What does it mean to read the Bible as inspired literature? The method is not new nor is it uncommon in Dutch Reformed circles. Exegesis must be Christocentric, plenary (all the text serves a theological purpose), respect the context in God’s redemptive plan, and plumb the full literary depth of the writing.
I have written numerous books of Biblical exposition. Because of some noise that has been generated by a few persons who have personal grudges against me and/or my publisher, I am occasionally asked to “justify my approach” to the Bible. I have been formally or informally accused of being “speculative,” of “sleight-of-hand exegesis,” of “symbolism,” of “neo-Kabbalism,” and of some other things that decency causes me to omit from this list. (At least one of my critics has his mind in the gutter.) I’m really not interested in defending myself from these charges. Considering what I know about their sources, it is hard for me to take them seriously. They have, however, wound their way around in some circles, and from time to time people who bear me no personal ill will have asked me about them, so I’ll begin this discussion with a few remarks in my own defense.
I don’t believe that there is anything in principle really new or unusual in what I wrote in The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), in Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), or in Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty: A Theological Investigation (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1986). In my opinion, those who think my methods or conclusions are “weird” are people who simply have not been trained in how to read and expound the Bible.
Some of my friends, who have responded by praising my work as “innovative,” are also wrong, I believe. There may be some innovations in my work, but I don’t think there are very many, and I don’t think they are in the area of method. They don’t appear to be innovative to me. I believe that it is simply that I have written in a somewhat practical and popular style, with the result that what is “old hat” in scholarly circles and in some Dutch Reformed circles is now, as a result of my labors, getting noticed in quarters heretofore unexposed thereto. Later on in this essay I shall call attention to other exegetes who, I believe, have done neither more nor less than I have.
So, I don’t think my work is either weird or innovative.
I offer as evidence of this that John Frame was willing to write an Introduction to The Law of the Covenant. Professor Frame read over the manuscript and gave me ten single-spaced pages of helpful interaction and advice. He stated in his remarks that he thought my work was sound and challenging, even though he was not persuaded on all points. In other words, he did not think the book or its methods were strange, weird, arcane, inimitable, sleight-of-hand, or anything else like that.
I offer as evidence the fact that I taught the first half of Judges in Sunday School in a Philadelphia church, and four members of the Westminster Theological Seminary faculty were in attendance. At no time did any of these men take me aside and say, “Watch out, now! You’re getting pretty weird.” Actually, from their comments, they enjoyed the class. They may not have agreed with every jot and tittle, but they did not attack my method. I have in my file a kind letter from Dr. Cornelius Van Til, a regular member of the class, in which he writes warmly of my teaching of Judges.
I offer as evidence the fact that I received a friendly note from a professor of interpretation at a leading seminary, after he had read Sabbath Breaking. He stated that he was not fully convinced of my thesis, but that I had certainly tackled a tough issue, and made a valid contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Church.
So you can see why I tend not to take my critics very seriously. Men whom I respect deeply, men well trained in the fields of theology and exegesis, have shown respect and appreciation for my efforts. They don’t seem to regard my work as weird or strange, nor do they seem to regard it as methodologically new, innovative, or challenging. From what I can tell, I’m really not out of the mainstream. This is no imprimatur, of course, and these men would doubtless not hesitate to take issue with me on certain points, but they have never indicated any problem with the method I have employed. That’s because there is really nothing new or strange about that method.
I do not see myself as a theologian or as an innovator. My ideal has been to be a Bible teacher. As a Bible teacher, I have oriented my writing and teaching toward the Church – broadly speaking – rather than the academy.2 I am guilty, however, of doing three new things. Nobody else has done these things in recent years, at least in Bible-believing, Reformed, evangelical circles. First of all, I am guilty of writing a commentary on Exodus 21-23. I don’t believe in the history of the Church anybody before me ever put out a whole book on these three chapters.3 So, though I had a lot to build upon, I also had a lot of spadework to do.
Commentaries on Romans are a dime a dozen. There is not very much stuff on Exodus 21-23, at least not by orthodox believers. So, I did my best with some very problematic passages. I never claimed to be saying the last word, only a helpful word. In fact, I’ve changed my mind on several matters since.
Secondly, I am guilty of writing a Biblical-theological commentary on Judges in plain English so that the royal priesthood as well as the servant priesthood can read it. Shall I apologize for this? I tried to show the Christocentric relevance of each of the stories, and since Christ is revealed in the Old Testament stories in typology, my commentary was unashamedly typological in character. I find I cannot apologize for this.
Now of course, there are other commentaries on Judges. Some are by liberals and spend all their time discussing supposed sources and supposed pagan influences on the text. Some are by conservatives, but are addressed to scholars and pastors and deal mainly with exegetical details. Some are popular and written for “laymen,” but are moralistic in character.”* In English, however, I do not know of an existing theological commentary on Judges (though Fausset, as I pointed out in my book, comes close). The background for my approach is to be found in the theological and hermeneutical writings of Klaas Schilder and in Promise and Deliverance by S. G. de Graaf. I shall call attention to this in more detail later in this essay.
And third, I am guilty of writing a monograph on the problem of the death penalty for sabbath breaking under the Old Covenant. I don’t believe anybody else has ever written extensively on this. A variety of explanations have been proposed for this law, and I have tried my hand at it. I may be wrong in my conclusions. I may have made a faux pas at some point or other in my argument. But there is nothing methodologically peculiar about what I wrote.
I should say this as well. Nobody has ever criticized me concretely regarding any aspect of my method. The few people who have criticized my published books have simply made sweeping generalizations, using words like “dangerous,” “speculative,” and “esoteric.” What can I say? I don’t agree that I am dangerous, speculative, or esoteric. Most other readers don’t think so either. Until or unless one of these critics comes up with something specific in the way of criticism, I really cannot reply, or interact. (Friendly reviewers have raised specific points, and I am happy for their criticisms and interactions, but the friendly reviewers have not attacked my methods.)
A Theological Exegetical Method
So, what is my “method”? Well, to start with, it is not “mine.” I don’t believe there is anything new in the approaches I’ve taken. I learned them from others. But as regards method, I set it out in the Introduction tojudges, and for reasons that I shall explain in a moment, I find it hard to go much beyond what I wrote there. But, here goes.
First, I believe all the Bible is given to reveal Christ. The Bible is first of all a Tree of Life, to point us to Christ, and secondly a Tree of
the Knowledge of Good and Evil, to show us how to reign.5 We have to keep this order in mind. We must feed on Christ before we can take up trowel or sword. To the extent that we fail to keep this order in mind, we fall into a form of legalism or moralism. Some of the noise about The Law of the Covenant arose from legalistic circles who objected to my “symbolic” approach to many of the laws. What I was trying to do, not very successfully in some cases, was show how each law revealed Christ, and this forced me to typological and symbolic exegesis. For instance, Exodus 21:28-30 deals with the case of an ox rising up to gore a man. Does this relate to Christ? It certainly seems so (Psalm 22:12). It may also shed light on the history of Israel between A.D. 30 and 70.
So, I plead guilty to Christocentric exegesis. At least, I plead guilty to striving for it. The Law of the Covenant is at best a crude specimen, as I am all too well aware. To expound the law adequately, we have to ask what this law meant to the people at that time, in terms of the horizon of the Mosaic covenant as a package affair. Then we have to ask how this law was fulfilled by Christ. Then we have to ask how the Church, in union with Christ, manifests the fulfillment of this law. And fourth and finally, we ask what possible relevance this law may have for believers in the new covenant situation. (I believe this same four-fold method is very important in dealing with symbolism and typology, as in the Tabernacle and sacrificial system.) If I live to revise The Law of the Covenant. I shall make this method much more transparent.
But there is absolutely nothing new about Christocentric exegesis, or about typology.
Second, I believe that every detail in the text is there for a specific theological reason. The Bible is not first and foremost
entertainment (though it does, obviously, have a very intense artistic dimension). It does not give us details of time, place, geography, number, etc., simply to “create a sense of reality.” That is what novelists do, but that is not what the Bible does. I believe this very firmly, and I believe those who dismiss the details of the text as “unimportant” or as “mere literary color” are guilty of neglecting the work of the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe the Spirit wastes His breath. The books of the Bible do indeed have literary beauty, and we should appreciate this. But such literary beauty is not “art for art’s sake.” The details are there to add to the revelation Christ and His Church.
I tried to apply this consistently in Judges, taking note of the fact that Samson’s mother’s name is not given, though she is a major figure, while his father’s name is given, though he is a minor figure. There is a reason for this, and it is a theological reason. I may not have uncovered it, but at least I did not ignore it.
Academic commentaries tend to avoid theological exegesis in the interest of neutrality. Popular commentaries tend to sidestep theological exegesis and focus on moral lessons. So, by highlighting theological exegesis I may have appeared to some people to be doing something new, but there is nothing new about it.
Third, I believe that the text must be taken in its redemptive historical context. Books like Judges or Kings should not be read as novels. Nor should they be read in isolation from the rest of the canon. What they reveal to us can be clearly seen only if we take into account what has gonebefore. What did the people at this stage of history understand? What was their current covenantal context (Mosaic? Davidic? etc.). I believe that it is the Biblical, redemptive historical, covenantal context that is important, not the social context of the ancient Near East. The text is not expounded by drawing parallels to Ugaritic culture.7 Rather, the text has to be expounded by looking at the rest of Scripture. We look at the immediate context, at the overall literary structures and themes of the book as a whole, and at the position of this revelation in terms of covenantal history.
The books of Samuel, for instance, begin with the rending of the Mosaic covenant, both in its polity and in its symbolism (the Tabernacle). The books of Samuel describe the process by which God pounded the nation into a new form, and brought in a new covenant. Thus, they end with a new polity in place, and the site of the Temple selected. This is where the book fits in covenant history.
But there is nothing new about expounding the text this way. It is exactly what I was taught in class at both Reformed and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
Well, I’ve said exegesis should look for Christ, take the details seriously, and take the wider context seriously. I don’t really know what else to say.
Learning to Read
This is all easier said than done, of course. There are several reasons for this, and they all have to do with the art of reading. Reading is an art and not a science, and there is no quickie formula for learning it. I can, though, give some pointers. First, not everybody is gifted as a reader. By now it should be clear that by “reader” I mean someone who is able to distinguish important from secondary themes, make relevant connections, not get lost in details, etc. In the ordinary sense of reading, anybody who has been taught to read can read the Bible. And they should! The Spirit ministers to us through and with the Word. But not everybody has been called or gifted to read. The single best book I know of to read on this subject of reading is C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge U. Press). We shall return to this matter later in this essay.
To take an analogy, everyone can enjoy hearing a live performance of the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor on a big organ in a good hall, but not everyone can play it. Just so, everyone can benefit from sound Biblical exposition, but not everyone can do it.
Second, by no means are all pastors, teachers, and preachers gifted as exegetes or expositors. Pastors are curates of souls primarily. Teachers often are called to pass on the heritage of the faith, not rework it for modern times. One of the errors I encountered in seminary was the notion that all pastors should develop their sermons out of an in-depth exegesis from the original Hebrew and Greek. Virtually nobody ever does this, of course, but it was held out as an ideal. There is nothing ideal about it, however. Preachers need to pass on the heritage of the church to their people, with a pastoral eye to their psychological and spiritual situation. If they get their homilies by borrowing from Spurgeon, or from other people’s outlines – what’s wrong with that?
So, not everybody is gifted to expound the text of Scripture theologically. God gives gifts to His church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Not everyone is the same gift. Some people have felt that I have a gift for the kind of theological and practical exegesis I have done. Enough people have said this to me that I feel secure doing it, in the belief that I am not offending Christ and that I am making some small contribution to the ongoing discussion. As a postmillennialist, I believe the exegetical discussion has many millennia ahead for it, and I hardly think I am saying the last word. I hope only to say a helpful word.
Third, I don’t believe helpful or profound insights into the text ever come to people who are questing for them. Though some people have accused or praised me for being “original,” I have never sought to be. That is why,whenever I have come up with something that seems to be a new insight, 1 usually send it out to men more learned then myself for comment, and I always try to say that I am putting forth this interpretation as a possibility. I made this clear in my Preface to The Law of the Covenant, and even did my critics a favor by pointing out the places in the book where I had been compelled to posit “new views.”
On the other hand, I have watched men over the years seek to come up with new insights, and only come up with confusion. So I say this, when you read and study the Bible, never look for something new. If the passage presents a problem, then work it out as best you can, but only go into “new territory” if you are forced to it. I don’t believe God blesses men who are on a quest for fame or for novelty.
Many times I have been forced to make a connection that seemed new (since I have been working with passages that are relatively untouched), only to find later that my insight was not new at all, only new to me.
Along these lines of “new insights,” one other comment. The ascended Christ has given to His Church gifts, as I mentioned above. The tradition of the faith handed down by these men through the ages is the legacy of the Spirit, and is not to be despised. That tradition is subordinate to the Bible, but not to any individual hothead who thinks he has come up with a new theological insight. A deep acquaintance with systematic theology and with church history is a must for sound Scriptural exposition. I don’t mean the evangelical tradition since World War II. I mean the whole Christian tradition, East and West. Men of good will can differ on how the goring ox relates to Christ. They should not differ over the dogma that God is Three and One (though the precise language used to formulate this may vary marginally).
Speculation concerning the meaning of a particular text of Scripture can be very valuable, but it must not be confused with speculation concerning the received doctrines of the faith, summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We can debate over whether the parables in Matthew 25 refer to the destruction of Jerusalem or the Second Coming. We do not debate over the doctrine that one day Christ will return to transfigure this present cosmos into a physical new heavens and earth (as Max King and his followers do). We can debate over the meaning of some verses in Revelation 19 and 20. We do not debate over the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment (as Fudge and his Adventist followers do).
Finally, to learn to read, read good books. Read commentaries that do good theological exegesis. Read literature. Read books on how to read literature.
The Bible is literature. The books of the Bible are each literary masterpieces, self-consciously conceived and written according to form and style. But they are ancient literature, employing ancient literary forms and devices unfamiliar to us today. Too many people today unthinkingly assume that the Bible was written by modern men. But let’s think about the differences.
Since Gutenberg, literacy has increased to the point where most people read. A huge amount of writing is produced for such people. 99-99999% of this literature is written relatively rapidly, for rapid consumption. Virtually none of it is written in such a way as to compel the reader to re-read it for additional depths. (Examples: newspapers, advertising circulars, magazines, Harlequin-type novels. This throwaway literature comes up to 99-9999% by itself.) For convenience, we can say that literature exists on three levels. The first is the narrative. The second is the philosophical, that is, the significant idea content. The third is the symbolic. 90% of modern narrative literature has only the first dimension. Only about 9% has the second dimension as well. That leaves about 1% that has all three levels. (I won’t burn at the stake for these figures, so don’t press me.)
In the ancient world, the reverse was the case. Few people could read, and there was no easy way to write very much. Reproduction was by hand copying. Thus, writers were constrained by make every jot and tittle count. They did this by the use of literary structures such as chiasms (ABCBA) and palistrophes (huge chiasms that cover vast reaches of text). They did this by the use of symbolic numbers and numerical structures. They did this by the use of symbolic names. Particularly in the Bible, since it is a cumulative book, they did it by means of allusions to pre-existing literature. In this way, they could say a lot in a small compass, for the alert reader (the only kind there was back then) knew to pore over the text for additional depths. Nowadays we rarely encounter this kind of writing. Two exceptions are Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.
Now as evangelicals we believe that God, the Divine Superintendent of history, actually caused things to fall out so that the numerical patterns, for example, arose naturally. If, as Barnouin contends (with Wenham’s hesitant advocacy), the lifespans of the pre-deluvian patriarchs correspond to various astral cycles, we still believe that these men really lived these years, even though we see an added theological depth in the number patterns of Genesis 5.8
Another example is found in Genesis 14:14, where Abram took 318 of his “homeborn” servants to rescue Lot. It happens (?) that 318 is the numerical value of the name of the chief of the company of “homeborn” servants, Eliezer (Gen. 15:2). In my opinion, this ties to the overall theme of this passage. Who will be Abram’s heir? Who will be the new priest-guardian of the land? “Homeborn” means adopted, and homeborn servants are adopted sons, second class.9 In Genesis 14 and 15:1-3, Abram’s heir is Eliezer, chief of the adopted sons, and it is the adopted sons who are acting as priests and defending the holy land. God informs Abram in Genesis 15 that he will have a physical son, and that the adopted sons will not be the special heirs.
Please note that I am not deriving from this interpretation any such idea as that the commander of an army should imitate Eliezer and take into battle only the number of men that match the numerical value of his name. Rather, I am taking note of a curiosity in the text, showing a possible symbolic meaning for it. This interpretation can be referred to Christ as follows: Abram and the Captain of his host (Eliezer) led an army to rescue a wayward son. Just so, God and the Greater Eliezer, Jesus Christ, lead the Church to save the world. True, Eliezer was set aside for Isaac, but Isaac was set aside for Jacob, and so on and on.
Each typified Christ at a particular stage of history.
Well, I could be wrong. Let the reader try his hand at interpreting this passage. Until I see an interpretation that seems to do better justice to the details and the theme of this passage, I’ll stick with this. But I won’t burn at the stake for it.
For another example, I have given here an example of a palistrophe, from Genesis 25-36.1 did not come up with this by myself. The middle part of the palistrophe was noticed by Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis. I took the cue from him and looked to see if perhaps this entire “toledhoth” section of Genesis was organized this way. The chart shows the results of my inquiry. The ancient reader, sensitive to such structures, would notice right away that the heart of the literary unit is the birth of the seed. The pivot of the palistrophe is the miracle of opening the barren womb. The outer edges of the palistrophe are concerned with the labor of the bride-mothers. All of this goes back to Genesis 3. Of course, the theme of the mother laboring to give birth to righteous seed is not the only theme of this passage, but the palistrophe highlights it for us, and encourages us to regard it as the overall and most important theme.
Now we would not see this if we treated the Bible as modern literature. How many novels or short stories today are organized from start to finish as palistrophes? The only modern work that I know of that is is the film Excalibur. How many writers would bother to take the time to organize their narratives this way? (How many could afford the time?) But in the ancient world, things were different, as we saw above. If we are going to understand and expound the Bible at more than a superficial level, we shall have to take into account its literary organizations.
On reading ancient literature, I was privileged to start with Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Westport, CT-. Greenwood Press, reprint 1973). Strauss points out that most ancient and medieval writers lived under the threat of persecution, and learned to conceal their more controversial thoughts in order to avoid the authorities. While the Bible is not written in such a context, reading Strauss does show how toread and study carefully, and especially alerts the reader to structuring devices. The student will find it helpful to peruse Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago, reprint 1984), both to find out how wicked Machiavelli really was, and also again to acquire insight into literary structure. A disciple of Strauss, Allan Bloom, recently noted for his book The Closing of the American Mind, has a fine commentary on The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968), the study of which is also useful training.
In addition to the ancient literary structures of the Bible, we also have to take into account the fact that the Bible uses a symbolic worldview. Bible people knew full well that the world was round, but as a figure of speech they spoke of it as having corners, pillars, and other things, because the world was a home. We don’t think symbolically, but the ancients did, and the writers of the Bible did.10 This is even more of a problem for American evangelicals because (a) our churches are generally bare of visual symbolism due to our understanding of the second commandment, and (b) our churches lack the monarchical rituals of the Eastern, Anglican, and Roman churches. Thus, we are just not accustomed to thinking visually.
The Generations of Isaac (Genesis 25:19a)
A. Opening genealogical notice, 25:19
B. Labor of bride, and supplanting, 25:20-34.
C. Attack on bride, settlement, and blessing (altars & wells), 26:1 -33.
D. Jacob & Esau: struggle, separation, blessing, 26:34- 28:9.
E.Departing the land, encounter with God, 28:10•_>.>.
F. Arrival, kiss of greeting, 29:1-14
G. Jacob & La ban: contract making, 29:15-20.
H. Laban tricks Jacob, 29:21-30.
I. The Seed, pre-resurrection, 29:31-30:21.
I’. The Seed, post-resurrection, 30:22 24
H’. Jacob tricks Laban, by God’s help, 30:25-31:16.
G’. Jacob and Laban: contract dispute, 31:17-42.
F’. Departure, kiss of farewell, 31:43 55.
E’. Entering the land, encounter with God, 32:1 32.
D’. Jacob & Esau: reconciliation, reunion, blessing, 33:1 17.
C’. Attack on bride, settlement, and blessing(altars & wells). 341 -35:15.
B. Labor of bride, and supplanting, 35:16 223.
A . Closing genealogical notices, 35:22^36:4.0.
Larger Themes to Notice
1. Replacement of Firstborn theme in Genesis continues: Jacob, Rachel, Joseph.
2. Two Trees theme in Genesis continues: Isaac sinfully prefers wrong son & his food: Jacob deceived into eating of wrong tree (wife).
3. Lex Talionis Deception of Serpent theme in Genesis continues: Isaac tries to trick God, but is tricked by God: Laban tricks Jacob, but is tricked by God & Jacob; Simeon and Levi sinfully trick the Shechemites (C, H, H , C ).
4 Attack on Eve-Bride theme in Genesis continues: Abimelech and Rebekah; Laban and his daughters and grandchildren (“all are mine!”); Shechem and Dinah. The proper means of resolution differs each time: deception by Isaac, divine threats for Jacob, circumcision & incorporation for Shechem (thwarted).
5. Recapitulation of previous sins in Genesis:
a. Sin of Ham: Simeon & Levi take matters into their own hands, ignoring father.
b. Sin of Shemites: Esau’s repeated intermarriages.
c. Sin of Cain: Esau’s threats to kill brother.
d. High handed sin of Adam: Isaac’s preference for wrong tree and wrong food, in the face of God s clear revelation.
e. Sin of inadvertency of Eve: Jacob tricked into eating of wrong tree (wife). This was also Abram’s sin.
6. Exodus theme recapitulated: enslavement of Jacob, attack on bride & seed, prosperity of Israel, flight, pursuit, humiliation of false gods (sat upon by menstruating woman!). Compare also Isaac and Abimelech.
7. Major new theme: wrestling for the kingdom. Wrestling against evil is the same as wrestling with God, for it is He who brings such challenges to us.
8. Gentile theme in Genesis continues:
a. Abimilech is initially hostile, but converts (C). Compare Abraham and Abimelech.
b. Laban is initially pleasant, but become oppressor (G, H, H’, G ). Compare Abraham and Pharaoh.
c. Shechem is initially hostile, converts: his people have hidden hostility; incorporation into the covenant people thwarted by sin of Simeon and Levi (C ). Simeon and Levi should have learned from Jacobs history with Laban that when the wicked try to grab the inheritance of the righteous, it backfires.
d. Bride from foreign land theme: Leah and Rachel from Padan Aram (compare Rebekah from Padan Aram; Joseph’s Egyptian wife: Moses’ two foreign wives; Rahab: Ruth: etc.)
9. Overall structure of this section forces attention on the Seed:
a. Genealogical notices bracket the section (A, A’).
b. Labor of bride to produce Seed brackets the section (B, B’) and is center of it (I, I’).
c. Satan’s attempt to possess Bride and Seed brackets the section (C, C’) and is also found at the center (G’).
d. The first seed produced is non-miraculous, and fallen. After the resurrection miracle of the opened womb (dischronologized; Joseph was older than Zebulon and Naphtali), the true Seed-Messiah is born (1, 1′). This is the center of the palistrophe.
10. Enoch Factor theme in Genesis continues (Genesis 4 the gentiles build the first culture: the redeemed build the last culture): At the end of section (A ), Esau not only has many sons but also a culture around them; Jacob merely has sons ritually. (Nor. unfortunately, are we used to thinking of Christ as our King.) But, if we are going to learn to read the Bible, we shall
have to learn to think like people in Bible times, to think visually and ritually.
A good book to read, if you want to break out of the narrow bands of the shrunken world of the 20th century, is C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image (Cambridge U. Press). Lewis does not set out the Biblical worldview, but that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is a valuable read, because it helps us break free from our preconceptions.
Biblical studies that I have found helpful in opening up the Biblical symbolic worldview include Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1949); and two commentaries by Gordon Wenham, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) and Numbers (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1981).(l The book of Revelation is the symbolic climax of Scripture, and nothing matches David Chilton’s commentary, The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth: Dominion Press, 1987). Also very helpful is G. Lloyd Carr’s commentary on The Song of Solomon (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity
With some reservations let me call attention to Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton-. Princeton University Press, 1975) andThe Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). Also, G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980). A study of imagery in the Psalter, though it leans too much on ancient near eastern parallels, is Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (New York: Seabury, 1978). Keel’s book is particularly valuable because it contains hundreds of iconographic illustrations.
I have mentioned literary structure, visual symbol, and ritual. Let me now turn to the matter of historical development. The stories of the Bible are not isolated illustrations of moral principles or typological shapshots of Jesus. If that were true, they might as well be fictional parables. Rather, they record historical events that reveal truth by showing the development of the Kingdom of God and the maturation of humanity. A grasp of the organic flow and development of Biblical history is essential for understanding the Bible.
After all, we don’t want to chop the Bible up into teeny bits, isolated from one another. We want to appreciate the whole long line of history and God’s development of humanity over the centuries. There are some good helps along these lines. Klaas Schilder was the intellectual head of a remarkable theological movement in The Netherlands during the first part of this century. Sadly, little of this brilliant man’s legacy has made it into English. His “Trilogy,” a set of three books on the sufferings of Christ, is an invaluable example of careful redemptive historical exegesis. Schilder traces our Lord’s suffering and death step by step.12 A valuable study of the redemptive historical approach as it was hammered out in the “Liberated” Churches of The Netherlands (of which Schilder was a part) is Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles of Preaching Historical Texts by Sidney Greidanus (Toronto: Wedge Pub. Co.; currently out of print). A popular redemptive historical Bible survey is the four volume set by S. G. de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance (Toronto: Paideia Press). Much more in-depth, and available only in mimeograph (but well worth having) are the series of Old Testament History books by Homer Hoeksema. Each of these volumes gives very good
redemptive historical insights into the text. They are available from the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 4949 Ivanrest, Grandville, Michigan 49418. I had read all these books years before I ever wrote Judges, and that is partly why I have been amazed when some people regard my method as new or different. It was old hat to me.
Well, I have to draw this section to a close. Two recent books relevant to Biblical exegesis need to be noted. They reSymphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology by Vern S. Poythress, and Has the Church Misread the Bible? The History of Interpretation in the Light of Current Issues, by Moises Silva. Both men teach at Westminster Theological Seminary. These men are setting out the kind of hermeneutical models that I regard as ideal, and I highly recommend their works. And finally, there are the older works on hermeneutics, such as Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton Terry, Principles of Biblical Interpretation by Henry Berkhof, and Interpretation of the Scriptures by Arthur Pink.
The Literary Reader
As a conclusion to this essay, I want to make some observations that grow out of C. S. Lewis’s remarkable Experiment in Criticism, mentioned above. What Lewis is interested in doing is coming up with a way to distinguish good literature from bad, or inferior literature. He suggests that the best way to do this is to distinguish between two kinds of readers. He calls these the “literary reader” and the “unliterary reader.” Basically, the literary reader is a person who is open and receptive to the text, and allows himself to be molded by it. The unliterary reader is a person who uses the text for his own purposes, whether that purpose be the gathering of information or sheer recreation. Lewis then goes on to say that “good literature” is literature that tends to compel a literary reading, while “bad literature” is literature that does not have the depth to withstand a literary read.
What Lewis is talking about is not exactly the same thing as I am. He is talking about artistic appreciation, and I am talking about practical interpretation and application. For a full appreciation of the text, however, what Lewis has to say is very important to Biblical exposition. To return to the example given above, it is hard to imagine anyone not being enthralled by the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, but someone well trained in music will get a whole lot more out of hearing it. It is the same with reading and studying the Bible.
Now, I’m going to illustrate this with movies, because (a) you are more likely to have seen this or that movie than to have read this or that classic book, and (b) you can check out these movies and view them in two to three hours each, while it takes much more time to read a book. The principle is the same.
When an “unliterary viewer” goes to see Greystoke, what is he looking for? He is looking for a Tarzan movie. He is looking for an exciting story. In Lewis’s words, he is looking for The Event. “As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the Event. The one ignores nearly all the sounds the orchestra is actually making; he wants to hum the tune. The other ignores nearly all that the words before him are doing; he wants to know what happened next.”‘ (p. 30) Such a viewer is doomed to disappointment with Greystoke. Even though the film sticks more closely to Burroughs’s original narratives than any other Tarzan movie, there are many scenes that don’t seem to make much sense. There is a lot more conversation than action. The ending is disappointing.
By way of contrast, the “literary” viewer who attends Greystoke picks up on these things. Watching the film through the first time, he senses that there is more here than one viewing will give. There are some obvious symbols employed and discussed: the razor, the mirror, the ring. There seem to be three kinds of people wrestling for Tarzan’s soul: the apes, who are “one with nature”; the Darwinian English scientists, who dominate and exploit nature; and finally such persons as D’Arnot and Lord Greystoke, who see man over nature as steward, not exploiter.
This may make the literary viewer want to view Greystoke a second time, because he anticipates that he will enjoy opening himself to the deeper aspects of the film. During his second viewing he notes that the film does indeed seem to have the nature of man as its basic theme. The scenes of Tarzan’s youth bring out, one after another, the points at which modern anthropology says men differ from animals. The scenes of the second half of the film tend to highlight the ways in which men are like animals. And there is a good deal more to the film as well. In general, though, the film raises the questions “What is man? Who is man’s father? What is man’s family?” (Tarzan himself voices the last two questions in one of the film’s climaxes.) These are questions faced by modern man, and just as modern man has found no answer, the film leaves the question unresolved.
The unliterary viewer is likely to respond to the two preceding paragraphs by saying, “Aw, c’mon. It’s just a Tarzan movie, and not a very good one.” Is it possible to argue with such a response? What can the literary viewer say that will be heard?
Now Lewis rightly points out that there is nothing immoral or wrong about appreciating narrative at the unliterary level. Those who would be numbered among the unliterary include people who excel “in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability.” By the same token, “we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent.” (p. 5f.) Some people have a profound appreciation for one of the arts, but only a superficial taste for others. “And many whose responses to all the arts are trivial may yet be people of great intelligence, learning, and subtlety.” This is not surprising because, for example, “the subtlety of a philosopher or physicist is different from that of a literary person.” (p. 6)
That’s fine, and we appreciate it. But: The Bible is literature, and those who wish to deal with it in depth need to become “literary” readers.
Stop. Look. Listen.
Lewis makes helpful comparisons with visual art and music. Concerning art, Lewis notes that most people “use” pictures. They are substitutes for reality, or “self-starters for certain imaginative and emotional activities of your own.”
(p. 16). This is not necessarily bad at all; a famous example of such a use of art is Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is “admirable in its own way; [but] not admirable as an appreciation of ceramic art. The corresponding uses of pictures arc extremely various and there is much to be said for many of them. There is only one thing we can say with confidence against all of them without exception: they are not essentially appreciations of pictures.” (p. 18)
Lewis goes on to say, and this is most important, that real appreciation means laying aside our own subjectivity, preconceptions, associations, and interests. We have to open ourselves up to the picture. “We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive.” (p. 19) Critical evaluation comes afterward.
This is the salient point, and at this point we can leave Lewis, though if you wish to become a good reader, you really need to get and read his book. (It is only 143 pages long.)
The literary reader has learned openness and receptivity to the text. He does not suspend his critical faculties entirely, but he largely suspends them for the duration of his exposure to the text. It may be that the text is offensive, boring, or trite, and he may not bother to finish it. After all, much writing will not withstand careful reading. This is not the case with the Bible, of course. Here we must be completely open.
The Virtue of Patience
The literary reader has also learned patience. He has learned not to rush to judgment. Let me give an example. Before I saw The Deer Hunter the first time, I was told by a friend that Michael was a “Nietzchean” hero, a man whose powerful will enabled him to dominate circumstances and other people and to perform heroic deeds. This made sense to me the first couple of times I saw the film. (We used this film in a Summer Institute I used to teach at, so I saw it several times.) It began to dawn on me, however, that Michael undergoes a transformation in the film, as a result of his Vietnam experience. In the first part, his heroism is indeed that of the will. At the end, however, his heroism is that of self-sacrifice. He has gone, essentially, from being a pagan to being a Christian hero. He has gone from being hostile to the Church to singing “God bless America.”
Now, this is not the only thing going on in this profound film, but it is a major theme – I believe the major theme.13 The Deer Hunter is an excellent film, but it requires an ability to view with patience and openness. The viewer who is only looking for events will be bored by the long wedding party. The open viewer, however, will allow himself to enter into the mood of the ball, and be stunned by the invasion of the happy party by the foul-mouthed Green Beret – a picture of the impact of the Vietnam War upon American culture.
My general point here, however, is that it took several viewings for me to get over my initial misinterpretation. (My friend went through the same process, and came to the same conclusion as I did.) Along these lines, I taught through Judges four different times, to four different audiences. Each time I refined my interpretation. The final (semi-final?) version in my book makes significant changes, including two major reversals, in what I had taught the fourth time around. In other words, patient reflection -meditation – is required for good interpretation. Repeated exposures are needed for good interpretation. There is no formula for this.
The impatient reader, looking for a new insight, trying to be creative, or whatever, will generally mishandle the text. In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco deliberately wrote to slow the reader down. He tells us that “after reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace…. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation…. One acquaintance of mine told me that he got bored with the book and after a while just speed-read it to find about the murders. He also thought the revelation of the murderer and his motive was anticlimactic, stupid, and inane. Of course, if he had entered into the book and read it properly, he would have been utterly delighted at the revelations in finis Africa1^
Literary reading, then, requires openness, patience, passive meditation, and for full appreciation, repeated exposure.
Unliterary Typological Interpretation
I stated above that literature can be seen as having three levels, the narrative, the philosophical, and the symbolic. Taking notice of these things does not make one a literary reader. It is possible to take a text and look for symbolism, or look for ideas, and make a regular mess of interpretation. You may uncover some symbols and ideas, or you may find some that aren’t there at all. This is again a way of using the text. (Cf. my remarks on the quest for novelty above.)
Some of the reservations people have regarding symbolism and typology are justified, because so often symbolism and typology are done by persons who are unliterary readers. They do not read the text with openness. Rather, they read it to find theological points, such as predestination or justification. Or, they read it to find ”typological” shapshots of Christ, ignoring redemptive historical context.
It is easy to run through the history of interpretation and poke fun at some of the symbolic and typological interpretations of the past. Many are very arbitrary. Many have been read into the text instead of read out of it. That does not change the fact, however, that the Old Testament is typological, because all of it speaks of Christ. The answer to a poor job is to do a good job, not to refuse to work at all. It is hard to make a case for the gold and wood of the Ark of the Covenant being the deity and humanity of Christ. Such an interpretation imports ideas from systematic theology into a place they may not belong. But in terms of Biblical symbolism, it is possible to see wood overlaid with gold as a symbol for glorified humanity. Such glorified people are what God desires to be around His throne, like the gold-covered boards of the Tabernacle. Such glorified people have God’s life, law, and authority in their hearts, like the manna, the commandments, and Aaron’s rod in the Ark. Jesus is the firstborn and Captain of the Church, so clearly the glorified wood speaks of Him, but by extension it speaks of all of us as well.
The kind of openness to the text that Lewis sets out as the chief desideratum for good reading is, I believe, the same thing as Christians mean by ‘”waiting on the Lord.” That is why. I believe, so much relatively good exposition has come from pastors and saints, and so little good has come from technically-oriented scholars. The open, receptive attitude of the saints, when coupled with the gift of literary skill, is exactly what Lewis is commending. Time and again, when modern commentaries fall flat, we can turn to the fathers of the early church, to Luther and Calvin, to Matthew Henry and Arthur Pink, and find real insight. (Not all older eommentaries are worthwhile, of course. Many devout men simply do not have the gift of reading.)
Lest I be misunderstood, I want to return to a point Lewis made above. Being an unliterary reader is no shame, and no problem. The Bible can be read, appreciated, and used profitably in an unliterary manner. The Spirit communicates to all believers with and through the Word. Most people are not called to become mature, literary-readers. There are plenty of other callings equally spiritual, and indeed, some good literary readers of the Bible are themselves not believers, which is why we can use some Jewish and liberal commentaries with profit. (I think particularly of Umberto Cassuto’s commentaries on Genesis and Exodus.) Many great theologians were remarkably unliterary in their approach to the narratives of the Bible. When it comes to exposition of the text, however, and particularly of narrative, then those who have the training, the skills, the gifts to be literary readers need to be recognized and respected. Much of the supposed fear of “Biblical theology” has arisen because unliterary readers are suspicious of literary ones. The unliterary reader fears that the shell of his systematic theology will be cracked by the insights of the literary reader. As a result, “Biblical theology.” or “redemptive historical theology,” comes under fire. This should not and need not be so, as Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., of Westminster Theological Seminary pointed out twelve years ago.
Thus, not everyone is called to become a literary reader, or a “literary reader” of the Bible. Those who wish to become such, whether
professionally or just for personal enjoyment, need to come to grips with Lewis’s insights.
One other random piece of advice I have is this. If you want to get better at reading the Bible, cultivate a taste for good literature and classical music. Good literature stimulates our awareness of narrative, idea, and symbol. It also encourages us to read openly and slowly. Classical music trains us to become aware of “long lines.” of extended development in time. While popular music comes in simple tidbits, classical music comes in complex and extended forms. I believe that listening to classical music acts to create a subconscious awareness of and sensitivity to the interplay of details over a span of time. 1 don’t believe it is possible to read the Bible without this sensitivity. In conclusion, serious reading is an art. One does not acquire it over night, nor is there a list of ten rules you can master that will unlock the depths of the Scriptures. It i« like any other art. a matter largely of becoming sensiti/ed to the literary form of the Bible. The bibliography provided by this essay will get you started, by exposing you to good models to imitate, and by jarring you loose from the blinders of the 20th century world view.
A word of warning for the uninitiated. There is a good deal of interest today in “literary analysis” of the Bible. Much of it is sheer rubbish. Some of it is marginally useful. What Lewis and I are talking about in this essay is not the kind of thing that many technical commentaries are doing.
Two areas can be addressed. First of all, the notion that the Old Testament was build up out of various sources crudely put together by a final “redactor” is so stupid that it is amazing to me that anyone ever believed it for more than twenty-four hours. I recall in college learning that once upon a time, briefly, scholars thought that the Homeric poems were composites, but then along came Albert B. Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1958; building on earlier work by Milman Parry) and this nonsense was blown to shreds. Parry and Lord had found out that Serbo-croatian blind and illiterate poets alive in this century could sing out poems as long as the Iliad and Odyssey. (Of course, there are still a few scholars who want to maintain that there were two Homers, one for each poem!)
Then there were the many Platos, and the many Shakes-peares. Does anybody believe this nonsense any more? Ah, but when it comes to the Bible the JEDP idiocy is so entrenched that even men who don’t believe in it are compelled to take note of it throughout their writings. An example, one of hundreds, is Wenham’s commentary on Genesis, mentioned above. Wenham makes clear in the introduction that he really does not believe in JEDP, but all through his commentary he tells us what sources are supposedly involved in this or that passage. Why waste time with this stupid stuff? Secular scholarship laughed it away two generations ago!17
Of course, there probably were sources used by some of the writers of the Bible. The Bible refers to some of them (1 Kings 14:19, etc.). But, the text as it stands is a seamless garment, and any literary reader who approaches it immediately recognizes that there is no way to discern sources. There are always good literary and theological reasons for the evidence that supposedly proves that sources have been mushed together.
The second area that needs to be addressed is the tendency nowadays to perform excruciatingly detailed literary analyses on small bits of Scripture, virtually ignoring both the content and overall thrust of larger sections. This is not all bad, of course, and can be helpful – done rightly My main beef is that it still treats the text in an incredibly unliterary way. Do we read anything else this way? Breaking down the text into “atomic particles” needs to be matched with an equal emphasis on the “wave” thrust and direction of the overall literary unit, and the “field” structure of the literary unit. Moreover, textual analysis needs to take account of content as well as of grammar.
Happily, once again the men at Westminster Theological Seminary are helping us out. Poythress’s Symphonic Theology, mentioned above, is a valuable corrective. A more technical introduction to the whole area of literary analysis, a balanced though rather academistic treatment, is Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).
1. I’ve written other hooks and monographs since these, but these three earlier writings are what called forth critical comment, so 1 shall reflect on them primarily here.
2. By academy I do not mean seminaries, where the scholarship is (or should be) pastorally and ecclesiastically oriented. Rather, I have reference to the world of “university scholarship,” as reflected in technical Bible commentaries and technical journals. There is a place for such scholarship, but I do not believe it is my own gift and calling.
3. By this I mean a book oriented toward Christians. There have been books on the subject by Jews and liberal academicians. They are referred to in my own book. For the most part, they have nothing to offer the Church.
4. I have set out my objection to moralism below. Our interpretation must be Christocentric first of all. Moral lessons must come out of the theology of the text.
5. On the difference, see my essay “Rebellion, Tyranny, and Dominion in the Book of Genesis,” in Gary North, ed..
Tactics of ChristianResistance (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1984); and see also the discussion in Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15- Word Biblical Commentary 1 (Waco, TX-. Word, 1987), pp. 62ff., and the literature cited there.
6. I am not saying that any book written on the Mosaic Torah must mechanically set out these four steps for each law, though I am
considering doing just that when I revise The Law of the Covenant. My point is rather that whatever the expositor writes, or the preacher preaches, ought to reflect a sensitivity to these four considerations.
7. I’m not saying ancient near east culture and parallels are worthless. Study of the culture can alert us to things in the Bible that we have over looked. It can stimulate thought, in other words. The backing for our interpretations, however, must come from inside trie Bible.
8. See Wenham, Genesis, pp. 133f. Barnouin’s similar study of the census numbers in Numbers is available in English translation for $6.00 from Biblical Horizons, Box 1096, Niceville, FL 32588. Barnouin argues that the census numbers in Numbers correspond to the numbers of days of various astral cycles, indicating that Israel was considered as pan of the heavenly host, gathered around the Tabernacle, and marching through the skies on the way to conquer Canaan. For instance, in the first census,
Benjamin numbered 35400. 354 is the number of days in a lunar year.
9. I discussed this in Law of the Covenant, chap. 5.
10. Note: When we interpret Biblical symbolism we should not run to other ancient sources and cultures, but rather we need to interpret from the Bible itself. The fact that all ancient cultures were highly oriented toward symbol and ritual does not mean they all used symbol and ritual the same way. The study of symbols in other cultures may give usclues that help us in searching for the meaning of Biblical symbols, but our proof of meaning must come from the Bible itself.
11. Wenham’s recent Genesis is loaded down with technical material and is pretty light on theology. This is what the Word Biblical Commentary commissioned, of course, but it is a disappointment. 1 hope someone else will get him to write a theological commentary.
12. Christ in His Sufferings, Christ on Trial, Christ Crucified (Baker Book House). These are not studies but sermons, and possess a rather artistic sermonic style.
13- I am not saying that The Deer Hunter is a Christian film, only that it borrows some Christian concepts. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate reflects more explicitly on Biblical themes. The opening section is taken from the Garden of Eden, with an obvious seizure of forbidden fruit as its climax. The long middle section reflects on the tower of Babel – Babel means “heaven’s gate” – as the conflict among the various immigrant groups and trie general human inability to get along frustrate the youthful dreams of a united and powerful America. The brief coda shows us the collapse of the dream, as the central figure leaves off trying to build the tower. Because of its unsavory aspects, I cannot recommend this film for general viewing. (For the same reason, i cannot recommend Excalibur, mentioned above.)
14. Umberto Eco, Postscript to “The Name of the Rose”, trans, by William Weaver (New York: llarcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), p. 41.
15. And please, don’t think you can bypass the book if you’ve only seen the film. The movie is only a pale, dim reflection of the book.
16. Gaffin, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in John H. Skilton, ed.. The New Testament Student and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1976).
17. Of course, Wenham was doing what he was commissioned to do, and 1 suppose there is a place for it. I’m not faulting him, but it will certainly be nice when the evangelical scholarly community gets to the point where it can just laugh this stuff off and get on with the business of real exegesis.