Hunger is the best pickle? Do you know what that means? Have you ever heard that saying before? Don’t google it just yet. Instead you’re going to need to time travel!
Think time travel is not possible? What we’re going to discover today is this if you want to understand the Old Testament Law, you need to travel back in time. Maybe not through a time machine, but certainly through research. While we might never be able to attain 100% understanding of the historical and cultural society of ancient Israel, we can and should learn about it if we want to understand the Old Testament Law. In this five-part blog series on the various laws in Deuteronomy 21-25, we are seeking to learn and apply David Dorsey’s four-step method for how Christians can interact with the Mosaic Law. After getting a firm grasp on Step 1, the idea that these laws were not meant for us, we now go to Step 2 asking, what did the law mean to the people of ancient Israel? We have to investigate and seek to understand their time period, requiring some work, requiring removing, as much as possible, our contemporary filters, and stepping into the ancient world. We need time travel!
Michael Cosby illustrates this in his book Interpreting Biblical Literature when he mentions the quote above: “Hunger is the best pickle”? Again, don’t google it yet! Just look at it on screen. Do you know what it means? To understand what it means, it would help to know who said it.
Let me give you a clue: If you lived in the United States 250 years ago, you would probably know who said it, and you would know what it means.
Ben Franklin said it. One of our founding fathers, Franklin is famous for his humorous and wise sayings. You can probably say a few yourself. A penny saved, is a _____ ______? But what about this one? “Hunger is the best pickle?” What in the world is he talking about?
To understand what Franklin was talking about it would be really helpful to know something of the era that he lived in. What about hunger and pickles is significant in the world of 1750s America? Actually, we have a reference point right here in the county I live in, Lancaster, PA, in 2019. If you live here, or if you have ever been here, you might have eaten at Isaac’s restaurants. What do they serve before the meal? Little bowls of pickles, and pickled vegetables. Most restaurants in our day and age, however, and most people in their homes, do not serve pickles as an appetizer. Isaac’s does. What you need to know to understand Franklin’s saying “Hunger is the best pickle” is that in his day and age in the American colonies that would become the USA, it was common practice for pickles to be served as an appetizer. And what is the purpose of an appetizer? To increase your appetite for the meal! Now is the saying starting to make sense?
Hunger, Franklin is saying, is the best appetizer! He is kinda making fun of the whole practice of appetizers. But you can’t know that unless you do a little work to understand Franklin’s time and culture.
This practice of cultural investigation happens in our world today regularly. When Michelle and I, and our son Connor, visited Michelle’s sister and brother-in-law and their family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2016, I experienced it. My brother-in-law is the pastor of an international church there, and he asked me to speak, which was quite an honor. I decided to adapt a sermon that I had preached here. There was no way I could preach that sermon as is, even though I was preaching to Christians there just as I did here. There, many of the people in the congregation are not from America. In fact, they have 25 different nationalities in their congregation, speaking 40 different languages! So I had to go through the sermon and remove a bunch of references to American or Lancastrian culture that they would not understand. After the sermon, I got talking to an Iranian Christian, and our conversation eventually made its way to our cultural differences. I told him that I had changed the sermon. He asked me to give him an example of a change, to see if he could understand it.
I told him one, and I want to see if you can understand it. Here’s what I said to him, “at one point in the sermon, I was talking about how it seems to me that the Apostle Paul is going down a bunny trail.”
Do I have to explain to you what a bunny trail is? Nope. You know it. First of all, you are likely very familiar with rabbits. You might have rabbits in your yard, and you might even have bunny trails in your yard. You can picture it in your head. When rabbits start hopping away from a perceived threat, they speedily dart around all over the place. That is the literal depiction of bunny trails. But you are also familiar with the figurative use of the concept. Just like bunnies dart all over the place, we describe people who in their flow of thought or talk, get off track from the main idea, as going down a bunny trail. If you are in school, you might have a teacher who loves to go down bunny trails. Sometimes, students pick up on this, and try to get the teacher off track! When I am talking about that kind of teacher, even though I am using the phrase “going down a bunny trail”, you know that I am no longer talking about actual bunnies and hopping. Without having to explain all that to you, you have already made the jump from the literal image to the figurative application.
Why am I saying all this about pickles and bunnies? Because when we are trying to understand these Old Testament Laws, our first step is to remember that they are not for us, and our second step is that we have to figure out what they meant to the Israelites in their day and age and their culture!
Let me give an illustration of this. In part 1 of this series, I referred to Deuteronomy 22:5, the law that men should not wear women’s clothing, and women should not wear men’s clothing. How should Christians interact this law? It would be wrong for us to simply say, “Ok, I guess we Christians have follow that law,” because Dorsey’s Step One is “that law is not for us!” Because it is not for us, we go to Step Two and ask what it meant to the ancient Israelites who were under a treaty and covenant with God. This is when the historical work must happen. What we find out when we do a bit of digging into their culture is that some of the pagan religions practiced by the people around them, the Canaanites, would sometimes cross-dress in their worship to false gods. As we have seen, God wants Israel to have nothing to do with pagan religion. His law for them, therefore, is no cross-dressing. But take notice: God prohibits Israel from cross-dressing, not because God wants to create rules and regulations about what men and women wear, or because he is somehow preserving gender roles, but because he doesn’t want them to associate with pagan practices!
If we Christians look at this law using our contemporary filter, we could easily believe that it tells us about how God feels about gender roles. We could very easily view a discussion that is happening now in our culture and apply it to Israel in a way God never intended. That is dangerous. If we did that, it would be called eisegesis. That means “putting something into the text” that wasn’t originally there. Instead we should practicing exegesis, which means “out of the text.” That is when we do the work of discovering the message that comes out of the text. In other words, we seek to answer, “What is the author trying to communicate to the original audience?” That information is what we should be looking for. That takes work sometimes, an investigation into the historical and cultural situation occurring when it was original written. The work, the investigation is worth it.
When we Christians seek to interact with each OT Law, after reminding ourselves of Step 1, that the law is not for us, we then move to Step 2, seeking to determine the historical and cultural situation that led to the creation of that law. After Step 2, we will be ready to proceed to Step 3, which we look at next in part 4 of our series.
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