Guests: Jon Dybdahl and Dave Thomas
Theme: Trusting God’s Goodness
Leading Question: Does Habakkuk teach us how to ask questions, find answers or simply to trust?
The opening paragraph of J. P. Hyatt’s commentary on Habakkuk in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (1962) is a good one to launch the study of the book:
“Habakkuk is the sceptic among the prophets. He raises the question of theodicy: how can a just God allow the wicked to oppress the righteous? His answer, given in 2:4 [“the righteous shall live by his faith”], has become one of the most frequently quoted verses of the Bible, but not quite in the meaning intended.”
- Asking questions, finding answers, and trusting. Outside of Habakkuk, the books of Job and Ecclesiastes are known as the “skeptical” books in the Old Testament. Habakkuk’s question to God is highly unusual for a prophet. More typically, the prophets bring warnings and admonitions to the people in God’s behalf. How are we to understand a prophet who turns the tables and asks hard “moral” questions to God? Should we expect good, clear answers from Habakkuk – or, for that matter, from Job and/or Ecclesiastes? Or is it simply enough to be able to worship a God who allows us to ask our questions? The modern skeptic’s perspective is suggested by this quote from C. S. Lewis through the mouth of one of his characters, Orual in his novel, Till We Have Faces (p. 249):
I say the gods deal very unrightly with us. For they will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places?
Just as Job “repented” from his questioning stance at the end of the book (Job 42:1-6), even though God told Job’s friends that Job had spoken the truth about Him and the friends had not (Job 42:7) – so in Habakkuk, there is no clear answer. In the end (Hab. 3:17-18), the prophet simply declares his trust in God, a passage cited here in the NIV:
17 Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
In sum, maybe it is alright not to find all the answers, even though we have the freedom to ask our questions. Not all will be happy with that solution. But for those with questions it should be a comfort and relief.
- Creative recycling of inspired words. The NRSV translates Habakkuk 2:4 as follows: “The righteous person will live by his faithfulness,” clearly referring to the faithful life of the righteous person. In the New Testament, especially in Romans 1:16-17 and Galatians 3:17, Paul quotes this passage, but seems to be shifting the emphasis away from human faithfulness to trust in divine faithfulness. Is it appropriate to be “creative” in citing biblical passages? Must the words of Scripture always be “according to context”? And should the New Testament make the final decision, if the Old Testament context seems to give a different emphasis?
In addressing that question, it would seem preferable to work toward a “both/and” solution rather that to try to force both the New Testament and Old Testament uses of a passage to say precisely the same thing. Two articles follow – the first perhaps more simple and straightforward than the second – which seek to establish that “both/and” approach.
Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?
Paternoster Press (1988), Zondervan (1989), Pacesetters (2000, 2003) Energion (2011)
By Alden Thompson
Don’t Let your New Testament get in the way of your Old Testament
“In many and various ways God spoke of old. . .
in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” – Hebrews 1:1-2
Some day I am going to write a book about all the unchristian sayings in the New Testament! Thus, in a tone at least partially serious, a well known Old Testament scholar revealed his unhappiness with the sometimes less-than-subtle claim of his New Testament colleagues that theirs was the superior Testament. According to the common generalization, the New Testament is the source of all that is good, kind and loving, embodied most of all in the person of Jesus Christ who reveals the friendly face of God. As the story goes, however, the Old Testament is at best a mixed bag. The occasional flash of brilliance may lighten the path of the believer, but on the whole, the angry, the vindictive, the bloodthirsty, is far more prominent.
Now I suspect that there is at least a grain of truth in this common view of the two parts of our Christian Bible. At least I have never heard a Christian contrast the beauty and attractiveness of the Old Testament with the horrors of the New. No, Christians have always found refuge in the New Testament when the problems of the Old Testament have threatened to engulf them. In fact, some Christians even go so far as to claim with emphasis that they are New Testament Christians for whom the Old Testament is no longer authoritative.
Even if the problems with the Old Testament should stem from some monumental misunderstanding, the fact that such a misunderstanding is so common is something we must reckon with. But perhaps at the outset I should remind you of some of the likely candidates for my friend’s book on the so-called unchristian aspects of the New Testament. Wasn’t it Jesus who suggested that certain people deserved to have a millstone fastened round their necks and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matt. 18:6)? And didn’t he openly call some people blind hypocrites, comparing them to an old burial ground, full of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27-28)? And then there was Peter. For all practical purposes he told Ananias and Sapphira to drop dead (Acts 5:1-11). To add to the stories, Paul told the church at Corinth to deliver one of their brothers to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:5), and to drive out the wicked person from among them (1 Cor. 5:13). Finally, we must not forget the book of Revelation: blood, dragons, pits of fire, and even a god who spews people out of his mouth (Rev. 3:16).
You could rightly accuse me of greatly distorting the faith by bringing that particular collection of sayings and events together without regard for context or the author’s apparent intention. But that is precisely what happens to the Old Testament. Having grown up in the Christian community, I know the basic Old Testament ‘list’ quite well. Pride of place goes to poor Uzzah who was only trying to be helpful when stumbling oxen endangered the ark of God. Yet God struck him dead (2 Sam. 6:6-9); two angry bears mauled forty-two ‘innocent’ children who were disrespectful to their elders (2 Kings 2:23-25). If you are so bold as to complain about the way God is doing things, he will send serpents to bite you (Num.21:4-9) or he will command the earth to swallow you alive (Num. 16:21-35). If you wish, you may add to the list the Genesis flood and the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, for these, too, have often been cited as part of the evidence for a heavy-handed Old Testament Gold who flies into a destructive range the moment someone crosses his will or breaks one of his commands.
Now I hope that you will pardon the way in which I have listed the above horror stories. If it is not already too late, I should perhaps even make a special plea right her for you not to toss aside such an irreverent book as this. I have several good friends who think it highly inappropriate ever to say anything that even hints at the lightest deficiency in God’s style of leadership (perhaps taking their cue from Romans 9:20), and they are quick to caution me about the dangers of doubt. I am sensitive to those who feel that way, for I too, am deeply concerned about the damage that doubt can cause. In this world, none of us is ever ‘safe’ from doubt. But as I put these words on paper, I must say that my convictions about the goodness of God are deeper and stronger because I have looked squarely at my ‘small doubts’ and have found answers which have brought genuine blessings.
When I say ‘small’ doubts, I am alluding to the fact that my experience has always been within the Christian community. I am the product of a careful and devout Christian home – a home for which I am immensely thankful. At the same time, the Old Testament stories (and the New Testament ones) of the type listed above can leave scars when mishandled and applied wrongly, even by well-meaning Christians. I know that I am not alone in having had at least ‘small’ doubts as a result of biblical material misunderstood and misapplied. Small doubts can easily mushroom into large ones and become extremely destructive. Indeed, even small doubts are no fun. But what is perhaps most significant for this book is that the very material which previously had been the cause of doubt has now become the source of great blessing.
So I intend to speak quite frankly about some of the ‘problems’ of the Old Testament. I really hope that those who have struggled with these same problems will also be able to transform their doubts into cornerstones of faith. From my own experience, I am convinced that once we have found faith, we must resist the attempt to command it in others. My doubts have seldom if ever yielded to mere commands, least of all to commands not to doubt! I must take my problems seriously. To be able to believe is a precious possession, one that I covet for all of God’s children. And though I am sure that no two of us ever find precisely the same path to faith, I am going to approach the problems directly, assuming that those insights that have been a great help to me can also be of help to someone else.
A “BETTER” REVELATION?
Right at the beginning of this chapter I noted the sharp contrast that is often drawn between the Old Testament and the New. That contrast is very important and we must not simply deny that it exists, for the very fact that God has chosen such different ways of revealing himself is part of the truth that he wants us to understand. We need no better authority than the book of Hebrews to remind us, that, in some ways, at least, the New Testament revelation of God is in fact better. The theme of the entire book is that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is “better.” The very first verse reminds us that in times past God used other methods of revealing his will. But now he has spoken through his Son (Heb. 1:1-2). But in chapter twelve the contrast is even more explicit: you have not come to a mountain of smoke, fire, and fear, but to Mt. Zion and to Jesus (Heb. 12:18-24). When I finally realized what those verses were saying, I was startled, for I had grown up in a Christian community which stressed the significance of the Sinai revelation. So in the light of a “better” revelation (the clear thrust of the book of Hebrews), what are we to do with the older revelation, the one which centers on Sinai?
For a start, the word “better” can express two rather different emphases. First, “better” is often simply in contrast with “worse”: yesterday your cold was “worse” – running eyes, a frightful cough, a hoarse voice – but today it and you are “better.” If that is the sort of contrast intended in Hebrews between the “better” Jesus Christ and the “worse” Mount Sinai, then the God of Sinai is indeed in trouble – as well as anyone who attempts to proclaim that both revelations are part of the Christian faith.
The second way of looking at “better” is to see it simply as the comparative of “good”: the revelation at Mount Sinai was good, and the revelation in Jesus Christ was “better.” Maybe we could even add the superlative: personal reunion with God in his kingdom will be “best.” If we can take such an approach to the two historical revelations of God, then there is no need to reject the first revelation. Rather, we may see it as a major step in God’s plan for restoring humanity and it is a good step at that. In fact, the Sinai revelation was precisely what God’s people needed at that time.
One illustration that has helped me to visualize the relationship between “better” and “good” has to do with my boyhood experience with the family cars. It fell to my lot to keep the “buggy,” as we affectionately dubbed it, clean and polished. Over the weeks and months I became quite good friends with the car. I knew each scratch and chip and did my best to touch them up or to polish them out. This personal friendship with the car became a problem only when it finally became evident that a new and better car was needed. I well remember when we sold our beloved little 1950 Chevrolet. It had been a good car, even though we had moved on to something better – a 1956 Ford. Thereafter I would occasionally catch a glimpse of the Chev, now under the care of its new owners. A peculiar sensation of excitement and disappointment would strike me: “There’s our old car! Oh, but it’s not ours any more!” Perhaps those feelings explain why that next car, the ’56 Ford, is still in the family. Its finely polished, deep metallic green is still a sight to warm the heart. Newer and better cars have come and gone, but that old one is still “good.” It doesn’t have air conditioning, something very helpful in the desert regions of the West, and we probably wouldn’t take it on a long trip, but it was and is a good car. When we first bought it, it was just what the family needed and even now is a source of warm memories – as well as quite an adequate vehicle for short journeys.
I look on the relationship between Mount Sinai and Jesus Christ in a very similar way. I find the revelation of God in Christ a clearer and better revelation, but I certainly need not deny the marvelous experience that God gave to his people at Mount Sinai. It was just what they needed and it was good. Even today I can relive that experience and be blessed. The fullness of the revelation in Jesus can be joyfully received as Part Two of God’s great drama without detracting in the slightest from the marvels of Part One as described in the Old Testament. With any good book it is possible to hasten ahead and read the conclusion without ever bothering with what precedes. If we do that with our Bibles, however, we are missing a real treat and we are letting the New Testament get in the way of the Old. Yes, the New Testament revelation of God is clearer and therefore in some ways better. But if we neglect the Old in favor of the New, we shall never really experience that peculiar kind of joy that comes from experiencing the movement of God’s great plan from “good” to “better – and to “best.”
TWO APPROACHES TO THE OLD TESTAMENT: THE HIGH ROAD AND THE LOW ROAD
Another way in which the New Testament often gets in the way of the Old is also illustrated by the book of Hebrews. In particular, I am thinking of the famous “faith” chapter, Hebrews 11. If you read that chapter carefully and compare the stories there with the first accounts told in the Old Testament, you will notice a fascinating tendency in Hebrews to tell the stories in such a way that God’s people of ages past are all seen to be great people of faith. Perhaps it would not be too far amiss to compare what is happening in that list of stories to what often takes place at a funeral. Regardless of what kind of life a person has lived, the official memorial service remembers only the good. The deceased may have been a real villain, but you couldn’t guess that from what is said in public! Hebrews 11 doesn’t contain anything quite that extreme, but certainly the highlights of faith tend to exclude those less than complimentary features of the original Old Testament stories. Let’s note just a few examples.
The Genesis picture of Abraham is a man of faith – but one whose convictions often wavered when put to the test. His half-truths to Pharaoh about Sarah showed not only his lack of faith in God, but also his selfishness and lack of genuine respect for his wife (Gen. 12:1-20). Likewise, when he decided that Hagar could bear the child of promise (Gen, 16), he betrayed an uncertain faith. To be sure, these lapses of faith can actually be encouraging to us, for here is a man with serious difficulties yet who was adjudged to be faithful (Heb. 11:8-19). The point that I want to make, however, is that the original Old Testament story is essential if one is to reap maximum benefit from the story in Hebrews. Hebrews 11 taken by itself is a fine story, but taken alongside the Old Testament story it becomes superb.
The mention of Sarah and of Moses in Hebrews 11 provides further examples of a partial telling of the Old Testament story. Hebrews 11:11 says that “by faith” Sarah conceived. Would you have guessed that she actually had laughed when God first made the promise to her – unless, of course, you had read the Old Testament story (Gen, 18:9-15)? And the contrast in Moses’ case is even sharper, for the Exodus story of the killing of the Egyptian and Moses’ flight from Pharaoh makes it quite clear that Moses fled because he was afraid (Ex. 2:14). But Hebrews 11:27 says that “by faith” he left Egypt, “not (!) being afraid” of the anger of the king. The apparent contradiction between the two stories is resolved by a clearer understanding of what “by faith” means in Hebrews 11, namely, that faith can work wonders even when the human agent does not really appear to be faithful. Yet that particular understanding of faith is possible only when one carefully compares the original Old Testament story with the interpretation of that story in Hebrews 11. Now I happen to believe that both the Old Testament and the New Testament stories have an independent value of their own and should be appreciated for their own sake, but linking the two together enhances our ability to understand God’s activities. I shall return to this point later, but now I want to note what has happened to the general interpretation of the Old Testament in view of the treatment that it receives in Hebrews 11.
Just as Hebrews 11 tends to focus on the highlights of Old Testament characters, emphasizing their faithfulness, their godliness, their commitment, so subsequent Christian interpretation has tended to glorify this “royal line” of God-fearing people. Such an emphasis is valuable. In an age when heroes are hard to come by, it is important to understand what a real hero is. Nevertheless, I remember my surprise when I actually got around to reading the Old Testament stories themselves after having heard only Christian interpretations of these stories. Some of the realistic and seamier aspects of the biblical characters came as real surprises. The horrors of polygamy didn’t really snap clear until I read the biblical edition of the story of Jacob’s family. The book of Esther is even more surprising. I had pictured her as a virtuous young lady without any taint – the feminine counterpart of Daniel. But when I actually read the biblical account, I began to realize that her standards of morality were quite different from mine. Not only was she willing to keep quiet about her convictions (Esther 2:10), but she was willing simply to be one of the girls, a part of the Persian king’s harem (Esther 2:12-18)! Daniel stood firmly for his convictions and his standards of morality line up rather well with what a modem Christian would consider appropriate. But Esther. . .!
I began to realize that Christians have often taken a “high road” approach to the Old Testament, which, in my case at least, had left me quite unprepared for the reading of the Bible itself. Subconsciously I had formed an image of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as classic saints who could quite easily slip into twentieth century dress and, if called upon, could easily assume positions of leadership in the Christian community. I suspect that this glorified conception of Old Testament saints is at least part of the reason why many Christians tend to read interpretations and adaptations of the Old Testament instead of actually reading the Old Testament itself. The emphasis on the good qualities of biblical characters is very necessary, especially in the training of younger children. But I feel keenly about the need to prepare Christians for the actual reading of the Old Testament, and to prepare them for coming to grips with the real Old Testament stories, even though many of them are not pretty when viewed strictly from an aesthetic point of view.
I sometimes use the term “low road” to describe an approach to the Old Testament which takes account of the failings of the biblical characters and their strange, even barbaric, customs. The implications of this “low road” approach will be pursued further in chapter 2. But the point I wish to make here is that the “high road” approach (cf. Hebrews 11), when not accompanied by the “low road,” leaves one quite unprepared for the reading of the Old Testament itself. Thus, when a sensitive person comes upon a story which depicts how far the people had fallen, rather than how far they had grown, the natural reaction is to shy away from the Old Testament and resort to safer reading in the Gospels. In a sense, then, the New Testament has gotten in the way of the Old.
This predominance of the “high road” approach in dealing with the Old Testament came rather forcibly to my attention one day in my elementary Hebrew class. The class was composed of upper division ministerial students who were, in most cases, not more than a few months away from entering the ministry. The exercises in our grammar book had been modeled on biblical phrases so as to prepare the students for the reading of the biblical passages, and it was one of these exercises that caused an interesting problem for several members of the class, Correctly translated, one particular exercise should have read: “And Samuel cut off the head of the king.” Since the Hebrew was not difficult even for first-year students, I asked why this particular sentence had been a problem. Most revealing was the reply volunteered by one of my students: “We thought that was what the sentence said, but we didn’t think that Samuel would do such a thing!” I suggested we take our Bibles and read (in English) the story of Agag in 1 Samuel 15. To one thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament, the story of Agag might raise certain questions, but the particulars would not be surprising. Yet it was a subdued group of ministerial students who listened in some astonishment to the following words: “And Samuel said, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (1 Sam. 15:33).
In the discussion that followed, it became evident that they had been deeply impressed with the “high road” picture of the innocent and obedient boy Samuel in the temple, saying: “Speak, for thy servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:10). How could that little boy take a sword and hew a man in pieces – even if it was before the Lord? Such a strange act for such a good lad! To come down to our own age, it would seem even stranger for my pastor to take a sword and to hew a wicked elder or deacon to pieces before the Lord. But that is part of the Old Testament picture which we must seek to understand and one to which we must return later,
NEW TESTAMENT INTERPRETATIONS OF THE OLD
There remains yet one more major way in which the New Testament has tended to get in the way of the Old, and that has to do with the way that Christian interpreters have tended to take later usage or interpretation of a passage as the correct and only possible one. In actual practice, this approach has meant that when a New Testament writer refers to an Old Testament passage this later interpretation becomes authoritative in a way that subtly implies that the study of the original passage is really no longer necessary. Such an attitude has tended to limit greatly the study of the Old Testament, for when someone studies an original Old Testament passage he may find that the Old Testament writer has given a different emphasis from that in the New. To illustrate, we could simply refer to the interpretation of Moses’ killing of the Egyptian in Hebrews as compared with the original thrust of the story in Exodus. Inspired writers are often legitimately creative in their use of other inspired material, but to appeal to Hebrews, for example, as the source for the original as well as the final meaning of the Exodus passage is quite inappropriate. Yet Christian interpreters are strongly tempted to do just that type of thing.
Perhaps the classic example of a New Testament interpretation getting in the way of an Old Testament passage is Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 as a proof text for the Virgin Birth in Matthew 1:22, 23. Conservative Christians have always appealed to Matthew 1 as one of the passages that establishes the Virgin Birth. And the meaning in Matthew is clear: Jesus was born of a virgin. But the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 is quite a different matter. If we try to read Isaiah 7 as an Old Testament person of Isaiah’s day might have understood it, we are hard pressed to see how such a person could see in Isaiah’s words a clear prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ. The context of Isaiah 7 would, in fact, suggest that the child Immanuel was to be a sign in Isaiah’s own day to the then reigning monarch, King Ahaz. When Matthew cites that passage he is giving a second meaning of the prophecy, one which “fulfills” the original meaning, or, in other words, fills the original prophecy full of new meaning. Matthew’s use of the term “fulfil” is a matter to which I shall return later (see chapter 7). But the point we need to make here is that to find out what Matthew meant we must read Matthew; to find out what Isaiah meant we must read Isaiah.
That conservative Christians have often opposed this principal either consciously or unconsciously, is illustrated by the fact that when the Revised Standard Version of the old Testament was first published, considerable opposition arose in connection with its treatment of Isaiah 7:14. The King James Version had used the term “virgin” inIsaiah 7:14 as well as in Matthew 1:23; thus the language of the “prophecy” and “fulfillment” matched up quite nicely. But the RSV translators rightly retained “virgin” in Matthew while choosing to use “young woman” in Isaiah, a term which more accurately reflects the Hebrew original. In fact, there is a beautiful ambiguity about the Hebrew word almah, which allows both the original application in Isaiah’s day and the secondary and more complete application to Mary the mother of Jesus. Yet the RSV translators were accused of tampering with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth by their translation of Isaiah. Irate Christians staged Bible burning parties in protest, evidence enough that feelings were strong.
This is not the place for an extensive study of the way in which the New Testament treats the Old Testament. But the examples we have cited illustrate the freedom which generally characterizes the style of the New Testament writers. I do not want to deny the biblical writers this freedom in interpreting and applying other biblical material, but I am concerned lest that freedom, originally a result of the Spirit’s movement, should become an excuse for evading our responsibility to come to God’s word, seeking a fresh knowledge of his will under the guidance of his Spirit. When we allow all the writers to speak for themselves, we have taken a significant step towards relieving some of the problems that arise out of the differences between the Old Testament and the New. Scripture is much more like the full rich harmony of an orchestra than the single monotone blast from a trumpet. The many instruments, the different tones and harmonics, can symbolize the great variety of methods that God has used to work with humanity. As circumstances change, as people grow or degenerate, God molds his message to the needs of the hour. For a people long enslaved in a pagan culture, the Sinai revelation was just what was needed – a little thunder and smoke to catch their attention. But as time went on, a fresh revelation became necessary to correct certain misconceptions about God and to shed fresh light on the path of his people. The beauty of that fresh revelation of God in Jesus Christ is something very precious to everyone who calls himself a Christian. But if we should be tempted to look only to this new revelation, we must then remind ourselves that Jesus himself made the startling claim that his Father was the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And that was not all, for the Gospel of John suggests that Jesus himself was so bold as to claim that he was the great I Am, the God of Abraham (John 8:58). Thus there is no question that the two Testaments do belong together. But having said that, we must recognize that there are still two Testaments, each with its own particular message for us. So why should we allow the one to obscure the beauty and the truth of the other?
Is Exegesis the Enemy? The Case for Context-free Interpretation
Adventist Society for Religious Studies, Boston, 2008.11.21
In this paper, I wish to address two key but embattled principles that are dear to the hearts of modern biblical exegetes, but which fly in the face of human nature. One involves literary context, the principle that any interpretation must be faithful to the original author’s intent; the other involves historical context, the principle that time and place must be considered in the interpretation and application of Scripture. I argue for nearly a truce on the issue of literary context; but call for redoubled efforts, against sobering odds, to affirm the importance of historical context.
First, a synopsis of four different kinds of contexts, closely linked, but still distinct:
- Devotional and mystical context. Here the text ushers the believer into God’s presence, unhindered by critical issues of literature, history, or science. What happens in the worshiper’s experience is analogous to the effect of music and art as described by Albert Camus:
Truly fertile Music, the only kind that will move us, that we truly appreciate, will be a Music conducive to Dream, which banishes all reason and analysis. One must not wish first to understand and then to feel. Art does not tolerate Reason. [Albert Camus, “Essay on Music” (1932), from “Music” [#9] in Robert Andrews, ed., Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 611.]
- Ethical and practical context. For those who accept the Bible as normative, as God’s Word and a guide to life, every passage of Scripture triggers a crucial question: How does this text apply to me and to believers in our day? The haunting fear of the devout, however, is that human reason might undermine the sense of duty to which the divine text calls the believer. From such a perspective, the text may be elevated to an absolute norm because human reason may not know where to draw the line between that which applies and that which does not.
The assumption that God gives absolute – rather than adapted – information is illustrated by S. I. McMillen’s little classic, None of These Diseases. The cover blurb on the original 1963 edition announces: “Science – 4000 years behind times! Sacred writings predate modern medicine.” From the chapter entitled “Eel Eyes and Goose Guts” in the 2000 edition, which, like the first edition, details some startling health remedies from the Egyptian Papyrus Ebers, “a medical book from 1500 BC,” this rationale is given:
Would Moses have enough faith to record the divine innovations, even if they contradicted his royal post-graduate university training? If Moses had yielded to his natural tendency to add even a little of his ‘higher education,’ the Bible would contain such prescriptions as ‘urine of a faithful wife’ or ‘blood of a worm’…. But the record is clear: Moses recorded hundreds of health regulations but not a single current medical misconception. [S. I. McMillen, None of These Diseases(Revell,1963, 1967); McMillen and David Stern (Revell, 2000); citing 2000 edition, 11.]
Would McMillen and Stern affirm the continuing and absolute value of the test for an unfaithful wife in Numbers 5, a test involving holy water mixed with dust from the floor of the sanctuary? Most likely not, but I could not find that example mentioned in their book
- Historical context. Rolf Pöhler quotes Alan Richardson as saying that “the historical revolution is of greater significance for human self-understanding than the scientific revolution itself.” [Alan Richardson, “History, Problem of,” A Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 156; cited by Rolf Pöhler, in Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1999), 31.] If the same logic reigns as noted under the ethical context above, exploring the historical context can be deadly for faith. Recently, as I was attempting exegesis on an Old Testament passage, for example, that is, interpreting it within its original time and place, a devout student exclaimed, “The size of our preachable Bible gets smaller and smaller!” The assumption behind that exclamation is that all “preachable” truths should be absolute and self-evident everywhere in Scripture.”
- Literary context. Attention to literary context may be the area where we are most affected by modern rationalistic methods of interpreting the Bible. Generations of seminarians have been haunted by Bruce Metzger’s definition of eisegesis in his Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek, a little book first published in 1946: “Eisegesis: faulty interpretation of a text by reading into it one’s own ideas.” [Bruce M. Metzger, Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek (Published by author; distributed by Theological Book Agency, Princeton, New Jersey, 1970 [1946, 1954]; new edition, Baker, 2001), 8.]
Here, in connection with literary context, I want to call for something that very nearly approaches a truce. Indeed, I argue that one cannot do good exegesis unless one knows how to do good eisegesis. Recognizing the value and place of both enables us to be more faithful in our understanding and application of Scripture.
Our challenge is that in a biblical world where Jewish Midrash reigned, a method that reads later truths back into earlier contexts, the rules of modern exegesis do not yield happy results. By arguing that we must be faithful to the original context, we constantly fly in the face of what the New Testament writers actually do and thereby set up significant tensions for our students when they see Bible writers doing what they have been forbidden to do.
To illustrate, note the use of the Old Testament in Hebrews 13:5-6, translated by the NRSV as:
Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” [Deut. 31:6]. So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’ [Ps. 118.6-7, LXX]
The context in Hebrews is greed, but both of the Old Testament quotations in this passage – Deut. 31:6, 8 and Ps. 118.6, cited from the Greek Old Testament – are taken from warfare contexts. This type of re-application of Old Testament language is so popular among New Testament writers that those immersed in biblical studies scarcely raise an eyebrow. This creative citing of the OT passages in Hebrews 13:5-6 does not even merit a comment in the relevant section of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. [SDABC 7:491 (1957).] But for the uninitiated, Metzger’s definition of eisegesis, raises a haunting possibility: “faulty interpretation of the text.” The Bible writer has been judged wanting, biblical authority has been undermined, and the interpreter struggles with guilt for having uncovered the evidence.
The traditional explanation for such “out-of-context” usage is reflected in a very useful little book published by the General Conference in 1954, Problems in Bible Translation. In the chapter on “Principles of Biblical Interpretation,” the editors identify three ways in which the New Testament writers cite the Old Testament: 1) “direct comment and exegesis”; 2) “analogy”; and 3) “borrowing phraseology to state a new truth.” [“Committee on Problems in Bible Translation,” Problems in Bible Translation(Washington, D.C., General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1954), 108.]
The follow-up comment reveals the tension between modern rules of exegesis and what the New Testament writers actually do. When dealing with analogy and borrowed phraseology, say the editors, “care should be taken not to make of the quotation or allusion an interpretation of the original statement.” But then this qualifier is given: “Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit later Bible writers at times read into earlier statements of Inspiration meaning which would not otherwise be apparent, and of which the original writers themselves may have been unaware. Seeming discrepancy between two inspired statements is usually due to the misinterpretation of either or both.” [Ibid.]
In Adventism, the role of Ellen White as prophetic messenger and as interpreter has forced us to think more carefully about how to test prophetic voices, and we have consistently argued that any prophetic voice must be tested by the Scripture. The KJV of Isaiah 8:20 has been used to express this basic Protestant principle: “To the law and the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” The fact that most modern translations take quite a different approach to that particular verse does not negate the basic soundness of the Protestant norm.
But the question naturally arises: If we are to judge inspired writers by that which we already claim to be inspired, how can we allow the Spirit to overturn or reverse what we have understood the standard to mean? In short, which is the norm, the earliest voice or the latest?
Modern handbooks on biblical interpretation, even those from an explicitly evangelical orientation, such as Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All its Worth, often make matters worse by their ringing emphasis on original context. “The only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text.” And again, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.” [Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 29, 30.]
I can appreciate the concerns that drive Fee and Stuart to give that emphasis, but the author of the book of Hebrews would not likely be convinced.
My proposal is: Let’s simply be brave and admit that the midrashic method of dealing with Scripture is nearly identical with the way all of us use words, phrases, and aphorisms. Some rather playful illustrations can help make my point.
My students know, for example, that when the lecture hour is nearly over, I am likely to glance at the clock and say, “The Philistines are upon us” (cf. Judges 16:9, 12, 14,20). Am I being faithful to the original context of the Samson story? Not at all. Is my meaning clear? Very much so.
A math colleague of mine grew up hearing echoes of the Goliath story whenever his dad wanted to play chess with him: “Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field” (1 Sam. 17:44). Was he being faithful to the original context of the story? Hardly. Was his meaning clear. Of course.
At one step removed from Scripture, I must admit that when I am on the racquetball court and muff a beautiful set-up shot, a line from a well-known hymn immediately flashes to mind, “Yield not to temptation!” Faithful to original context? No. Meaning clear? Yes.
The New Testament usage of the Old Testament is a lot like that, a serious playfulness by devout people who were steeped in the words of Scripture. In short, I want to argue that we should come clean, make peace with eisegesis, allowing the Bible writers to treat their texts any way they wish. We can still hear the point each writer is making, both in the original context and in the secondary one. In fact, following the rules of exegesis is what enables me to realize that Hebrews is, in fact, being free with the context.
I will cite just one modern example by way of illustration. The phrase carpe Diem, “seize the day,” has been popularized in modern culture in the film, “The Dead Poets’ Society,” at least that is where my students say they have heard the phrase.
But it has also been conscripted by Christians. Tony Compolo, the evangelical sociologist, published a thoroughly Christian book in 1994 entitled Carpe Diem: Seize the Day (Word). The last sentence in the first chapter confirms the Christian perspective: “This book is about the new life in Christ!” (p. 19).
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes the phrase to the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC), giving two quotations, one right after the other, that define what Horace originally meant by the phrase: [“Horace,” in Oxford Dictionary Quotations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 349.9, 348.6.]
“While we’re talking envious time is fleeing:
seize the day, put no trust in the future.” – Odes, bk 1, #11.1.7
“Believe each day that has dawned is your last. Some hour to which you have not been looking forward will prove lovely. As for me, if you want a good laugh, you will come and find me fat and sleek, in excellent condition, one of Epicurus’s herd of pigs.” – Epistles, bk 1, #4.1.13
As I was writing this paper, I discovered something quite intriguing about how my own mind plays tricks with words. I started to type, “Clearly the closest biblical equivalent to ‘seize the day’ would be ‘Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.’ I stopped right there and headed for Matthew 24 to find the reference to merrymaking before the flood and its parallel with the second coming.
But my wording wasn’t there. A lively chase finally led me to the closest biblical equivalent in Isaiah 12:13, but without “be merry”: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
My memory had garbled many things. Had I switched “merry” and “marry” in Matthew 24? Perhaps. I’m quite sure that I am being faithful to the original context of Horace’s “carpe diem” and to its application in Matthew 24. It’s also clear that Campolo’s use of the phrase ignores Horace’s context. Campolo’s usage is closer to the “Today” of Hebrews 4, but “carpe diem” has a nice ring to it and we will use it.
Similarly, Isaiah 8:20 – “To the law and to the testimony” – probably doesn’t refer to the testing of prophets. We use the words because they sound so “biblical.” The principle is true, but the context is not. Yet the traditional wording is so deeply rooted that it’s probably with us to stay.
More volatile and more urgent, however, is the way we have mistaken Matthew’s references to “fulfill” as if they had to do with prediction rather than amplification. In Matthew 5, Jesus’ comparisons, “You have heard, but I say,” clearly illustrate when he meant when he said “I have not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” Jesus came to amplify the law, filling it “full” of new and deeper meaning: the law says no murder, Jesus fills those words full of deeper meaning and applies them to murderous thoughts.
But elsewhere in Matthew, his “fulfilled” prophecy passages are essentially midrashic in nature. And that is where we get into difficulty. Marjorie Lewis Lloyd, for example, in an article in Signs of the Times, lists a string of “fulfilled” prophecies, exclaiming: “Twenty-seven Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in twenty-four hours!” This same article cites Peter Stoner, in Science Speaks, who took just eight prophecies and declared that “coincidence is ruled out by the science of probability.” [Marjorie Lewis Lloyd, “That Different Book,” Signs of the Times, August 1976, 16-17.] Yet a check of the Old Testament literary context reveals that each of these so-called “proofs” has nothing to do with prediction. Each one involves midrashic amplification. But getting that message across safely to impressionable minds is not an easy matter.
To sum up my concerns about literary context, I hope my ambivalence is obvious. Good exegetical skills are essential. But I do want us to make peace with eisegesis. Rarely is it simply “faulty” interpretation of the text as Metzger told us. More frequently it is simply a playful interpretation of Scripture, a holy playfulness which gave the rabbis and their New Testament contemporaries great joy.
But as crucial as the literary context is for understanding the biblical text, it is the ethical and practical arena that has opened my eyes to the challenge of interpreting Scripture “in time and place.” For reasons which I only faintly surmise, the first two context categories noted above, namely, the devotional and the mystical, and the ethical and practical, conspire together to undermine all our hard work to do good exegesis. And here I simply want to emphasize the nature of the sobering challenge we face.
The idea that God gave laws to Israel that were increasingly specific, based on need, is one that Ellen White develops magnificently in Patriarchs and Prophets. [See especially PP 303-314 (chapter 27), 363-373 (chapter 32).] Working from Deuteronomy 4:13-14, and the shift in vocabulary between “covenant” and “commandments” in 4:13 to “statutes” and “ordinances” in 4:14, I have argued that the One great principle of Love, Jesus’ Two great commands, and the Ten commands represent an enduring law pyramid that never changes. Everything else in Scripture illustrates and applies that law pyramid in more specific times and places.
My students regularly tell me that this idea of the stable law pyramid is one of the most helpful things they take from my classes. But among my students I have discovered a subtle perception that illustrates why formal exegesis can so easily undermine faith.
When I began to sense the nature of the challenge, I started tracking more closely the student responses to some carefully crafted examination questions. The first red flag was in the summer of 2002 when I was teaching History of Adventism to a wonderful group of highly-motivated upper division students and teachers returning to work on certification. The students were eager, devout, bright. That’s why I was stunned by their responses on the first examination to this “loaded” question:
Question: Select the one answer most likely to represent your instructor’s position on the applicability of Ellen White’s messages:
- Ellen White’s general counsels were inspired and universally applicable; by contrast, her specific counsels to individuals were simply practical counsel given by a godly woman and should not be considered inspired.
- Because of the principle of “once true, always true,” all of Ellen White’s writings are universally applicable, rising above the normal limits of time and place.
- Even Ellen White’s most specific counsels are inspired and illustrate larger principles which others find useful.
The answer I thought would be thoroughly self-evident was “C”: specific counsels illustrate larger principles. To my horror and amazement, eleven of the fifteen marked “A”: only the general counsels are inspired, the specifics are not.
Since then I have continued to experiment in virtually every class, trying to find a more effective way of making my position clear. Whether I am dealing with Ellen White or the Bible the issue is the same: Are the more narrowly focused specifics inspired? In my Old Testament classes I want my students to recognize the One-Two-Ten as a rock-solid nucleus that never changes; but I also was them to see the more specific laws as “inspired” applications of those enduring principles.
I began reading the question to the students ahead of time, several days before the exam, identifying my position with great emphasis, telling them that the same question with those very same options would be on the examination. The order of the options might vary, but not the wording. The wording would be exactly the same as I gave it to them in advance.
What happens? In spite of my forceful words before the test, anywhere from ten to thirty percent still mark the same “wrong” answer. In the Winter term of 2007, for example, thirteen of thirty-three students marked the position that said I did not hold the specific counsels as being “inspired.”
Finally, in the Winter of 2008, I tried a new wrinkle. I actually printed out the question on the “official” review sheet so that the students could see it with their very own eyes. But before giving them the review sheet, I passed out blank slips of paper, asking them to answer the question anonymously. From their unsigned slips, this was the result:
- Only the general principles are inspired – 10 students
- Universal applicability – 1 student
- Inspired specifics illustrate larger principles – 8 students
We then went over the question in its printed form as it would appear on the test (with the options scrambled). I spoke with emphasis and passion. Still, on the examination itself, four of twenty-seven students chose A, only the general principles are inspired.
Finally, in the Spring of 2008, after telling the story of what had happened the previous quarter, I “bullied” the entire class into marking the correct answer. Finally. Finally.
What intrigues me is that rarely will a student explicitly opt for universal applicability. But the actual process of interpretation seems to result in the “feeling” at a deep level that the more narrowly focused specifics really aren’t “inspired” by God precisely because they are not universally applicable.
As I have grappled with and puzzled over this issue, I have decided that there must be a deeply embedded impulse in human thinking, the inclination to believe that when God sends a message with his stamp of approval on it, then surely that message must be absolute and eternal, applying to all people at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances.
Is that kind of thinking linked in some mysterious way to Isaac’s reaction to the blessing that he had just pronounced on Jacob, the son who had so cruelly duped his aged father in order to steal the blessing, with his mother’s less-than-subtle approval, no less? In our (secularized) day, any son who would deceive his parent to steal a blessing would likely be stripped of any and all blessings. Yet, when Isaac learned that he had been cruelly deceived, he blurted out to Esau, the defrauded brother: “I have blessed him and blessed he shall be.” [Gen 27, especially vss 30-40.]
Does the story of Daniel in the lion’s den reveal the same kind of universalizing logic? “The laws of the Medes and Persians cannot be changed,” declared the king. The logic held even when King Darius discovered that he had been deceived. If human laws and the decrees of the king “cannot be revoked,” surely the word of the “gods” must be even more enduring.
I really don’t know if the illustration I give my students actually solves the problem completely, but I do ask them to join me in imagining a classroom scenario to illustrate how more narrowly focused laws and applications can be as “inspired” as universal ones:
Imagine a sleepy student, I suggest, who has been having difficulty waking up in the morning and getting to class on time. In an effort to motivate the student to get up and get going, I suggest the following to him: “Do you want me to come to your room at 7:45 in the morning with a class of cold water to dump on you so that you will be awake and ready for class on time?”
That personalized threat would be just as much from the teacher as the course outline, but only the course outline applies to the whole class.
In the same way, all of Scripture is inspired of God. But not all of it is universally applicable, however perverse that may feel in the depths of human experience. There is not a person on the face of the earth who is capable to doing all that God says should be done, not because they are rebellious, but because God has adapted his specific counsel to opposite needs. If one person is always too early and another too late, they will get opposite messages. Some students write too much, some not enough. To the extent that the Bible can help us in our daily living, it must be full of many “contradictory” examples.
In short, I have sensed a powerful impulse to believe that anything that comes from God really should apply with equal force to all people everywhere. If Adventists are going to preserve the Bible as a document from which we can seek guidance for our day by first interpreting what the text meant in the author’s day, we have a monumental task ahead of us.