Thank you for my warm and comfortable bed. May I do all I can to help others who do not have this blessing.
When I was about 8 years old, I used to listen to the 1974 recording of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as I went to sleep. As a result of that, and also because my family went to see the Bill Kenwright production every time it came to Belfast, and also because my P5 teacher loved the music and played it to us in class, I can still recall the lyrics almost perfectly—and I can list the twelve sons of Jacob as long as I can sing the song in my head.
In one dramatic point, Joseph hides a precious object amongst his brothers’ things and then claims that one of his brothers has stolen it from him.
This evening I was reading Genesis 44, which is where this story is told in the Bible. It is told a little differently there.
And put my cup, the silver cup, in the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his corn money. And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken. (Genesis 44:2, KJV)
For some reason, I noticed the cup was silver. That’s funny, I thought. Most translations have it as a golden cup. I looked at a range of translations, and it was a silver cup in all of them.
I knew there were differences between the story in the musical and the story in the Bible, and I have read Joseph’s story many times, but it wasn’t until tonight that I realised the cup was silver, not gold. The musical had influenced me and the way I read and understood the Bible. This is a very minor example of culture influencing understanding, but it really got me thinking: how many other ways do we misunderstand the Bible because of our culture? We talk about Adam’s apple, yet Genesis doesn’t tell us what type of fruit it was, and we usually think of the shepherds and wise men attending the birth of Jesus, whereas the wise men arrived quite a bit after the birth. What other misunderstandings are there?
This shows why it is a good idea to read and re-read the Bible when it comes to doctrine. It isn’t enough to rely on our memories of what the Bible says. Our memories are fallible, and we all read the Bible with the influences of our culture.
I started learning to drive recently, and I am really enjoying it. There is something magical about controlling 1,500kg of steel with a tiny amount of pressure from my hands and feet. So magical, in fact, that it is very easy to accidentally use a little too much pressure on the right foot, and without even realising it, break the speed limit. So what do I do? When I’m driving, I usually aim to go slightly below the speed limit – say 28 mph in a 30 zone. That way, when I inevitably make a mistake and go too fast, I am still within the speed limit (and, at the same time, I’m not going so slowly that I cause problems for other drivers). This additional personal constraint means I don’t break the speed limit.
This is not dissimilar to chumra, a prohibition or obligation in Jewish practice that exceeds the bare requirements of Jewish law. This is also known as building a “fence around the Torah”. You know what the commandments of God are, and where you think you might be prone to breaking them, you put in additional restrictions to help you keep God’s commandments. This is a good idea, as long as you know the difference between your fence and God’s commandments.
People have been building fences like these for thousands of years. In fact, the first fence in the Bible can be found in Genesis Chapter 3. The first recorded commandment of God is in Genesis 2:16-17:
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”(NIV)
Eve repeats the commandment in Genesis 3:2-3:
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”(NIV)
Adam and Eve were not to eat from the tree, but Eve had built a fence around that commandment: she said that it was forbidden to touch the tree. Now, I think it was quite sensible to decide that the tree should not be touched. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to even touch the tree, then you are avoiding some situations where you might be tempted to eat from it. The problem is, Eve forgot that the no touching rule was a human rule, not a commandment of God. It was, as Mark 7:7 would say, “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (KJV)
Living as a Christian is not the same as living under the Law of Moses. We don’t have lists of commandments that we must follow. Nonetheless, there are ways that Christians ought to behave, and many of us build our own “fences around the Gospel”. The trouble is, it is very easy to forget that our fences are only our fences. Someone else may need a completely different fence. I know Christians who refuse to do any work on a Sunday, regarding it as the Lord’s day. That is fine for them. It works for them, but Christians don’t have to take this attitude. As long as we remember the “no work on a Sunday” rule is a personal fence, then nobody is teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.
There is another fence that many Christians put around the gospel, but they don’t realise it. Matthew 19:4-6:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”(NIV)
Someone recently said to me, using this passage as proof, “God made only one plan for human sexuality: one man and one woman in a covenantal marriage relationship for life.” Nobody could read that passage and think that God somehow disapproved of one man and one woman in a lifelong married relationship, but it is a fence around the Gospel to say that is the only way to live, and it is teaching for doctrines the commandments of men to say that God says this is the only way to live. Paul actively discourages marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, but we don’t even have to leave Matthew 19 to find out that not everybody can live in that way, “but only those to whom it has been given.” (Matthew 19:11, NIV)
When a Christian takes the teaching of Matthew 19 and decides that they are one of those to “whom it has been given” and they will lead their lives accordingly, then that is a good thing. They have built themselves a little fence around the Gospel. When the same Christian decides that their fence should apply to everybody then it ceases to be a fence, and it becomes “teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” That is a sin that is as serious as the one that Eve committed, all the way back in Genesis.
“It is wrong for Christians to drink/be in a same-sex relationship/get divorced/use Facebook/drive a Prius/issue du jour—it says so in the Bible!”
“Where does it say that in the Bible?”
It is surprising how often people can’t answer that.
If you are going to use the Bible as a basis for your beliefs (as I believe all Christians should) and you are going to share your beliefs with other people, then you should be able to locate the relevant passages. BibleGateway is a useful resource for searching the Bible in various translations.
Thank you for all that you are doing for me,
Give me the wit to know what I am doing,
My favourite translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is from The Message.
Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.
Translating the vice lists in Paul’s letters is hard. Even if we know exactly what a particular word means in the context of the 1st Century (and we often don’t) it isn’t clear how to understand a 1st Century sin in a 21st Century context. For practical purposes, the vice lists shouldn’t be understood as lists of specific prohibitions, but rather as general guidelines on how to behave. I think The Message translates this vice list perfectly. It covers the general meanings of the terms, and it is in harmony with the types of behaviour that mean we do qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.