You know, the Bible was written by men from the East who lived in an agricultural society. (Now, it IS inspired by God and he does open our hearts and minds to understand it better.) But because it’s an Eastern book, there are a lot of illustrations and phrases and word pictures that go right over my head. I’ve had to LEARN how to understand the message.
For example, I’ve never worked in a vineyard. So when Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a vine with a foreign species grafted in, I have to go learn something about grafting a vine to understand that the Gentiles were the foreign species and the Israelites were there original vine. Basically you make a cut in both vines, join them together and wrap it up. Then as the vine heals, it becomes one and the new branch is a part of the main vine. I had to learn that to understand this illustration, but the original hearers would have captured the word picture right away.
Another common Biblical illustration that goes over my head is when Jesus talks about sheep. I imagine that he is sitting on a hillside with a group of eager listeners around him. He looks down the slope and sees a herd of sheep, hears them bleating and chewing, maybe sees the shepherd sitting on a rock a little distance from the group. And he says, “Look over there, all people are like sheep who constantly wander off if someone isn’t taking care of them.”
“Ahhhh! We know what that’s like!” Everyone smiles and nods, some nudge their neighbor, “That same thing happened to your sheep last week!”
And here’s me, the modern reader in a Western country who has only seen sheep in a pen at the State Fair, “Oh, do sheep wander off a lot?” Maybe if the Bible would have been written in my context the illustration would have sounded like this:
All people are as committed as a lousy wifi connection in a third world country.
Then I would have chuckled and nodded, “Yep, I gotcha. Fifty percent of the time it’s slow and the other 50% it’s just not connecting.” I get it, we’re sporadic and unfocused. That’s the kind of illustration that would capture my attention.
So when people say you must STUDY the Bible, part of what you must study is how things used to be done. (Want to learn more about sheep behaviors? click here) History and archaeology will help. A little knowledge of Middle Eastern customs and culture will help. And the Holy Spirit will help too. Ask God to help you understand what you are reading. Without his illumination, you will feel like I do sometimes. You’ll feel like you’re missing something that made sense to the original audience.
Ask God to help you understand, and he will.
“All we, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way…” Isaiah 53:6a