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Review by Israel Drazin
You Don’t Understand the Bible because you are Christian
By Richard Gist
Friesen Press, 2014, 176 pages
I enjoyed this book; it is intelligent, informative, and thought-provoking. It is not a Christian book, and not even religious, at least not in the usual way people think of religious. It is a book written by a Protestant minister that explains why most people, and this includes non-Christians, are unable to understand both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Richard Gist shows very persuasively, with interesting examples, in easy to read English, that is often interspersed with humor, that, among other reasons, most Bible readers are unable to understand the Bible because they take certain events literally when they were not meant to be so, are misled by mistaken translations, miss the humor and word-play in the chapters, are unable to see the subtleties in the original Hebrew or Greek, and do not know the history, mind-set, and goal of the Bible writers. Furthermore “we arrogantly insist on violating the biblical text by adding things that are not there,” such as reading into the text the notion of “original sin,” which is not in the Hebrew Bible, and which makes its first appearance in New Testament Romans 5:12. We are also frequently deluded by what we hear from the pulpit, which is untrue; many preachers today create “a Bible that (does) not exist to preach messages they (want) to convey.”
Gist shows us what we do not see. For example, in chapter two, Gist explains why God accepted Abel’s animal sacrifice and rejected Cain’s farm produce offering. The story reflects the ancient fights between farmers and shepherds. Gist describes this history in several interesting pages.
Gist gives examples where the Bible is offering humorous events or descriptions that people misunderstand when they read the passage soberly today. Esau, for example, is described as red and hairy. “In Hebrew, the word ‘red’ is edom, and the word ‘hairy’ is se’ir. Edom, of course, refers to the territory of that name, and se’ir is the mountain range that dominated Edom.” When Esau came famished from the field, and begged Jacob for “that red, red stuff,” ancient Hebrew readers saw the joke – a red man begging red – which English readers miss.
The nuances of Hebrew words are missed. Moses was placed in a teva in Exodus 2:3. The word means “ark”; it is the identical term used for Noah’s ark, the only other time the word appears in the Hebrew Bible. The English translation “basket” misses the connection; both men are set in an ark on water and save people. In the book of Ruth, Ruth lies down at Boaz’s “feet.” But the Hebrew term for feet, margelotav, appears only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, in Daniel 10:6 to describe the lower extremity of an angel. In Isaiah 6:2 angels covered their faces and feet with their wings. Why did they cover their “feet”? Gist shows many examples where “feet” is used in the Hebrew Bible as a metaphor for genitals. This nuance is missed in translations.
Gist asks: Isn’t “it odd that so many of the well-known Old Testament women were barren? The list is striking. It includes Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Samson’s unnamed mother, and Samuel’s mother, Hannah. With divine help, each gave birth to a child destined to become a national hero.” Should we take these tales literally? Gist says, no, “they are simply a literary device used to declare that these people’s lives were from the beginning, touched by God.” Gist explains that “conventional patterns” is a technique that the Bible uses repeatedly, and he describes other conventional patterns that people generally miss and misunderstand, such as tales of leaders secluding themselves in the dessert where they gain wisdom, as Moses and Jesus, and the miraculous crossing of a water-way, as Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha.
One of the most misunderstood biblical conventions is prophecy. Most Bible readers of all religions imagine that biblical prophets foretell future events, like soothsayers, but a careful examination of all biblical prophecies reveals that few prophecies came true. Gist clarifies, as did many Jewish thinkers, such as Maimonides and the Tosaphists that, in the words of the Tosaphists, prophecy is “not what will be, but what should be”; prophecies were information and guidance given by wise men and women.
Many Christians fail to recognize that Jesus was a Jew and the early Christian Church was made up of Jews until Paul converted non-Jews and allowed them to disregard Torah commands such as keeping kosher laws and circumcision. This misinterpretation of the origin of Christianity distorts their reading of the New Testament. In the early days there were “two Christianities.” This division impacted upon how the New Testament was written. Gist reveals that this early division in Christianity between those who kept Jewish law and those who rejected it explains why Mark 3:21 states that Jesus’s mother rejected him, why the gospels repeatedly portrays the apostles being unable to understand Jesus, and why the gospels of Mark and Matthew have different world views. Remarkably, there are eight times in Mark’s Gospel that “we find Pharisees disputing with Jesus, and (they are) always about issues which the Jerusalem (anti-Paul) leaders disputed with the Paulines. Eight times Jesus agrees with Paul. Consequently, the Jewish Christians (but not the Pauline Christians) became identified with the Pharisees.”
In summary, with these few of the many examples Gist discusses, we can see that there is no doubt but that readers of his book will learn much about the Bible, literature in general, and the early history of Judaism and Christianity. Whether readers agree with his conclusions or not, Christian and non-Christian readers will find Reverend Gist’s discussions eye-opening, thought-provoking, and enlightening.