Friday, September 4, 2009

Unsettled by the Word

“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” So asserts a bumper sticker that I saw once. Presumably the ‘God said it’ part is referring to the Bible, though I have found that it is not always so simple to discern what God is saying by simply reading the Bible. While I affirm with the church as well as ancient Judaism that scripture contains the living Word of God, I’m not so sure that the Bible was written in order to ‘settle it’ for all time.

Jewish rabbis of biblical times were accustomed to an interpretive method known as midrash, in which they studied, discussed, argued and debated over how particular passages of scripture could be and should be understood. Their major concern was to find out what God was saying to them in the sacred stories that had been carefully handed down from generation to generation. The teachers believed meaning was not just found in the literal reading by one individual – but instead through constant back and forth dialogues. This continual work of interpretation was important not simply because study was seen as an end in itself. The ultimate goal of midrash was to inspire practical action in the world.

We see evidences supporting this idea in the New Testament. Jesus uses a form of midrash in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5) when he says things like “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” In using this technique Jesus engages in interpreting scripture in order that it be understood and applied in new ways. Paul also engages in a form of midrash when he makes a distinction between what God is saying and what he is saying, such as when he writes “I say this, not the Lord” (I Corinthians 7:10, 12). While engaged in writing what will eventually become scripture for us, Paul is careful to discern what was from God and what was from Paul. Shouldn’t our goal as we engage the Bible be the same?

Like Jacob wrestling the man/angel at the Jabbok in Genesis 32, we will likely have a difficult time interpreting scripture unless we are willing to climb on to the mat with the text, grappling with the words and engaging in dialogue with each other (hey, I think I just engaged in some midrash here!) That means it is just as important for us as it was for Jacob to not give up struggling with the words until we receive a blessing! Perhaps scripture becomes the word of God for us not so much when it ‘settles’ things but instead when it unsettles. What we likely need the most is to allow the words of scripture to disturb and disquiet us so that we will change our thinking, our action, and our lives in a way that helps bring God’s ultimate plan, what the Bible often calls ‘the kingdom of God’, into reality. Maybe we all could stand a little less ‘bumper sticker’ theology and a lot more actual time spent ‘in the ring’, wrestling with the Word.

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