Having compiled a couple of sets relating to texts in the New Testament, I thought I’d take a look at some commonly-misunderstood texts from the Old Testament. These are discussed more fully in the Bible Study Notes.
Here’s a start:-
Genesis 18 – Abraham’s three visitors. Christian piety, both old and new, has often seen in the story of Abraham’s three visitors a picture of the three persons of the Trinity. This conjecture has been fueled by the celebrated icon of Rublev, which plays a key role in Richard Rohr’s recent (2016) book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. However, the passage itself distinguishes between the Lord and the two others, Gen 18:22; 19:1. The latter text actually defines the two others as ‘angels’. It is better, then, to regard the three as being the Lord (the ‘angel of the Lord’ / the preincarnate Christ?) accompanied by two angels. Heb 13:2 alludes to this story when it says that ‘some have entertained angels unawares’.
Genesis 37 – A transgender dreamcoat? It has been argued (well, imagined, really) that Joseph’s ostentatious coat might really have been a ‘princess dress’. Appeal is made to the one other OT use of the underlying word in 2 Sam 13:18 refers to a robe worn by a virginal princess. The blog writer admits that they [sic] don’t need to feel certain that Joseph’s robe was actually a ‘princess dress’. Rather, [they] just need to know that it was possible. As if to say: ‘You cis-gender people have plenty of role models in Scripture; let the rest of us have some too – David and Jonathan, Martha and Mary, Joseph…’ It is of some concern that this dubious theory about Joseph’s coat has gained some currency at the present time (late 2018). It has been reported that a Christian teacher has resigned because the A-level Religious Studies syllabus required her to teach exactly the same thing about the coat.
Joshua 10:12-15 – ‘So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped…The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.’ – The idea that the earth was halted in its orbit around the sun for a period of 24 hours has been buttressed by claims that this has been scientifically proven by NASA scientists. But these claims lack substance, and the text itself is amenable to less preposterous interpretations. See here.
Judges 6 – ‘Putting out a fleece’. Some Christians have thought thought that this episode in Gideon’s life warranted ‘testing’ God in similar sorts of ways. But ‘God’s positive response to Gideon’s repeated experiment with the fleece was a gracious concession to his weak faith rather than an indication that God was pleased with him for seeking reassurance in this way. Similar actions by Christians today should not be necessary, but God in his mercy sometimes responds to such calls for reassurance.’ (NBC)
1 Kings 19:12 – ‘A still small voice’. Influenced by its use in the famous hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’, this is a favourite text of those who favour a quietist or contemplative approach to prayer. If God speaks in a ‘still, small voice,’ then (it is argued), we must learning to be quiet before him, and to expect him to speak to us in whispers or even in silence. But it would be wrong, of course, to assume that because this was the way that God dealt with his prophet at this particular time, this is the way that he always deals with his people.
Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” In popular piety and Christian song, this injunction is often assumed to be a word of comfort, and a call to quiet contemplation. In context, however, it ‘is not in the first place comfort for the harassed but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world: “Quiet!” – in fact, “Leave off!”‘ (Kidner, who adds that it resembles the command to the raging sea).
Psalm 105:14-15 – ‘He let no one oppress them; he disciplined kings for their sake, saying, “Don’t touch my chosen ones! Don’t harm my prophets!”’ This phrase ‘touch not my anointed’ is often thrown around in ‘prosperity gospel’ circles to warn against the dangers involved in criticising God’s ‘anointed’ leaders. The text is about harm, not about criticism. Teachers of God’s word should be above reproach. If they fall into false teaching or immoral living, the alarm must be sounded. See here.
Proverbs 22:6 – ‘Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.’ This is one of the most quoted, yet most misunderstood, of the biblical proverbs. It is often taken as a guarantee of the success of early training of children. But not a few parents find that, despite their best efforts at bringing up their child ‘in the way he should go’, when he is old he does turn from it. Feelings of guilt ensue (‘we failed in training our child’). But this is to misunderstand how proverbs work. A proverb communicates general, not absolute, truth. Accordingly, this proverb should be understood as an encouragement to set children off in the right direction, rather than as a promise that if parents do so, success is assured.
Proverbs 29:18 ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish…’ (AV). As Jared Wilson remarks, this verse is widely misunderstood and misapplied in the evangelical world. With it we baptise and bless our dreams, our plans, our ‘visions’. Quoting the entire verse in the ESV helps us to see the true meaning and intent of this proverb: ‘Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.’ Put simply, ‘a nation’s well-being depends on obedience to divine revelation.’ (EBC)
Isaiah 9:6 – ‘Wonderful Counsellor.” It is anachronistic to regard this title as suggesting something akin to modern psychotherapy (this mistake is made by Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling, art. ‘Counseling and psychotherapy: Biblical themes’). The ‘counsel’ here is that of a wise ruler or judge, rather than that of a psychologist or therapist.
Isaiah 14 – The fall of Satan.
Isaiah 55:11 – God’s word will never return void.
Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” In context, this wonderful promise was given to his people during their time exile. The fulfilment of the promise to restore Israel’s fortunes would not be seen by the present generation, but rather their children or even their grandchildren (v10). The promise is framed in terms that demand an earnest seeking and praying to the Lord (v12f). For these reasons, it would be quite wrong to apply this verse glibly and indiscriminately to ourselves today.