How To Properly Interpret The Bible: Lesson 6- Language and Cultural Usage

In Lesson 2 we talked about Circles of Context and how that included the cultural usage, as well. Today we will look a little deeper into that, along with the need to be familiar with the language.

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Let me start by saying you do not have to be fluent in either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to properly interpret the Bible, but only that you should be able to have a means of examining the original language used in a passage.

And there is more to it than that: you need to be able to know the historically correct cultural usage of the language in the Bible as it was used at that time, in everyday speech.

For instance, throughout the Bible we read about “the fear of Adonai”, but what is that? Does it mean to be afraid of God? Do we live our lives being scared of what God might do to us if we sin? That doesn’t seem to make sense when we consider how many times we are told that God loves us, he is merciful and compassionate, and that he understands our weaknesses and helps us to overcome them.

The proper cultural usage of the term “fear of the Lord” means to worship God. To “fear” God was not used, in those days, to be an expectation of physical harm or spiritual damnation, but to worship God as he commands us to do.

Of course, if you reject God then you do have something to be afraid of, which (who knows) maybe the reason they use the word” fear” to mean proper worship since improper worship would lead to damnation, and who, believing in God, wouldn’t be afraid of that?

In the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the writer’s conclusion is that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Now, how can being afraid be the beginning of wisdom, especially when we (using hermeneutics) consider that Shaul (Paul) tells his protégé Timothy (in 2 Timothy 1:7) that God gives us a spirit who produces not timidity, but power, love, and self-discipline?

What Shaul is saying is that when we worship the Lord we are not to be afraid, but rather to be strong and confident. This will sound like an oxymoron, but the proper fear of the Lord will make us fearless.

There are times, though, when we are supposed to be afraid. For instance, in Matthew 10:28 we are told not to be afraid of those who can harm the body, but the one who can destroy both body and soul. Clearly, that is something to be afraid of.

I have been studying Hebrew for a couple of years now; I used Rosetta Stone and now use Duolingo. I work at it about 15 or 20 minutes a day, and it is slow going. I used to be good at language learning, but (as studies confirm) now that I am an old fart it is harder for me to remember the words. It is especially hard since there is no one else here who is fluent in Hebrew to help me practice and correct me. Yet, this constant study of Hebrew has helped me, even with the little I know, to better understand what is written in the Tanakh.

Many years ago I earned a Certificate in Messianic Studies which included classes on First Century Jewish culture. Without understanding the historical meaning and usage of the words at that time, we can’t always know what people really meant when they wrote things down, which we now read in the Bible.

Here’s another example: in Matthew 5:17, which is, in my opinion, one of the most misinterpreted passages in the entire Bible, Yeshua says he did not come to change the law but to fulfill it. Many “experts” interpret this as meaning Yeshua completed the law and use that as a polemic against following the Torah, even though Yeshua said, plainly, that he did not come to change anything!

When we consider the cultural usage of the language, in First Century Rabbi-speak, to “fulfill” meant to interpret correctly. It has nothing to do with completing or doing away with anything. And when we use that understanding of the meaning of the word with what Yeshua taught in his sermon on the mount, we can see that he was interpreting the law more accurately than the Pharisees or Scribes had been doing, because he gave the spiritual understanding as well as the plain language meaning (remember P’shat and Remes?).

The same holds true when we read in some Bible versions the use of the word “trespass” in the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t walk on each other’s lawn; to “trespass” meant to misinterpret the Torah. Therefore, to fulfill the law would lead people to salvation whereas to trespass would lead people into sin.

The previous lesson covered using an Interlinear Bible and a concordance, which will give you the translations of the Hebrew and Greek used in the Bible, but if you really want to allow the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) to lead you to what God wants you to see, I recommend studying Hebrew on your own. Now, for myself, I am not so worried about knowing Greek to understand the New Covenant better because I believe that when I know the Tanakh, I will be able to determine what in the New Covenant makes sense, hermeneutically, and what doesn’t.

And, yes- although it is outside the scope of this training series, I do believe there is much in the New Covenant that doesn’t need to be in the Bible. But, as I say, that is for a different time.

That’s it for this lesson, and next time we get together I will conclude this teaching series.

Until then, L’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!

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