MORE MUSING ON INTERPRETATIONLexical work is indispensable if we’re trying to get at a text but we can learn what every word means and grasp clearly how a sentence is structured and how the parts relate to each other and remain ignorant of what the writer is saying. Why is he saying what he is saying? What has led him to say what he is saying? Who does he have in mind when he is saying what he is saying? What texts or truths is he leaning on and/or assuming to give substance to his statements? How does what he is saying connect with what he wants to accomplish?
Let me shelve any critical questions about the historical truth the writer is offering and simply take it that what a Bible writer says is true to fact. Let me take it for granted that what they say happened did happen essentially as they tell it.
That’s only the beginning of the job of understanding what the Bible writer means to say. Mark, for example, is recording actual events in the life of Jesus but what’s his point in doing that? He’s not writing his record for Jesus to read or the apostles; who is he writing it for? Does he have a particular group in mind or is he just writing something down in the hope that somebody somewhere will read about Jesus? He doesn’t tell us everything Jesus did (see John 21:25) so why did he choose the incidents he chose; why tell of them rather than others?
You know very well, of course, that the people we’re writing to/for affect the kind of material we choose and how we tell it. To a beloved family member we choose to speak with affection of our parents, perhaps; of the happy memories and their wisdom and such. To a family member who is embittered with us we might choose the same materials but we’ll make different use of them. “You remember, John, how patient our father was with us; didn’t he put up with a lot of provocation!” On the other hand, “You remember, Harry, how patient our father was with us so why aren’t you willing to be patient with the rest of us?” Same truth but different use made of it; one is an affectionate reminder and the other is something of a rebuke and exhortation. Same truth but because the intention is different the way the truth is told is different.
When a speaker is invited to speak to a gathering of convinced and committed Christians on the resurrection of Jesus you don’t expect him to work up a lather proving one. more. time. the fact of the matter. Everyone in the building has believed that since childhood. If the speaker is bent on proving the fact of Jesus’ resurrection the assembly might wonder who he’s talking to. If that speaker is invited to speak to a gathering of convicted atheists and skeptics on the resurrection he won’t speak to them as believers so he won’t develop the theological richness of the resurrection of Jesus as it relates to believers.
To say, “Jesus is Lord!” means the same thing when you say it to a non-believer or a believer.
But then again, “Jesus is Lord!” spoken to a believer doesn’t mean quite the same thing as when it is said to a non-believer.
You know very well that Paul spoke to the Corinthians in one way and the Thessalonians in another. There were basic truths he leaned on, of course, but he spoke about different issues and spoke about some of the same issues in different ways. The people he addressed determined his choice of materials and how he expressed those materials. In 1 Corinthians 15 he speaks of Christ’s resurrection to support the truth that Christians will be raised bodily and in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 he speaks of Jesus’ resurrection to comfort bereaved worriers. These purposes intersect, of course, but they're distinct purposes.
All that to say this: to really understand what a writer is saying we need to understand why he is saying what he is saying and why he says it in quite the way he does.
This introduces us to a piece of circular work. If we don’t know who a book is written to or the time in which it was written we use the material written to try to figure out who the reader is that the choice of material implies. Then in turn we use the identity of the implied reader to understand better what is being said to him. It's a process to be followed with great care but it is a perfectly sensible procedure and we have much internal help from the text itself.
Mark 5:41 and John 5:2 and other places offer an explanation or interpretation of words and phrases which implies that at least some of their readers weren’t familiar with Aramaic or Hebrew. This suggests that some of their intended readership is non-Jewish and that affects how we think of their setting and that in turn affects how we hear what the writers are saying.
Take the case of the book of Genesis. We’re not told who produced the book but the name Moses wasn’t associated with it for nothing and since Jesus and Paul alluded to that section of the OT (the Pentateuch) and named Moses in connection with it “Moses” will do! It’s clear however that sections of the Pentateuch weren’t written by Moses (his own past death and successors, for example—See Deuteronomy 34:5-6, 10). Taking the materials to be essentially and substantially Mosaic I’m moving on.
Moses doesn’t tell us why he produced the Genesis material and that means we can’t fully understand him. If some later Spirit-moved editor put the materials together we have to assume the Spirit and the writer had a purpose that determined which materials were used and how they were used. To figure out how the materials hang together helps us to understand the purpose and a sense of the purpose helps us to understand how the materials hang together.
When going through the book it’s not horrendously difficult to spot major truths that are stressed and underlying motifs. In Genesis think of human fragmentation and reconciliation, the importance of brother/sister harmony, the helplessness and vulnerability of leading characters, the solidarity of humanity in wickedness and God’s earnest intention to rescue and redeem humans from sin.
But was Moses just producing a handbook of events without any thought of the needs of those whom he would like to read them? Was he do you think, writing Genesis 1 for 21st century atheists like poor Richard Dawkins and sad little E.O Wilson? I’m not suggesting Genesis 1 has nothing to teach these gentlemen but I am saying that if we think it’s written for Darwinians we read it one way and if we think it’s written for an Israel which just left the god-soaked Egypt and were heading to Canaan, another idolatrous area (see Leviticus 18:1-3) we'll read it differently. If we read the texts as if they were written to expose uniformitarian geology we get one message and if we read them as telling Israel there is one God and the natural forces and realities are his creation and servants rather than gods to be feared and worshiped we get another message.
If preachers get up week after week and preach on “timeless” truths divorced from all historical/cultural considerations whatever else they are doing, they aren’t expositing the biblical text. Might as well have Plato in the pulpit lecturing. [But even some of his best writing was historically conditioned. He talked about life after death and immortality in connection with the coming execution of his hero Socrates.]
Presuming that Moses didn’t write that “timeless” way, we list the obvious emphases in the book of Genesis and wonder why he chose those truths and events. He obviously had a purpose and a readership in mind. For example, he stresses the creaturely weakness of humans (Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel all have their troubles). Why would he do that? There must have been a need to stress such a truth and getting at that need via the Genesis (or any other) materials enriches our understanding and helps us to better think God’s thoughts after him and that in turn shapes our lives and purposes.
What is true of entire books is true of sections and specific verses.