As I have read and preached on some Psalms this summer, I’ve appreciated the importance of trying to practice intercultural sensitivity in reading the Bible (and in all of life).
I am working on a course on intercultural counseling this summer, one purpose of which has been to help build intercultural competence and sensitivity.
The readings, lectures, and class discussions have reminded me of the important truth that reading and interpreting the Bible is an exercise–whether we realize it or not–in intercultural relations.
Intercultural Sensitivity=Better Bible Reading
The culture, values, and practices, for instance, of ancient Israel differ from those of 21st century North America in a number of ways. If I read a passage with only an awareness of the cultural values I carry with me, I very well may miss an important truth or robust reading of a text. Or I may map a “truth” or value judgment onto the text that the author didn’t necessarily intend to be there. (I’m not discounting the potential value of so-called reader-response criticism, but I am suggesting we seek to avoid a monocultural or culturally hegemonic interpretation of a text, if possible.)
In a 2008 article for Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (“Relational Spirituality and Transformation: Risking Intimacy and Alterity”), Steven J. Sandage, Mary L. Jensen, and Daniel Jass write:
Since hermeneutical understanding is always intercultural and contextual, cultural self-awareness is a prerequisite to responsibly interpreting Scripture and spiritual experience.
I mentioned here how the idea of intercultural sensitivity helped me read Psalm 23 in a fuller way. The same thing happened as I prepared to preach on Psalm 46 this week. I got a little extra help this time from a Bible atlas I’ve been reading.
Psalm 46: God Is Our Refuge
Psalm 46 begins:
1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
How should we understand the scenario the Sons of Korah (writers of this Psalm) describe?
The sons of Korah don’t just paint a picture of tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. A number of commentators point out here that the effective merging of the land (mountains) and waters (sea) harken back to the pre-creation state of chaos that existed before God separated the land from the waters, bringing order to life. The sons of Korah, then, describe a sort of uncreation.
But even in the midst of an envisioned chaos and uncreation of the world (!), “God is our refuge and strength.”
Verse 2 says, “though the earth give way,” or, though the land give way. Here is where an interculturally aware read of the Psalm helps it to come alive even more profoundly. (The below was inspired, in part, by Paul H. Wright’s Rose Then And Now Bible Map Atlas® With Biblical Background And Culture.)
Life for Israel: Location, Location, Location
Before there was such a thing as real estate, life for Israel already was location, location, location.
The topography or shape of the land had a lot to do with whether a given area would be suitable for habitation. Mountains, in particular, provided a sort of natural buffer of protection against enemies… a hiding place to run to, if need be. Water, of course, was necessary for life and the production of crops.
The congregation of Israelites who would sing this Psalm understood their identity as intricately tied to the land. The land—which God had given them—was part and parcel of his covenant relationship with them. It was part of his blessing, a sign of his love. If we don’t have this land, how can we really call ourselves God’s people? This is still a live question for many.
Yet even if we were to lose this fundamental aspect of our identity, the Psalm declares, even if the world were to be uncreated and fall back into chaos, “we will not fear.”
The congregation can still say—can still sing, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
Given how important land was to the people of Israel and the construction of their collectivistic identity, this is an amazing affirmation of trust in God.
Intercultural Insight from a Bible Atlas
To start, it is perhaps appropriate to define a few aspects of location that have impacted living conditions in the lands of the Bible over time. The building blocks of biblical geography include the following….
He lists topography, climate, and available resources. He goes on:
The particular mix of elements such as these plays a significant role in determining whether any given plot of ground can support permanent settlements and how large and well-established these might have become, or if the land is better suited for herding or desert lifestyles.
Here’s the intercultural piece, which I so appreciated:
Specific geographical realities have also helped to shape cultural values and norms that defined individual societies. For instance, protocols of cooperation, hospitality and defense that functioned well in arid, shepherding societies in biblical times developed differently than did those that attained to urban centers located in fertile areas, or to sailors who frequented foreign ports-of-call. And aspects of geography gave rise to specific images that biblical writers used to describe God and the people of ancient Israel.
Understanding the value of land to the people singing Psalm 46–it was an essential component of their identity and experience of God’s love for them!–makes the affirmation of trust in this Psalm even more remarkable.
Though the sons of Korah envision a scenario in which their land is gone–having slipped into the ocean–they call on the congregation to praise God still.
The above is adapted from a portion of a sermon I preached yesterday. Rose Publishing has sent me the Wright atlas for review purposes. A full review is forthcoming. You can find the atlas in the following places: Rose Publishing, Amazon (affiliate link), Carta (as Greatness, Grace, and Glory: Carta’s Atlas of Biblical Biography), and Eisenbrauns (same title as Carta).