Something That Radically Changes How We Read the Bible

Updated: Jan 27

What do these have in common:

  • Leeches

  • Death

  • Desert

  • Fire

  • Eagle

  • Snake

  • Ship

  • Adulterer

Some things in the Bible seem random.

Like what’s the point of this passage:

“Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin” (Prov. 30:18-19).

None of them leaves a visible trail.

It's not random.

The Jews didn’t think like most of us. For the most part, we think in Western, or Greek categories, while the Hebrews thought in categories of the Ancient Near East (like Egyptian, Akkadian, or Ugaritic).

For example, we Greeks tend to think individually, while the Hebrews thought corporately.

We Greeks prefer to think abstractly, like in philosophy or theology. But the Hebrews didn’t do either one because they thought concretely, so they talked about God in relation to functionality.

In other words: Greeks ask, “What is it?”, while Hebrews ask, “What does it do?”

Greeks are speculative while Hebrews were practical.

Because the Hebrews are more interested in the effect of a thing, they were more comfortable with apparent contradictions and severe ambiguity. That’s why the Bible has apparent contradictions and vague, unexplained theologies like the Trinity.

We Greek-minded people don’t like that, which is why our tradition has labored over theological theories to get precise answers and a system of non-contradictory statements.

But the Jews didn’t write systematic theologies. In fact, the first systematic theology wasn’t written until the 4th century by Origin.

Hebrews wrote differently too.

We Greeks tend to structure our writing in a linear fashion, like being chronological or placing items in sequential order (1, 2, 3, 4; a, b, c, d).

Hebrews arranged material that was connected by some similarity, called block logic. That’s why some verses look unconnected.

The prophets, Gospels, James, and Proverbs are written this way.

The Law

Here’s another thing that helps us understand the Bible like a Hebrew.

The entire Old Testament is built on the Torah (called the Law), which is the first five books of the Bible. The Torah is centered around the Mosaic covenant given to Israel after the exodus, with the ten commandments as the covenant summary (Exodus 20).

Without seeing this, we’ll miss connections in the rest of the Bible.

The covenant was an agreement between two parties. The Mosaic covenant included God’s:

  • Kind power in rescuing Israel from Egypt

  • Call for Israel to follow his ways

  • Call for Israel to be his people (to represent him)

  • Promises of blessings for obedience

  • Threats of curses for disobedience

Here’s how the covenant works.

God gave Israel the covenant so they would be a light to the nations as a model of humanity. They were given the same role as Adam: to rule as God would, as God’s image, or representatives—later called disciples or ambassadors (Mat. 28:18, 2 Cor. 5:20).

Israel was told to walk in God’s ways, as God would, so they would amaze the watching world who would say: “What great nation is there that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this Law” (Deut. 4:7).

Their lives were to shout, “This is what it looks like to be human because we’re made to reflect our Creator, and this is what he is like.”It’s what the New Testament, or covenant, calls a witness. Jesus disciples people to be replicas of himself as a witness to God's glory.

The more Israel walked in God’s ways, the more they would be blessed with even more blessings and power to be an even brighter light. But if they rebelled, they would be stripped of their privileges to protect God's name and nudge them back on track.

This is detailed in Deuteronomy 28-29, which provides rare insight for understanding the exiles, God’s wrath, and much of the prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs.

Reading Proverbs

Let's take a sample look at Proverbs.

Proverbs repeats the covenant themes: God’s faithfulness, instructions, promises, and threats. But here, it's called wisdom.

The wisdom of God was in his covenant instructions to guide Israel into being a model nation, a city of light set on the hill of the world.

It instructed them to be the kind of people God wants all people to be: kind and wise.

Like God.

The Proverbs are still applicable today because in the new covenant Christians are now called to live out the image of God as a city of light (Matt. 5:14-20).

In the new covenant, Christians are supposed to model what God is like and what humans should be like (Eph. 5:1).

Also, as the first covenant, the new covenant begins with a surprising act of God’s liberating kindness, but instead of an exodus from Egypt, he leads an exodus from sin, condemnation, death, and fear.

If you can, go to Proverbs 30 in your Bible.

Now with an eye on the covenant and a brief understanding of Hebrew thought, do you see anything new?

The chapter starts off with Agur admitting to God his need for his wisdom (vs. 1-3): “I am weary, O God, and worn out. Surely, I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom”.

Notice how he thinks of wisdom as the ability to be a true human: “to be a man” (which can mean humanity in Hebrew). He needs this wisdom to live out Israel’s vocation.

Which is the human vocation.

Agur explains that wisdom comes from God's revelation. He asks who has gone to God to get this, “Who has ascended into heaven and come down?” (30:3).

This is alluding to Deut. 30:12-13, where Moses told the Israelites that they didn’t have to go to heaven to get wisdom because God came down from heaven to reveal it to them as the Mosaic covenant. Now it’s on their lips and in their hearts (which Paul reworks around Jesus; see Romans 10:5-13).

After asserting the value of God’s wisdom (vs. 5-6), he asks that he wouldn’t be too rich or too poor so that he will always remember God’s dependability (30:7-9).

How is this related to God's wisdom?

When we’re poor the temptation is to think God's ways, which is God's wisdom, aren't that reliable, and when we’re rich the temptation is to think we don’t need God's wisdom.

He wants to lean on God’s wisdom rather than his own understanding regardless of his circumstances, trusting that it will be better (Prov. 3:4-6).

This is the first step to being a true human being. It’s synonymous in Proverbs with fearing God (an ancient figure of speech that means submission).

Then he seems to change topics again to talk about wicked people, leeches, unquenchable things, even wonderful things.

Look at 30:10-23. What do these topics have in common?

They’re examples of people or things in the world that aren’t dependable.

In talking about how dependable God's wisdom is, he lists things that aren’t; mainly, unfaithful people.

Then he gives several examples of God’s wisdom in his creatures (30:24-31), which implies that if these seemingly small and insignificant things can be so accomplished from God’s wisdom, then how much more can his wisdom be trusted for living out the human vocation?!

It goes back to the dependability of God's wisdom.

He closes with an admonition to silence human wisdom and obey God’s wisdom.

Based on the context of the covenant and Hebrew block logic, this is the message from Proverbs 30 for us:

  • We’re designed to reflect God

  • This design can only be fulfilled through wisdom

  • God freely offers this wisdom in his covenant instructions

  • The first step is to trust that God’s wisdom is supreme in all ways

  • This means human wisdom is always inferior

  • The second step is to live it out

  • The result is a supreme humanity renewed as the glorious image of the Creator

God bless you with an increase in wisdom and fruitfulness for our great king.

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