Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seeing What We Want to See

Christians cannot agree across the board about what the Bible teaches. If we could, there would be no need for denominations, and there would be a single, clear, accepted interpretation of every verse of scripture.

Wouldn’t that be nice? But it ain’t so, and we all know it.

Differences of Interpretation

Some argue these differences of interpretation are evidence the Bible is untrue. Even Christians occasionally find ourselves quietly wondering whether God might just have made his word the tiniest bit more obscure than necessary. The apostle Peter certainly recognized some bits of the New Testament are harder than others to understand, as those of us who have worked our way through the Pauline epistles well know.

Did the Holy Spirit have a purpose in allowing the word of God to be written in such a way as to be so very open to human interpretations … even really stupid ones? I believe he did. He certainly did not fail to foresee the divisions which differences of opinion about the text would inevitably create. It’s not completely impossible some of these stumbling blocks were placed in our way deliberately to trip up those who refuse to approach God’s word in faith. After all, the parables of Jesus were not without their intentional difficulties designed to deter the unrepentant and faithless.

The fact is that when we come to the word of God, much of the time we see what we want to see and what we expect to see. It is only by faith, dependence on the Lord and the guidance of the Holy Spirit that we can get past our presuppositions and biases to understand God’s word as he intended. A mechanical, merely intellectual approach will not help us.

Wrestling with Resurrection

For example, the Pharisees and Sadducees of the first century disagreed over the concept of resurrection. Matthew, Mark and Luke all comment on the fact that the Sadducees vigorously rejected the belief in life after death. The Pharisees did not. The apostle Paul, well aware of the acrimony which attended this theological divide, used it to distract the Jewish council when it proposed to try him for blasphemy. In the resulting clamor he was escorted to safety by the Romans.

It has been argued that the Sadducees rejected resurrection because they accepted a different Old Testament canon than that of the Pharisees, but this does not appear to be the case. Don Stewart has shown quite decisively that the Sadducees accepted the Psalms and Prophets as well as the Pentateuch. They simply read them allegorically rather than in the more literal fashion of the Pharisees, much as a significant number of evangelicals today read all the Old Testament promises to the nation of Israel as applying figuratively to the Church, rejecting the literal meaning of much of the Major and Minor Prophets.

And, in fact, there are plenty of apparent references to resurrection in the Old Testament that could be read either literally or figuratively, depending on the theological assumptions we bring to the text. Psalm 71 is a fine example. Written in David’s old age, the psalm depicts a senior citizen at the end of his strength, appealing to the Lord to protect him from his enemies and give him opportunity to testify to his faith. In verse 20, David expresses the conviction that God, who had made him “see many troubles and calamities”, would “revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again”.

Pharisees and Sadducees

Just as the Christian does today, a Pharisee in Jesus’ day would have had no problem taking this perfectly literally. David believed his God would bring him back from the grave to lead his people in praises once more someday in the future. After all, “revive me again” is not an isolated statement: David also speaks of proclaiming God’s might to his present generation, and then proclaiming his power to all those to come, something that might be rather difficult at the tail end of a limited lifespan and with no prospects beyond the moment of his own death. Reading this couplet as a claim to the reality of literal resurrection works for the evangelical reader who has placed his own hope in the risen Christ, and it certainly would have worked for the first century Pharisee.

However, the Sadducee reading the same psalm was having quite a different experience. His systematic theology and rationalism limited his ability to see what we do, and what the Pharisees, for all their hypocrisy and corruption, saw as well. So he might argue that, far from contemplating eternal life, David was merely looking for the equivalent of an “Indian Summer” in his old age: another opportunity to visit God’s house and testify to his greatness in front of God’s people; a few moments of strength to finish a few more psalms to pass on to subsequent generations; relief for his arthritic fingers so that he could praise God with his lyre once again. The “depths of the earth” from which David appealed to be brought up might be a metaphor for despair or depression, after all, and “revive me again” might mean no more than “revitalize my spirit”.

And perhaps we could even accept that reading as a possibility. After all, there is some kind of plausible figurative application available for every statement in the psalm which we might ordinarily read literally, which is a whole lot more than Reformed Theologians bother to provide us when they interpret the later chapters of the book of Ezekiel. It sounds like resurrection to me, and I’m willing to bet it sounded like resurrection to Pharisees in the first century, but you could differ over the meaning of these verses without breaking furniture.

A Different Story

The book of Daniel is a different story. There are certainly well-known figures of speech in use at the end of Daniel 12 (“sleep”, “awake”), but I’m not sure how you interpret this verse as anything other than an explicit promise of coming resurrection and judgment:
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Or this one, for that matter:
“But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”
In context, the “end of the days” is the “time of the end”, a “time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time”, and to “rest” is to “sleep in the dust of the earth” … in other words, to be dead. It is difficult to imagine how one might spiritualize such statements and be left with anything remotely intelligible.

And yet the Sadducees would have had to. I wonder what they would have said. When you have already ruled out the plain sense of a passage in favor of assigning it some meaning you prefer for reasons that have nothing to do with the passage itself, at some point your clever application veers from “spiritualizing” the text into spiriting the text away; from a dissenting opinion into denial and disbelief.

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