

God calls us wherever we are and then begins moving us in the right direction. Change doesn’t happen immediately for anyone, and we all move at a different pace. Even so, we are called and given a new name by God’s grace.

We don’t get to point at anyone else and say, “You’re too flawed. You don’t deserve that ministry.” Our expectations, our standards mean nothing to God. If he wants to raise up a drug addict to disciple thousands, then that’s what he’ll do. If he wants to raise up a weak husband and absent father to be the leader of a new nation, then what is that to you or me?

God will call whom he wills, even if it’s you.

P.S. This article was inspired by a conversation at Brenham Torah Community‘s Bible study a few weeks ago. Thank you, BTC!

All About the Weekly Sabbath

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light. -Yeshua

The Sabbath is a sign of God’s relationship with his people, and I firmly believe that those who have put their faith in Yeshua and are sincerely longing for a closer relationship with the Father will also feel a pull toward keeping the Sabbath. Unfortunately, they are often stuck without any sound teaching.

Too often, their pastors will discourage such obedience to God as “legalism” or “judaizing”. If they try to learn from Judaism, they are likely to get bogged down in a swamp of rules with disconnected from both the Bible and modern life. And if they turn to the Seventh Day Adventists and similar groups, they find a string of self-proclaimed prophets who are obsessed with questionable eschatology and consistently fail to deliver on their prophecies.

God’s people desperately need some common sense instruction on how to keep the weekly Sabbath. With that in mind, this year I’ve been writing a series of articles on the Sabbath as a guest at CallUponMe.com.

The series is divided into five parts:

  1. Will the Real Sabbath Please Stand Up? – Some people teach that the Sabbath was moved to Sunday. Others say that the Sabbath always follows the new moon regardless of the day of the week. Still others claim that there is no way we can possibly know that the day we call the seventh day, Saturday, really is the seventh day. In this article, I cut through the confusion and lay these rumors to rest.
  2. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 1: Why Is It So Hard? – Why are there so many conflicting opinions about the Sabbath? And how can we tell which ones are right? I answer those questions, plus give a summary of the following 3 articles.
  3. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 2: The Positive Commandments – The Bible contains both “do’s” and “don’t’s” in regard to the Sabbath. In this article, I examine the Do’s. We know we’re supposed to rest, but do we have to go to church? What else does God want us to do on the Sabbath?
  4. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 3: The Negative Commandments – Some people are really strict about the Sabbath, saying “Don’t work, don’t buy, don’t sell, don’t run, and don’t have any fun.” Others say rest and work are too subjective to define. In this article, I examine what the Bible actually says, as opposed to man-made traditions about the Sabbath.
  5. How to Keep the Sabbath, part 4: The Gray Areas – The Bible doesn’t cover every possible circumstance. It’s not supposed to, because God wants us to think and work some things out for ourselves. Even so, it can be hard to know what to do in some situations. In this article, I discuss the nature of Sabbath and the related commandments, and how that can help us decide what to do when things aren’t as clear as we would like.

My goal is to make things clearer for you, not to muddy the waters even more. If you have questions, if anything still seems confusing, you can ask questions here. I’ll do my best to help.

Remember that I’m still just human, though, and sometimes I really do make things more confusing than they need to be. I think it’s OK, though. The Sabbath was made for man, so it’s not supposed to be so complicated that the average man can’t understand it.

Burning Down the House with Strange Fire

Nadab and Abihu evidently held to the same maxim as feminism and today's emasculated church: "Listen to your heart."

Leviticus 10:1-11 “Nadab and Abihu…offered strange fire before the LORD, which he commanded them not.”

When addressing the age-old spiritual pathologies of feminism, humanism, and hedonism, there is no passage more appropriate than Jeremiah 17:9. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

Nadab and Abihu evidently held to the same maxim as feminism and today’s emasculated church: “Listen to your heart.”

I believe they meant well. They wanted to express their devotion to God in a dramatic way, but it is not man’s place to decide when, where, or how to worship God.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this story to understand is Moses’ instruction to Aaron and his remaining sons. They were not allowed to touch the bodies nor show any grief or sympathy for the two dead men. They appear to have been in the middle of consecrating the Tabernacle for its first use, and Moses said that if they were to leave the Tabernacle or disrupt the ceremony before the consecration was complete, they would die. That’s not because they were weak, but because there are dangerous spiritual forces at work in the world, both good and evil.

Remember Uzzah.

God allows us a wide margin of freedom in showing our love for him, as fathers do their children, but every good father imposes rules for the health and safety of his family. There are some tasks in a house which are only appropriate for more mature children and only appropriate at certain times and when done in certain manners.

There are also tasks in God’s kingdom which he has set apart with more specific guidelines, and not all of them have to do with the Levitical Priesthood. In fact, most of them don’t.

God also gave us instructions on crime and punishment, clothing, diet, and family relationships. None of his instructions are arbitrary. They are all given for our benefit, to keep God’s house healthy and family safe.

He appointed men to be the heads of their wives and the spiritual coverings of their houses, for example. When they abdicate their authority, their families suffer. When women attempt to take on those roles, they are more likely to be harmed than blessed, not because women are weaker, but because they are the wrong tools for the job. A voltmeter is a great tool, but it makes a very poor hammer.

When our hearts lead us to actions contrary to God’s design, they deceive us and leave us vulnerable to consequences which we might not foresee or to attacks against which we are not prepared to defend. It’s better to accept God’s design without understanding than to rely on your own understanding and be burned like Nadab and Abihu.

When a wife consciously rejects her husband’s covering–or a child rejects his father’s or, indeed, when any person rejects the covering of God’s instructions–based solely on the feelings in her heart she must accept the consequences of her own actions. Courts and other sympathizers who would blame her husband for her actions insult the woman by treating her as completely incapable of controlling herself, and they treat her husband unjustly.

Nadab and Abihu walked their own path instead of the one that God had mapped out for them. No one forced them to act outside the covering of their priestly calling. They were not deceived by anything outside themselves, and no one else could accept any blame. They followed their hearts and they died for it.

God will not hold them blameless who hold their own hearts higher than his Law.