Saturday, September 09, 2017

Private Interpretation

I believe all scripture is breathed out by God. That’s not a new idea and it won’t shock anyone here. Holding and maintaining that view of the Bible is one of the marks of orthodoxy going back to the first century.

I’ve been enjoying the book of Job recently, every word of it God-breathed and profitable. But that does NOT mean every word of it is correct.

No, really.

Heresy with Both Feet

Take a deep breath now. I’m not about to plunge into heresy with both feet, no worries.

We can reasonably and logically maintain our conviction in the divine inspiration of scripture, delivered word-by-word and letter-by-letter through the prophets, apostles and other writers, even in its most literal sense, without assuming the validity of every statement made within it.

Indeed, we would be fools to claim all statements in the Bible are true.

Serpent Talk

After all, scripture records numerous lies for us, starting right in the first few chapters of Genesis and continuing all the way through holy writ. The serpent’s savvy manipulation of Eve is laid out there starkly, and yet no attempt is made in the immediate context to draw his brazen falsehoods and crafty reframings to the reader’s attention. The construction “[Satan’s lying! — Ed.]” is not something we come across in the Bible. (In fact, if the Genesis passage is read in isolation from the rest of the word of God, it isn’t even obvious Satan is present. We simply have a mysterious talking snake.)

An editor-heavy approach might have made things simpler for sloppy readers to keep up with, but that’s not the way God has chosen to reveal truth. Instead, we find out the serpent is lying by means of the curse God puts on him, and through the consequences to Adam and Eve of listening to him. Meanwhile, Satan’s lies are recorded as history, right alongside Adam and Eve’s actions in response to them.

God-Breathed, but Confusing

It’s all God-breathed, but we wouldn’t call the serpent’s words eternal truth; quite the opposite. And it’s not just the lies. Untruths are common in the human experience, but bewilderment and confusion are arguably even more common.

Take the book of Job as a prime example. Greatly distressed by all the evil that has befallen him, Job now begins to question God. His statements throughout chapter 10 are a cocktail of truth and error so well shaken that for us to discern which is which makes for a truly absorbing exercise. At one point, distraught, he cries out:
“Your hands fashioned and made me, and now you have destroyed me altogether.”
Well, yes and no. There’s a solid argument to be made that it is Satan who is most directly responsible for Job’s suffering. “Behold, all that [Job] has is in your hand,” God had said to him. “Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” Again in the second chapter, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” The specifics of Job’s torments are all down to another created being, not God.

Steadfast Love

Job goes on:
“You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit.”
Wow. In this case, yes and … yes. We could, in fact, say that as one with Job. We could make his little verse into a plaque and put it on our living room walls, as Christians often do, and it would quite legitimately stir our hearts to praise from time to time. In fact, it’s probably available in needlepoint at your local outlet specializing in Christian clutter.

That’s one we’d be happy to appropriate, universalize and apply to our own experience.

My Redeemer, Oh What Beauties …

Okay, how about this pronouncement:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”
That one’s even better. The best, maybe. If there’s a single verse in the book of Job that I would prefer not to see fobbed off as “just a suffering man’s personal opinion”, that would be the one right there. It speaks to me right at the core of my being, and it lays out truth that cannot be contradicted.

I love it, and generations of Christians have loved it too.

The Interpretational Gordian Knot

But if Job’s doubts and rationalizations and self-defenses and theories and speculations are all equally laid down here for us chapter after sad chapter, how can we defensibly pick out that particular verse and say we’d like to keep it? How do we claim that in that singular moment, Job was “inspired”?

It’s all just a man’s personal opinion, isn’t it? Or else … maybe it’s all true? (That option might be worse considering some of the things we find in the speeches of Eliphaz and Bildad.)

I think there might be a way through this kind of interpretational Gordian knot that doesn’t involve a sword — unless you want to count the sword of the Spirit. I think that’s key.

The Bits That Stand Up

The key is the rest of scripture. The reason Job’s line about his Redeemer resonates with us is that we have the New Testament story of Jesus to which we may compare it, and in which we have been forever redeemed. The reason the phrase “at last he will stand upon the earth” resonates is that we have the Revelation of Jesus Christ to the apostle John, and the prophecies of Ezekiel, Daniel and Zechariah, among others, in which the Son of Man will do just as Job declares.

There is nothing “private” about such an interpretation. It shares its authority with the entire rest of our Bibles. It stands up because it is propped up by verse after verse after verse, to the point where its eternal validity cannot be contested.

The Bits That Don’t

The line “Now you have destroyed me all together” has no such across-the-board resonance. Maybe God did, maybe he didn’t. We may certainly cite examples of God destroying things in the Old Testament (Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind). But more often than not, the thing that destroys a man is the man himself. Or his ill-chosen girlfriend. Or his backstabbing friends. Or his servants. Or his enemies. Or, as in this case, even Satan.

Scripture gives us lots of options, and we are disinclined to say “Amen” to any distraught conjecture that God is to blame for Job’s misery — or, frankly, for our own.

All scripture is God-breathed, but not every word of scripture is correct. To determine that, we need to pay — as the writer to the Hebrews encourages us — “much closer attention”.

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