Dancing on the edge of the hermeneutical abyss

Posted on 04/20/13 20 Comments

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. 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?

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  • Walter

    Not only does the interpretation ignore
    the immediate meaning and context of the passage in ancient Israel…

    I feel the same way about Saint Matthew’s bizarre interpretation of Isaiah 7:14.

    • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

      The Septuagint used “parthenos” (“virgin”) for the Hebrew “alma” (young woman, maybe or maybe not a virgin). If Matthew depended upon the Septuagint, his interpretation isn’t bizarre. But if the young woman wasn’t a virgin, what exactly was the sign supposed to be?

      • epicurus

        I wonder if it was a matter of concern for Matthew that he used a Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures. I’ve heard that some thought the LXX was divinely inspired. Maybe Matthew thought that. Depending on who you read/talk to, Matthew may not have even been able to read Hebrew.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          I think one legend goes that the seventy scholars all set about doing independent Greek translations and when they brought them together they discovered to their amazement that all seventy translations were identical. Now that sounds like a divine seal of approval!

          • EdMon

            Wasn’t the legend referring to only the Torah, the five Books of Moses ? The other books of the OT were translated into Greek in subsequent years.

      • Walter

        Point being was that Matthew ignored the immediate meaning and context of the passage. The prophecy was meant for King Ahaz, and was to be fulfilled long before Jesus’ time. It had nothing to do with Jesus. Matthew perverted the intent of the original prophecy in order to apply it to Jesus. The Mormon in Randal’s story above is doing the same thing.

        • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

          But Matthew’s interpretation was common among Jews – take a passage out of one context and apply it to another one. The question is whether such an interpretation should be taken as a “proof” of some doctrinal position or not. In the case of two sticks of wood proving that the Book of Mormon was being talked about? That’s quite a stretch. Matthew might be stretching things, but I don’t think it’s nearly as much, especially when considered in light of Isaiah’s prophecies about a Messianic figure in chapters 9 and 11.

          • Walter

            Bottom line is that Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with Jesus, and “Matthew,” or whoever it was that truly wrote that particular gospel, got a little creative with his own hermeneutics while scouring the Septuagint for prophetic signs about the person he believed to be Israel’s messiah. The Mormons are just carrying on that fine Abrahamic tradition of pulling older passages out of their surrounding context and assigning a new or completely different prophetic meaning than was the original intent. I am equally unimpressed with both cases.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Walter, your “bottom line” is irrelevant since, as I just pointed out, Matthew is engaged on a completely different project. It is as if you’d said “Genesis 1-2 isn’t a scientific account of the origin of the universe” and I replied “It isn’t trying to be” and then you retorted “Yes, but it isn’t”.

              • Walter

                Walter, your “bottom line” is irrelevant since, as I just pointed out, Matthew is engaged on a completely different project.

                All you have “pointed out” is that Matthew was more subtle than the Mormons when he misappropriated an ancient prophecy for his own agenda. There is no principled difference between what each one is doing. It’s unsurprising to me that you would give “Matthew” a pass. It smells of a double standard.

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  No, I pointed out that Matthew is doing something completely different than what the Mormons were doing. They are claiming to find a discrete prophecy in Ezekiel which was fulfilled with the Book of Mormon. Matthew is instead rereading the Hebrew scriptures from the perspective of Jesus as the New Israel and the New Moses.

                  Jesus journeys out into the desert like Israel, they for 40 years, he for 40 days. But while they were unfaithful he was faithful. And like Moses Jesus gives a law (Matthew collects his teaching into five monologues) but it is a new law embodied in himself. Based on this new perspective Matthew rereads the history of Israel as now finding fulfillment in Jesus.

                  • Walter

                    The only difference here is that Mormons are misusing a single passage to support their parochial beliefs while Matthew creatively reinterprets a host of passages in the Hebrew bible to lend support to his belief in Jesus as the new Moses. I still see little difference in principle, just a difference in scale. Matthew was simply more ambitious in his recycling of ancient Jewish prophecies; he didn’t just rip one verse out of context, he ripped several out all over the Hebrew scriptures in order to develop his theme.

                    The Jews have long been lamenting the Christian misuse of their scriptures in this fashion.

                    • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

                      If I understand Randal’s point, it’s that the Mormons are trying to prove that the Book of Mormon was prophesied about in the Bible, while Matthew isn’t trying to prove that Jesus was prophesied about in the O.T. Instead, Matthew is just re-interpreting the O.T. in light of Jesus. It’s a subtle difference, but there is one.

                      I’m not sure I buy the idea completely that Matthew wasn’t trying to provide proof texts from the O.T. Let me stew on it.

                    • Walter

                      Bilbo, I am assuming that Randal is suggesting something similar to what the author in the link below is arguing for: that Matthew was thinking of prophetic fulfillment in a novel way, different from what we think of in terms of prophetic fulfillment. In other words, Matthew did not think Isaiah 7 was intended as a literal prophecy about Jesus, but that the intention of the original prophecy was simply to assure Ahaz that God was with Israel…and that Jesus was also a fulfillment of that same assurance (or something like that). Frankly, it seems like apologetic spin-doctoring to me.

                      If we were to adopt a Jewish perspective, then it would appear that Christians, Mormons, and Muslims are all equally guilty of co-opting Hebrew scriptures and re-purposing those scriptures to meet a theological agenda that is not in accord with the intent of the original authors.

                      http://aletheia.stanford.edu/biblestudy/Devotions/LangOfGodChap8.pdf

                    • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

                      It looks like apologetic spin-doctoring, but it isn’t. Let’s go back to the Mormon. Here are two approaches he could take:

                      (1) The verse about the two sticks is really about the Book of Mormon. Therefore, Mormonism is true.

                      (2) Mormonism is true. Therefore, the verse about the two sticks is really (or also, or more deeply) about the Book of Mormon.

                      Whereas (1) is an attempt at Mormon apologetics, (2) is an attempt to understand the Bible on the assumption that Mormonism is true, and is not really apologetics.

                      So is Matthew trying to be apologetics, or just assuming Christianity is true and understanding the OT in terms of it? Or some of each? Or something else?

                      I think it’s some of each. It’s difficult for me to think that Matthew had no thought of trying to prove that Jesus was the Messiah foretold of in the OT.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      One has to appreciate the way that Matthew appropriates Old Testament passages in light of Christ. For example, when he applies Hosea’s statement “Out of Egypt I called my son” Matthew knows full well that the reference here is to Israel. But his point is that Jesus is the new Israel, and thus in light of that fact Jesus becomes a new hermeneutical key for the Hebrew scriptures. You may or may not agree with Matthew, but he is a lot subtler than many Christians (and skeptics) recognize.

  • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

    Randal,

    At first I was going to agree with you about the Genesis 1:27 passage, but I then I thought I should exercise caution and see what others say in defense of the Trinitarian interpretation:

    http://www.bible.ca/trinity/trinity-oneness-unity-plural-of-majesty-pluralis-majestaticus-royal-we.htm

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I wasn’t actually stating any position on whether Genesis 1:27 or Genesis 18 could be plausibly interpreted in Trinitarian terms. Rather, I was pointing out the tension between the position that only original human authorial intent matters and the possibility that any and every interpretation can be reasonable, at least with respect to the presuppositions of some interpretive community.

      • http://bilbos1.blogspot.com/ Bilbo

        Okay, but the interpretive community for some sort of plurality within the Godhead wasn’t just Christian trinitarians, but had a rather large following in Jewish thought, until it became the heresiological dividing line between between the two communities, if Daniel Boyarin and others are correct. Other than Mormons, what interpretive community saw the two sticks as meaning two books?

  • http://scienceandotherdrugs.wordpress.com/ physicsandwhiskey

    The question I ask: is it plausible?