Home > General, Theology > Misinterpreting Scripture (Part 1: Context and a Little Bit of Hebrew)

Misinterpreting Scripture (Part 1: Context and a Little Bit of Hebrew)

(Quick note: I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed these days with work, personal life, and seminary, as you may have noticed. This upcoming summer term, I am actually lightening my academic load so that I can regain my balance and focus more on my spiritual life rather than scrambling to finish papers, etc. Hopefully, that will leave me with more time and energy. *Edited 5/17/12 for a little more precision.)

Without further ado, let’s get started with this series!

1) Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The first passage we will examine demonstrates one of the common reasons for misinterpreting the Bible. In a word: CONTEXT.

People seem to love this verse because it has a very positive, encouraging feel to it. Clearly, God wants us as His children to prosper and do well in this life, right? Well, yes and no. Of course, God loves us and wants the best for each one of us. The problem with this interpretation, however, is at least two-fold.

First, while God does have our best interest at heart, His plan might be different from our definition of “prosper”-ing. While God does sometimes bless his children with worldly wealth and success, He is far more concerned with the big picture—that being eternity. Think about it, if God had a choice between granting you riches on this earth or putting you in the best position spiritually to attain eternal life (and to receive far greater riches in heaven), wouldn’t He choose the latter out of His love and wisdom? Sometimes these things are mutually exclusive. Too often, riches right now spoil people and ruin them spiritually. It generally leads to far less dependence on God, a lack of humility, and materialism. Becoming complacent due to wealth is a curse, not a blessing. God knows better than we do whether or not we can handle this form of prosperity. Hardships can be a blessing in disguise if it refines our character and turns us into better people.

Second, many things in the Bible are not meant to be blanket statements that are true in every situation. In other words, we need to consider context. Where does this verse come from? It comes from Jeremiah during the time of the first great Jewish exile. The Jews had lost their land—the very land God had given them as “The Promised Land”—due to serious disobedience over generations. They were dejected and hopeless with enemies on every side. While these people needed to be taught a lesson and scared back into dependence on God, being the empathetic father that He is, God also wanted to give them hope for their future. It wasn’t too much longer after this that the Jews were allowed to return to their land (unexpectedly thanks to the pagan, Cyrus the Great), setting the stage for the savior himself, Jesus Christ, to be brought to mankind.

Bottom line: This promise was made specifically to the Jewish people.

*Special note: If this promise can be considered prophetic, notice that it has had at least two fulfillments so far in history–one near, one far. While the Jews had gotten their land back for a time, they again lost it in 70 A.D. when the temple was destroyed, persecution ensued, and the Great Diaspora happened. The Jews did not return to their land until almost 1,900 years later, but they now enjoy a great deal of success and prosperity—just look at a list of Hollywood actors, producers, or company CEOs. The nation of Israel has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few short decades. While an enormous amount of tribulation is about to fall upon the Jewish people once again, in the end, their capital city (Jerusalem) will become the focal point of God’s future kingdom on earth.

The unfortunate thing about misinterpreting this verse is that it gives people a false and distorted hope. The same thing goes for the “Prosperity Gospel” going around these days. This verse is not ensuring success for your business! People start expecting that becoming a believer and serving in the church will open the gates to God’s riches, worldly success, and strong health. Relationships and overall happiness should flourish! When things don’t go their way, however, they grow bitter and disappointed with God. Even worse, their faulty logic surmises that God must not exist since an omniscient being could never be wrong in making promises.

Think about it: Jeremiah preceded the New Testament, and we have abundant examples of people who followed Jesus only to endure extreme hardship and pain. All but one of the disciples were martyred. Paul was stricken with a “thorn in the flesh” (a persistent physical ailment) and went from prison to prison being severely beaten nearly to death. Does this sound like our typical view of “prosperity”? Paul even begged God three times to take away his “thorn,” which God declined. The apostle’s mission and eternal destiny were too important to risk letting comfort and pride set in. God’s approach worked (of course), and Paul succeeded in spreading the gospel around much of the civilized world. Christianity would not be where it is today without him and the ordeals he overcame. Imagine if he had given up and pouted at God! I bet Paul is smiling right now, knowing that it was all well worth it. Any temporary suffering has probably long been forgotten.

2) Genesis 9:20-27 tells the story of how Noah (post-flood) had gotten drunk and passed out naked in his tent. (By the way, this is descriptive, not prescriptive; i.e., just because Noah did it doesn’t make it good.) One of his sons, Ham, came into the tent and here is what transpired:

Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”

This passage demonstrates how insufficient knowledge of history or Hebrew could lead to confusion or shallow interpretation.

Let’s start with the most surface-level interpretation. It might be easy to think that Ham accidentally or innocently wandered into the tent—perhaps to ask his father a question—only to be shocked at what he saw. Rattled, he walked out and told his older brothers who would know what to do. And yet, Noah is furious and curses Ham’s son, Canaan, who wasn’t even involved in the situation!

How is it fair to punish Ham (and his son) for a simple mistake like this? Even if Ham had thought it was funny that his father was naked, or simply did not have the consideration to immediately cover him, what’s the big deal? People disrespect their parents all the time, and they don’t receive serious punishment, let alone curses on their offspring. Sure it’s wrong, but isn’t this an overreaction by Noah?

Well, we need to dig deeper. The key word here is a basic one: “saw.” Reading an English translation, whether the NIV or ESV, does not capture the entirety of the text’s meaning. We have to refer to the Hebrew to better understand the story.

In Hebrew, the word we translate as “saw” in this verse actually implies seeing or gazing upon something with pleasure, particularly in a sexual sense. What Ham did was not accidentally stumble into a tent and shield his eyes out of shock, but rather he probably stood there and soaked in the sight. He relished seeing his naked father. Not only was this a disturbing act of disrespect toward his father, but it was also incestuous and homosexual in nature. He probably told his brothers afterward so that they could share in his delight. We might also be able to infer some other details, but at this point, don’t we already have enough?

To further bolster these facts, we also have a key clue in Ham’s son, Canaan. Don’t we recognize that name somehow? Sure, he and his descendants would later constitute some of the Jews’ greatest enemies, the Canaanites. Biblical scholars and secular historians both agree that these were a group of people who practiced all kinds of wicked rituals. They were not only sexually immoral (rampant homosexuality and orgies), but they also committed child sacrifices and worshiped false gods like Baal. Clearly, there was something in the line of Ham that was deeply corrupt. This was no innocent man caught in an unlucky situation.

*Another sidenote: Why isn’t this passage translated better in our English language Bibles? Doesn’t this point to a weakness in God’s Word? Well, ideally, reading this passage should go in one of two ways: 1) Because we trust God (with a child-like faith), we know that He is fair even when we don’t fully understand; or 2) something seems off to us, so we go and research this passage, learning that there is more than meets the eye.

Of course, what often happens is someone with a doubting heart reads this and thinks he/she understands it just fine. “God is unjust and wildly unpredictable.” In a sense, that person is elevating his or her moral standards and code above that of the ultimate judge, God the Creator. If that person could have the right heart (scenario #1) or be less sloppy and do some disciplined research (scenario #2), this kind of misinformed assessment could be avoided.

Furthermore, think about the issues that translators faced when tackling this passage. This is Genesis 9, near the beginning of the Bible. This is a book that even children read. Is it worth it to make kids start thinking about this kind of sin at that young age? Couldn’t it possibly plant some bad ideas or make things awkward with their own fathers? I know if I read something like that before I was ready, I would have been a little scarred and disgusted. Full and open disclosure is not always the wisest idea, and withholding some information is not always a weakness. We are given enough information to learn about God and be edified, but not be sickened with excessive details.

* * * * *

Well, that’s it for now. I’m trying to avoid making these posts too long and “epic” because it makes it difficult to even get started when I’m pressed for time. I really can’t help myself sometimes.

I hope to update more frequently since I have fewer excuses to be tired. With my job stabilizing and the lighter course load (and our new puppy settling in), I should be good to go most weeks.

Next time, we’ll look at one of the favorite passages that anti-religious skeptics love to mock. Hopefully, you’ll see again just how shallow their interpretation is and how the slightest bit of an open mind might help them to realize their error.

  1. May 16, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    Well done joe. Love it! We need to keep getting this type of helpful information into the hands of Christian non-seminarians too. Many Many christians get fouled up by jumping to conclusions on difficult passages. Thanks for all you do! ~ Brad

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