At the time of my conversion, I always struggled with the notion that Israel was God’s chosen people and that the gentiles were like second class citizens. Passages which read “To the Jews first, then the Gentiles” or more notoriously Paul’s argument in Romans 11:1-24, which always baffled me during those days.
Well to comfort myself, I tried to imagine that who knows I had some Jewish blood in me somehow. That would be great right, having some dose of Jewishness in your blood stream to be in some ways a valid relation to the chosen people.
In those days I had no sort of training from leaders or pastors on how to read the bible ‘responsibly’ or ‘rightly.’ But ever since my training in theological studies and reading books by ‘proper’ scholars, it has helped immensely in how I read and understand the bible.
Let me give an example of one way that might be helpful in reading some troubled passages.
1. When encountering a difficult passage, say for example Romans 11:1-24 where it read that there is a class distinction of how Paul used Israel and Gentiles in his argument. It looks and reads in that manner if one simply read just those passages and stops. Let me propose that in these instances, reading passages in their context matters!
The context of this argument is on the topic of God’s mercy. Paul’s way of highlighting this mercy is by bringing the picture of Israel side by side with the gentiles. Try reading this passage in that context. We are in the family of God via God being merciful to us. after reading them in the context of mercy, read chapter 12 of Romans…it states “Therefore, I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…” The use of “Therefore” means that there is a connection between what you read before and what you read in chapter 12. Therefore for me, i understand Paul’s argument using Israel as an example to indicate God’s mercy.
2. To base just one passage or a few verses for a conclusion does not work for the bible. Again in explaining Romans 11:1-24, elsewhere Paul states that in Romans 3:9 that, although Jews were privileged, Paul notes in v.9 that Jew and Gentile are the same. In Galatians 3:26-29 Paul states that “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you were baptized into Christ have clothe yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
By looking at the big witness of the bible, even in these small passages, it indicates that we are all equal in God’s sight. Paul believes this. Thus the analogy of Paul’s use of Israel in Romans does not entail superiority or favoritism but for using it as a form of rhetoric or argument to instigate a response from his audience.
So, the two things that one might want to try when reading the bible is by reading things
1. According to context
2. Looking at the ‘whole’ witness of the bible (or the writer, in our case above, Paul)
I should note that these are not hard and fast rules but reading the bible in this manner and not basing our understanding and theology based on some scrawny one lined (or just one chapter) verse, does reap rewards in that it gives us a more solid understanding of what the author wants to tell us, or better, what God wants to convey to his people.
A helpful book that gives some good points and ideas on reading the bible is by Scot McKnight entitled “The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible“, Which I have reviewed here.