To understand the books of the Bible it is important to understand the context in which they were written.
In my view it is not satisfactory to superficially interpret verses without grasping something of the background as to why they were written and for whom. If we are not careful we read our own situation into the text (eisegesis) rather than draw out any earlier meaning (exegesis).
If we want to draw on the deeper philosophy and psychology found in our writings, awareness of the learnings of anthropology, archaeology and other disciplines are extremely important.
One example of this has significant relevance for us today and that is the concept known by anthropologists as ‘the limited good’. This is the notion that in traditional societies the amount of good to go around is limited, and certainly not infinite. This is particularly applied to land, resources and money, and one person cannot gain without someone else missing out. Goodness is in short supply and not to be abused.
This tradition is especially observed in communities living in marginal conditions – freezing weather, hot deserts, rocky soils, and can be found even today in some countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. In such situations there is a high emphasis on sharing rather than competing, and where there is a high sense of solidarity, equality and inclusion.
‘The Limited Good’ underlines much of the experience recalled in Scripture, with its peoples for the most part living in a dry and sparse environment. Manna from heaven or leftovers from loaves and fishes are to be collected without waste. The prophet Amos (and others) calls on farmers not to add field to field or vineyard to vineyard. The commands to protect the economically weak (widows, orphans, strangers) express a stress on sharing across the whole community.
The biblical mass feeding stories demonstrate the importance of the gathering of any scraps and egalitarian sharing. Jesus being asked to turn stones to bread, and his condemnation of the rich, are all part of this same thinking. Sabbatical laws embody the concept too, such as leaving the edges of the land for gleaning – for people and other creatures.
All of these instances point to an appreciation that the Earth can provide for human and non-human need, but not for personal greed. Today more than ever there have to be constraints on human consumption or we shall all be consumed. Or, as Pope Francis suggests, “Safeguard Creation, because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us. Never forget this!“.
Another example of understanding the deeper tradition behind Scripture is the concept of Covenant.
In recent centuries this has been given a strong legalistic and bureaucratic flavour, but the word b’rith in Hebrew actually means a ‘partnership’. So, when God sets up a partnership in Genesis 9, it is a mutual relationship with the divine, humanity and the whole living world: it is the web of life that the Creator binds together for eternity. The same is true of the many other covenants in Jewish and Christian writings. And the New Covenant announced by Christians is a fresh partnership of interconnectedness. By implication this must also include the entire created order – allowing the claim the God was in Christ reconciling all things to the Holy.
These more radical interpretations of the books of the Bible can help us become more intensely aware of a profound tradition of respect for the goodness of all life. In turn, we can review our beliefs and our behaviours in ways that are more insightful than often suggested in phrases like ‘Stewardship’ or ‘Dominion’.
If the library that we call the Bible is to speak to our times, it must do so from its deeper traditions, even if they cause us discomfort or call us to transform the ways our society is organised. Let us live for a change – for the sake of the common good, for the future of our children’s children, and the wholeness of planet Earth…
“Human specialness is embedded in the whole Community of Creation to which we belong” — Richard Bauckham