The Bible sometimes leaves us with as many questions as answers. Some passages make statements that are not clearly explained and arouses our curiosity. Let’s look at a couple of very well known stories in Genesis.
With little in the way introduction, a talking snake appears in Genesis 3 who successfully deceives Eve. We aren’t told how he got into the garden. There is no mention of how bizarre it is that a snake can speak. We aren’t explicitly told who the snake is. In fact, nowhere else in the entire Bible are we clearly told who the snake was. There are hints that it was Satan (there is little doubt it could have been anyone else), but nowhere is the snake’s identity spelled out for us. Why would the text leave us hanging like this?
In the next chapter, Genesis 4, we see Cain and Abel bringing offerings to God. God accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. The author of Genesis doesn’t explain why one offering was pleasing to God and the other was not. Many have speculated that Cain’s offering was rejected because it wasn’t an animal. Perhaps this is so, but Leviticus 2 is all about grain offerings to God. Since God later commanded grain offerings, it is far from certain that God was displeased because Cain’s offering came from the ground. What’s the deal?
Why the ambiguity?
There are two important considerations to reflect upon when we encounter vague texts similar to these.
(1) Where is the text leading us?
First, recognize that for whatever reason, the author of the book is not interested in focusing attention on the gap or ambiguity that he has created in the text. These may be questions that seem important, but it wasn’t the main concern of the author. This should prompt us to recognize that the author wants to focus our attention elsewhere.
The author of Genesis isn’t interested in the identity of the snake; he is interested in what the snake said. What the snake did and said is far more important than who he is. How did Eve, and then Adam, respond to what the snake said? That is where we need to focus our attention.
Likewise, the author isn’t interested in answering questions about what things are proper to offer to God. Where does the text focus our attention instead? It directs our attention to how Cain reacted to God’s rejection of his offering. This is the important thing we should focus on.
(2) An intentional enigma?
These gaps of information leave us feeling that the story is incomplete. It seems as if the author has omitted important information just to leave us wanting more. For most of us it never enters our thoughts that the author might have been intentionally vague. But, this is exactly what the writers of Scripture have done. They have put gaps in the story leaving us with unanswered questions. Are they trying to mess with us? Yes!
The Bible is filled with meditation literature. The whole point is to get you to think, to ponder all of the possibilities, to discuss it with others, to meditate upon the text. Gaps and ambiguities are devices that biblical narrators use to...
“layer multiple meanings within a single text. Perhaps more than any other techniques, gaps and ambiguities offer the reader room to collaborate with the narrator in the creation of the story. But that means, as we shall see, that they also permit different readers to realize the story in different ways. In other words, the narrator supplies the reader with the potential for many variant stories; and it is ultimately the reader who determines which of those variants to actualize.”
Jerome T. Walsh, OId Testament Narrative: A Guide to Interpretation, pp. 65-66
Meditation literature should cause you to meditate!
Defining successful Bible study
Most of us feel that we haven’t been entirely successful in our study unless we walk away with a new and concrete fact to add to our knowledge. If we didn't learn something that we can readily apply to our current situation we may feel that we have failed to grasp the text.
Learning new facts and information from the Bible is important and is one success factor, but it is not the only one. Success is also measured by how well you have reflected upon an ambiguity in the text. When such meditation occurs the story shapes and influences us in ways we do not immediately recognize. This meditation upon the text is exactly what the author wanted to happen. This is also a successful Bible study.
Where there is an ambiguity, pay attention to what the text specifically focuses on. Don’t miss the main point while attempting to derive the meaning of the ambiguous portion of the text. Be aware of what the text is highlighting and where it is directing your attention. But also ponder the ambiguous portion of the text. Discuss it with other disciples. Meditate upon it and allow it shape your character.