Saturday, May 31, 2014

Using the Culture Key to Unlock the Meanings of the Words of the Bible

We all think, act, and communicate in ways
that are primarily predetermined by our culture.

We didn't choose our culture any more than we chose our parents.  We are born and immediately immersed in whatever culture we happened to live in. If you had been born in another culture – you would be a very different person than you are today.

Culture is the whole behavior and technology of any people that is passed on from generation to generation.  Culture consists of the knowledge, beliefs, morals, laws, religion, customs, concepts, habits, skills, institutions, and any other capabilities of a given people in a given period.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz provides additional information about culture:

A culture is more than a set of rules to guide behavior; it is a comprehensive worldview and way of relating to one's fellow human beings.  Like all complex cultures, Jewish culture does not spell everything out literally, but leaves much to inference.  A culture's strength lies not only in what it says, but also in what it chooses not to say, and this too must be learned.

Our culture shapes the way we think. We have acquired our cultural foundation by the time we reach adulthood. I think “American,” but none of the books of my Bible or the people recorded in it thought “American.”

● Abraham thought “Mesopotamian/Ur-Haran.”
● Moses thought “Egyptian/Median.”
● David thought “Judah/Bethlehem.”
● Jesus thought “Judea/Galilee.”
● Paul thought “Roman/Cilicia/Jew.”

The first step in accurately understanding the meaning of any message is to identify the culture of the source of the message, which means I must learn about their cultures and consciously guard against allowing my culture to override the source’s culture when I am reading their words. If we do not learn about their cultures and consciously make sure we are using the source’s cultural meanings when we read our Bibles, we will project our cultural meanings into their words.

The source’s culture is the standard that must be used to measure the accuracy of any translation or interpretation of the words of the Bible – or any other message.

Words are like secret codes and the source’s culture is the code book that you can use to unlock the meanings.

The more we learn about the source’s culture
the more accurately we understand his or her words.
The less we known about the source’s culture,
the greater the chances of error

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Isaiah 1:12-26 -- A Message from Isaiah the Prophet for Americans Today


We have been working on a project called the Bible’s Wisdom of the Beginning for several years and are just about ready to release it. For the past few days I have been working on a translation/commentary/midrash of Isaiah 1:12-26. The finished version will be included in the project above. However, I decided to share what I have done so far (in its unfinished form) because I feel that it should be considered as we enter into another season of elections. I am sure you are aware of the flood of political propaganda that is being produced at an increasing rate.

The principles and values of the Bible’s Wisdom of the Beginning (you will have to wait for their publication in the near future) are clearly seen in the writings of the Prophets. They leave no doubt that religious rituals and blind allegiance to authority are not what God requires. They also make it clear that religious institutions and their rituals cannot free people from the consequences of what they do to other people. Pay close attention to the words of Isaiah and consider their relevance to our world today.

Isaiah 1:12-26

[Note: Please remember that this is not in its final edited form. You also must know two definitions to understand the translation that follows.

● TOV is “an act that is pleasing to God’s eyes because it increases the quality of life, makes life more functional, protects life, and/or preserves life.” It is traditionally translated as “good.”

 ● RA is “an act that is unpleasant to God’s eyes because it decreases the quality of life, makes life less functional, threatens life, and/or destroys life. It is traditionally translated as “evil.”]

Now let’s travel back in time over 2,700 years and listen to words of one of the Bible’s greatest prophets – Isaiah:

“When you come to appear before Me, who has required this from your hand, to trample My courts? Do not add bringing empty false sacrifices! Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moon, Sabbath, and the calling of assemblies, I cannot endure the harm, trouble, injustice and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul is unwilling to put up with. They are a burden upon Me. I am tired of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you. Also, when you increase your prayer, I will not hear. Your hands are full of bloods.”

When Isaiah said “empty sacrifices” and “hands full of bloods” there is no doubt that everyone hearing him immediately thought of Cain – the one who took his brother’s life instead of guarding and protecting it. A message the Prophets will often repeat is that ritual and blind obedience to institutional or tribal authority does not relieve anyone from the universal requirement and responsibility to guard and protect life established by the Creator. What people do to their fellow human beings affects their relationship with God.

I cannot endure the harm, trouble, injustice
I will hide My eyes from you
I will not hear your prayers

During the time of the Temple, ritual purity was one of the most important requirements. Failure to maintain a state of ritual purity would keep one from entering the Temple. The focus of the religious authorities was often on external causes of ritual impurity, which was caused by not keeping a ritual correctly. The Prophets, on the other hand, focused on a spiritual impurity.

Wash yourselves! Purify yourselves!
Remove the RA (evil) of your doings from before My eyes. Cease doing RA (evil).

This applies equally to everyone -- kings and priests, as well as the rich and the poor. The power to restore one’s relationship with the Creator rests in the hands of each person. The first step to restoration is to cease from doing acts of RA – acts that are unpleasant to the eyes because they decrease the quality of life, make life less functional, threaten life, destroy life, and/or take the property of others. The second step after ceasing to do RA is this:

Learn to do TOV!

Learning requires two things:

(1) receiving instructions
(2) demonstrating that one can do what was instructed

The thing they are learning to do are acts of TOV – acts that are pleasing to the eyes because they increase the quality of life, make life more functional, protect life, preserve life, and/or return the property taken by those who do RA.

Seek justice, restrain and reprove the oppressor.
Help and give legal aid to the fatherless.
Speak out in public and conduct the legal case for the widow.

Isaiah reveals the specific acts of RA that his generation faced:

(1) a justice system that did not restrain and reprove oppressors;
(2) the failure to help and give legal aid to the most powerless members of society;
(3) failure to speak out in public and conduct legal cases for the most powerless members of society.

It was not only Isaiah’s generation that faced these issues. This is what every generation must step forward and prevent:

Unrestrained people who do acts of RA to the most powerless members of society in order to take their property so they can increase their wealth and power.

Now let’s continue with Isaiah’s message.

 “Come now, let us argue out together in legal dispute, so we can be found to be right,” says God, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing, hear and obey, you shall eat the TOV of the land.”

Most people today do their best to avoid arguments. Why? The best result is often a deadlock where both parties come to loggerheads and neither party is listening to the other and both become further entrenched in the belief that they are right. And at worst, arguments can result in hurt feelings, loss of respect for the other person, or loss of a close relationship.[i] Arguments like these can result in acts of RA by those involved.

This was not what Isaiah meant when he said “argue.” The context makes it clear that these arguments were to take place in the framework of a legal dispute. The idea expressed in Isaiah’s words is the germ of the seed that will sprout and is now known as the rule of law:

The principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced; the principle of government by law.[ii]

The principle of legal argument begins the acknowledgement of a common authority by all parties involved – the kingship of the Creator. He is the highest authority and all people are members of His kingdom. It also requires that all parties recognize that they are all created “in the image of the Creator” and “with His Spirit.” It also requires that all parties acknowledge their commitment to a common legal code, which has the requirements for a TOV life revealed in the Bible’s Wisdom of the Beginning as its cornerstone. Richard K. Neumann, Jr., professor of law at Hofstra University in New York, provides instructions for how to write a simple, single-issue legal argument, which can be very helpful in resolving issues we face today. [iii]

(1) statement of your conclusion;
(2) a statement of the rule that supports the conclusion;
(3) proof of the rule through citation to authority;
(4) application of the rule's elements to the facts;
(5) restate the original conclusion.

Keep in mind that the shared goal of all of the parties involved is “so we can be found to be right (as defined by the Creator).” This is what arguing means in this context. It is not screaming endless accusations and dehumanizing those with whom one does not agree and cannot control.  The etymology of our English word “argue” reminds us of the Creator’s first creative act -- from root *arg-"to shine, be white, bright, clear." [iv] The first thing the Creator chose to change was darkness and He changed it by speaking. The darkness was a state in which there was an absence of the Creator’s words. When He spoke “light” was created and that “light” signaled the creation of life and enlightenment. The ultimate outcome of this type of argument also brings the Creator’s light to the issues being addressed.

“But if you refuse and rebel, by the sword you shall be devoured;” for the mouth of God has spoken. How the faithful city has become a harlot! She was full of justice; righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross. Your wine is diluted with water.

The punishment for those ignoring God’s words will not be a flood, like in the time of Noah. For Isaiah’s generation it will be a war that they will face and they will be defeated. The consequences of doing acts of RA to each other will ultimately lead to the downfall of the nation at the hands of foreigners. It must be understood that the acts of RA that Isaiah focuses on are not those of the poorest weakest members of the nation – the widows and orphans.

Your chiefs are rebellious and stubborn.
They are friends and companions of thieves.
They love a bribe and seek gifts.
They do not help and give legal aid to the fatherless.
The legal case of the widow does not come to them.

The goal of the leaders of the nation is to acquire property and wealth for themselves. They accomplish their goal by being friends and companions of thieves. Who are the thieves stealing from? Their victims are the fatherless, the widows.  The property and wealth the leaders of the nation were given by the thieves came from the poorest weakest members of the nation. Isaiah’s words reminded me of an interview I saw on the CBS program 60 Minutes with Jack Abramoff, the notorious former lobbyist at the center of Washington's biggest corruption scandal in decades, spent more than three years in prison for his crimes. Below is the comment Abramoff  made that reminded me of Isaiah (underlines added for emphasis):

“I think people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor. And that's not the case. The corruption, the bribery, call it, because ultimately that's what it is. That's what the whole system is. . . In my view. I'm talking about giving a gift to somebody who makes a decision on behalf of the public. At the end of the day, that's really what bribery is. But it is done every day and it is still being done. The truth is there were very few members who I could even name or could think of who didn't at some level participate in that.”[v]

What will be the ultimate outcome of a nation that is governed by leaders like these? Here is the warning Isaiah delivered to his generation:

Therefore states the Master of hosts God, the Mighty One of Israel,
“Alas, I will be eased of My adversaries, and take vengeance on My enemies.
I will return My hand upon you, refine your dross as with lye, and take away all your alloy.
I will return your judges as at the first and your advisors as at the beginning.
Afterward the city shall be called a city of righteousness, the faithful city.

How will God return the judges and advisors that will make the city be called “a city of righteousness, the faithful city?” Will it be by a supernatural act of bestowing divine power on a select few? Probably not. The Bible’s Wisdom of the Beginnings provides a possible answer in the story of the first man identified with righteousness – Noah.  The Creator saw him doing acts of righteousness – acts that were pleasing to His eyes because they increased the quality of life, made life more functional, protected life, and/or preserved life. It is the responsibility of those created in His image, and endowed by Him to act as His co-vice-regents, to find those doing acts of righteousness and make them their judges and advisors.

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