Through Local Eyes
Last time I shared three of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned from Arab culture. Perhaps I’ll share more another time. Today my friend Mark encouraged me to share a few of the ways that living in the Middle East has made the Bible come alive to me. The parables of Jesus especially jump off the page when one understands the cultural context which is still so much a part of the Middle East. The first example will be longer but I’ll include a two shorter ones too.
1. Luke 11:5-13
5 And he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples], “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
As a westerner reading this passage, the first thing I think strange is that anyone would go to visit his friend at midnight. Who would do that? Come spend time in the hot Middle Eastern sun and you will quickly realize that walking long distances during the day was often not an option. As a result, people also were more apt to take an afternoon nap when the sun was its hottest and then to stay up late when the evening air cooled off. This is one of my favorite things in Jordan. No matter how hot the day may be, in the evening there is inevitably a nice breeze and one can sit on his/her porch until very late enjoying the company of friends and family.
The second thing that strikes my western mind as odd is that the fellow at the door asks for three loaves of bread. Only one meal in the Middle East will show you that bread is the most fundamental element of any meal. Especially in Jesus’ day, one would have used bread instead of a fork or spoon. It was essential. And in a village where there may have been just one oven to bake bread for all the families, you knew who had baked bread that day. It would have been unthinkable to set before your guest a partial piece of pita or stale bread…no, you would go to your neighbor who had just baked and ask for a few loaves.
Someone in the west might argue, “Couldn’t they wait until morning? Wouldn’t they be tired? Why not just go to sleep?” But in Middle Eastern culture, if you are in my home I must offer you something to eat and drink and you must accept. For either of us to refuse would be unthinkable.
Now, from my western mind, the man inside the home is completely justified to not get up and give his neighbor the bread. But that’s my twenty-first century American mindset. Again, in this part of the world, especially in that day, if the man refuses to get up and give his friend the bread, the seeker would go to his neighbor and say, “Can you believe Abu Fulan over there? He wouldn’t even give me three loaves of bread…and his wife just baked this morning!” And by morning, everyone in the village would know and the man inside would be shamed. His reputation would be established as a stingy, inhospitable, rude, inconsiderate so-and-so.
In verse 8, Jesus says, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” Kenneth Bailey in his excellent work Poet and Peasant (Eerdmans, 1976) points out that the word translated “persistence” means literally “persistence in avoiding shame” (pp. 125ff). In a Middle Eastern culture where avoiding shame is the highest virtue, the parable becomes clear. The man inside will get up to help the man asking, not because they are friends, but because he will persist in avoiding shame. He will do the right thing and he will do more (whatever he needs).
And now the parable makes sense…we can approach God and knock on his door in prayer knowing that his character is such that he will do everything in his unlimited power to avoid shame. Therefore we should ask, seek, and knock because it will be given, we will find, and it will be opened to us.
11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? None of us would do that to our children we love…in the same way – and even more! God will not do that to us! We can pray knowing that his character is perfect; he will do what is right! 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Reading this parable in its cultural context makes it come to life. I love that my Jordanian and Arab friends can read this parable and understand its context innately.
2. Jeremiah 2:12-13
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, 13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.
Water is a precious commodity here in the desert. Fresh water especially so. But since springs are often hard to come by people and communities often collect water in cisterns (or nowadays, dams!). This is good and helpful for the summer months when it doesn’t rain and springs run dry, but the water from cisterns isn’t fresh; it often tastes funny; and it certainly smells funny! If you had the choice between a fountain of living water or a cistern, you would always choose the freely flowing fountain of water.
But God’s people had committed two evils. They had left God, the source of pure, living water and run after manmade thoughts and false gods (broken cisterns that leaked!). Unthinkable…yet something we as humans do far, far too often. But living in the Middle East where water is such an issue, the passage comes to life!
3. Jude 1:12
Jude writes about false teachers who were trying to infect the church with their false doctrines. He speaks harshly about them and calls them…waterless clouds, swept along by winds…
Growing up in the Midwestern United States, rain could come nine months out of the year. The other three it was so cold, we would get snow. When I saw clouds on the horizon, more often than not I hoped they wouldn’t bring rain. I wasn’t opposed to rain, but I took it for granted. It rained a lot. If I had a picnic planned or just wanted to be outside playing, I wanted waterless clouds.
Living in Jordan where it might rain between November and April – and even then there might be long periods between rains – I have learned that rain is a precious commodity. When I see clouds in the sky, I get excited because it might rain! Waterless clouds are incredibly disappointing. They offer so much promise that the land will be nourished but then they bring nothing of value. They are a waste.
Jude is telling us that false teachers are like waterless clouds. They promise much – teaching that is edifying and useful – but they deliver nothing. They do not bring life, but death. For someone in the Middle East this is a vivid picture and one that continues to haunt me since the first time its full weight hit me.