Stop Reading the Bible Like a CookbookMarch 5, 2013
Being a “foodie” I like to peruse cookbook sites. My favorite is Punchfork which collects the offerings of a hundred websites and brings them together into a Pinterest format. Today, for instance, I am drooling over recipes for Spicy Salami sandwich with Olive Tapenade and French Onion tarts.
I read Punchfork the same way I read cookbooks. Even though we may start reading a cookbook the first time from the front to the back, after that we jump around to the recipes we want to make. We don’t keep reading them in order.
I find people make a mistake if they read the Bible like a cookbook. They may have a subject they want to look up and they jump to a verse that contains a key word. Then they use that verse to justify (or sometimes change) their theological position. So why is this a mistake?
Let’s take an issue like the role of women in the Bible. If someone went through the Bible and looked up all the Bible said about women, it could get very confusing and even dangerous. One example should suffice. In the Old Testament, there were rules concerning how a woman was to act when she was having her monthly menstrual period. These rules were given in the context of regulations concerning the giving of the Mosaic Covenant between God and Israel. That context is extremely important; without it, these verses about women are at best meaningless, and at worst harmful and can be used to abuse women.
All of the regulations in the Mosaic Law are designed to point people to their role as the “set apart” people of God. Food laws, clothing laws, ceremonial laws and even sexual laws were laid down to show that Israel was a unique nation, called by God to carry the knowledge of God to the world. Read Galatians chapters 3-5 to get a full understanding of this.
But the story of God’s working in this world has moved past the Mosaic Covenant. To use verses from that covenant understanding and apply them to today is to read the Bible like a cookbook and not like the narrative of God’s actions with mankind as it truly is. The rule about menstrual bleeding is typical of this misreading of the Bible.
When Jesus was ministering in a town one day a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind and touched him secretly. She wanted to be healed from her bleeding. She also was reluctant to come up to him because her bleeding made her unclean by the standards of the Mosaic covenant. That is why she touched his cloak without anyone knowing it. But Jesus knew that power had gone out from him.
He looked around and asked “Who touched me”? The woman had done it secretly, because the Mosaic Law had said no one was to touch a woman while she was bleeding. Now, we do not know if this woman’s bleeding was gynecological, but it is safe to assume it was. She was therefore treated as an outcast.
But when she touched Jesus, she was healed. When he subsequently brought her before the crowd, he told the world she had been healed. Jesus, as a rabbi had the authority to declare a woman ceremonially clean. But in truth, this is a sign of the New Covenant. All who are fouled by sin can be cleansed by touching Jesus. To show this, His touch restored this woman…not just her body, but also her place in the community.
The coming of Jesus and the way he treated women altered our understanding of the role of women in the life of God’s people. The Old Testament understanding of women was not wrong; it was incomplete. Jesus brings the final story and that is the one we must adhere to.
The story of Jesus is the climax of the story of God with man. We are told in Hebrews 1 that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s message to mankind:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
My point is this: Not every page in the Bible carries the same weight. We read the entire Bible through the lens of Jesus. If Jesus declares women clean when they are going through the time of their period, then they are clean. He is the one who allowed Mary to sit as his feet and listen to his teaching. He is the one who addressed the woman at the well with dignity and as an equal. All of the Bible points to Jesus, who is God and who brings all of the other chapters into focus.
It’s like reading a mystery novel where you do not find out the key to the whole thing until the end. I was watching a movie called “The Spanish Prisoner”. The director, David Mamet, claimed that you could guess how the movie ended by the clues in the first ten minutes. I watched the movie three times and then (and only then) did the first ten minutes make sense. The Bible is the same way. You need to understand what Jesus teaches so that you can go back and make sense of the beginning of the Bible.
For instance, Jesus is one who tells us to put away our swords. So when the rest of the Bible contains violence and national warfare, we are supposed to read that in the context of what God was doing at that time. God was showing his abhorrence for how some nations were acting. God has one way to live and the nation of Israel was not to share a worldview with these other nations.
But the fullest expression of God in Jesus shows a man who would not defend himself, but rather counsels that we turn the other cheek.
If you read the Bible like a cookbook, you take a verse you like and apply it to fit your understanding of how God worked during times that are different than ours. That is monumentally dangerous. The Bible is the story of God’s actions among men. The heart of that story is God becoming a man. When you know the heart of the story, then you can go back and see what God was doing in the plot leading up to the heart of the story.