Orientalisms of the Bible

(Part One)

The word 'orientalism' refers to passages in the Bible that are descriptive of Eastern culture. Those of us from Western cultures (Europe and the Americas), may not understand these passages, or even misinterpret them because we don't understand the culture of the times in the Bible. In this teaching, we will look at five examples of orientalisms, and see how an understanding of the culture helps us understand the Word of God.

1. Treasures in Heaven.

Matthew 6: 19, 20, 21 -- Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

These verses are not really talking about what to do with your money or jewels, or your stocks and bonds. The common Western interpretation is this: Do not hoard your money and goods while here on earth. Moths and rust will get to your goods, and thieves will break in and steal your money. Rather, tithe, and live by the principles stated in the Word of God, so that you will lay up a store of treasures in heaven.

The Eastern interpretation has a deeper meaning. Treasure = Thoughts. We are urged to keep our thoughts on spiritual things rather than on earthly things. The moth and rust represent fear and worry. If we think about earthly matters, fear and worry will creep in, and we will experience defeat and frustration. The 'thieves' represent 'doubt', which steal our thoughts. But if we think on spiritual matters, there is no doubt, worry, or fear. Here is the literal translation of the above verses:

Matthew Chapter 6: 19, 20, 21 -- "Let not your thoughts be centered in material things where fears and worries breed defeat and frustration, and where the doubts break through and steal your thoughts:  But let your thoughts be centered in the Spirit, where neither fear nor worry breeds defeat and frustration, and where doubts do not break through and steal your thoughts. For where your thoughts are, there will your heart be also."

The mind is a doorkeeper to the heart.

Proverbs 23: 7 -- For as he thinketh in his heart, so is  he:  Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is  not with thee.

By controlling your mind/thoughts, you guard your heart. The church epistles also exhort us to think on spiritual things.

Romans 8: 5, 6 -- For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is  life and peace.

To think on spiritual thoughts is life and peace, and that is a true treasure.


2. Fear and Trembling.

Philippians 2: 12 -- Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

When we read this verse, we think we have to 'work out' our own salvation -- we have to work for it, fearful and trembling. Yet this contradicts the Word in other verses.

Ephesians 2: 8, 9 -- For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves:  it is  the gift of [from] God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.

The usage of 'work out' means to demonstrate or manifest our salvation [wholeness]. Our actions should show that we are saved. And we don't do it with 'fear and trembling' which is King James English, but with 'reverence and obedience'. We know we do not need to work for salvation, by praying a certain length of time, or suffering a prescribed amount for our sins. So once we understand this verse, it no longer contradicts the other verses we have learned.

What Philippians, Matthew, and II Corinthians is telling us is that our actions should demonstrate that we are children of God.

Philippians 2: 12, 13 -- Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [reverence and obedience]. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his  good pleasure.

Matthew 5: 16 -- Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

II Corinthians 3: 2 -- Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men:

You should be able to see how Philippians 2: 12 fits in perfectly with the rest of the Word of God. We have been saved by grace (not by works!), so let us show it by our actions:  kindness, love, patience, peace, honesty, and more.


3. Double for Sin.

Isaiah 40: 2 -- Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned:  for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

This verse seems to contradict itself. In the first half, Jerusalem's iniquity is pardoned, but the end of the verse says she has received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins. It sounds as though Jerusalem received twice the punishment, but this is not what the words really mean. The verse is referring to an oriental custom.

In the East, the gates of the city had public bulletin boards, where various items could be posted by the citizens. If a man owed money, and couldn't repay it, his creditor would post the record at the city gate. Everyone would see what the man owed and it was a source of humiliation. Oftentimes a kinsman would pay the debt in full. When this happened the record was folded up, or the paper doubled over, so the debt was no longer displayed. He now had a clean slate.

This is what God did for Jerusalem in Isaiah 40, and it is also what Christ did for us in:

Colossians 2: 13, 14 -- And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;

Christ paid off the debt for our sins by 'blotting out the handwriting' (doubling over the paper), and nailing it to his cross. So, like the debtors of the East, we have a clean slate.


4. "Why has thou forsaken me?"

Matthew 27: 46 -- And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?

This verse represents a mistranslation of the meaning of the Aramaic words that Jesus spoke while on the cross. It also contradicts the Word in other parts of the Bible. Why would God forsake Jesus when he was fulfilling God's Will? Jesus always had the option to do his own will instead of the Father's.

Matthew 26: 53, 54 -- Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?

Hebrews 13: 5 and Joshua 1: 5 says that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Why would he forsake His son? He wouldn't and He did not. In the ancient text of the Peshitta, written in Jesus' native Aramaic language, 'lama sabachthani' is REPLACED by 'lemana shabakthani'. 'Lemana' means 'for this purpose', and 'shabakthani' means 'spare, keep, or reserve'. So you see that Jesus did not say "why hast thou forsaken me", but "for this purpose was I spared", or "this is my destiny". It was Christ's purpose on earth to die on the cross, and that is what he was telling the world. His work on earth was finished for the time being.

John 19: 30 -- When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, IT IS FINISHED:  and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. [emphasis added]

Christ said 'It is finished [fulfilled]' before he took his last breath. He had fulfilled the Word, his destiny, so that we could be saved. Jesus Christ said:  "My God, my God, for this purpose was I spared."  Now the Word of God fits like a hand in a glove and apparent contradictions are either misunderstandings or mistranslations.

You will see a similar mistranslation in Psalm 22: 1 in the King James Version. The first sentence in this verse is translated exactly the same as Matthew 27: 46.

Psalm 22: 1 -- My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me? why are thou so  far from helping me, and from  the words of my roaring? [King James Version]

Many Western Bible scholars believe that Christ was referring to this verse when he was on the cross. However, the Aramaic Peshitta Translation translates Psalm 22: 1 as follows:

Psalm 22: 1 -- My God, my God, why hast thou let me to live? And yet thou has delayed my salvation from me, because of the words of my folly. [Aramaic Translation]

As you can see, the meaning in the second case is quite different than the first! This example illustrates the importance of an accurate rendering of the eastern language, Aramaic, that Jesus spoke.


5. Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever.

Hebrews 1: 8 -- But unto the Son he saith,  Thy throne, O God, is  for ever and ever:  a sceptre of righteousness is  the sceptre of thy kingdom.

This verse in Hebrews is a quote from the Old Testament Psalms:

Psalm 45: 6 -- Thy throne, O God, is  for ever and ever:  the sceptre of thy kingdom is  a right sceptre.

If you read all of Psalm 45, you will see in the context that it is addressing an earthly king who is righteous. The use of God in verse 6 is a title referring to a man in an exalted position. When Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, he knew that they would know and understand the record in Psalms. So Paul used the verse to address the son of God, Jesus Christ, because certainly Christ is in an exalted position, and he will be coming back as a King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

These five examples are just a few of the many orientalisms found in the Bible. Others will be covered in future teachings.


* Note: The major sources for the explanations and translations regarding orientalisms in this study are from books written by Bishop K. C. Pillai, and the George M. Lamsa translation of the Bible from the ancient Aramaic text, the Peshitta.