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Bible Talk 101: Double speak in the Bible: Literary design or proof of inconsistencies?
Bible Talk: Double talk in the Bible
This is the first article in a series that will investigate allegations that the Bible is not the true source of salvation for all people. Some of the topics may be controversial, but they will all look at misconceptions placed out there to mislead people and guide them away from the truth.
Today’s lesson is about double talk and why some say the Bible contradicts itself, when in fact it is the reader who misinterprets what is actually being said. We'll look at why the Bible uses such language and how it adds deeper meaning but requires a deeper understanding of the language, history and writing style of the times.
First off let’s look at this literary device that confuses so many. In some circles it is known as a double entendre which means a way of wording that is designed (purposefully) to be understood in either of two ways, thereby having a double meaning.
It was often used in early plays to suggest sexual meanings, such as “he was hard up” which could mean, he needed cash really badly or he wanted to have sex (he was hard as in had an erection) but could not afford to pay for it and could not keep a spouse because he had no money to support a partner.
A clever audience member would pick up on both meanings right away, whereas someone out of the loop, might not pick up on the sexual reference, and someone who was really slow to make connections might not even understand the first meaning either.
In a way, double speak takes a bit of intelligence and worldliness to pick up on and those who get both meanings are the exception rather than the norm.
The more subtle meaning of double talk is also protective of the speaker as it allows you to point out the flaws in governments and individuals without them really having a clue that you have done so.
One would think that the authors of the Bible would “tell it like it is” rather than use words with double meanings, but double meaning is so common in the Bible that Jesus used it himself and often had to pull his poor disciples to one side and explain to them exactly what he had said so that they would get it themselves!
Different meanings for the same word can cause confusion or hold greater meaning depending on how you view it
Words like cold, can mean sneezing, wheezing and coughing; cruelty – as in having a cold heart; freezing temperatures or having no feelings at all.
Coolness can also express calm personalities or someone who is admirable whom others want to mimic, or it could mean someone who is not that interested in what is gong on and trying to keep others at a distance from themselves emotionally.
When it is hot outside, coolness may be desired, but when it is chilly outside, coolness may be unpleasant. Cold ice cream is great, but cold hot chocolate is not, so that some words can mean the same as they are spoken, but be interpreted differently depending on the atmosphere, circumstances or mood of the audience.
The resulting ambiguity or uncertainty of meaning or intention can be confusing, so why does it exist in the Bible and is this proof, as some atheists claim, that the Bible contradicts itself?
To understand this, you would have to look at literary styles at the time of the writing of the Bible as well as oral story telling as it was passed on through the ages.
Different writing styles in the Bible do not mean the Bible is inconsistent, merely making use of literary styles to make a stronger impact on the reader
There are many different styles of writing in the Bible and this would make sense as it was written over a diverse time period by diverse people , even though they were all inspired by God.
Some biblical writings were not inspired by God, but were written as conjecture by people who wanted more than what the Bible offered, somewhat like tabloid magazines making up stories about stars and politicians to whet the appetite of those who wanted to know all the dirty details about the secret lives they could not see on camera.
Many of these writings were not allowed in the finished version of the Bible because they did not meet the standards set for them, while others truly did contradict the Bible and were felt to be false writings.. If you read them, you will find out why they were eliminated, but we’ll reserve that for another lesson. Suffice it to say these books, letters and chapters were said to be influenced by Gnosticism which was a religious sect which thought the way to God was not through grace, faith or good works, but through knowledge of what God was and knowledge of how God worked in the universe. If you are wise, you will reject the Gnostic teachings too, but again we will save that for another lesson.
It is generally agreed that the laws of the Old Testament were written in statutory style. We are commanded what to do and what not to do and given laws and told the consequences of breaking the laws – no double talk there!
Then there is the historical narrative style or prosaic (every day language). This is where the double talk first came into play as we are not commanded to believe in what they are saying, but given factual information that is to be interpreted according to the times in which they were written.
This is one reason why many modern day Christians claim that the Old Testament writings do not pertain to us today, but they do, the same way the history of our countries still affects who we are and why we do things the way we do them today.
This is why George Santayana’s quote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", still resonates with us today. This quote is also a form of double speak by the way! Santayana was not a religious man, but he appreciated the literary style of religious writings.
It is important not to focus more on the literary style of the Bible than on the writings themselves. For instance, the poetic style of Psalms and the Song of Solomon are brilliant works of literature, but they contain some very powerful insight into mans relationship with God and other human beings that would put Dear Abby’s advice to shame.
The book of Job is so powerful that it is hard to put it down once you start reading. It combines mystery and misery with false accusations, a long trial period, redemption and justification, plus we can all relate to having something we loved taken from us when we didn’t do anything to deserve having it taken away, yet readers of Job cannot help question why God would do something so awful to someone so faithful and it makes us wonder if we are all just puppets in God’s great stage.
The Bible does not give us the answers for this and again leaves us to determine for ourselves whether to continue to trust and follow God or turn away from him, yet further in the historical accounts of the Jews we see the dangers of turning away written clearly in both historical and poetical styles.
We are also given Proverbs, prophecy and genealogy in abundance and when Jesus comes along we are given parables which are clearly understood by those to whom he addresses the stories, but go over the heads of those who live a different lifestyle.
It's a bit like going to an office party with a spouse or friend where all they talk about is shop and you have no idea what is going on so feel left out of the loop.
Consider the phrase: “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” If you have never pushed or driven a cart that has a squeaky wheel, you might not understand that term at all, but what the term actually refers to is humans who make the most noise and make people feel the most uncomfortable, are usually the ones who get attention to placate them first before the more patient and quiet people who may end up suffering more because they did not speak louder in their defense and yet, it is still clear that being a squeaky wheel is not a desirable thing on either carts or in humans.
One must have a broad understanding of wheels and humanity to understand the statement and this is how much of the Bible is written which is why the Catholic Church felt that regular men did not have the intelligence or training to read and interpret the Bible on their own and should rely on trained clergy to do the job for them.
Of course this leads one to ask, “Why is it so difficult to understand the Bible” and perhaps the answer is that it was not meant to be read as a casual book in its entirety, but was meant along the lines of a textbook, where learned teachers helped guide you through the parts you could not quite understand.
This is one reason why Sunday School and Church and small group gatherings with a trained leader are so important when first reading the Bible. It was not designed as a work of literature, but a book of study, growth and learning.
Why the double meanings? Let’s look at three of them and we’ll get a little better idea of why they exist. We’ll take one from the Torah or Old Testament, one from the New Testament and one from Jesus himself.
Three examples of double talk in the Bible
Old Testament Allegory
2 Samuel 12: 1-9
The prophet Nathan goes to King David with an issue about a rich man who owned a lot of sheep and cattle. A visitor comes to greet him and instead of slaughtering one of his own animals, he takes the pet lamb of a poor man to slaughter to feed the guest. Nathan says that the poor man loved the little lamb as much as he loved his children and asks David what should be done to the rich man.
David says the man must be put to death and pay four times over what the lamb was worth. David says that since the man had no pity, no pity should be given to him.
Then Nathan reveals to David that he is the man. David sent the husband of Bathsheba into battle so that he would be killed and David could take his wife for his own.
Nathan goes on to say that David killed Uriah with the sword of the Ammonites, even though David did not directly kill Uriah, his actions led to his death for evil purposes.
The story is about a rich man who did wrong by the poor man, but in reality it is a story about David and was designed to let David condemn himself rather than have God or Nathan do it.
You can always put the prophet to death if you do not like what he is saying or deny that God is really angry with you for something you did, but when you condemn yourself and order no mercy be shown, it is pretty hard to get around that!
The allegory or double meaning served its purpose. In a sense, Nathan, under the guidance of the Lord, created a knotted noose and stood David in the center and David pulled the noose tight around his own neck so that there was no escaping from it. This is how the Bible uses double meaning, to ensnare those who would deny the authority and power of the word and teachings of God. It’s a pretty clever literary device and holds great conviction to those who ignore the moral teachings of the Bible as well.
The New Testament:
John 11:50 is one of those verses that actually has a triple meaning… yeah, it can get real complicated, real fast and again it is no wonder why people have trouble understanding the Bible, but again, it was not written for the common man, but for the educated and even then, it is easy to miss the meaning of something you can read hundreds of times and never pick up on the subtle nature that lies within.
So here it is: John 11:50 – “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
These words were reportedly spoken byJoseph Caiaphas a Jewish high priest who is said to have organized a plot to kill Jesus.
While Caiaphas meant that it was better for the Jews to kill Jesus so that the Romans would not destroy them, what he actually said fulfilled a Biblical prophesy, that the Messiah would die to save his people. The latter is referring more to a spiritual saving than a physical saving from Roman destruction of the nation, but as if that were not enough of an irony, there is more!
The theory that one man should die so that the others might be saved is actually being quoted by Caiaphas (reportedly again) from a story in Genesis 44 which tells the story of a silver cup placed by Joseph in the bag of Benjamin, his youngest brother. Joseph was thrown into a deep well by his brothers who were jealous of him, but he was found and rose to a position of authority when they came to him for help, not realizing he was their brother. Joseph wanted to keep Benjamin there with him so told the brothers that a silver cup was missing and the man that had it would be killed and the others would become his servants, but he was “lenient” and kept only Benjamin as his “slave” and let the others go letting “one man pay for the sins of the others.”
That’s a lot to take in, but if you have never read the Old Testament, then it would not make any sense to you. Again, you can’t just read the Bible piecemeal and expect to understand it indepth! It is a highly complicated and interwoven book.
Now for the last of our double talk:
Jesus is so full of double talk that even his disciples don’t understand him sometimes. Maybe he just wanted them to use their brains and figure it out on their own or maybe he was trying to protect himself and them by alluding to the fact that he was the Messiah and the son of God, which would have gotten him killed had he spoken it out loud.
In any event, many great men came to Jesus for advice. One of those men was Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Nicodemus wanted to know how one could know God.
Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again, but Nicodemus replies that he is too old to be born again and asks how can a grown man enter into his mother’s womb to be born again.
Jesus answers that no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the spirit. He goes on to say that flesh is born from flesh, but spirit or THE Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Nicodemus is still confused and rightfully so. Jesus says that he speaks of what he knows and testifies as to what he has seen, but when he tries to tell people plainly about how things are on earth (human flesh is born of human flesh and we are surrounded by amniotic fluid, thereby born of water, which also alludes to Baptism), they still do not believe him even though they can see it and know it for themselves, so how do they expect to know the things of God which cannot be seen by humans?
Jesus goes on to say that light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil and they fear that their deeds will be exposed by the light.
There is so much double talk here that Nicodemus turns away because he cannot make sense of it, yet in reality it makes perfect sense to those who understand.
Jesus is not hiding anything, he is speaking plainly. Man comes from water and is made of flesh but the things of God come from the spirit and the light and the light will chase away the darkness and allow those who believe to see the light and live in the spirit.
Later Jesus talks about how his body will be risen from the dead and tells his disciples to eat the bread, which represents his flesh and drink the wine which represents his blood.
Atheists use these teachings to claim that Christians worship a cannibalistic zombie risen from the grave. Christians know that the body cannot live without blood circulating nutrients and that the bread of life represents the nourishment of the soul and not the body and that we cannot live or survive for very long without following Christ’s teachings and sharing them with others.
Double talk in the Bible is not simply a literary form of entertainment though, it is there to teach and connect something we know (eating bread provides us with energy to keep our bodies alive) with something we don’t know or can’t see like the spirit that sustains our souls.
If you research the original words used in the Bible in the original language in which they were written, you discover even more word play that connects a difficult concept with a more easily understood one and makes a difficult passage easier to understand.
It is impossible to read the Bible as excerpts and interpret the meaning without knowing the context in which it was written, thereby we have an angry and jealous God in one chapter and a loving father who cares for his children in another, but it is the same God, the same way your earthly father or mother can be angry if you do something wrong, but loves you anyway and corrects you through punishment so that you will not continue to make the mistakes which can harm you or others.
The Bible is very complex and the double talk is not there to confuse or contradict. It is there to draw you closer and encourage you to open your mind and your heart and see things not as you think they should be, but as and they really are. A complex thing you cannot know is related to a simple thing you do know, but you have to make the connection or it has no meaning and this can be the hardest thing about studying the Bible. It really requires you to think and to study and to live the commandments, not just set them aside as outdated.
While you can always take the word of someone else as to what the Bible means, it is always a good idea to do some research on your own and to read a verse in the context of the chapters around it and with knowledge of the whole Bible not just individual snippets.
Next up on the agenda: why all paths lead to the one, but how this might not exactly be what you thought it would be! Warning, there is double talk involved in this one too!!