Culture Stock in Jordan

Camel ride in the Wadi

Culture Stock in Jordan

By Douglas Penney, Ph.D.

Familiarity with the Bible can make its foreignness pass unnoticed—to our own detriment. Learning a foreign language and culture can open our eyes to overlooked elements of the Bible.

After college, I lived in Jordan studying Arabic. Our teacher, with decades of familiarity with Arab life and concerned for our cultural fluency as well as our language skills, wisely anticipated where we would malfunction and warned us how not to be ignorant foreigners. One such warning addressed the inevitable dinner invitation and the relevant table manners. He admonished us to take small portions initially since “you’ll always be offered a second serving.” Yet, when another serving is offered, it is rude to say yes right away. Even if you desire more, you say no. Your host will make the offer a second time. Again, you should say no. When the third offer comes, if desired, then you may say yes without violating any standard of decorum. However, if you say no a third time, don’t expect to be asked again. The first two offers are polite ritual, meaningless since they are completely scripted and predictable. The answer to the question “Would you like more?” is confined to the third response.

Imagine: these customs have applied for centuries, even millennia. Think of the Bible passages they illuminate. Three times the absentee landlord sends a servant to collect (Luke 20:12). Three times Pilate tries to find Jesus innocent (Luke 23:22). Three times Jesus offers Peter a chance to deny his three-part denial (John 21). It’s the three-fold question that provokes Peter’s grief, not the change in the verb for love. In these stories and many others, the narrator directs our attention to the third instance. Even three-part stories such as in Luke 15—the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son—make use of the finality and authority of the third iteration. Three has the last word.

Denizens of the biblical world noticed threes naturally, even when not directly pointed out, but they also noticed the absence of three. Three can be significant by omission, as in Job’s dialogue with God. When God responds to Job’s cosmic doubts by peppering Job with unanswerable questions (chapters 38-42), a chastened Job politely refrains from pursuing his complaint, his lawsuit accusing God of making an unfair universe.

Job 40, verse 5, contains his subtle withdrawal: “I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” For Job to press a third time for an answer would be to write his complaint in stone where he would be powerless to withdraw it. The third time is final. The third answer is the one that counts, as Peter and Jesus both knew, as Paul and the evangelists knew. Three is everything.

This is in part why the Trinity, far from being polytheism, expresses the completeness and finality of God.