I heard the following exchange on National Public Radio some days ago. It perfectly illustrated my next point on reading the Bible.
The hosts, a man and woman, were reviewing listener feedback. Apparently, they had greatly upset some lady with their promo to a story on the doping charge against track star Tyson Gay. The story headline was "Tyson Gay: Say It Ain't So!" The woman had heard the promo but not the actual story. She thought that the story was about the boxer, Mike Tyson, and that he was homosexual. She was livid that NPR had a story which was unfriendly to homosexuality. In fact, she said, "This is NPR!" alluding to the fact that she expected that NPR should be on board with a pro-gay view point. [Okay, no diatribe here, but am I the only one who finds it odd that we are constantly being told that calling NPR liberal is wrong, yet here is an "insider conversation" where all the parties were quite clear that NPR is liberal?!?]
The hosts made the point, with nervous laughter, that the story was not about that at all, quickly adding "not that there is anything wrong with it if he were." There was plenty of apologizing and giddiness over the whole misunderstanding. As the brief discussion came to an end the female host said, "Well we need to be careful what we say because people may not understand it."
What does this have to do with the Bible?
First of all, Tyson Gay used performance enhancing drugs to run faster. Like the former basketball star from Memphis, Rudy Gay, he has the misfortune of having a name which is loaded with meaning. The letters g-a-y no longer mean carefree and happy, and they are associated with one of the current hot buttons in society. So any time that name is said, it stirs up other referents in the minds of many. In fact, few of us know the name Tyson Gay because track is no longer widely watched. My guess is the typical adult in this country cannot name any track stars from the last ten years. The same cannot be said of the media hyped discussions on homosexuality=gay.
Secondly, the title refers to an event from almost 100 years ago. My Chicago White Sox were in the World Series, heavily favored to beat the Cincinnati Reds. The players were not well paid in those days, and the Chicago owner, Comiskey, was especially tight-fisted. Gamblers approached a player, who drew in other players, and the small group decided to lose on purpose. Timely errors and easy pitches over the middle of the plate, coupled with intentionally making outs when batting, were all it took. The Sox lost, and it was obvious to many that they were not playing their best. Some time later there was a trial and the players came to court. There is a story (the actual history of it is disputed!) that when the best player, Joe Jackson, was walking out of the court a heart broken boy cried out to him, "Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so!" Whether there was an actual exchange like that or not, the story summed up the response to the whole sad affair. In a time when baseball was THE sport, the horror of baseball's second best hitter being part of a plot to intentionally lose the World Series was unthinkable. The words, "say it ain't so" are forever part of the story. And they continue to be the code word for any sports scandal which we wish was not true.
The NPR story meant to convey the wish that a decorated runner had been clean. The woman, probably unaware of the ChiSox scandal or the track star, assumed it was about a betteer known boxer coming out of the closet and so she reacted with indignation that, she assumed, her NPR radio station had broken with the accepted party line and implied that the boxer being gay was not a great thing.
When we read the Bible, we do not (cannot) catch all of the allusions or references. We fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. We assume our world view, not theirs. An easy example is found in Genesis. Lots of self identified "Bible Believing Christians" find themselves arguing about the historicity of Noah's Flood. Why? Because they assume it is an historical story about an actual event. They further assume that anyone who does not declare it to be "exactly what took place" is part of the Modernist/Liberal Christian or Secular Humanist plot to overthrow Christianity. [Side note, perhaps a diatribe, I believe there is a plot to overthrow Christianity and I believe the Modernist/Liberal Christians are players in it and I believe that Secular Humanists are players in it. In fact, both groups are pretty straightforward about it.... Of course, the same people who are denying NPR has a liberal bent are also denying the Christianity is under attack....] So what about someone who believes in the authority of Scripture and professes Divine inspiration yet approaches the story from a different angle? What would someone like that say? (me, for example)
I would say that the context for reading Noah's ark are the ancient flood stories which the ancient Jews heard and knew from their neighbors. THAT is the context. The original story tellers were dealing with what the Sumerians and Babylonians were espousing. In other words, it is about Gilgamesh, not secular doubters. [for a list of fifteen or so go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_flood_myths] The Lord was revealing to the Jews what kind of God He is through the story. He is saying, "There are not a bunch of gods drowning folks for making too much noise." The Noah story, read in Biblical context, is about undoing creation (waters come back). It is about sin and chaos and God's dreams for the world being ruined by humans getting "worser and worser." It is about God saving a small remnant (sort of like what happened in Israel when the whole dream came to a crashing close). Noah is a reminder that when everything is wiped out (by ravaging hoards of foreign armies which destroy the kingdom and exile the people) God finds a way to keep things going by saving (God Redeems!) a small group. In Psalms 124 (key verses "when our enemies attacked us" coupled with "the flood would have swept us away") and 144 ("set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hands of aliens") we see the Gentiles as equated with watery chaos. Get it?
Mike Tyson is not gay.
Noah's ark is not about the worst flood ever.
It is our assumptions which lead us to the obvious (and ERRANT) interpretation.
It is no big deal, unless of course it keeps us from understanding the message. Water, chaos, people of God, Gentiles, sin, death, life: all these and more are laid out in the wonderful stories of creation/Genesis 1 and new creation/Noah. They reappear later in the Jesus story. He who has ears to hear, let him hear (Her, too!)
So read the story like an ancient Jew and find the deeper reality being revealed.
So where did the story come from? An event, actually lots of events. Storms and floods are still part of our experience. A few years ago the Mississippi river swelled to many miles wider than normal. Entire towns were wiped out. Gone. In ancient times such monumental disasters would be remembered. [There is a reason why 'The Flood' story is found in so many cultures...] The theological implications of the event(s) played large on the minds and emotions of the people telling the story. The resulting narratives are an expression of understanding: an interpretation of reality, which is more or less true. God inspired Genesis, so the account there contains more reliable truth than the Sumerians and Babylonians. It conveys a Godview on this. Now, every narrative can be interpreted in numerous ways (hence sometimes when I write one person finds it inspirational and another declares it garbage and toxic waste unfit for humans to see or hear) and our preconceived ideas can tease out valuable insights from anything. That is the interplay of text and reader.
What I want to do is provide insight into ancient writers. They are not Catholics or Baptists, they are not Liberals or Conservatives, they do not have weather satellites, consumer pop-culture, biology and physics. There world view is not medieval, modern or post-modern. They are not worried and concerned about all the same things we are. They lived in a much different world than we do. Yet, like us, they sought to know, love and serve God. They tried to make sense of things, at least the things they wanted to make sense of. And they interacted with God, same as us, and He spoke to them in ancient Hebrew using the illustrations which were sensible in their day and time. Today, English, Russian, German (and other languages) in a decidedly different social setting are His preferred mode. And someday, in the Great Day, it will all be clear. Glory be to God today and always and forever, amen.