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Reading the Bible gets me into trouble.

Take the story of the woman at the well. I studied the text carefully, then “preached” on it at a nursing home. I highlighted how this is the first time Jesus reveals himself as Messiah, and, how, amazingly, this announcement is made to a person of exceedingly low status—a Samaritan woman of ill repute. Amazingly, Jesus then commissions her as the first evangelist, commanding her to spread the good news to her village. (Read my full message here.)

But in a recent Christianity Today article, “The Real Woman at the Well” (Oct. 2015), New Testament professor Lynn H. Cohick turns my reading upside down. Having researched first-century marriage in Middle Eastern cultures, she concludes that the Samaritan woman may not have been an adulteress at all. The fact that Jesus outlines her marital history may have simply been his way of establishing that he knows her, much as he did with Nathanael, identifying him by revealing his location under the fig tree.

I had read the story as a miracle of affirmation, Jesus dialoguing with a woman in public (much to the surprise of the disciples) and empowering her so that her message is received as trustworthy—even though she had questionable morals, even though a woman’s testimony was not considered legal in a court of law. Everything I had interpreted as radically affirming, however, Cohick posits as proof of the Samaritan woman’s respectability.

You see my problem with reading the Bible?

Other examples abound. You’ve probably come across these: kephale (head) in 1 Cor. 11:3 and authenteo (authority) in 1 Timothy 2:12. The exegetical variations are labyrinthine. I’m not smart enough to figure out which expert is correct. I dearly long for straightforward biblical interpretation that resolves ambiguities of cultural context, translation, grammar, and syntax.

But the Bible is not a Dick and Jane primer. Garrison Keillor once said this about his church of origin: “The Brethren take one aspect of the gospel—the principle of separation—to the exclusion of most of the other things that Jesus taught. And this can lead so easily to the very sort of legalism that Christ was continuously rebuking in the Pharisees who were following him around, looking for a chance to trip him up in inconsistencies and in not following the letter of the law.”

It occurs to me that perhaps I’ve fallen into the same trap as the Brethren, turning correct interpretation of the Bible into a legalism that excludes other crucial truths. Maybe I’ve inhaled just enough evangelical inerrancy, secular rationalism, and postmodern relativism to trip me up. I’ve been staring so long and hard at the words, I’ve overlooked the Word himself.

The Bible isn’t a Rubik’s cube to solve. It’s an introduction to Jesus, the Living Water, who offered immeasurable love to a sinful seeker at a well. That Jesus loves me too, despite the daily sinfulness I drag around behind me.

The Bible I read proclaims equality for women, slaves, and Gentiles. I can’t read it any other way. I’m not smart enough to synthesize all the commentary, theories, and nuances (though I’ll keep trying). My Friend assures me that his grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in my weakness. He sends me out to share what I know anyway.

About the Author

Cathy Smith is a retired school teacher from Wyoming, Ont., and is a contributing editor at Christian Courier. 

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Comments

Very well said Cathy.  This is a very insightful article.  You have hit upon an insight that most Christians fail to recognize.  The Bible can be translated a hundred different ways, even particular Scripture passages, as you have suggested.  For instance, our CRC ministers learn at seminary to interpret the Bible from a Reformed theological perspective through the student’s study of Reformed theology. That becomes the filter through which he/she looks at Scripture.  A Baptist seminarian interprets the Bible from a Baptist theological perspective.  A conservative evangelical who teaches New Testament at Wheaton College, such as Lynn Cohick, will translate Scripture from within the conservative evangelical perspective, and on and on for the Pentecostal, the Lutheran, the Catholic, and the Methodist.  All have a theological predisposition by which to translate Scripture.  Many expert theologians going back to John Calvin and before have translated the story of the woman at the well just as you had.  Even our current Calvin theologians haven’t disputed such an interpretation.  Each group (Reformed, Baptist, Catholic, etc.) learns to interpret the Bible from within their own theological perspective so as to add consistency to their overall interpretation of the Bible.  For instance, for the Baptist member, minister, or theologian, infant baptism isn’t consistent with their theological perspective of the Bible, and so they will disclaim infant baptism as inconsistent with the Bible.  Whereas when seen from within a Reformed theological perspective, infant baptism is perfectly consistent with our Reformed understanding of the Bible.  The same principle is true when trying to interpret Jesus’ words, “take eat, this is my body.”  How many different interpretations are there of Jesus’ words?  Does the bread become the actual body of Christ, or is his real body present along with the bread, or is the bread to be understood as the spiritual body of Christ, or does the bread simply represent his body?  Pick your denomination and you’ll get a different interpretation.

So Cathy, you can readily see what a frustration understanding the Bible can be, as you point out.  You can almost make the Bible say anything you want, depending on your understanding of the culture, the history, and theological perspective that you bring to the Bible.  The Bible that you read may proclaim equality for women, slaves, and Gentiles, as you say.  For others it does not proclaim equality for women, slaves or Gentiles.  And for others it proclaims equality for homosexuals with heterosexuals and on and on.  You can make the Bible say whatever you want. This may even make you a little suspicions of what your minister is teaching, and rightfully so.

So when it comes to John 4 and the woman at the well, and Jesus proclaims he is the living water, even the Messiah, what exactly is he saying?  Is it like the Roman Catholics suggest, that by participating in the sacrament of Mass, a person is taking to himself the actual person of Christ and thus drinking the actual living substance of Christ and therefor has salvation?  Or is it as Reformers suggest, that by believing in Jesus as the actual Messiah from heaven that we have eternal life or living waters?  Or is it as Jesus might suggest that by living what he teaches in regard to love for God and neighbor that one has this gift of living water, a new way and perspective by which to face life?   I guess you can make up your own mind, because the Bible can pretty much say whatever you want.  Your article Cathy is very insightful into the frustration regarding our understanding of the Bible. Thanks for your insight.

For many years, I admit I viewed the Bible and theology and faith and salvation as things to be "solved." If I didn't fully understand I feared I wasn't right with God. My reading and studying always had a goal of UNDERSTANDING. Or FIGURING IT OUT. It was frustrating, and eventually I gave up on faith.

But then a couple years ago, I began approaching God and His Word the same way Jacob did when he wrestled the Mysterious Man through the night. Jacob never figured out how to "win," he never got to the point in the wrestling match where he FIGURED IT OUT. Instead, he wrestled with God, came out pretty battered, bruised and confused...but he was ultimately blessed just for taking part in the wrestling match. He was blessed, he became Israel, he became known for "wrestling with God."

So I no longer feel (as) frustrated when I can't FIGURE IT OUT, or when my brain is too small to understand deep theological ideas. I feel blessed because I'm wrestling. I'm wrestling with the notion of damnation, with the point of the resurrection, with understanding homosexuality, with the idea of the elect, with the meaning of parables, with the brutality of the Old Testiment, with science and Genesis, with salvation, with fear of the unknown, with the concept of death, with who God is. God takes joy in wrestling with us, and blesses us even when it hurts. And I take joy in wrestling with God, even though I know I'm never going to "win"-- and by "win" I mean "figure it all out"-- at least in this life.

Embrace your inner Israel, embrace your outer Israel! When we wrestle with God, while keeping our focus on Christ, he blesses us and makes us His people.

Thank you for writing this Cathy! 

I appreciate your response to this article, Steve. “ Keep on wrestling.”  That’s your advice.  I’m not sure that I follow or understand your argument fully.  Wrestling is good, as long as we keep our focus on Christ.  Does it matter what conclusions we come to in our wrestling?  Does it matter what side of the homosexual issue we come out on as long as we focus on Christ?  Does it matter what side of the “third wave” movement taking root in our churches that we come out on as long as we focus on Christ?  Does it matter what side of the women in office issue we come out on as long as we focus on Christ?  Does it matter whether we are Christian Reformed, Mormon, or Jehovah Witness as long as we focus on Christ?  And what about the person raised in the Muslim religion from the time of childhood who believes that the Koran teaches the true way to have acceptance with God?  Does it matter what he believes, as long as he believes?  Why do we send our ministers to seminary for three or four years to wrestle with Biblical languages, theology, and Biblical history if it doesn’t really matter what side we come out on as long as we are wrestling.  I appreciate your sentiment, Steve, about wrestling, like Jacob.  And I agree that wrestling is good.  But I would imagine that after wresting, even Jacob came away with some clarity, with some answers. And in some sense Jacob was a winner in that God made himself clear to Jacob, and gave him direction for the future and clarity. I too, appreciate Cathy’s insight in this article which confirms that the Bible can say a whole lot of different things at the same time depending the perspective by which you read your Bible.  So I guess we should just keep on wrestling.  Let’s be glad, though, that we don’t do medicine, science, and taxes like that.  Thanks Cathy and Steve.