The Bible is a Foreign Book

Rev. Yme Woensdregt suggests that we regain a sense of respect for the distance this book has travelled

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

2536 years ago, on August 29, 520 BCE (according to Haggai 1:1), the prophet Haggai told his people that God was commanding them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonian armies in 587 BC, and now after almost 70 years, some of the people had returned to Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside.

The only point I want to make is that it was a long, long time ago … and yet we treat the Bible as if it were a book written just recently, something which we can understand with very little effort.

Let’s try an act of the imagination to put it in perspective. Imagine coming back in the year 4552. Can you imagine what that day might look like? And if you were alive then, could you even imagine what we take for granted in the year 2016?

I don’t think so. In fact, our grandparents could never have imagined computers, self–driving cars, space travel, or the ability to go to Spokane for a day of shopping.

Even if we shorten the time span—try to go back 1/5 of this length of time in your mind. That would take us all the way back to about 1500: Europeans were just starting to explore (and exploit) the known world; people thought the earth was the center of the cosmos, with the sun and stars circling it; many people thought the earth was flat; the only things you knew was what you could see and touch; you were probably illiterate, with no idea of reading or leisure time, or anything else which is normal for most of us these days.

Frankly, if somehow we were transported back to those days (only 500 years ago), many of us would probably be dead within a week, unable to negotiate the do’s and don’t’s of daily life.

Or if we go back just ½ of this length of time, we end up back in the mid–8th century. Vikings began invading Europe, which is the stuff of legend and television shows. Paper was introduced to the Arabs by the Chinese. The English historian and theologian Bede writes his Ecclesiastical History, and begins numbering the years from the time of Christ, which is how we still divide history. Charlemagne begins his reign, building the empire of the Franks.

We live in a world where huge numbers are thrown around daily: trillions upon trillions of dollars of national debt, billions upon billions of galaxies each containing billions upon billions of stars, trillions of cells in the human body. We can’t wrap our heads around numbers that large, but they are part of our daily consciousness.

With numbers that large floating in our heads, we tend to forget how significant 500 years, 1000 years, or 2536 years are when seen from the point of view of our daily human experience.

We even have trouble with 150 years. Ken Burns’ television documentary “The Civil War” shows us photographs of soldiers, wives, children, slaves, buildings, and farmland a “mere” 150 years old — and even that world seems so foreign to us.

And the Israelites began rebuilding the Temple 2536 years ago.

I cannot really comprehend this tiny bit of the human drama. It will always be foreign to me. It happened so long ago, I simply cannot get inside it. I don’t know the human customs from that time. I cannot truly understand how these ancient eastern Mediterranean peasants lived and ate and worked. I will always remain a foreigner to this ancient landscape. I will always be on the outside looking in.

And really, the only point I’m trying to make here is that so many of us (including me at times) get a bit careless, even cavalier, about the Bible. We think that we get it because we happen to read it regularly in our native tongue (which of course is also entirely foreign to the time in which it was written).

Let me suggest that we regain a sense of respect for the distance this book has travelled to land on our coffee tables, pulpits, and work desks. We would do well to remember that in the Bible, we are coming face to face with a very foreign (and small) slice of the human drama—with customs, habits, a whole consciousness, that we do not share. We would do well to be respectful enough not to claim for ourselves too great a familiarity with it.

We can study it and teach it and read it to deepen our lives. But we kid ourselves if we think we can control it.

Perhaps we can try to keep that in mind when we disagree over what it means.  We are all on foreign soil. The whole Bible is a foreign land.

It wasn’t written for me, or for us. It was written 2536 years, and even longer, ago. The miracle of it all, of course, is that so many people still find wonder and solace and hope in such ancient writings.

I certainly don’t expect my words to still have that kind of effect in that way in the year 4552.

That may be a good thing.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook