by Robby Galatty
The difference between Eastern and Western thought impacts how we understand the Bible. One key difference between the more dynamic way of thinking of Hebrew culture and our more abstract approach today, is to say that Hebrews focused not simply on how a thing looks but on describing its purpose—how it is used. We witness this when we read the accounts recorded in the Bible. The Bible rarely describes people, places, or things visually, like we are used to doing in our cultural context in the West. The Jews were not interested in “photographic appearances of things or persons. In the entire Old Testament, we do not find a single description of an objective photographic appearance. The Israelites give us their impressions of the thing that is perceived.”[i]
When God instructed Noah to construct the ark, he outlined detailed dimensions of the vessel, but he never described the finished product. Notice the description in Genesis 6:14–15 (CSB): ”Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and outside. This is how you are to make it: The ark will be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high.”
Hebrews are concerned with how something is created and developed and the purpose that it serves. Usefulness trumps aesthetics.
Similarly, the plan for the traveling tabernacle in the wilderness consisted of painstaking details in constructing the altar, curtains, and veil, yet from those details, we are left clueless as to what it actually looked like. Exodus 25:10–11 (CSB) provides the outline: “They are to make an ark of acacia wood, forty-five inches long, twenty-seven inches wide, and twenty-seven inches high. Overlay it with pure gold; overlay it both inside and out. Also make a gold molding all around it.”
The physical appearance of the structure appears simply not to be a priority to the Israelites. Boman describes the thought process of a Hebrew as he or she views a structure:
When an Israelite sees an edifice, his consciousness is at once concerned with the idea of how it was erected, somewhat like a housewife who cannot be satisfied with the taste of a cake but is particularly interested in what its ingredients are and how it was made. . . . The Israelite also, when he confronts other objects such as buildings, is interested in them not for their appearance but first for their use; they are for him tools or implements of human or divine actions. . . .[ii]
Descriptions are provided to help readers understand what purpose something serves and how it fits with other objects, not to recreate it visually.
Years ago I heard author and teacher Ray Vander Laan illustrate the juxtaposition between dynamic (Hebraic) thought and abstract (Western) thought by asking a simple question: “What is God?”[iii] If you were to go to an American seminary and ask the students there this question, you would likely hear answers like this: “God is righteous; God is holy; God is love; God is wise.” You would certainly hear several references to his omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. If, on the other hand, you traveled to Jerusalem to pose the same question to students at a Yeshiva, an Orthodox Jewish Seminary for learning in Jerusalem, the students would answer that same question quite differently. Their response would be something like this: “God is a rock,” “God is living water,” “God is an eagle’s wing,” or “God is freshly baked bread.”
The point is not that one description is better than another. The Bible describes in both ways, of course. My point is that we have cultural habits and patterns that predispose us toward one way of thinking, and we may need a corrective to grasp aspects of God that we have missed or neglected. The benefit is that these biblical truths can help us grow in our faith. Just picture in your mind what you think of when you hear words like love, holy, wise, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. If you’re like me, your mind’s eye pictures the words or the letters.
Now picture the responses given by students from the Yeshiva: living water, a rock, an eagle’s wing, and freshly baked bread. What do you see? Or maybe a better question is, what do you feel? If you linger long enough, you may be able to smell the bread coming from that hot stone oven. Hebraic culture embraces this more dynamic understanding and concrete, descriptive language.[iv] By learning to develop this kind of dynamic understanding, you will begin to see God’s Word in High Definition.
[i] Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, 74.
[ii] Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, 76.
[iii] Ray Vander Laan preached this at a Bible conference in Baton Rouge in 2007.
[iv] For a further explanation of this concept, see my Rediscovering Discipleship, 45.
*This is an excerpt from “The Forgotten Jesus” by Robby Gallaty. You can pick up a copy here: http://a.co/4QrpEJF
Robby Gallaty is the Senior Pastor of Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, TN. He was radically saved out of a life of drug addiction on November 12, 2002. He is also the author of Unashamed: Taking a Radical Stand for Christ, Creating an Atmosphere to HEAR God Speak, and Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples, Firmly Planted, Rediscovering Discipleship.