I teach Old Testament and one of the things students often struggle with is how foreign and distant the text can seem from us. There are huge gaps between us and the Old Testament’s original readers: gaps in terms of time, location, and culture. And that means it can be quite a bit of work to try to bridge those gaps so we can interpret the Old Testament well and discern its relevance.
But every time a student raises this issue, I’m reminded about a wonderful and profound truth those gaps teach me about our God.
The reason the Old Testament seems so foreign and distant to us is, of course, because it wasn’t spoken or written to us. It wasn’t written in our language, or through our worldview. It was written in Hebrew, through an ancient near Eastern worldview, because that is how the people to whom it was originally written understood things. Imagine how confused they would have been if the Old Testament was written in English and talked about the world from the perspective of atoms and galaxies, or consumer goods and global communication networks!
The fact is that God chose to reveal Himself to them in a way that made sense to them. He didn’t speak to them in some kind of timeless, supernatural, heavenly language that they would have to figure out in order to understand and know Him. He met them on their terms and made Himself known to them within their context. Because that is the kind of God He is – a God who wants to meet us where we are at and make Himself known to us in a way that we can understand. How amazing is that!
I have never doubted or even questioned the idea that God speaks and understands English. Of course he does. But when I visited one of my friends who is a cross-cultural worker amongst a small tribal group in a Muslim context in Africa, he told me how many of the people there didn’t know that God understood their language. Their language had not yet been written down, and no one outside their small group spoke it. And they had been taught that in order to pray, they must do so in Arabic. The idea that God could hear them, let alone speak to them, in their own language was a revelation to them!
But that’s the truth of the Bible. And the truth of the Incarnation. God reveals himself to us as one of us. He not only hears and understands our language, but he speaks it too.
The fact that the Old Testament was written in a language and cultural framework that made sense to its original hearers reminds me that God speaks to me and those around me in a way that we can hear and understand if we listen. I’m not sure how much comfort this brings my students when they are struggling to learn the Hebrew alphabet or understand the social world of the ancient Near East, but it makes me stand back and marvel again at the wonderful God we worship who is always seeking to make Himself known to us.
Rev Melinda Cousins – Biblical Studies Lecturer, Tabor- College of Higher Education