I have been addressing people’s questions about the Bible for decades now. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers; however, it does mean that, for whatever reason, the Lord has seen fit to continue to put me in situations where people naturally bring me their questions. It is an honor and a privilege to have had and continue to have these conversations, because even though most questions fit under eight to ten different topics (“Why is there evil in the world?” “Are the Scriptures reliable?” “Is there only one way to God?”, etc.), each person asking these questions has a unique story that makes the question a very personal one. I am genuinely humbled to sit with people in their questions and, by God’s grace, guide them along.
I have learned many lessons through this experience, but one of the most important ones is that probably more than half those questions, some of which were the source of significant emotional weight on the questioner, were easily resolved by looking at the passages or practices in question through the lens of the original audience. Given my experience, I am confident many people are unnecessarily shackled to false narratives that drive home negative beliefs about God and the Scriptures, problems that just a little bit of study and guidance can solve. Thus, the Edenverse.
The Edenverse is Eden Project’s attempt at helping our audience connect to and even learn to enter into the world of the Bible. Through articles, podcasts, and video resources, we hope to equip you to explore your own interpretive lens, examine the roots and origin of it, and allow a deeper understanding of an ancient context to open you up to seeing things from a new perspective.
So, to begin, we must recognize that all truth claims are based on presuppositions that form the lens through which people view the world, themselves, and God. These presuppositions are shaped by personal experience, family systems, cultural influence, etc. [See the article “We Are Storied Creatures”]. Biblical and theological claims are no exception. In order to think rightly about what God has revealed through Scripture, we must ensure (to the best of our ability) our interpretive methodology is grounded in an appreciation of and respect for the people the Scriptures were written to and the culture and norms they lived in.1 While God gave inspired Scripture for everyone, the books and letters that make up Scripture were written to certain people or people groups.2
When this simple fact is ignored (and it’s often ignored), we moderns end up believing Scripture was written to us, and the actual meaning of the text is lost to spurious slogans like “the plain meaning of the text,” or “this is what the passage means to me,” which more often than not is simply a guise for eisegesis, or making the text say whatever we want it to say. Just as the listener who stops paying attention to the speaker damages a conversation (and the personal relationship), failing to listen to the author “will destroy a functioning relationship with any text, and not just Scripture. You’ll mow over any kind of communication. You’ve decided that what you’re interested in supersedes what someone is interested in telling you. You’ve become the tyrant in the conversation.”3
If we ignore the context of the author and audience we create confusion at least, and at most, total misunderstanding. But if what we misunderstand is the character and nature of God, that has enormous implications for the formation of an individual’s God image, and every aspect of life, including spiritual formation. That’s why starting in the beginning with the correct framework is so critical in getting the narrative of Scripture right.
Any time we pick up a text (any text) and read, we cannot avoid reading through our own unique lens. It is a part of who we are. There is nothing wrong with this, although it does present unique challenges for anyone who wants to interpret the meaning of a text properly. Recognizing this, the first (and primary) step in a solid interpretive methodology is an exercise in humility. C. S. Lewis’ description of this essential posture is notable:
This is no more true than in our relationship with Scripture. It is easy for us to assume the original audience was just like us, with the same history, cultural norms, and presuppositions, yet just a simple cursory glance at the world of the ancient Near East (ANE) quickly reveals this is not the case.5 In fact, the evidence left us from this strange world clearly shows the basic assumption about their world “was just as intrinsic to their thinking, just as fundamental to their worldview, just as influential in every aspect of their lives, and just as true in their minds. And it differs from ours at every point.”6
Against a popular held belief, I must unequivocally state that people in the ancient world were not stupid.7 We are talking about people who were engaged in highly philosophical and speculative thinking, who generated law codes which formed the foundation of ethical and legal practice, and produced literary masterpieces unparalleled today. Too often our assumption is that the ancients were like cavemen, mindlessly worshiping a rock or piece of wood. But just a cursory understanding of how they viewed the world, the gods, and their relation to the gods clearly reveals they knew a stone or wooden idol was not an actual deity,8 just like we know there’s nothing particularly special about two pieces of wood tied and nailed together. Except those pieces of wood held the tortured body of a dying man, and now you find them everywhere you go. For our ancestors, the wood and stone were believed to be consecrated by the deity’s presence, just as we believe the cross was consecrated by the presence of Jesus. Instead of being dismissive because something doesn’t immediately make sense to us, let’s assume the authors of the Scriptures are attempting to communicate a substantive message, then seek to understand.
So why take the time and space to gain insight into ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant (the ancient Near East)? The answer should be obvious: this was the world the actual people of the Bible lived in. Abram was a chieftain born in Sumer and raised in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria). When he took his family to Canaan they settled among the people the Ugaritic myth came out of. When a famine hit the land his grandson took the family to Egypt where they stayed for 430 years (Ex 12:40). The man who led them from Egypt back to Canaan, who was the source of the Pentateuch and some of the Psalms, was an adopted prince of Egypt. It does not go far enough to claim the Israelites were simply influenced by this world, or their worldview was somehow separate . . . the basic structure of the ancient Near East (ANE) was their worldview.
It is to be expected that the Israelites held many concepts and perspectives in common with the rest of the ancient world . . . This is not even a case of Israel being influenced by the people around them. Rather we simply recognize the common conceptual worldview that existed in ancient times. We should therefore not speak of Israel being influenced by that world – they were part of that world.9
The ANE had what is known as a general “cultural script,” or a way of interacting based on basic assumptions, religious practices, values, and concerns which formed a cultural milieu, or environment.10 Stories told in a certain cultural script do not attempt to give background and context . . . as part of the culture the audience did not require explanation. So it was with the Hebrew stories in the ancient world. They don’t establish for us the foundational cultural assumptions the story is built on. That is assumed. But they are communicating a profound theological message that gets to the very heart of who we are as humans related to God, and we can receive that message if we only slow down and pay attention.
So peruse the Edenverse resources, and prepare to enter a very different kind of world, one that will unlock the beauty and depth of understanding who God is and what he is doing in his Eden Project.