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Microscope or Binoculars?

When many people think of ancient societies, they think of cavemen with no underlying culture, interests, or entertainment. The fact is people of antiquity were complex. They had commerce, varied forms of literature, impressive technology, and sophisticated ways of looking at the world. Each people group passed down legends and memories. Each person had a place in society. Each family had goals, aspirations, and expectations for their progeny. Amid this context was (no matter the cultural group) the deep desire to accurately pass down their customs.

Men and women spent years memorizing histories and studying the varied forms of written and verbal communication that defined their culture. The Bible, for example, is a collection (some may say library) of different types of writing. Considering the amount of schooling each ancient reader or hearer would have on their own culture, it is reasonable to assume that most people who represented ancient Biblical populations would be familiar with each type of literature represented in scripture.

When we read the Bible with a modern mindset, it is often helpful to remember that this amazing document is comprised of different types of writing. Often, people will ask me a question about why something is written in the Bible that seems to be worded in a very confusing way. I propose that there are times in which we need to look at the Biblical text through a “microscope” and other times we should look at what we read through “binoculars”. There are times, in scripture, in which the Biblical author is attempting to describe their reality (the best way they can) through poetry and metaphor. There are other times when they are conveying a very direct historical account. The question then arises; How can we possibly know the intentions of the author? Actually, in many cases, this is easier than one might assume. The reason is given in what I call the “4 C’s”. No, this is not my high school report card. The 4 C’s stand for cadence, content, culture, and context.

Cadence describes the rhythm and literary structure of the document. Content refers to the actual words included in what was written. Studying the culture (religion, guiding principles, etc.) of the intended audience is very important. Finally, context describes the historical conditions that were a known reality during the time of writing. Ancient people could read or hear these words and know exactly how to read them. They would have known when they were reading or hearing a standard apocalypse (revelation of truth), or they would have recognized the known structure of wisdom writing. There are so many more types of common literature and they all have their structure.

Diving into these ideas helps the reader to understand the Bible in a much deeper way. Also, if items in scripture seem inconsistent it is profoundly helpful to figure out whether we should read the word in front of us through the lens of a microscope (detailed and up close) or a pair of binoculars (far away and general themes).

So, next time you open the Bible. Ask yourself one question. What type of lens should I read this through? Not in terms of my convenience, but to truly understand what is being said.

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