The Bible: Then and Now

We, like the ancient Israelites, are on the brink of our promised land.

Hyveth Williams

A little learning is a dangerous thing,” wrote Alexander Pope. “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

This bit of verse by a eighteenth-century British poet can apply to Christianity today because there’s so much talking and so little learning in Christianity, especially when it comes to Scripture. That’s a dangerous thing, because teachers and preachers assume that their congregations are familiar with everything read, preached, or taught from Scripture.

For example, preachers often say “You’re familiar with the story . . .” or “You remember the verse . . .” as if everyone knows what’s being spoken about. Worse, listeners aren’t given the opportunity to ask questions, in order not to feel or look foolish. Some don’t ask, and we don’t tell. Thus we’ve inadvertently created a culture in which a little learning is a dangerous thing.

We, like the ancient Israelites, are on the brink of our Promised Land.

Let’s begin with a few facts about the Bible. Are you aware that the names of the first five books of the Bible we know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not their original names? When these five books, originally recorded in Hebrew, were translated into Greek, their names were summarized into one word to capture the essence of what that book was about. But in Hebrew these books were named for the first words in the book.

The first book, called Genesis by Greek translators, focuses on the origin of all things. In Hebrew the name of the first book is bereshit, meaning “in the beginning,” the first words in the first chapter.

Greek translators, concluding that the second book of the Bible was about the Israelite’s escape from Egypt, called it Exodus. But in Jewish Scripture it’s called Shemot, “names,” a reference to the first verse: “These are the names of the sons of Israel,” referring to the sons of Jacob who went with him into Egypt.

Skipping down to Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible, Greek translators called it “copy,” or “repetition,” because it represents the second giving of the law by Moses. But its Hebrew name is devarim, “words,” an appropriate title because it begins with “These are the words” that Moses spoke to all Israel.

Deuteronomy’s power is that it is essentially Moses’ last will and testament. He recounts God’s leading and His instruction as the children of Israel prepare to enter and occupy the Promised Land. Moses’ imperative is stark: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. . . . Love the Lord your God, . . . walk in obedience to him, and . . . keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess” (Deut. 30:15, 16).

We, like the ancient Israelites, are on the brink of our Promised Land, and the words of the Bible—Old and New Testaments—challenge us to be all in for Jesus. While it’s interesting to know how our Scriptures came to be, we can succeed only as we believe and practice “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).

Hyveth Williams is a professor at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.