Friday, May 26, 2023

Reading the Prophets Without Slaughtering Your Enemies

 In my last post, I talked about how Christians have sometimes tended to read the book of Revelation creatively, like the way some people find pro-marijuana references in the lyrics of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Revelation has the perfect mix of historical and cultural distance (it was written a long time ago to people in a faraway place) and symbolic “insider” language that contains hidden messages (apocalyptic) — which the reader is often very ready to interpret in light of their own opinions, assumptions, religious leanings, and prejudices. Given that, it’s pretty easy to see how, for instance, Martin Luther might have seen the Pope as the Beast of Revelation, or how someone might think the “number of the Beast” is a prediction of a chip or number that would entangle Christians in some kind of sinister new world order — especially if they’re inclined toward distrust of such things to begin with. Confirmation bias creeps in, and before long you’re reading Revelation as if was written directly to you. Not to mention that it’s much more interesting when you read it like that!

     Of course, we know that the Bible wasn’t written directly to us. While we can hear God’s word to us in every book of the Bible, it’s a mistake to read it as if every word was addressed primarily to us in our own time and place. Revelation was written first to real first-century Christians in an eastern province of the Roman Empire who were facing pressure to give up on Jesus and acknowledge the Empire as the ultimate power. Before we decide what it means to us, we have to consider what it would have meant to them. And predictions of events two thousand years in their futures would have meant little. 

     But it isn’t only Revelation that’s read that way. 

     The Bible’s “prophetic” books often have the same ideal blend of symbolic language and historical and cultural distance that makes them perfect greenhouses for growing your own “creative” interpretations. In addition, the New Testament writers sometimes use the Jewish prophetic books in exactly that way. It’s no wonder that Christians sometimes see in the prophets anything they want to see.

     If you think that’s academic, then consider the use of Isaiah at a political rally earlier this year. The speaker told his audience that a significant national political event had “triggered the day of vengeance” described in chapter 63. He read the passage about God “treading the winepress” of judgment against the nations, verse 3 in the King James Version: “I will tread them in mine anger and trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled on my garments.” 

     A few things to consider. First, and obviously, the winepress itself is figurative language. The prophet wasn’t saying that God was going to put people from any nation into a literal winepress and stomp on them. Seems most likely that the blood of defeated soldiers that splattered his clothing suggested the juice of grapes that would have stained the clothes of someone treading an actual winepress. That being the case, it’s debatable at best that a literal translation of this text should be on the table at all.

     Second, this should make it apparent that thinking this text advocates violence against any enemies — and portraying that violence as God’s will — is a terrible misapplication. The point is that God is coming to fight for his people, who at this point in history have been taken from their homes in the Promised Land and sent into exile. It's not about God’s people fighting anyone. The fact is, when the Jewish people were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple after 70 years, it wasn’t through killing enough Babylonians. It was the raising up of a new Empire, the Persians, who were more permissive in their attitudes about religion and culture than the Babylonians. Isaiah even predicts the name of the ruler who will overthrow the Babylonians — Cyrus — and says that God brought him to the throne.

     And third, on what basis can anyone say that Isaiah was interested in speaking about political events in America in 2023? Couldn’t his words just as easily be applied to IRA nationalists, Al-Qaeda terrorists, any group or political party that feels aggrieved and marginalized? Isn’t it much more likely that his language applies specifically to the situation of the Jewish people in his day?

     In fact, that’s exactly what the language of Isaiah tells us. In verse 7, the prophet refers to “the many good things [God] has done for Israel” (emphasis mine) as a basis for his expectation that God would save them now. They are “his people.” (v. 8) They have a history that includes the Exodus, Moses (11-13) and Abraham and Jacob (16). They are “tribes” that make up God’s “inheritance” (17), and there’s a reference to the Temple, Israel’s former “holy place” that’s now been “trampled” by their enemies. (18)

     In short, this text can’t be simply transferred to America in 2023 because we are not the primary recipients of this message. If you intercepted a letter congratulating someone else for winning the lottery, you wouldn’t imagine that you could legitimately expect to receive the winnings by virtue of having the letter. It’s just as inappropriate to assume that God is fighting on the side of America 2023, much less on the side of any particular political party.

     This is a danger of careless interpretation of Scripture; that people who are passionate about their political opinions think that they find in the Bible justification for violence toward their political opponents. We’re two and a half years past a mob of people, some emboldened by what they considered biblical imagery and language, storming the Capitol to stop legislators from confirming a Presidential election. We’re a year and half away from another such vote. Reckless interpretation of the Bible can be a lit match thrown on dry kindling. It’s happened too often in history to be laughed off as paranoia. 

     That’s not to say that there are no legitimate applications of Isaiah 63 to us. But they are secondary, drawn from the experiences of Israel as the primary recipients of such texts.

     Like he has for Israel, God has always fought for his people faithfully, even when we haven’t been faithful. When there is no one else to help, God saves. Eventually, those who oppose his will and find strength in unrighteousness and injustice will feel his wrath. We can and should take comfort in remembering God’s kindness to his people, especially when things are difficult. Our distress also distresses God. He offers to give us his Spirit, through Christ, even more generously than he gave it to his people then. He is our Father and our Redeemer, and he calls us by his name.

     This is how the New Testament writers sometimes use the prophets: to proclaim the gospel and to show Jesus as the one who has come in continuity with God’s ongoing intention to save human beings from sin and death. They use the prophets to show how Jesus fulfills the Messianic hope of Israel. They use the prophets to give direction to the church on how to witness to the gospel in the larger world.  They never invoke the prophets to show themselves as victorious warriors, or to anticipate and gloat over God’s imminent spilling of their opponents’ blood. Jesus saved by sacrificing his life, not taking the lives of others, and people who follow him know that the Bible calls us to sacrifice ourselves as well, not splatter our clothing with the blood of those who might oppose us. As we are reminded of every time we share Communion: we are sprinkled only with the blood of the New Covenant, shed by Jesus on the cross.    

     In the next post, we’ll have more to say about how to discern what the biblical writers were saying to their original audiences. After that, we can look at how we find meaning in the Bible for us. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Reading Revelation and Puff the Magic Dragon

If you’re my age, you probably remember a song called “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” originally
written and performed by the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary. By the time I remember first hearing it, in the early 70’s, the song had already been around for 10 years or so. There’s a refrain in it that goes:

“Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee”

I don’t remember exactly when, the late 70’s or early 80’s, I first heard it confidently asserted that Puff was actually not about a little boy and his pretend dragon friend. It was instead about smoking weed. “Puff,” get it? And autumn mist is a cloud of smoke, and there was even something about Honah Lee and some place or the other that was supposed to have really potent marijuana. The boy Puff befriended was even named Jackie Paper.

     There are a lot of other lines that it would be really hard to twist into a pro-marijuana song, but that never stopped us from being certain that Puff was really about smoking. There were reasons outside the song too. Some of the adults in our lives were telling us that there were pro-drug messages encoded in our music and TV shows and movies. We were conditioned to see it. We were getting to the age where it was fun to see scandal. So it was easy to believe that Peter, Paul, and Mary wrote a song for children about pot-smoking. 

     Well, the co-writers of the song, Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton, would later deny that the song had anything to do with marijuana. It was about growing up, the loss of innocence, facing the adult world. Yarrow said, “What kind of mean-spirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?” 

     I believe them. Just Google the lyrics, and it’s obvious that the song has absolutely nothing to do with smoking marijuana. But there was a time in my life when I and anyone I went to school with would have told you confidently that it was for sure about blazing up.

     And when we read the Bible, sometimes we are just as creative in our interpretations. And for the same reasons. What we bring to the reading. Assumptions we make. Connotations that words have for us that they wouldn’t have had for the original authors. 

     And the more symbolic and metaphoric the language of Scripture, the more we’re prone to those creative interpretations. Which is why we’ve made such a mess of the book of Revelation.

     Revelation is an example of a type of literature called apocalyptic. Even that needs some unpacking, because we hear that word and think it means the end of the world. But apocalypse is just an English transliteration of a Greek word that means an uncovering, a disclosure — a revelation. Apocalyptic literature unveils secrets and mysteries. Sometimes those secrets and mysteries are about the end of the world, but that’s secondary. Apocalyptic literature is about pulling back the curtain so the ways the unseen things of the universe really work can be seen. It’s usually written to assure people who are suffering for their faith that God sees their suffering and that they will be vindicated, comforted, and rewarded. It depicts the imminent fall of the powers persecuting them and the work of God in bringing about their downfall. This is always the way apocalyptic is to be read. Them’s the rules. Read this way, even if you don’t understand all the details you get the main idea.     

     This is why one of the common refrains in the early chapters of Revelation is “be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life.” Going back to an earlier post, Revelation was most certainly not originally written to us. It was written by a suffering, persecuted Christian to other suffering, persecuted Christians in his time in what’s now Turkey. It isn’t intended to answer our questions, so to build a whole systematic theology of the “end times” on the metaphors, word pictures, and scripture references in the book is the height of futility.   

     When you aren’t familiar with the “rules” for reading apocalyptic and you aren’t familiar with the scriptures it refers to, Revelation just becomes what we want it to be. You can “Puff the Magic Dragon” it to your heart’s content, and it can mean anything you want it to mean, anything you want to read into it. It’s friendly that way. Accommodating. This is why Revelation has been used by every cult leader to deceive and manipulate their victims. It’s served as a comprehensive repository of evidence for most every conspiracy theory. It’s been used to support wildly divergent belief systems about the end of the world. It’s been used over and over (and so far unsuccessfully) to calculate the day of Christ’s return down to the hour. (Causing devastation and loss of faith when those predictions didn’t come true.) It’s been a source for aberrant and abhorrent political and religious views. And it’s caused many Christians to become so focused on the end of the world that they lose their sense of responsibility to witness to the gospel in the world. 

   This isn’t the fault of the book or its original author. It’s ours. We blow some things out of proportion while ignoring others, read meaning into it, and in so doing obscure what the book may really be trying to say to us.

     Examples could be multiplied, but a good place to start would be the assumption that Revelation is primarily about the end of the world, Judgement Day, or something along those lines. We get that idea because we pay almost-exclusive attention to the more sensationalistic parts of the book. (And we read those with bad assumptions.) But we ignore some other pretty significant characteristics of the book.

     For instance, worship is mentioned at least 18 times in Revelation. Sometimes that worship is directed at God or at Jesus, “the Lamb.” Other times it’s directed at ”the dragon” (Satan) or “the beast” or his image. The beast represents Rome and its desire to replace God as the source of its citizens’ loyalty, hope, and security. Revelation, written by John, who we learn in chapter 1 is a “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance  that are ours in Jesus,” is exiled on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God  and the testimony of Jesus.” John is a political dissident who is being punished for preaching Jesus in opposition to the pride and arrogance of the Roman Empire. 

     And John wants his readers to remain dissidents in a world that wants us to worship politics, luxury, military might, youth, sex, and whatever else it packages to sell to us, and may very well exclude us if we won’t. It shows us just how to do that — by seeing Jesus (chapter 1, 4, 5), confronting the ways that even the church might turn our worship away to him and toward Babylon, (chapters 2-3), and recommitting ourselves to the age-old conflict between the Lamb and the dragon (that the Lamb has already won). It calls us to worship him, and every chapter of the book is stuffed with reasons to do so and examples of how it’s done in the highest heavens.

      Chapter 5 is a great example. In it, John hears a voice say that “the Lion  of the tribe of Judah” has triumphed and is able — “worthy” — “to to break the seals and open the scroll” John had seen in the hand of God on his throne. Most interpreters of Revelation will focus on what that scroll and its seals represents. Those seals have been the plot of more than one movie. But John mainly wants us to see that Jesus, through his sacrifice, is the proper object of worship — and that’s exactly what the “living creatures” and “elders” around God’s throne do. They compose a “new song” that exalts Jesus. What the seals on the scroll represent becomes clear enough. But worship is the point. 

     Don’t feel bad if you’ve struggled with Revelation, or gotten it wrong. Try reading it, though, with an emphasis on worship and see if it doesn’t become a little easier.

     In the next post, we’ll look at some similar problems with reading prophecy. 

Friday, May 12, 2023

Reading the Different Kinds of Literature in the Bible

Hopefully, you’re getting the idea that reading the Bible is not just a matter of opening it up.
Interpretation is required. It can be hard work. There are matters of translation to deal with. There are the problems we’ve already considered: How sometimes the Bible is read and applied absent character, that the Bible wasn’t written to us, and how reading the Bible can become a kind of groupthink that doesn’t admit alternative points of view (here and here). Reading the Bible can be hard work. But that’s not to discourage you from trying; there are measures that we as readers can take that will make things easier. 
     One of those measures is something that we do almost unconsciously with everything we read; we take into account exactly what kind of literature we’re reading. We don’t read a letter, a poem, a grocery list, and a novel in the same way. A math textbook isn’t the same thing at all as a “how-to” book on gardening or a devotional book on prayer. We recognize without even consciously thinking about it that there are differences in how we read those various kinds of literature, even though the basic skill set is the same — recognizing words and sentences and paragraphs and connecting them in our minds with vocabulary and syntax that we know they represent. 
     Where the Bible is concerned, though, we sometimes forget this basic rule. After all, we believe that the whole Bible is from God and has authority for us. We may have been trained to read the Bible without regard for the kind of literature we’re reading by well-meaning preachers and teachers looking to pull a simple life lesson out of every nook and cranny of Scripture. Also, the Bible seems to be one book. But don’t be fooled; the Bible is made up of at least 66 different books, and those books represent many different kinds of literature. 
     I can remember as a kid in a Sunday School class seeing a poster very much like this one that classified the books of the Bible into categories: Law, History, Poetry, Prophets (Major and Minor), Gospels, Church History, and Epistles (which I would later learn meant “letters”). That was probably my first exposure to the idea that there are different kinds of books in the Bible. 
     But even that doesn’t tell the whole story, does it? There is law code in the the first five books of the Bible, but there is also narrative, poetry, genealogy, and other genres that aren’t even represented on the graphic. The category of “Prophets” isn't all that helpful, because those books contain many different types of literature themselves. (In fact, most of the prophetic books could just as easily be categorized as poetry.) Gospels contain narrative, teaching, parables, and poetry as well. To categorize Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon as just “Poetry” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of how they connect to well-known Ancient Near Eastern genres like Wisdom Sayings, or, in the case of the Psalms, that the poetry is intended for use in worship. 
     And what I didn’t think about when I first saw that graphic, and what many readers of the Bible never seem to consider, is that there are different ways of reading each of these types of literature. 
     As an example, take Psalm 139:13-14, which says, “For you created my inmost being / you knit me together in my mother’s womb. / I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made….” The slashes in that quotation represent line breaks; the text is written in Hebrew poetry, in which ideas (and not necessarily sounds) “rhyme.” The first two lines of the quote develop the same idea, with the third line springing off from the first two. 
     The psalm begins with a reflection on how God “knows” the psalmist. The quotation makes the point that God has known him intimately since before his birth, when God was “weaving him together” in his mother’s womb. That’s a lovely thought, a beautiful piece of poetry, that emphasizes how God knows us deeply and thoroughly and that we can’t — and don’t have to — hide from him. 
     Just a few lines later, you have this: “My frame was not hidden from you / when I was made in the secret place / when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.” So does God weave babies together in the womb, or in the depths of the earth? Maybe that’s just a euphemistic way of referring to the uterus. Maybe it reflects a documented belief in the Ancient Near East that embryos had their origins deep beneath the earth’s surface. There are Egyptian and Sumerian stories about gods “knitting” babies in their mothers’ wombs. And of course no one thinks God literally creates human babies with a loom! 
     The poetry in the Psalms doesn’t have to be literal to be true. We can thank God for our children while also recognizing that there is science behind conception that a culture without knowledge of cells would have no reason to be aware of. Infertile couples can pray for children while also being treated by a fertility specialist without being afraid that they’re contradicting their faith. A poem isn’t a textbook on conception. 
     Sometimes believers have drawn lines in the sand over Genesis’ account of a 6-day creation, and said if you don’t believe in the literal truth of that account then you don’t believe the Bible. That can give kids a lot of problems when they learn more scientific views of the origin of the Earth and can’t quite reconcile those views with what they hear in church. They may feel that they have to choose one or the other. (I know I struggled with that at one point in my life.) 
     Actually, though, the Genesis accounts of creation, the fall, and the flood sound much like Ancient Near Eastern origin stories like Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. It sounds as though Genesis is reimagining those stories with a monotheistic perspective — one God, who is faithful, generous, and patient contrasted with the gods of the pagan stories who are petty, duplicitous, greedy, and vengeful. In the Ancient Near Eastern stories, human beings are the heroes; in Genesis, God is. 
     If we believe that the Holy Spirit is behind these “rewrites,” that shouldn’t bother us too much. The stories are true — “God created the heavens and the earth” — even if they’re not literal. Genesis isn’t intended to be a science textbook, and shouldn’t be read that way. It works in the way parables work: communicating truth in non-literal ways. 
     Speaking of parables, one of Jesus’ is easy to read wrongly as well. It’s found in Luke 16 and is usually known as the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. Some readers don’t consider it a parable, but that’s largely because Lazarus is named. (None of the characters in Jesus’ other parables are.) However, it has all the other markings of a parable, and the fact that Lazarus is named, while the rich man is not, fits with the parable’s theme of reversal. 
     I’ve heard this parable used to illustrate all sorts of fanciful views of the afterlife, but of course parables don’t work that way. The Good Samaritan isn’t about how best to treat wounds. The Prodigal Son isn’t a manual on how to plan a welcome home party. The Rich Man and Lazarus isn’t a literal description of the afterlife; it’s about listening to Scripture’s commands to care for the poor in this life, anticipating the reversal that otherwise will take us by surprise in the next. It uses a well-known Jewish view of the afterlife to make this point. (The Greek word for the place where both the rich man and Lazarus are after death is Hades, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Sheol, the grave, the place of the dead.) 
     You may differ about some of the specifics I’ve mentioned here; that’s fine. The point to repeat is that the many different kinds of literature in the Bible demand different ways of reading and interpreting. 
     In the next post, we’ll look at an unusual kind of biblical literature, best represented by the book of Revelation, and some of the reading challenges it poses. 

Friday, May 5, 2023

Reading the Bible with Character

As we’re hopefully seeing, interpreting the Bible is not like following a recipe in a cookbook — just read it and doing what it says. In my last post, we talked about just one complicating factor: the Bible wasn’t written to us. Here and here, we looked at how reading the Bible can become a kind of groupthink that doesn’t admit alternative points of view.

     There’s another complicating factor that we need to talk about, though. It’s maybe the one thing that compromises our reading of Scripture most often and most egregiously, but I’m not sure we talk about it enough. We see this factor at work in nearly every church scandal, nearly every instance of spiritual abuse, nearly every time someone does damage to the cause of Christ with an ill-advised tweet, belligerent sermon, or wrong-headed post. 

     A good beginning point to talk about it is in something I can remember hearing as a kid as an example of how Scripture can be misinterpreted: that people of color bear the curse of Canaan.      You may not even know what I’m talking about. In Genesis 9, after the flood, there’s an incident with Noah and his three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Noah gets drunk, and in his drunkenness he took off his clothes and was lying naked, apparently passed out, in his tent. Ham, sees this and tells his brothers — maybe in a mocking way. He certainly does nothing to remedy the situation. Shem and Japheth are careful to do everything they can to preserve their father’s dignity. When Noah sobers up, he hears what’s happened and curses Canaan, Ham’s son, and by implication the generations of his family to follow, to be slaves to his brothers and their families.

     All it took was that, along with the verses that follow which show Ham as the father of some kingdoms on the African continent, to extrapolate that the descendants of Canaan were slaves because that was God’s will. Christians who benefitted from the slave trade in antebellum America routinely appealed to the curse of Canaan to justify themselves. The idea perpetuated into at least the middle of the 20th century as a “biblical” basis for white supremacy.

     Surely I don’t have to say — but I will — that such a reading of that text is so ridiculous that it would be laughable if the consequences weren’t so horrendous. It’s not a justification for the horrors of the African slave trade, which operated on kidnapping and selling human beings — both forbidden by the Law of Moses. It’s not a justification for chattel slavery in America. It’s not about what slaveholders and slave traders in the American South wanted it to be about. 

     Here’s the thing: I don’t think simple misinterpretation was the problem. No, that’s not right: I know it wasn’t. 

     This text didn’t get twisted as it did because of historical distance, language uncertainties, or cultural differences. The problem was that those who benefitted from white supremacy wanted this text to be about a curse on black people that allowed them to maintain a facade of religion over their behavior. They utilized it as justification for what they already wanted.

     It was a character issue. Nothing less.

     During a time when protests against police misconduct were in the news cycle frequently, a friend quoted a piece of 1 Samuel 15:23 at me, in the King James Version — “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” In those verses, Samuel is speaking to King Saul about Saul’s disobedience to a command from God. Saul has tried to argue that he mostly obeyed God, and that if he didn’t obey completely it was because he wanted to honor God. Samuel sees through his attempts to justify himself by saying, “Rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.” (NRSV) He was telling Saul that when he stubbornly refused to fully obey God, it was no less a sin than the “big ones” of worshiping other gods or seeking to use magic to influence those gods. 

     My friend — who I love and respect — twisted that text to justify his own feelings and opinions about the protests. He argued that the protests were equivalent to disobedience against God through passages like Romans 13:1-2: 

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.…”

If that’s the argument, though, then the American Revolution was a far worse rebellion against God than a few peaceful protests. It could also apply, couldn’t it, to someone who went to court to fight a speeding ticket? 

     The fact is that my friend — who, again, I love and respect — had a blind spot. As we all do. His was that he didn’t believe that people of color receive harsher treatment from police, nor that systemic racism exists to any significant degree in America. 

     Ironically, in landing on that one text to justify his anger about (and probably fear of) the protests, he lost track of the many, many texts in both the Old and New Testaments in which God demands justice, care for the marginalized, and the eradication of favoritism among his people. And in seeking to justify his own attitudes, he may have been repeating the disobedience of Saul. 

     Point is, even a biblical text can become a means of perpetuating injustice, unrighteousness, wickedness, and abuse if you read it without character.

     So maybe character should be the very first consideration when we read Scripture. What do you bring to the reading in terms of prejudices, motives, and intentions? What sins are you trying to justify? What do you want a particular text to say, and why? Who do you seek to exclude with your reading? What are you hiding? 

     Thing is, we all bring character issues to the reading of the Bible. Every one of us brings that same kind of baggage to every reading. So how in the world do we avoid twisting the Scriptures to say what we want them to, and let them shape our character instead?

     Two suggestions, one outward and one inward. First, develop the habit of reading the Bible with others. That’s one of the best ways I know to keep the Bible from becoming our own personal echo chambers, reflecting back exactly what we want to hear. Read with others whenever you can, in church classes, reading groups, online reading plans, and so on. Talk with other believers about texts you’re reading. Include in your circle of reading authors and theologians from a wide variety of traditions. My viewpoint and my friend’s viewpoint on the protests clashed, and I hope it was good for my friend that they did. I know I’ve gained a lot from reading the Bible with him.

     Second, we all need to develop some humility about how we read Scripture. As much as we might like to think so, none of us has the Bible figured out. As we read together, expect that your sisters and brothers will read it differently than you do. Accept that, in some cases, they will read it better. Be able to learn from them.

     In the next post, we’ll consider how the different kinds of literature in the Bible should affect how we read and interpret.