A subtle but deceptive way to misread scripture is to read the Bible from our own cultural context. At one level I realize that this is unavoidable. We should, however, always remember that many Bible passages were written in a particular cultural context. Some passages are truly timeless treatise of theology (I think of Romans 8 as an example). Others are cemented into a worldview quite different from our own.
Consider the following story about Mike and Joe.
Used Car Salesman
Then Mike needed a car when he was living among the people of a foreign city called New York. He said the people, “I really need a car.” The New Yorkers heard him and said, “Listen, man, you are a prince of God among us. Pick any car you like and it’s yours. Nobody will say ‘no’ to your request for a car.”
Mike bowed down to the New Yorkers, the people of the city, and said, “If any of you are willing that I should have a car, hear me and ask Joe for his Cadillac, the one he owns. It is at the end of the street. I want to pay the full price and you can be witnesses to this transaction.”
Now Joe was standing there on the sidewalk when this discussion was happening. He stepped forward in the presence of the New Yorkers. He said, “No, dude, you listen to me! I am giving you the Cadillac. It’s yours; take whatever is in the trunk, too. Here, in front of all these witnesses, I give you the Cadillac. Take it.”
But Mike bowed again and then said, “If you would just listen, please, I want to pay you for the car, the full asking price. I have the cash right here.”
The Joe responded, “C’mon, man. A car that’s worth ten thousand dollars is nothing between you and me. Take the keys and drive, my brother!”
So Mike took out his money and counted out ten thousand dollars, the amount that Joe had declared as the used car’s value in front of all the people on the sidewalk. And Mike took the keys, and drove off, content with his purchase.
So what passage of scripture are we seeing mirrored in this little story? Genesis 23 in which Abraham negotiates for Sarah’s burial place. If you go read it you will see that I tried to copy the structure of the negotiation that takes place in that chapter. In our culture we do this in a very different way so it sounds very funny when placed into the style of an ancient culture.
But before we judge the ancients too harshly take a look at their approach to negotiation. There are some thing we might learn!
In the ancient context the negotiation isn’t just about getting the lowest price (the buyer’s interest) or the highest price (the seller’s interest). It’s also about the community. Everybody was present and say the exchange happen between them. In our system, financial dealings are almost always private. In our system there are also a lot of lawsuits. Abraham didn’t have to fear that he was taking advantage of the Hittites because the dealings were transparent to all. Nobody was going to complain later on that Abraham had acted deceitfully.
In our system we dicker over the price pretty boldly (other cultures are even bolder – if you’ve ever bartered at an Asian street market you will know what I mean). We write the prices of used cars in bold letters on the windshield.
Abraham’s negotiation starts off with respectful, face-saving statements. Note that Abraham wanted a good price but he started off by making a generous offer. Ephron, the owner of the field, knew its value, but offered it for free. Nobody thought this would happen but they were giving the other respect in the process. Do you feel respect when a used car salesman approaches you? Do you show them respect? In most cases we see them as trying to get the most money out of us.
Am I suggesting that the ancients “did it better” than we do? Not at all. Rather, when we read the Bible, look for the ways in which the ancient culture affects and informs the storyline. This will give you perspective about your own culture and how it influences your interpretation of the Scriptures. Cross-cultural missionaries develop this skill in all areas of life.
Another part of this story is Abraham’s cross-cultural maturity. When he started out he was fearful of other cultures and made bad decisions about them (see Genesis 12:12-13 and Genesis 20). He jumped to conclusions about their reaction to him. Now, as an old man who has lived cross-culturally for many years, we see him adopt the customs of the Hittites and act in a way that shows an understanding of their culture.
This is how you read the Bible like a missionary.