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. 

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