Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Have you ever read something in Law or any other part of the Bible and just gone, “Huh?” Well, I know I sure did when I first read the laws regarding fashion. Laws on fashion? Oh yeah, the Bible has a law for most things, fashion included. However, all of the fashion-based laws don’t really make sense. Take for example the Law of Tassels; scripture records,
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God” (Numbers 15:37-40)
God tells the people that they need to put tassels on their clothes, which is all well and good, but his reasoning is that by seeing tassels, people will automatically recall the laws of God and follow them. I don’t know about you, but this seems like a pretty insufficient reason for adding tassels to your clothes- or maybe “nonsensical” is a better word. How do the Law and tassels connect other than there being a law about tassels? Only God really knows I suppose. Or how about the law on hair? Leviticus 19:27 tells us, “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” I don’t know if you’ve seen how this ends up playing out, but try Google image searching “Hasidic Jew” and you’ll see a lot of guys with messy beards and funny curly locks of hair. This law basically encourages people to look silly- and there’s absolutely no reason given for said law of looking silly. While we’re talking about looking strange, there’s a law that most Christians probably gloss over or assign a different meaning to. In Deuteronomy 11:18 it says, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” Christians usually look at this figuratively and understand it as a reminder to keep God’s Word close at hand and in heart. However, the Jewish people of Jesus’ time took this quite literally. They did (and many still do) keep scripture bound to their heads and hands in the form of what’s called phylacteries. A phylactery (or a “tefillah” depending on who you ask) is a box that contains scripture verses that are to be worn on the head and arms. This sounds like an oddball way to interpret the scripture, but when Jesus talked about them, he never said the Pharisees were in error by doing so. Therefore, although there is a figurative way to interpret Deuteronomy 11:18, there is also a literal action that can accompany it.
In Korea (I can’t speak for this in the US since it’s been a while since I’ve been there), fashion has been a super hot topic (even with the worldwide economic decline). People want to be as trendy as they can, even the men. There was actually a TV drama called “Fashion King” that was moderately popular while it was on. Right now, and for the last few years, fashion has been big business and cosmetics have enjoyed a really high demand. Even guys in the army (which is mandatory in Korea) buy luxury brands for their camouflage face paint (though, to most guys’ defense, I think sales were lower than expected). There is an extremely heavy focus on how people look. Jesus spoke on the topic of concentrating on one’s outward appearance. He starts in Matthew 23:25, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” And he continues a couple of sentences later,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28).
Clearly, Jesus felt that fashion was not to be considered a top priority. However, many people (Christians included) put a ridiculous amount of effort into looking good on the outside, often at the cost of growing on the inside.
God’s people, though, are called to be hairy and tasselled, with boxes of scripture on their heads and arms. Sound fashionable? Absolutely not. And so the first time I read through the Bible, whenever I’d hit one of these odd laws about looks I’d pray that the Holy Spirit would show me just what God was up to when he made such bizarre laws on looks. As always when you ask the Lord, he explained to me what they meant. You see, fashion is becoming an idol for many people- just like it probably was for the Israelites coming out of Egypt. I mean, here they lived in a beautiful land in which fashion was a way of life. Archeologists think that the Egyptians may have even invented makeup (or at least heavily improved it). So it makes sense that the people of Israel were likely still worshiping at the altar of style since day one of the Exodus. Can you imagine how troublesome must have been to have people ignore the miracles God was performing every day because they were busy complaining about not being able to get makeup and designer labels anymore? Therefore, God made the Israelites look terrible by law so that they wouldn’t even think about fashion.
…But they did. We can find in Jesus’ speech to the Pharisees and law specialists what happened with these laws when in the wrong hands. He states, “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long…” (Matthew 23:5). Lacking the ability to be fashionable by the world’s standards, the Pharisees decided to work with God gave them. So they stylized their phylacteries and lengthened their tassels. Understandably, considering that the law was designed to steer the people away from caring about looks, Jesus berated the religious ruling class for this decision. We too need to take heed though, especially people in the church, about how concerned we get about outward appearances. Remember above when Jesus commented about people looking good on the outside and being evil on the inside. The Lord looks at our hearts first.
So what are we to do? Should we all let our hair grow into funny locks, keep unkempt looking beards, cover our clothes in tassels, and strap boxes to our heads and arms? Well, I suppose that’s one way to go about things. However, I think Jesus has the better response, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26). Our Lord and Savior tells us that we should first take care of what is inside our hearts before caring about what’s outside our skin. I mean, think about it, you’ve probably met a few people who by worldly standards weren’t the most attractive, but their sparkling personality overrode any apparent flaws they might have physically; therefore, such a person becomes attractive anyway. The most important step of cleaning up one’s insides is first to make sure you’re right with God. If you’re hell bound, then the best you can hope for is a white washed tomb, since you’re filled with death. Come to Jesus, and understand that he died and shed his blood for you. Find salvation in him, and you will be made clean. For believers though, there are other ways to maintain cleanliness such as prayer or reading the Bible every day. Keeping in contact with God and staying away from sin keeps you clean on the inside so that the Holy Spirit that resides in you can shine through to the surface. And as for clothes and things like that, Jesus has an answer,
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:28-33).
Don’t overly concern yourself with how you look to others. Instead, seek God out first and he’ll make sure you don’t only look great, but you’ll be great too.
Rock on God!