How to Read the Bible part 5 – interpretation gone wild

In part 4 I introduced the ancient interpreters and their four assumptions about how to read and understand the Bible. Now I want to follow their progress as Bible interpretation grows and reaches a pivotal moment – the arrival of Jesus.

When we left them, Ezra and his priestly friends were reading the scriptures to the returning exiles and ‘giving the sense’ to help people figure out who they were, who they would be and to find the way forward. At that point it was a small group, but soon the interpretation of the Bible would become massive in the Jewish faith.

There is a fantastic underlying belief in Judaism that what was written was always meant to be understood in the context of a conversation and a relationship. For many Jews this comes in the form of the Written Torah – the first books of the Bible as given to Moses – and the Oral Torah – which is what they believe God said to Moses and was not written down at that time but passed on from priests to rabbis through history. The Oral Torah is now written down in various forms but there is still an understanding among many that it requires the wisdom of good interpretation and application to get the full picture.

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What started from a very positive place got more and more complicated though. For example, the Jews were told in the Law to bind God’s commandments as symbols on their hands and their foreheads in Deuteronomy 6:8, but that was quite a complicated commandment: which commands were they supposed to wear out of the 613 laws? How were they to tie them and wear them? What would that look like? Enter the interpreters. They would pick through the accounts to find tiny details that would unlock the secrets of what God really meant but had been a bit sparing in explaining.

The four assumptions became tools for revealing these hidden secrets – if the Bible was perfect and complete, then there could be no accidents. So, if a word was repeated or phrased a bit oddly, then it must be there for a reason. The problem was you could end up with some really obscure interpretations drawn from what must be scraps of clues. And only the best, most wise and highly trained instructors could possibly know what the Bible really meant to say: everyone else would have to hear it from them.

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James Kugel picks out one of these interpretations in his book ‘How to Read the Bible’ to show how this works. He looks at the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham has received his long awaited, miraculous son Isaac, and God asks him in Genesis 22 to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Abraham and Isaac set off together, they leave their entourage behind and start to climb up the mountain together – the text says, ‘they walked together’. Part way up Isaac looks around and says, ‘Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Good question. Abraham replies ‘God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering my son’. Then the text continues, saying for the second time in a few sentences, ‘and the two of them walked together’.

It’s that tiny detail that has intrigued interpreters for a long time. If the Bible is perfect and complete, there would be no unnecessary repetitions. There must be some meaning hidden away in the walking together.

Kugel proposes that this story was no less shocking to its ancient readers than it is to us today – the thought of human sacrifice would have been abhorrent, much less destroying the fruit of the fulfilled promise from God. So, they set out to find an explanation to make the story a bit more palatable.

Here is what Kugel made of it: ‘Modern readers generally take these things (challenging things we don’t understand) at face value and then either wrestle with their implications or else just shrug their shoulders: “Well, I guess that’s just the way things were back then.” But ancient interpreters instead set out to give the text the most favourable reading they could and, in some cases, to try to get it to say what they thought it really meant to say, or at least ought to say. They did this by combining an extremely meticulous examination of its words with an interpretive freedom that sometimes bordered on the wildly inventive’.

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Here is the little rabbit trail they went down in this example. The story we’re talking about starts with the phrase ‘it came to pass, after these things’. This is usually a kind of marker to show we’re moving on to a new story or topic. But ‘these things’ could also be translated ‘these words’. “Which words?” asked the interpreters – sure, it could mean the story preceding it, but it could mean something else – the interpreters set off to come up with some suggestions.

This story was about God testing Abraham, and they noticed that the book of Job also featured a divine test. Perhaps, they thought, the two could be linked. In the story of Job, Satan approaches God and asks if he can test Job. Maybe the same thing had happened regarding Abraham and those were the ‘these words’ that seemed to be missing from the start of the story. That made the interpreters feel a bit more comfortable about the ‘why’ of the story – God wasn’t just putting Abraham through an ordeal for no reason, or because he had temporarily lost his omnipotence and genuinely didn’t know if Abraham was up to the test or not.

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Next, they turned their attention to that little repeated phrase ‘they walked together’. Biblical Hebrew was originally written without punctuation or capital letters, and some of the verbs in our English translation weren’t in there either. Re-jigged, Abraham’s vague reply between the two ‘walking togethers’ could read – ‘God Himself will provide. The lamb for the burnt offering (is) my son’. Abraham tells Isaac the brutal truth, Isaac considers it, ‘and the two of them walked together’ in agreement. This really changes the meaning of the story from how we might have originally thought of it.

‘By interpreting the story in this fashion,’ writes Kugel, ‘ancient interpreters solved two of the major problems raised by this account, God’s apparent ignorance of how the test would turn out and Abraham’s apparent callousness and evasiveness vis-à-vis Isaac. But did the interpreters actually believe their own interpretations? Didn’t they know they were playing fast and loose with the text’s real meaning?’

This is where it gets a bit uncomfortable: were they prophetically digging in to the amazing depths and hidden gems God had left for them in the Bible? Maybe – it does make me think of the proverb that says it’s the glory of God to conceal a matter and the glory of kings to search it out. But maybe they also felt ill at ease with an image of God that didn’t match the image they had of him and instead of embracing the mystery, they set out to find a way to conform the story to match their expectations. Personally, I think it could start out as a spirit led adventure into the Word, but somewhere down the line, could it be that power-hungry men started to realise they had an amazing tool to pretty much make the Word say whatever they wanted it to say?

From this story alone, you could perhaps give the ancient interpreters the benefit of the doubt. But you also need to look at where it ended up. By the time of the Pharisees, in Jesus time, the original 10 commandments had expanded to 613 laws taken from the Torah, and on from there to the point that one commandment such as ‘honour the Sabbath’ now had 39 extra laws governing it, including specifics such as exactly how many steps you could take on a Sabbath. The Pursue God website has a great short video explaining this.

In fact Jesus had something to say about this tradition and where it had ended up, in Mark 7:

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honour me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’[d]

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”

Then he said, “You skilfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. 10 For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honour your father and mother,’[e] and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’[f] 11 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’[g] 12 In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. 13 And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”

This marked a huge transition point in the way that the Bible would be read and understood. From this point on we would see the Jewish tradition of interpretation and oral law continue and be cherished, while a split came from the early Christians who would now start to read the Bible in a different way – seeking out the spirit and not the letter of the law.

But the early Christians were from a Jewish background – whether they knew it or not, they often read the Bible in a way that was influenced by the culture they came from. This rich heritage, for better or worse, got woven in to the way that the letters to the early church were written and how they perceived who Jesus was in the backdrop of Biblical history. Next time, I’ll have a look at how early Christians read the Bible.

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