Dancing on the edge of the hermeneutical abyss
I was once in conversation with a Mormon missionary who claimed he had evidence for the Book of Mormon in the Bible.
“Oh really?” I said, barely able to conceal my dripping skepticism. “Can you show me?”
He opened up a Bible to Ezekiel 37 and began to read:
15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.
18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’
My smile melted into confusion. “So what?”
“The one stick is the Bible,” he said patiently. “And the other stick is the Book of Mormon.”
I couldn’t believe it. Astonished. Dumbstruck. Was this kid a complete wing nut? Did he pull this out of thin air?
No. After doing some reading I discovered that Mormons have long claimed this passage is ultimately referring to these two religious texts.
Not only does the interpretation ignore the immediate meaning and context of the passage in ancient Israel, but it is also so bizarrely arbitrary. What is to stop somebody from arguing that the “two sticks” are actually baseball bats which symbolize the National and American baseball leagues being united to form the “single stick of wood” that is Major League Baseball?
* * *
But rather than content myself with poking fun at the poor reading skills of Mormons, I find myself turning the question around: Are Christians any better with their treatment of the text? Let’s consider two examples by looking at how Christians have often claimed to find the Trinity in the Bible.
In Genesis 1:26 we read: “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness….”
Generations of Christian theologians have claimed that this isn’t simply a grammatical royal we or an archaic reference to the polytheistic counsel of gods. No, they have said, it really is a reference to the Trinity: God the Father addressing the Son and Spirit.
Second example. In Genesis 18:1-2 we read of the famous three visitors to Abraham:
“The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”
The Lord appears with three visitors? Well of course that is the Trinity, isn’t it?
* * *
But if we view the Mormon appropriation of Ezekiel 37 with barely concealed incredulity, how can we find the Trinity in Genesis?
Or do we have to say that relative to a Mormon hermeneutic the two books interpretation of Ezekiel 37 is plausible while relative to a Christian hermeneutic the Trinitarian interpretation of Genesis 1 and 18 is plausible?
But if we say that then are we not in danger of tumbling over the edge of the hermeneutical abyss? After all, what else might a diehard baseball fan find in the text?