Bible Interpretation: Think like an ancient Hebrew, "eastern mind" ?


by Charles Coty

When many refer to understanding Hebraisms and Hebraic thought (back in the 1st century and earlier), not all are necessarily speaking of the "mindset" or the way the Hebrews processed information, but the context and manner with which Scriptures were written. What I mean, is doing what Don Preston suggests that we ought to be able to do, and that's knowing the 1st Testament so well that we can not only preach the Gospel from it but also be capable of interpreting things like apocalyptic language…recognizing that our modern day wooden literal framework of interpretation is possibly out of step with the context of Scripture. A significant separation of era and culture can be formidable roadblocks.

The first century Jews seemed to have a significant problem moving from the physical to the spiritual. Jesus constantly used metaphors to sharpen the focus of the spiritual, and rarely did they get it. Living water? The leaven of the Pharisees? Eat My body and drink My blood? Say what? Not until the giving of the Holy Spirit did they begin to say in effect, “Oh now I see the program”. Then Peter quotes Joel and they’re off to the apocalyptic races. Things formerly concealed now (then to them) seem abundantly clear.

What I don’t mean is fostering the notion that there’s some sort of ethereal, mystical method by which we need to look at the world. In that recent N.T. Wright vid I posted at SGP (that I retrieved compliments of John S.), I was a little annoyed at the way Wright seemed to subjectify things, almost hinting that logic might somehow be circumvented? As you mentioned, Jason, it sounded erudite and thoughtful but in the end it was hard to glean anything of objective value. If we could just understand the Hebrew mind then all our problems would be solved. Oh really? Well, apparently there are a whole lot of Hebrews who still can’t “see” Jesus’ first coming, so I’m not altogether enamored with their level of illumination.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, and you guys know this far more than I do, but there is a prevalent tendency to think that the New Testament is actually new in the sense that it's bringing entirely new information…when in fact Paul said nothing of the kind. This is how I was brought up in the early years of my Christian life. But as I’ve come to understand, Paul only preached that which had already been written. So that was a valuable lesson and in that sense this is what I think many of us mean by going back and becoming a Hebrew.

The other part of the equation is having a greater understanding and appreciation of Hebrew culture i.e. recognizing that they didn't always write in a straight chronological lines and that, for example, numbers were far more pregnant with meaning then their mere balance sheet representation. These are the things that aid us in interpreting Scripture. That and knowing more fully the conditions of the day and the tensions that existed.

Personally, I hope we never think exactly like first century Hebrews, who quite frankly didn't get a whole lot right. As I said, they missed Christ's first coming, and the plethora of scoffers missed the nature of His second. If they were so accomplished in their own Scriptures, and their world view was so attuned to truth, how could they have thought that "the stars falling from the heavens" on "THE Day" that was fast approaching, was anything less than an old fashioned comprehensive destruction from an invading army?

When the scoffers got word of Peter's first letter, when in it he plainly stated that "the end of all things IS near", they were apparently so blind that they couldn't see the obvious ramifications of the Olivet events being fulfilled like clockwork before their very eyes. The birth pangs were evident to the spiritually attuned. They had all the passages from Isaiah to the Psalms detailing the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, but they chose to ignore them. Isn't this in part the reason Judas (a zealot) turned the Messiah over to the authorities? Certainly he was a money grubbing thief and all of that, but wasn’t his view of the coming Messiah’s political earthly kingdom grossly inconsistent with Jesus’ constant references to His suffering and ultimate death?

So, no, I don't mean that I want to think like a first century Hebrew as though that will somehow magically illumine my thoughts and solve all my interpretational issues. Rather, I want to delve into the language, style and culture with which the first testament was written, so as to be able to be a more faithful Berean. When I see recurring themes of specific numbers like 40 or 12, I want to be able to look past their numerical value to enjoy the fullness of their meaning. I want to be able to recognize the spiritual realities that modeled the physical types of the OC.

Priesthood, tabernacle, sacrifice, temple, throne, seed, Israel/people, mountain and land. All were physical types but with commensurate spiritual anti-types. Why break the type anti-type relationship by moving from the spiritual to the spiritual? When Paul allegorized the relationship between Hagar and Sarah, he wasn’t diminishing the actual flesh and blood realities of their lives, was he? So as we look back, we can see the spiritual ramifications of their fleshly reality, but that doesn’t mean we should only see them from a spiritual perspective. Wouldn’t that short-circuit the purpose.

So Jason, I don’t think any of this is inconsistent with what you said, I just felt it necessary to verbalize the difference between understanding Hebraisms (which is valuable) and kind of mystifying the idea of thinking like a Hebrew. Those comments about Britain bringing us dispensationalism were a great case in point. :) Sorry for the length. Sometimes lately I get carried away. BTW, I liked the tone of the show.

Good show guys. Thanks!