“The Bible...is a Jewish book. It cannot be read and understood and expounded it unless we are prepared to become Jews with the Jews.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, et al (Edinburgh: T & T. Clark, 1956), 1/2:511
It can be hard for Christians living in the modern western world to grasp, but the Bible was not written in a vacuum. It can be difficult for those whose roots are in western culture such as (but not limited to) Americans, Canadians and other British territories to understand how the mind of a Hebraic thinker worked (works). Those of us in in these regions have our thinking steeped in the philosophical tradition of the ancient Greeks, and relating to subjects where religion is concerned, there is no small amount of platonic thought present.
Most however, are unaware of its strong presence, and feel as though they have freedom to read the text “as it is” or “for what it says.” The Hebrews have their root in a very different culture and time, the Ancient Near East. There is a giant chasm separating these two forms of thought, worldviews, ideals, paradigms and pretty much everything that makes a person who and what they are.
For instance, in the “philosophy” that was early on called Christianity, it has been thought and taught by many that it stands in stark contrast to that which Judaism embraced. For example, in the first century, did Judaism really teach that salvation comes only from the works of the law, as opposed to Christianity, which is rather a religion of "grace"? Is this the way Paul understood it? This perspective that was generated over time, as the message moved from a Jewish to a Gentile majority, arose from anti-Jewish sentiments and a failure to see the text in its proper context and culture. It does not take a long time for this to happen. This understanding of Judaism is a misrepresentation of what it was that Judaism represented. Of course, there were stages of development in this ancient religion as well, but to “throw it under bus” so to speak, as merely a list of rules, rituals and regulation is to misunderstand its “interworking” and the nuances it contained that were also the bedrock of Christian foundation.
Not only for this reason alone, but for the sake of many crucial pictures revealed to the people of Israel about their God and ultimately their relationship to the world it is vital to view the Bible through their Hebraic eyes. The writers who penned the Scriptures were Hebrew, the stories they tell are Hebrew, the culture in which they are told is Hebrew, the religion in which they are expressed are Hebrew, the traditions are full of rich Hebrew heritage and the nature of their relevance are Hebrew. This is not a move towards an elitist perspective or interpretation of the Bible as some in recent times have suggested, but rather a preservation of what it actually says instead of the Greco-Roman adaptations later forced upon it.
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the fountainhead of everything the New Testament became. The New Testament assumes its readers have an intimate knowledge with the message and ultimately are believers - and arguably of higher importance - participants in the story they are invited to continue. The New Testament is a commentary of sorts from the perspectives of witnesses who heard and saw that for which many had longed.
In the wake of modernity and post-modernity we find ourselves face to face with a world of passivity and downright apathy, especially relating to these matters. Our world is nothing like theirs. We live in a time of fast information, entertainment diets and have an obsession with plugging in and turning off. My generation in particular seems to be content to watch life happen rather than live it fully. Thus we have become a people a spectators instead of participants. Facebook may be a particularly good example of this, where fabricated myths of people’s existence tell a story that often times is misleading and sometimes just not true. It has the potential to invent and communicate the life one wishes. The Hebrew people were not like this. The history of the Hebrews reveal a people who were full of passion, vitality and were many times troubled (sometimes self-inflicted and sometimes not). They lived out their lives primarily as people of the land, farming, raising livestock and in some places, fishing. Many were also skilled in trades of building and craft. The point that must be stressed is that for these people, truth was not abstract. It was not as much an idea one must contemplate and decide as truth or lie, rather an experience or deed. They lived life through their feet. Life is a walk, an experience, a journey.
Because the Hebrews liked the concrete, they tended toward avoiding the abstract. The idea of doctrinal formulation to dictate belief was also alien to their mind, although in later Talmudic literature the oral Torah became a burdensome list of rules and regulations. As a Greek, one may describe God as all powerful, (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) or all around (omnipresent). God may be described as being just, loving, gracious, which are all true, but a Hebrew is far more likely to describe God as a rock, a high tower, a deliverer, eagles wings, living, moving, vibrant fresh water or a loving father. These are pictures and imagery that are highly experiential and relational rather than abstract data or proposition. A Greek, will give presentation outlining all points in a logical format, allowing the hearer to decipher and decide based on evidence or lack thereof whether what was presented was truth or not. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, a Hebrew is far more likely to tell a story, letting the listener enter an experience with emotion, then following it up with a question, thus requiring action or reaction one way or another.
In a brief and most likely oversimplified way, Greek logic - which has to a large extent influenced the western world - was different. The way of the Greek was to argue from a developed premise to a conclusion. Each step developed was closely linked to the next in a logical, rational and understandable manner. The conclusion and point of view related was, however, limited because the perception of reality was a human one.
A Hebrew expressed logic in a different way. Concepts were often in clusters of thought. What makes it confusing to a westerner is that these clusters or blocks of thought were not necessarily characterized by having a coherent, rational or any sort of obvious structure to them. This is particularly true when one set of paradigms was human and the other was representative of the divine realm.
In Hebrew thought, the functional aspect of “walking in righteousness” or what may be today classified as godliness or holiness is tied primarily to a relationship and not a specific creed one must adhere to and build ones ideology around. The closest the Hebrew people came to having a creed was found in their Torah. Deuteronomy 6 states, “Hear Israel,” where the word for "hear" is the Hebrew word shema. This isn't “hear” as we are accustomed to in English where it's tied to having sounds enter the ear canal, but rather it denotes action. It would be akin to a mother demanding of her negligent child “listen to me!” Rarely does the parent believe the child did not have the waves come into their hearing faculties, but is speaking to the child’s failure to act upon the words or instructions given. “Hear oh Israel the LORD our God the LORD is one.” If action is not the result of hearing, one has not heard. Skip Moen captured this well,
“To know without doing is a Greek concept. In Hebrew, to know is to do and the one who does not do has never known.”
This “creed” was also affirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:29 as being the most important statement to the people of God. Life was not passive for the Hebrews, who were characterized by emotion. Feeling and doing are how one relates to the world around and experiences of life. The senses are the tools for interpreting life; therefore their language was not abstract in its communication. It communicates things that are tangible, expressions that reveal a world of concrete picture on which one can rely, resulting in action.
It was the Torah, their “instruction” from God that gave direction to Israel on how to relate to the creator, his people and his world. It is sin which ruptures that relationship, but through repentance, forgiveness and restoration to fellowship - which was provided for by God himself - one can again be made whole. In modern Christian thinking, individualism and personal relationship are seen as the most important elements of one’s spirituality. In in some senses, it is on a personal level that we must first decide what path will be taken, but unfortunately, the communal aspect of working and walking together as people of God has been traded for an intellectual assent by ascribing to abstract statements of religious ideology: “pray this prayer”, “repeat these words after me,” “have you asked Jesus to become your personal Lord and Savior?” etc. The Hebrew was far more interested in the heart of religious faith; where the rubber meets the road.
In our modern world of polemics and political correctness, we have adopted the perspective that man is or is not to be a certain way. We build an image of ourselves based on a specific cultural paradigm we have adopted. We then defend that image with great fortitude, attempting to hide or cover our vulnerabilities, thus presenting ourselves as in control and maintaining composure. We have been led to believe that showing emotion is weak. Jesus however, the ideal man, wept unashamedly in public (Lk. 19:41; Jn. 11:35). This unabashed display by Jesus was in stark contrast to the Greek Stoics who sought to overcome all the “weaknesses” of humanity: pleasure, pain, pressure and human passion. The Hebrews did not attempt at hiding or suppressing these God given attributes, they were not seen as bad or weak, but sought to keep them within God ordained restraints.
It is within this framework that biblical writers pull vocabulary which is picture and story language and often times driven by action. The story is of a people with expectation, hope and promise. Their God was a different sort than that of their polytheistic and pagan neighbors. Their God was not a territory bound God. Their God was greater than that; he was God of the hills and plains, waters and lands, skies and sea, heavens and earth. This fostered a people that were often “on the move.” He was their God and they were the “apple of his eye” and his special “treasure.”
In conclusion, is there a message in all this for us today? John Bright, an Old Testament scholar remarked,
“We shall never hear the Old Testament's words rightly unless we are willing to hear it all. That is to say, we must hear it in its full humanity. There is a drive toward incarnation in the biblical revelation...It pleased God to reveal himself not through timeless teachings, or some heavenly gnosis, but through the events of a particular history, and to and through men who were caught up in history, and you were in every case man of like passions with ourselves and subject to all the limitations of our flesh.”
John bright, The Authority of the Old Testament, 236.
God has used human individuals to bring about his revelation, redemption and salvation. God’s recorded actions in history are what set the Bible apart from being any ancient piece of literature. It is however, ancient literature, and the voices and pictures of those whom God has used to disseminate his message cannot be drowned out in favor of another story, set of values or modern perspective.
The Bible has a lot to say to us today, but it must not be ripped out of its Hebraic worldview as though it speaks in terms of Greek philosophical, metaphysical or ontological categories. The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are a theological interpretation of the history of the Hebrews, in order to preserve the story of a God-hungry people caught in the battle against the cosmic forces of evil. The New Testament is a continuation of that story, showing how God has again entered history in a powerful way and is still bringing his covenant people into a fuller and better covenant with a greater Moses leading the way. Think Hebrew, Jesus did.