The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

May 31, 2016

From Narrative Text to Preaching: Some Thoughts on Abraham Kuruvilla's "World in Front of the Text"

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending (and presenting a paper) at a regional ETS meeting in Grand Rapids, MI. One of the plenary speakers was Abraham Kuruvilla, from Dallas Theological Seminary. Since I teach Hermeneutics twice a year (Spring and Summer School), I was very intrigued by a concept he explored, and ended up sharing it with my students. That concept is "WIFTT," or "The World in Front of the Text." (Though I haven't read it yet, I believe Kuruvilla explores this idea in his book Privilege the Text).

I believe this concept Kuruvilla develops is extremely helpful for bridging the gap from narrative text to practical outworking in the Christian life. Basically, Kuruvilla challenges us to ask, "What is the ideal world implied by this text." In the presentation I heard, Kuruvilla cited two examples: In Aesop's fable of the dog and his bone (where the dog looks into a river and sees another "dog," his own reflection with a bone, and barks it at), the "idea world" of Aesop is "one where nobody leaves present blessing for the "lust of the ephemeral." Similarly, in a situation where you step on your friend's foot and he yells "you're on my foot," the "ideal world" of your friend is "one where friends do not go around causing pain to one's lower extremeties."

This concept of the "ideal world" (the "world in front of the text") becomes immensely helpful in handling descriptive texts, i.e., biblical narrative. Christians are all to quick to take a verse out of context, or wish to emulate a biblical character, without asking, according to the narrative, does this event or character portray God's ideal world? I will stress, sometimes the narrative is giving you what is not part of God's "ideal world."

Three examples (my own) from Judges:

1. Gideon and the fleece.
Now, I don't have a problem "laying out a fleece" to a certain degree if Christians are truly unsure of what God's will is and humbly seeking it (though even this can be problematic). However, read Judges 6:36-40 and ask yourself this: is God's ideal world one where we consistently demand "proofs" from God about His will when He has already explicitly stated what it is? Now  don't get me wrong, Gideon's faith is exemplary, and I would say, borrowing Kuruvilla's language, "God's ideal world is one where His servants manifest faith in His Word." However, not every part of Gideon's life lives up to that ideal. In other words, we must understand that biblical narrative often tells us what's the opposite of God's "ideal world" just as often. Indeed, the second half of Gideon's story (which, sadly, I don't believe I've ever heard preached) shows us how not to live (see Daniel Block's excellent New American Commentary for the best treatment on this story, and the following stories).

2. Jephthah's "devotion"
Granted, per Hebrews 11:32, there is a part of Jephthah's story that does exist in "God's ideal world," namely his faith in defeating Israel's enemies. However, Judges is not about "Israel's mighty heroes" so much as "God's deliverance of Israel through imperfect instruments because of His grace." Jephthah is a case in point. In God's ideal world, men and women do not make rash vows (Prov 20:25b), and they certainly do not perform human sacrifices (Judges 11:31, 39, "will offer it up for a burnt offering" . . . "did with her according to his vow" make it pretty clear that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter). Jephthah is not a role model; despite his faith, in general his actions do not belong in God's ideal world.

3. Judges 18-21
The "darker" parts of Scripture are just as inspired as the happier parts, and they are there to teach us a lesson. The lesson of the last four chapters of Judges is simply this: "There was no king in Israel, and look what happens when there isn't!" In God's ideal world, men and women do have a king, and that King is Yahweh Himself! Consequently, virtually everything that happens in these chapters does not belong in "God's ideal world," and pastors need to preach these chapters as the sad and horrible consequences of what happens when we fail to make God our King and His world our world (Block's commentary does an excellent job in pointing out that it is the women, especially, who suffer in these chapters--in other words, when Yahweh is not King, men demean and abuse women).

So some food for thought. Next time you look for the application in a text, ask yourself, with Dr. Kuruvilla, what is "The World in front of the text?" I.e., what is "God's ideal world?" It may be that the text you are reading is meant to portray the opposite, namely a world where "everybody does what is right in their own eyes." Don't emulate that type of world!