March 3, 2017

Up on a rooftop

Balcony in the sun

The Church of the Brethren has placed scripture at the center of its faith and practice. From the very beginning, individuals gathered together to read the Bible and apply it to their lives in practical ways. We believe that following Jesus faithfully must begin with the Bible, especially the New Testament, in its understanding of Jesus’ life, teaching, and death (Annual Conference statement on “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice,” 1998).

The Gospels and the letters of the New Testament demonstrate how these early Christians tried to make sense of their newfound faith and its practical implications for living with others, both within the church and the wider world. While some things seem rather straightforward, others are more complicated. Even 2 Peter 3:15-16 bluntly states that some things in Paul’s letters are “hard to understand.” (Can I get an “amen”?)

We recognize that the Bible requires interpretation. Most of us read it in translation (English, Spanish, or some other modern language) rather than in its original languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. There is always interpretation in moving from one language to another.

Even if we read it in the original languages, we must make interpretive decisions about the meaning of words and concepts from the ancient setting into our own. All translation is interpretation. Whether the languages are ancient or modern, as readers of God’s Word we are constantly interpreting as we move from ancient texts written millennia ago to individuals and communities in very different cultural contexts than our own. How can we successfully bridge this gap between us and them, so that we may follow Jesus faithfully?

There are a number of productive approaches that we may use, and I want to highlight a few, beginning with an example from Deuteronomy.

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it” (Deuteronomy 22:8).

In courses that I teach I often use this verse, buried in seemingly endless laws, to begin discussion of the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians. This verse is part of a larger section of miscellaneous laws in Deuteronomy 21-22 covering issues of stray domesticated livestock, clothing, crops, and sexual relationships. This section cannot simply be ignored by Christians, as is often done with regulations in the law involving animal sacrifice, ritual, or ceremony (understood in the New Testament to be unnecessary now in light of Christ’s death) and its restrictions about food laws (understood to be no longer binding on Christians according to several New Testament passages). There is no overt reason to dismiss this law as irrelevant. So, how should we understand it?

First, we should try to understand the words being used in the verse itself. The Hebrew word ma’akeh is translated here as “parapet” (NRSV, NIV, NASB, ESV), “railing,” (NLT), and “battlement” (KJV). It comes from a Hebrew root meaning “pressure” and this is the only place the word is used in the Old Testament.

So, a good first question after consulting multiple translations and a Hebrew dictionary: “What is a parapet?” Wikipedia (the “source of all knowledge,” as I joke with my students) states: “A parapet is a barrier which is an extension of the wall at the edge of a roof, terrace, balcony, walkway or other structure.” states: “any low protective wall or barrier at the edge of a balcony, roof, bridge, or the like.”

The second question: “So, why do I need one on my roof, especially since no one is ever up there?” The answer comes from ancient Israelite architecture: Homes were constructed with flat roofs that were covered by a canopy intended as extra living space (see Judges 16:27; 2 Samuel 11:2, 16:22; Acts 10:9), especially with the first floor of the house including space for animals. This wall prevented someone from falling off the flat usable space, and thereby being injured or killed when hitting the ground below. This design was common throughout ancient Near East cultures.

This historical and cultural knowledge reveals a humanitarian principle: People must maintain their property in such a way as to prevent someone else from getting hurt. In our contemporary society, many communities have a similar ordinance requiring swimming pools to be surrounded by a fence to prevent accidental drowning. However, at least in North America, we do not have stipulations requiring parapets or short walls on rooftops. Why? Because we don’t typically have flat roofs used in this way. Our culture and biblical culture are not the same when it comes to architecture.

A third question: “Should Christians observe this command?” Or put directly, “Should Christians build parapets on their roofs?” I would say “no.” This command about parapets is a culturally conditioned regulation.

However, the reason for the law is worth pondering: humanitarian concern for another’s wellbeing (or, their shalom). So, if we are to be faithful to this command, we shouldn’t build a parapet on our roofs (simply doing what the text seems to require, and rather clearly). Instead, the command requires us to live in ways that promote the well- being of others or work against their harm. This is also consistent with the commands to assist wandering livestock to prevent them from being hurt in preceding verses (Deuteronomy 22:1-4).

The command is culturally specific, but the principle is timeless. Our responsibility to be aware of how our actions and lives affect others is also consistent with Jesus’ teachings. The principle behind this seemingly mundane command fits well with the actions and teachings of Jesus, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, a text that Brethren have traditionally prioritized within the Gospels themselves. Who would have thought that architecture could be theological?

This example from Deuteronomy illustrates several of the productive means of interpreting the Bible.

First, we read the text, taking seriously what it says and trying to understand the actual words being used. We identified terms in the text we did not understand or might want to understand more fully, especially as it might affect how we interpret the command. We looked at definitions and occurrences in other parts of the Old Testament and used comparative evidence from other cultures to give ourselves some context.

Second, in addition to linguistics, we looked to historical context (architecture in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East) for additional information. We noted some instances in the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) that reflect a similar understanding (that is, people using flat roofs).

Third, we noticed the literary context of this verse, placing it within a larger set of laws on various topics and recognizing the similarity in purpose to some of them. Both the historical and the literary contexts allowed us to see a larger principle at work beyond the specific command.

Fourth, we looked for connections to other parts of scripture, particularly the life and teachings of Jesus, that might aid us in interpretation. With all these things in mind, we made theological claims about this command, about how it both is and is not relevant for Christians, especially those living in places without flat roofs such as North America, today. We concluded that the principle behind the stipulation transcends this specific manifestation.

This is a simple (and not controversial, I hope) example, but it illustrates many of the approaches to interpretation that we may use productively in attempting to understand more difficult or controversial topics and texts. Situating the biblical text in its ancient context, both historical and literary, is extremely beneficial in helping to understand its meaning for its ancient audience and also for contemporary readers. While knowing Hebrew and Greek is certainly helpful in reading the biblical texts, comparing multiple English (or Spanish, or other) translations can be a useful approach to understand the many possible ways of representing them in modern languages.

When we encounter things in the Bible that we do not fully comprehend or that pose questions, we should engage in the hard work of trying to make sense of such complexities or ambiguities and to answer the questions being raised. We must not shy away from asking hard questions of the Bible and of our faith. We should also not be afraid of the answers that we find, even when they challenge our preconceived ideas and require us to adapt to new information discovered as a result of the good work of interpretation. This does not change the Bible, but it changes our understanding of it, and in the process we may be transformed.

Annual Conference statements from 1979 (“Biblical Inspiration and Authority”) and 1998 (“The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice”) both emphasize the value of historical and literary approaches to interpreting the Bible, while recognizing the limits of such methods. Our goals are to understand the inspired Word of God and to gain insight in applying it to our lives, so that we may follow Jesus faithfully as a result. As we practice biblical interpretation together, I hope that we may be drawn closer to God and to one another rather than farther apart.

Steven Schweitzer is academic dean and professor at Bethany Theological Seminary. He has provided leadership for Bible studies at recent Annual Conferences and spoken at district and continuing education events across the denomination. He and his family attend Cedar Grove Church of the Brethren in Southern Ohio District.