If communication is going to work, the one speaking, and the listener must have something in common. That is, if I talk to you, it helps if we both communicate with the same language. That is a start, but not all that is involved, unless by language, we give a definition more specific than normally understood. That is, beyond having English in common, for instance, it helps if we both are from the same general local (say Southern California), are about the same age, and have the same basic interests and experiences. Then, we can be pretty certain that communication will occure with a minimum of misunderstanding. The less that these items exist between the two of us, the less likely unconfused communication will occur.

Octagonal red signs at the corners of streets with white lettering or an outline of a hand are meaningful to the denizens who are of age and drive cars here at the beginning of the twenty-first century. To those of another era, they would be meaningless puzzles. All communication involves such symbols, of one sort or another. When I say the word “water”, or write it on a piece of paper, that verbalization or those black marks on the white paper will not quench your thirst or clean your hands. The word, whether spoken or written, is a symbol for the object. The connection between the object and the symbol is pretty direct and easy in the case of something concrete like a noun; but the connection becomes more tenuous and hard to pin down when we start talking about “grace” or “liberty”. And then what are we to do with idioms, like “it’s raining cats and dogs” or metaphors like “his tongue was sharp as a sword”; even more difficult becomes parables, fables, or allegories (like Pilgrim’s Progress).

When one considers that the Bible is written in three different languages, over a period of about a thousand years, by perhaps upwards of sixty different people, in a pre-industrialized, non-Western, Semitic culture, and that the biblical materials encompass a wide range of literary styles and genres (ranging from prose to poetry, parable, allegory, proverb, wisdom literature and historical narrative), the difficulty in getting good communication, and the potential for great misunderstanding, becomes obvious. It would be helpful if more readers of the Bible understood this. It might reduce the prevalence of idiotic conclusions and bogus interpretations by those who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Given how easily we misunderstand people who live in the same world and culture as us, you’d think there’d be more recognition of how careful we must be when handling two thousand (or more) year old texts–and an acknowledgement of how frequently we probably misunderstand it.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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