Most evenings when my kids were little we’d read from a storybook that had fantastically well-written stories from the Bible. My kids enjoyed the stories, and I loved the fact that this particular storybook told each story in a theologically deep and multi-leveled way that engaged adults, too. But there is one story in particular that I can’t seem to get out of my head—I think because it reminds me how much we Westerners often miss when we read our Bibles.
He Ate Grasshoppers?!
In the retelling of the ministry of John the Baptist, the author made a point of mentioning two of John’s most notable and odd characteristics—namely, what he wore and what he ate. Matthew 3:4 mentions that John performed his ministry wearing a garment of camel’s hair and that his food was locusts and wild honey.
“Ewww!” crowed my children at each reading of the story. “He ate grasshoppers?! Why in the world would he do that?”
Looking very piously at their children, parents like me across the modern Western world fumble for a good answer before usually attributing this strange diet to some form of asceticism on John’s part. “That’s how dedicated to God the prophet John was. He would even eat insects if that’s all God gave him to eat!” Or if the parent is slightly more biblically literate they might claim that John’s choice of food was somehow connected to his Nazarite vows—locusts are the only insect that is considered kosher, after all (Leviticus 11:22). But however we describe it to our kids, it’s unlikely that any of us would like to try a faddish version of the “Biblical Insect Diet”—Daniel’s fad diet seems much more appealing. Eating grasshoppers is gross!
And so we pass on to our children our extremely Western perspective on reading the Bible; we filter the text of Scripture through our own experience without stopping to notice that we may have missed something.
He Ate Chocolate?!
Let me introduce you to the “locust” that I believe John ate and Easterners know well. All across most of the Mediterranean world there is a tree called a carob tree.1 It grows in arid climates, even in deserts. It can grow up to 50 feet tall, has thick, glossy evergreen leaves, and produces leathery brown bean pods that can grow up to 1 foot long, hanging down from branches in small clumps, almost like bananas. These bean pods are edible. Inside are several brown seeds suspended in a sweet pulp. You can eat them straight from the tree, or, as many modern health-food advocates have found, you can grind the dried pods into a powder that tastes very much like cacao powder. That’s right. Carob beans, also known locally as “locust beans,” taste like chocolate. Now that’s a diet fad I can get behind!
Carob beans, also known locally as “locust beans,” taste like chocolate.
John likely ate sweet seed pods and honey as his main diet in the wilderness and desert places where he ministered. It’s fairly unlikely that he ate grasshoppers. Perhaps as dessert.
But here’s the thing—I NEVER would have known this if I hadn’t visited Israel and had a carob tree and a locust bean pointed out to me.2 I would have continued to assume that John ate insects for the rest of my life and wondered why God kept asking His prophets to do exceptionally odd things. And I would have latently passed on to my kids the idea that reading the Bible through the lens of their Western, middle-class experience is an acceptable default position.
How to Know What the Bible Means to Say
While we certainly can’t eradicate our own experience when we come to the Bible, we have to remember that the Bible was written in a certain time and place, to a particular people for a specific purpose. The authors of the Bible at times use language and references that are completely lost on us Westerners if we aren’t careful to watch for them. What these writers were trying to convey to their original audience is the very first layer of understanding the Bible and what it means to us. In the study of hermeneutics (interpretive methods for how to read and understand the Bible), the first and possibly the most important step is trying to make sure that we clearly understand what the author’s intended message was to the people he was writing to; he actually wanted to say something to someone in particular!
The trick is that the author and the audience both lived long ago in a very different culture. And not everything that makes perfect sense in the context of the first century (or before) will automatically make sense to us. Partly this is because we’re different people with different cultures, worldviews, and ways of communicating truth.
In the context of the first-century people to whom Matthew was writing, everyone likely knew what a locust tree was, and not one of them ever thought John ate grasshoppers. They knew what food was available in the rift valley of the Jordan for an itinerant prophet, knew what a locust tree was, and understood the reference. It’s no different than if I were to tell you that when I visit my parents in Michigan I enjoy drinking “pop.” People living 2,000 years from now half-way around the world may not know that “pop” isn’t a sound or a sucker—it’s a sweet carbonated beverage. Unless they’re really into 21st century cultural history, of course.
If we forget that the Bible was written to very different people in a very different time and place, we’ll end up twisting the words of Scripture to mean something they were never meant to say.
This tidbit about John’s diet might seem silly unless we understand the implications for our habits in reading the Bible. We cannot miss how important it is to understand what the original authors said and meant. If we forget that the Bible was written to very different people in a very different time and place, we’ll end up twisting the words of Scripture to mean something they were never meant to say. And about much more important things than grasshoppers! All because we don’t even realize we’re reading the Bible through the lens of our own experience rather than the author’s.
The Details Are in the Threads
Let me give you another example of this from Matthew’s description of John the Baptist. Matthew points out the fact that John wore a garment of camel’s hair with a leather belt. Again, to us 21st century readers, this doesn’t stand out because we couldn’t tell you the first thing about what most people in the first century wore, let alone what would be “normal” for a prophet.3 Many of us would simply assume that having clothes made of camel’s hair was culturally normal in those days. Or perhaps we would assume that it must be different than most common folks’ garb at the time simply because Matthew pointing it out indicates it wasn’t standard. Either way, few of us would be able to say anything about what this clothing means. But most observant Jews in the first century would certainly have pricked up their ears at that detail.
Why? Because of the only other person in the Bible who wore a garment of hair and a leather belt: the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8 ESV). Coincidence? Hardly. The common Jews of Jesus’ day were exceptionally biblically literate and certainly picked up on Matthew’s reference (and John’s understated practice) of wearing what one of my Bible teachers described as an “Elijah suit.” He dressed like Elijah on purpose! Notice, he specifically said he wasn’t Elijah (John 1:21). However, in describing his ministry he alluded to passages that were commonly understood to refer to Elijah’s role as the predecessor of the Messiah (see Isaiah 40:3–5; Malachi 4:5). He was claiming the prophesied role of the one who would precede the appearance of the Messiah… by his clothing choice and where he worked. That’s a very first-century Jewish way to communicate. And catching that message has massive theological implications for our understanding of him, Jesus, the Kingdom of God, prophecy, and many other things.
Now, while the Gospels fill in the gaps for us in other places, the original Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel and the participants of John’s ministry all knew exactly where this story was headed, simply because of that reference to an “Elijah suit.” Matthew was out to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, and John was just one of the first links in the logic chain to prove his point.
Matthew was out to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, and John was just one of the first links in the logic chain to prove his point.
But most of us Westerners miss the importance of it because we are unaware of how first-century Jews thought, or read their Bible, or made persuasive arguments. We simply don’t know their practice of using allusions to Scripture to argue their point, or their tendency to prefer allusion and metaphor rather than abstract statements of propositional truth.4 We can still arrive at the same interpretive or theological conclusions about a passage as they did, but we take very different trains to get there! And along the way we modern readers miss things in our Bible, which often leaves us scratching our heads. The authors of the Bible were speaking to their original audience in a language that best communicated to them, not necessarily us. We don’t even know to ask these questions most of the time.
That is, until someone comes along and tells us that the original context is an important step in understanding the Bible and how it communicates. Until someone off-handedly points to a carob tree as we pass and says, “Hey look, locusts. Yum!”
I’m going to go book my next trip to Israel now…
1 Ceratonia siliqua
2 Of course, many fine commentaries are available that point out this information, and any scholar or theologian worth his salt may have stumbled across the reference and its implications. Really anyone could have. If they know to look for answers to odd questions like this.
3 Isaiah is not a prime example! (Isaiah 20:1–3)
4 Rather, we tend to think of their non-linear communication styles as “beating around the bush”!