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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Twitterized Bible

How about that morning verse, eh?
Ben Irwin dislikes the ‘Twitterized’ Bible.

You know, the way Christians tend to quote scripture in tiny fragments. He’s concerned that in doing so we’ll lose the Author’s original meaning and not even realize it’s gone. Twitterizing is only one name for it. Others call it “using the Bible as a medicine cabinet” or “prooftexting”.

For the most part I agree with Ben, so I’m going to tread carefully here.

After all, I have harped here about context as the most critically important interpretive tool in the Bible student’s tool kit so many times I’ve lost track. Taken out of their original context, verses of holy writ may be misunderstood or have their meanings entirely inverted.

But not always.

Parsing Authorial Intent

Context is vitally important in discovering the original meaning of most texts. I would argue that in most instances it is difficult to ascertain authorial intent with any confidence without it. Art Farstad retells the old Bible school saw on the subject:
“Many have heard the story of the man whose devotional reading consisted of cracking his Bible at random and reading the first verse his finger touched. One morning this was his verse for the day: ‘And Judas went out and hanged himself.’

That can’t be it, he thought. So he tried again. ‘Go thou and do likewise’ was his second hit.

Chagrined, he thought, Third time’s the charm! It wasn’t. It read: ‘What thou doest, do quickly!’ ”
The man in Art’s story was a King Jameser, but that alone doesn’t explain his unfortunate results. Lack of context does. To discover authorial intent, we must always read in context.

The Be-All and End-All

But is authorial intent the be-all and end-all? Maybe it is when we’re reading the instructions on a bottle of pills, but I would argue that scripture is multi-layered. Its texts may bear multiple legitimate meanings, though we must be very careful about inventing meanings that are not there. Still, many verses of scripture are quoted and re-quoted within the Bible itself, finding new nuances of meaning (and even completely different ones) the second and third times out.

Nobody could legitimately contend, for instance, that Matthew 2:15 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) interprets Hosea 11:1 contextually. In Hosea the “son” is inarguably the nation of Israel. But Matthew appropriates the line and uses it of the Lord Jesus, whose parents took him to Egypt to protect him until after the death of Herod, who was trying to kill him. Matthew’s words are inspired, of course, so he has a bit of an advantage over the poor preacher preparing his Sunday message today. But Matthew is not claiming to give us the original meaning of the text. He is applying Hosea, and applying it quite legitimately. He’s saying, in effect, “This is the same sort of thing: a son (or Son), called by God with a purpose, out of Egypt”.

In fact, I would argue that Matthew’s usage is actually more significant than Hosea’s, though one cannot exist without the other. It is only by putting the two passages together that we realize that it has fallen, in the counsels of God, to Jesus Christ to fulfill the original purpose for which Israel was called by God … and failed.

Jesus didn’t fail. That’s useful information, I think, and we wouldn’t get it from Hosea alone.

The Year of the Lord’s Favor

Now someone may shrewdly point out that I may appear to be arguing at cross-purposes with myself here. After all, from the perspective of the modern student (as opposed to the prophet, poet or sage) the solution to understanding one or more of the “Out of Egypt …” statements involves reading more context, not less.

True. My point is merely that one set of words with a distinct original, discernable meaning may be quite legitimately applied elsewhere.

Let’s take another example of someone using scripture within scripture in a way not envisioned by the original author.

Isaiah wrote about the future restoration of Zion (or Jerusalem). He speaks prophetically of bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to the captives. All good stuff, if you happened to be a devout Jew. Something to look forward to, especially in a day when your “nation” is reduced to little more than a backwater Roman province.

Such was the state of affairs the day the Lord Jesus went into the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and stood up to read aloud from Isaiah. He picked exactly this passage to read, and Luke tells us, “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth”.

And gracious they certainly were. At least initially.

Much has been made of the fact that the Lord stopped his reading in the middle of a sentence right before Isaiah’s punchline. The text in Isaiah reads:
“… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
   and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Contextual interpreters would normally leave that last line in. The Lord did not.

The Day of Vengeance of Our God

There was good prophetic reason for this, in that we now know the “day of vengeance of our God” to have been at least two millennia in the future, while the “year of the Lord’s favor” was fulfilled in the original earthly ministry of Messiah.

But what is also notable here is that, in addition to consciously disregarding the context of the scripture he quoted, the Lord deliberately provoked the Jews of his own hometown by applying Isaiah’s precious, beloved, quintessentially Jewish message ... to Gentiles. In the Lord’s application (or reinterpretation, if you prefer), the captives, the blind and the oppressed to whom the good news is to be proclaimed are Gentiles, not Jews. He specifically references the woman of Zarephath to whom Elijah was sent and the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian.

In other words, he completely changes the original meaning. No wonder his audience promptly tried to kill him. If you asked them afterward about that “gracious” bit, I bet they’d have taken it all back.

Now, this is the Lord Jesus doing it, so we can hardly quibble about his interpretive technique, can we? But my point is that even if we could discern Isaiah’s authorial intent (assuming HE knew what it was), it does not help us here. We need to be open to broader applications.

The Jews were not. They got it wrong.

Sometimes Context Doesn’t Help At All

Further, there are parts of scripture in which context does not help us at all.

Anything proverbial in character falls into this category. Hebrew proverbs are often paired lines that may be repeated for reinforcement, implicitly contrasted, embellished or restated with a slight twist. But beyond these paired lines, the verses around a proverb are notably unhelpful in analyzing meaning. They generally consist of more proverbs, frequently entirely unrelated.

For instance, here are three sets of those proverbial couplets from consecutive verses in Proverbs:
“A man is commended according to his good sense,
  but one of twisted mind is despised.

  Better to be lowly and have a servant
  than to play the great man and lack bread.


  Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast,
  but the mercy of the wicked is cruel.”
If you think context is the least bit helpful in interpreting the middle [bolded] couplet, you are considerably more creative than I am.

I would also argue that the Psalms and Song of Solomon, being primarily poetic, are unusual and often enigmatic in their associations and leaps of thought. As in the Nazareth synagogue episode, poetry, like prophecy, will take you interesting places between one sentence and the next. While there is more genuine context in the Psalms to consider than in Proverbs, it ought to be recognized that even careful English scholarship may miss things the Lord and the apostles took for granted.

The Problem with Contextual Compulsive Disorder

But let’s go back for a moment to Ben Irwin, who takes issue with the use of a verse from Nahum:
“The other day, someone gave me a note with Nahum 1:7 printed at the top: ‘The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.’ For some reason, they neglected to include the next line, which continues the thought from verse 7: ‘But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of Nineveh.’

Okay, so maybe the fuller version doesn’t deliver quite the same Hallmark moment. And maybe that’s the problem with how many Christians use the Bible.”
Stop right there.

Here’s a classic example of how NOT to use context. I agree with Ben that the contrast drawn by Nahum in the original context is between Jehovah’s care for Israel and his coming destruction of Nineveh. But there is nothing illegitimate about recognizing that the first part of the verse contains a statement of fact that is absolutely universal: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.”

That’s a fact, Jack. That’s always true. There are no exceptions. None. The Lord is ALWAYS good. The Lord is ALWAYS a refuge in times of trouble, even if all we do is lean on him emotionally as we die in his service. Often he is the ONLY refuge available, and ALWAYS he is the best possible refuge. And does the Lord care for those who trust in him? He certainly does, without exception.

I can prove these truths from dozens of verses elsewhere in scripture, but I won’t even bother. Who would dispute them? How is encouraging a fellow believer with these thoughts a misuse of the text? How would that same believer (unless he happens to be a total pedant) be remotely helped by the addition of the line about the “complete end” the Lord would make of Nineveh?

Agreed, that’s the original context. But let it go. It was written for more than the original moment.

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