29 January 2013

Reading the Bible knowing more than the characters in the text

Back in high school English class, we talked about how in some novels the reader actually knew more than the characters in the story. Reading the Bible again, it surprises me how that's also true of the Bible. To some degree, it shouldn't surprise me. After all, I have the whole Bible, and so I know how the story ends. I know that the Jews enter the promised land, that they eventually go into exile, and that Jesus is the promised Messiah and the fulfilment of so many of the promises of the Old Testament. Yet, there are moments when I am surprised by things that seem obvious to me but that the text indicates as coming later. Here are a few examples that I read in the last week.

1. Sarah's laughter (Gen 18). Why did she laugh and why is there so much emphasis put on that? It's not like Abraham also didn't laugh at the ridiculousness of the idea (Gen 17). The question that came to me this time was why Sarah laughed: did Abraham not tell her or not believe it himself?!? Whatever the reason, the laughter does turn to joy (Gen 21:6). How could it not after such an amazing miracle?

2. Esau's wives. The end of Genesis 26 mentions that Esua marries two local women, and that these were a source of grief to both Isaac and Rebekah. This is surprising because Esau is Isaac's favourite, so it is strange to hear that his favourite could still grieve him. More interesting, however, is Esau's next wife mentioned in Gen 28:9. She is a distant relative whom Esau married because he then realized how much his foreign wives displeased his father. How did Esau not know that? We, the reader, were well aware of it (especially as that was part of the reason why Jacob was sent away).

3. Healing on the Sabbath. In Luke 14, Jesus asks whether he should heal on the Sabbath. No one answers, and Jesus does it anyways. As a reader, you might think that they didn't know the answer (even though you as a reader do know the answer). However, close reading reveals something else. In the previous chapter (!), Jesus had just healed somebody on the Sabbath. The answer was obvious - to both those in the text and us as readers. It's most likely not ignorance but something else that is answering here.

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