T he Gospel
WITNESS Fall 2013
A ministry of Jarvis Street Baptist Church — $5.00
RIGHTLY DIVIDING THE WORD OF TRUTH: READING AND INTERPRETING THE BIBLE
Interpreting Old Testament Poetry, Narrative, and the Pauline Epistles
contents Features 3
The Poetry of the Bible: Something Beautiful by God and for God
WITNESS Fall 2013 Volume 92, No. 3 (Issue 3085)
“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” Romans 1:16
Editor Dr. Glendon G. Thompson
Managing Editor Daniel G. Morden
Interpreting Old Testament Narrative
Interpreting the Pauline Epistles Pierre Constant
Michael A. G. Haykin, Sheila Evans, Kirk Wellum
Dr. T. T. Shields (1922–1955)
Previous Editors Dr. H. C. Slade (1955–1974) Dr. E. T. Gurr (1975–1981) Dr. J. R. Boyd (1981–1982) Dr. Olive Clark Rev. N. H. Street (1982–1992) Dr. D. G. Lundy (1994–1997) Rev. W. P. Bauman (1958–1997), managing editor Mrs. Anne Fountain (1997–2003), managing editor Rev. R. J. Umandap (2007–2009), managing editor Published (4 issues per year) for the propagation of the evangelical principles of the Protestant Reformation and in defence of the faith once delivered to the saints. The Gospel Witness is a ministry of Jarvis Street Baptist Church (incorporated 1995).
Merry Christmas! From all of us who help produce the Gospel Witness, we wish God’s richest blessings on you as you celebrate the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. May this time of the year indeed bring you peace and strength from our Prince of Peace and Mighty God, who will reign forever! Please continue upholding us in prayer as we venture into another new year.
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The Poetry of the Bible: Something Beautiful by God and for God1 Stephen Dempster
remember when I was a high school student and someone would ask me for some money to buy a snack at the school cafeteria. I would reply with the following words from Shakespeare: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses itself and friend and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” It was my way of making Polonius’ advice my own and using it in practical situations. I would have liked to think that the poetry had a powerful impact, much more than “Sorry, I don’t have any money today, and besides borrowing is not a good practice as it discourages thrift.” The lines from Shakespeare were easy to memorize because of their metre, and with that metre the meaning had more impact— more oomph, if you will. And it also contained some important advice even if would-be borrowers did not always appreciate it! Most of us do not think about the difference between prose and poetry in our native language because we inhabit our own language and culture unconsciously and a shift in genre immediately and automatically registers in our minds when it happens. We know intuitively the difference between a sermon and a chorus, a prayer and a joke, a news report and a rap song. In general, we think of poets as much more “inspired” and spontaneous than other communicators. That is often true but there is also much more mental preparation required to compose a poem than to produce, for example, a letter or make a simple statement. Poetry requires forethought, paying attention to detail and often working within fixed pre-existing structures and patterns such as rhyme and meter. I remember once talking to Margaret Avison, the great Canadian poet,
and she told me that inspired as she often was she sometimes spent more than 3–4 months on a short poem of a few lines. She was definitely of the opinion that great poetry was the result of 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration! Many think that the Bible consists mainly of stories, laws and doctrine. Let’s make no mistake about it: there are many of these within the Scriptures. But it is also true that Scripture contains a great deal of poetry. The five books in the Old Testament of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are almost entirely poetic and to these can be added most of the discourses in the seventeen prophetic books.2 Thus a large part of the Old Testament is poetic in form: at least 20 of the 39 books!3 Have you ever thought of the Bible as poetry, and God as a poet—the ultimate poet? Why would He use the poetic medium to communicate so much of His truth when a simple prose narrative would do? Why would it not be sufficient, say, to give us the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule? Let’s think about these questions and try to supply some possible answers. First let us look at some texts in the Old Testament that contain both a prose narrative account and a poetic account. One of the longer, oldest poems in the Bible is the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15. There is a complementary prose account in the previous chapter. Both recount the events of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites and their Exodus from Egypt. Let’s take a look at a portion of each text and compare them. First, there is the prose account in Exodus 14:21–28:
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Pharaoh’s chariots and his a Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the LORD looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians. And He took off their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. Then the waters returned and covered the chariots, the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them. Not so much as one of them remained. Now consider the same poetic account in Exodus 15:4–18: Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea; His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea. The depths have covered them; They sank to the bottom like a stone. “Your right hand, O LORD, has become glorious in power; Your right hand, O LORD, has dashed the enemy
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in pieces. And in the greatness of Your excellence You have overthrown those who rose against You; You sent forth Your wrath; It consumed them like stubble. And with the blast of Your nostrils The waters were gathered together; The floods stood upright like a heap; The depths congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; My desire shall be satisfied on them. I will draw my sword, My hand shall destroy them.’ You blew with Your wind, The sea covered them; They sank like lead in the mighty waters. “Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, Fearful in praises, doing wonders? You stretched out Your right hand; The earth swallowed them. … “The LORD shall reign forever and ever.” Let’s consider some of the differences. The obvious one that is immediately apparent is the length of the lines or sentences. In the prose account, there is no concern for symmetrical length or even symmetry of theme. The ordering of the account is based on general chronological succession. This happened and then that….Moses raised his staff, the water parted, the Israelites passed through to the other side. The Egyptians followed them and then Moses lowered his staff and the waters collapsed on the Egyptians, drowning all of them. In the poetic account the lines are extremely symmetrical in length and usually occur in pairs, with the second echoing or intensifying the theme of the first. He has (not only) thrown Pharaoh’s chariots and army into the Red Sea; (even) Pharaoh’s best officers drowned in the sea! The deep waters (not only) covered them—they (even) sank to the bottom like a stone! The Lord (not only was) your
rmy He has cast into the sea! right hand majestic and powerful, the Lord your right hand (even) destroyed your enemies! This idea of the symmetry of intensification is a fundamental feature of Hebrew poetry and not meter and rhyme.4 A colleague of mine in Old Testament studies likens it to the use of two speakers in a sound system.5 First the left speaker is turned on and then the right speaker and the total effect is “surround sound.” I would just add to this by simply saying that the second speaker amplifies the sound of the first. Secondly, while there is a concern for chronological succession in the prose account, there is no such interest in the poetic description. The poetic account goes over the same event again and again, from different angles. Thus after the drowning of the armies, the poet picks up the theme of their defeat repeatedly: Your burning anger blazed out. It burned them up like straw… The Red Sea covered your enemies… the Earth swallowed up the Egyptians… Repetition is almost the essence of Hebrew poetry. Thirdly, there is a far richer use of imagery—even contradictory imagery—in the poetic account. Thus the enemies of Yahweh are covered with water, they sink like a stone, they are burned up with fire, their horses and chariots are thrown into the sea, the earth—not the sea—swallows them up. This shows that the interpreter needs to give the poet license to use such different images because of the nature of poetry. To infer literal, historical facts from such imagery is a bit precarious to say the least. Thus to infer from the reference to the enemies sinking like a stone that there was an original historical event of the Israelites and Egyptians crossing the sea in boats and rafts in a storm is not being hermeneutically sensitive.6 Why not also argue that the Egyptians’ water craft first burned up because of a fire on board before they sank into the sea? The poetic imagery is not to be taken literally. Fourthly, the poetic account breathes the language of praise and in it there is virtually the attempt to relive the original event. Repeatedly God is addressed in the second person: Lord, your right hand destroyed your enemies…. Lord who is like you among the gods? The direct speech,
the multiplication of metaphor and imagery, the intensification of the various lines throughout the text, all create a reliving of the original event so that later generations can participate in the same deliverance of their God and declare that “the LORD will rule forever and ever!” Thus while there is a density of historical explanation in the prose account, the poetic account assumes that and says, “What shall we say in response to that incredible event of Yahweh?” We could go merrily on our way and let the prose account serve but poetry says, “This is not enough!” Those that originally experienced those events had to celebrate and they had to put their emotions into words and a prose explanation was not an appropriate vehicle for those emotions! In poetry the composers sew up the language of praise for eternity in their thanksgiving poem!7 They also enable that first historical action of God to be the object of praise and thanksgiving throughout history! One of the main differences that distinguish poetry from prose is that the form of the poem is far more essential to the meaning of poetry than prose. The package in which the gift is wrapped is part of the gift! Consider, for example, the following from Psalm 3:1–2 in which David describes the multiplication of his enemies: LORD, How they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, “There is no help for him in God.” The increasing length of the lines in the poem suggests that David’s enemies are also increasing. A similar feature is found in the Aaronic benediction which Aaron was to pronounce over the people of Israel: The LORD bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to you; The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you peace.
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Perhaps this is a place where the church can in contemporary society, which is concerned Yahweh’s blessing is such that it continually increases like an overflowing river! These examples all show that poetry is creatively crafted and just as surely as there was divine inspiration of the thoughts of the poems, the poet put much thought and care into the expression of those thoughts in words to make a theological point. This just shows that God loves language, and the appropriate use of language. As the Creator of language, He also loves its creative use expressed in an artistic way. Clearly some concepts are best presented in this way. It was an angelic choir that announced the birth of Jesus to the world!9 God is very much aware that there is a strong aesthetic dimension to our humanity because He, after all, is an artist! We are people who feel as well as think! We are people who appreciate beauty, and proportion and become lost in wonder, amazement and praise before God who is the Supremely Beautiful One! Perhaps this is a place where the church can connect specifically with its postmodern culture in contemporary society, which is concerned much more with feeling instead of thinking, much more with experiencing than reasoning. One of the important practical consequences of poetry is that it is usually easier to memorize than prose because of its symmetrical form. The Psalmist says, “Your word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against You.”10 How much easier it is to do this when the word is poetic! Because it was more likely to be used in the language of praise and address to God, poetry would be used on numerous occasions and it would be easier to memorize. In addition there are Hebrew poems that are acrostics, that is, they are alphabetical psalms in which the alphabet is used as a mnemonic device to help individuals memorize theological concepts. Thus, to use an English analogy, the first line begins with A the second line with B until the alphabet is exhausted. Psalms 111–112 are a pair of complementary psalms which celebrate the generous God (Psalm 111) and a generous man made in His image (Psalm 112). Proverbs 31:10–31 praises a virtuous woman and this alphabetic song emphasizes the completeness of her character as a pattern for young women to emulate and young
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men to pursue. Psalm 119 is a super-acrostic which emphasizes the complete, multifaceted nature of God’s Law. It is considered from every possible angle! Virtually the entire book of Lamentations is written in an acrostic form to express the entirety of the experience of grief, lament and judgment over the destruction of Jerusalem. The last chapter breaks the acrostic pattern suggesting that the outpouring of grief cannot finally be contained. Finally, the old adage that something is always lost in translation is doubly true for poetry. That is why—to the chagrin of many high school English students—CliffsNotes or Coles Notes for Shakespeare’s plays will never take the place of his poetry, the main reason being, that such prosaic aids can never be an adequate substitute for real poetry. Thus in some Hebrew poetry a knowledge of the original language will really help the interpreter of the Bible. Consider, for example, the following passage from Micah 1:10–13 which describes the coming judgment on Jerusalem as the Assyrian war machine comes down the western flank of Judah in 701 B.C. Micah could have simply described in narrative prose the devastation of all the cities and towns in the path of the Assyrian army but instead he uses the following poetry, some of which is difficult to translate but whose general sense is clear: Tell it not in Gath; weep not at all. In Beth Ophrah roll in the dust. Pass by naked and in shame, you who live in Shaphir. Those who live in Zaanan will not come out. Beth Ezel is in mourning; it no longer protects you. Those who live in Maroth writhe in pain, waiting for relief, because disaster has come from the LORD, even to the gate of Jerusalem. You who live in Lachish, harness fast horses to the chariot. Note how many of the inhabitants of the various towns and villages were personally addressed. There
connect specifically with its postmodern culture much more with feeling instead of thinking. were many other villages that were destroyed but why were these ones singled out by the prophet? The clue is found in the original language, where there are word plays and puns used throughout the discourse. But such language “tricks” were not used in ancient culture for the reasons we in modern western society utilize them. There was often believed to be a significant and sometimes ominous connection between words that were linked. Thus Nabal’s name in 1 Samuel 25 meant “folly” and his foolish lifestyle and moronic choices reflected the fate of the name.11 In this text in Micah many of the cities have puns associated with them which suggest that there will be no escaping their fate. Their destiny is somehow captured in their name. Thus Beth Ophrah (House of Dust) is told to roll in the dust, which is a particularly ancient Hebrew mourning practice; Shaphir (Beautiful) will be covered with shame; there will be no exit for Zaanan (Exit); Maroth (Bitter, Painful) will writhe in pain, and Lachish will have to harness (rekesh) its chariots for the upcoming siege. Thus Micah adds an atmosphere of dread and doom to the fate of these cities. Their doom is found in their names. Someone not versed in the Hebrew language is oblivious to this literary technique.
As the Creator of language, He also loves its creative use expressed in an artistic way. Clearly some concepts are best presented in this way. I began this short essay by describing how I used a poem to ward off borrowers at high school lunch periods, and the lines from Shakespeare that I committed to memory were convenient. But fortunately I have matured a lot—I hope—and have learned poetry for a lot more beneficial reasons. One of the great points that Paul makes in his epistle to
the Ephesians is that God is involved in producing poetry with our lives so that they will be one great work of art: “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for the good works which God has already designated to make up our way of life.”12 The word for “work of art” that Paul uses here is literally “poem” (poiēma), and can also be used to describe a beautiful piece of writing. So God is not just intent on producing poetic rhythms in words but getting this poetry into our lives so that we ourselves will become His poem: something beautiful by God!13 In order to do this we must participate with Him in doing those good works He has prepared for us to do! So let’s join in the creative process and make something beautiful for God!14 Dr. Stephen Dempster is Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University. 1 I would like to thank the following people for listening to various drafts of this paper and giving insightful comments: Reverends David Ngole, Ervais Fotso and Paul Kimbi, as well as Nancy Haynes, Gretchen Harro and Arnie Coleman. All are involved in Bible Translation in Cameroon, West Africa, where this paper was written. 2 I say “almost” because the prologue and epilogue in Job are written in prose and there are prose rubrics throughout the book introducing the speeches. In addition there are prose sections in books like Ezekiel and Jeremiah. 3 I have not included Jonah and Daniel from the Prophets. 4 See, for example, Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 2011). 5 Peter John Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012). 6 As, for example, argued by Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 130–132. 7 I am using the language here that Barbara Herrnstein Smith uses to describe the form of the Biblical proverbs. 8 Num 6:24–26. 9 Luke 2:13–14. 10 Ps 119:11. 11 1 Sam 25:25. 12 Eph 2:10 (Jerusalem Bible). 13 Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1–3, 1st ed. (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1974), 226. 14 The inspiration for this expression comes from Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful For God. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971). It is interesting that this very idea of translating the poetic word into our lives so that we ourselves become God’s poetry is the main point of Psalm 19 where David hears the Word of God expressed in nature (1–6), in Scripture (7–10) and longs that his life join the choir (11–14) so that the words of his mouth might also be pleasing to God (14).
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Interpreting Old Testament Narrative Mark Francois
he topic that we’re going to be dealing with in this article is how to interpret Old Testament narrative, that is, how to interpret the stories that are found in the Old Testament. But right from the beginning there are two important questions that need to be answered. First, why would anyone want to read Old Testament narrative in the first place? For the Christian the answer is simple, even though it might not be totally obvious: we want to know God better, we want to be strengthened in our faith, and we want to learn how to live lives that are pleasing to Him. 2 Timothy 3:16–17 says that all scripture, particularly the Old Testament, “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Since the Old Testament is part of the inspired Word of God, we can be confident the things it teaches us on these issues can be trusted. But there is a second question that needs to be answered. Why do we need to learn how to interpret Old Testament narrative? Can’t we just read the Bible and hear what God has to say to us? There are a few problems with that kind of thinking. First, Old Testament narrative isn’t always easy to understand. The stories of the Old Testament were written in a time, language, culture, and geographic location that is much different from our own. On top of that, the way that people wrote stories back then is quite a bit different from the way people write stories now. While we shouldn’t exaggerate how difficult it is to understand Old Testament narrative, we also shouldn’t underestimate it as well. Second, Old Testament narratives don’t usually tell us explicitly what we’re supposed to learn from them. That means that there is a huge danger of taking away lessons from the story that it was never meant to teach.
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Third, Old Testament narrative doesn’t always tell us whether or not the actions of its characters are praiseworthy or blameworthy or whether or not they belong to the shady grey area that lies between. Many people have used biblical characters as rolemodels without realizing that the text is actually presenting them in a negative light. We need to learn how to keep ourselves from making this mistake. And lastly, unlike the characters in the stories of the Old Testament, we live on the other side of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. We live under the New Covenant, which means that the things God expects of us are much different from what was expected of Israel under the Old Covenant. That means that learning lessons from Old Testament narrative is not as straightforward as one might think because its theological context is much different from our own. If we simply read the Old Testament without being aware of what we are doing, we can end up in big trouble—as the history of biblical interpretation bears witness.
Some Basic Principles Let’s start off with some basic principles that will help us to get off on the right foot. 1. Make sure that you treat the Bible as a divinelyinspired book, not a magic book. Some people think that because the Bible is an inspired book, God will speak to us in a magical way through it. Don’t get me wrong: God speaks to us through the text, but He speaks to us through the text as He has given it. That means that we shouldn’t randomly flip through our Bible, put a finger on a verse, and treat it as God’s own personalized, individual message for us. It also means that we shouldn’t be looking for hidden meanings in the text that have no warrant whatsoever in scripture. God gave us a book, which means that we need to read it as a book. God gave
us stories, which means that we need to read the stories as they were intended to be read. When we understand the stories that God has given to us in the Old Testament, that’s when God speaks to us. 2. Make sure that you do the hard work of actually figuring out what the passage means before you start applying it to your own life or to what you believe about God. There are at least two dangers that come when we start applying the text before really studying it: first, we might end up applying things to ourselves that are based on a misunderstanding of the text. Second, our desire to apply the text to ourselves might keep us from seeing what’s actually there in the text. When reading Old Testament narrative, it is important to bracket out questions of application until you understand what the text is actually saying. 3. Make sure that you maintain a clear distinction between the plain sense meaning of the text and the theological meaning of the text—and don’t neglect either of them. The plain-sense meaning of the text is what the text is actually saying, without looking for hidden meanings and without applying the text to ourselves. The theological meaning involves applying everything that we know about theology to the text to make sure that what we think the text is saying isn’t actually theologically incorrect. A good example can be found in the story of Ruth. In Ruth 2:3 the text attributes Ruth’s good fortune (!) to luck. However, from a theological perspective, we know that there is no such thing as luck because God is sovereign over everything. As it turns out, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi knows this too (Ruth 2:20). But something is lost from the perspective of how the story is told if we jump too quickly to saying that there is no such thing as luck. The narrator has said
this in a tongue-in-cheek way to show that God really was at work behind the scenes. So even though the plain-sense meaning of the text attributes Ruth’s good fortune (!) to luck, we’re supposed to giggle along with the narrator and see God’s hand at work. Something similar could be said for passages that speak about God’s apparent ignorance when we know that, in fact, He is all-knowing (e.g. Gen. 3:9, 11, 13). 4. Finally, make sure that you know where your story fits in with the larger story-line of the entire Bible. The Bible itself isn’t a story—it’s arranged book by book—but it does contain an overall story that most of the narratives in the Bible can be fit into. You need to be aware of the major turning points in the story-line of the Bible that might make a difference for how you interpret the Bible. Here are some of the major turning points you should be aware of: (a) the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden; (b) the flood; (c) the calling of Abram; (d) the giving of the law at Mount Sinai; (e) Israel’s settlement in the land of Canaan; (f) the establishment of the monarchy; (g) the division of the kingdom of Israel into north (Israel) and south (Judah); (h) the exile of the northern and southern kingdoms; (i) the return from exile; and (j) the coming of Christ. Sometimes the place of the story on the Bible’s storyline makes little difference (e.g. Job) but sometimes it makes all the difference in the world.
Practical Steps Now that we have those basic points down, let’s look at some practical steps for interpreting Old Testament narrative. 1. Figure out where your story begins and where it ends. Most stories in the Old Testament are fairly short (usually a chapter or less) and it is fairly easy to figure out where the story begins and
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where it ends. Even if your story is part of a larger story (e.g. the story of Jacob), you can usually divide that larger story into smaller episodes. 2. Figure out what connection your story has with what comes before it and what comes after it in the book where the story is found. Sometimes there will be a close connection but sometimes there won’t be. It’s similar to shows that you see on TV. For some shows it makes a big difference where in the season the episode takes place (serial dramas). Other shows are more episodic – it makes little difference where the episode takes place in the season. A good example of the former is the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis. A good example of the latter is the book of Judges, though it is important to recognize that the judges become progressively worse as the book moves on. The closer the connection is to what comes before and what comes after, the more important it will be to keep those things in mind when interpreting your story. 3. Make a list of the characters that appear in your story. This is especially important for books where the characters keep on changing (e.g. 1 and 2 Kings). Write down what you learn about the characters from the story itself and then write down what you know about the characters from the surrounding context. This will be important for understanding the details of the story. 4. Go through the story and ask basic observational questions to bring out the basic details of the story. Don’t answer the questions yet; simply go through the story and get a good idea of the questions that need to be addressed. Pretend that you’re with a group of kids who have never heard the story and you are quizzing them about the basic details to see whether or not they were paying attention. Here are
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some examples from Judges 14: (a) Who did Samson see when he went down to Timnah? (b) Who were the Philistines? (c) What did Samson want his father and mother to do for him? (d) Why didn’t they want him to marry the Philistine woman? (e) What do we learn about Samson’s character by the fact that he insisted on getting the Philistine woman to be his wife? (f) What does verse 4 tell us about what was going on behind the scenes that Samson’s parents didn’t know about? (g) What was God’s purpose in doing this? (h) Why did Samson want to marry the Philistine woman? (i) Does the text say that he knew about God’s plan? (j) What indications might there be that he didn’t?, etc. Try to stick to questions which can be answered using the story itself or questions that the early readers of the story would have been expected to be able to answer based on their own background knowledge. 5. Use the story itself to answer the questions you made in the previous step without using any aids, except a good English dictionary. This will make you pay close attention to the details of the text. Once you have made an attempt to answer all your questions, use some good commentaries or good books that deal with the story to help answer your questions. This can make reading your commentaries more interesting because you will be looking for specific information. Otherwise, reading commentaries can be quite tedious. 6. Without placing later standards on an earlier time period, see what insights you can glean from the story using theology that you know from other areas of the Bible. Using the story of Samson again, it might be useful to see how Samson’s behaviour matches up with what 1 John says a genuine believer should be like. How Samson matches up to that standard is a
key issue in interpreting both this story and the rest of the book of Judges. 7. Ask what this story can teach you about who God is and how He operates. Who God is never changes, but how God operates does change depending on a number of different factors. Given what we know from the rest of the Bible, should we expect God to act that same way in our own time period or are God’s actions in this story somewhat unique? 8. Based on what you know from other parts of the Bible, what types of behaviour should you emulate and what types of behaviour should you avoid? Keep in mind that believers under the New Covenant have a different standard of righteousness and morality than people under the Old Covenant. If the specifics don’t apply to you under the New Covenant, what principles can be gleaned from the story that still do apply under the New Covenant?
Helpful Tips Before we conclude, let me offer some helpful tips that haven’t been covered yet. 1. If you are teaching Old Testament narrative in Sunday School or in a Bible Study, use your observation questions as the backbone for your lesson. This will help your students pay closer attention to the details of the text. If your students are already familiar with the story, choose your questions more carefully. Focus on what they may not have noticed in the text before. You can either intersperse your application throughout your lesson or leave your application to the end. 2. If you are using the story for a sermon, you probably won’t be able to get all of the details of the story into the sermon without ruining the story. Focus on the main points of the storyline and on the points you want to apply to your congregation. 3. If you are translating the text from Hebrew (or Aramaic), focus on the parts that are crucial for the unfolding of the story or that you want to make a big point of in your message. You might not have time during the week to translate the whole passage so it is best to skip over the parts of the story that aren’t very exegetically significant and simply read those parts in English translation.
4. A good English dictionary can be helpful in studying a text. Many commentaries and Bible dictionaries do a poor job of explaining words like faithfulness, righteousness, love, and devotion. A good English dictionary or simply typing the word in Google followed by the word “definition” can often do a better job of explaining what these words mean than other resources. Of course, the meaning that these words have in Hebrew has the final say but a great deal of confusion and misinterpretation could be avoided if we simply had a better understanding of what our English versions were saying. 5. The best source for background information on your story is the Bible itself. That’s not simply a theological statement about the sufficiency of scripture: it’s a reality. Simply by virtue of its being long and the fact that it contains a wide variety of material, the Old Testament itself provides most of the background information that you need to understand a passage. That’s where you should start. The next step would be to consult a good commentary, bible dictionary, or a more specialized study on some particular area of Old Testament background. 6. Keep on learning and keep on studying. It is simply impossible to become an expert in interpreting Old Testament narrative overnight. As you accumulate knowledge over the years you will be able to make connections and have deeper insight into passages in a way that you couldn’t possibly have done just a few years earlier. When it comes to interpreting Old Testament narrative, the learning process never ends. But no matter how much knowledge you accumulate, always go back to the basics of interpretation because not everything that you learn will be good, nor will it faithfully reflect what God’s Word actually says. May God bless you as you study His Word, and may it lead you to greater faithfulness, both in life and in worship, and to greater knowledge of Him. Mark Francois is the pastor of Calvary Gospel Church in Blind River, Ontario. He is in his fifth year of Th.D. studies in Old Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.
Fall 2013 — The Gospel Witness
Interpreting the Pauline Epistles Pierre Constant
hroughout history, Paul’s letters have scored highly on the list of the believers’ favourite books of the Bible. Paul’s epistles to the Romans, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, among others, have been key in Christians’ efforts to probe more fully “the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom 11:33). Even today, members of the family of God recognize that not a few sermons deal with teachings and exhortations taken from the apostle’s contribution to the New Testament. For that reason, most people are quite familiar with Paul’s epistles and feel little need to think about how to interpret this body of literature. However, interpreting letters written by the “apostle sent to the Gentiles” can be a trickier task than we sometimes recognize. This becomes evident when we stop and ponder the diversity of interpretations found in books and articles dealing with Pauline theologies, let alone analyses of specific texts in Paul’s epistles. Difficulty in interpreting Paul’s letters nowadays indeed puts us in the company of those such as the apostle Peter, who recognized that Paul’s letters contain “some things that are hard to understand” (2 Pet 3:16).
Interpreting Paul’s Epistles According to their Literary Context Our first task when interpreting Paul’s letters is to come to terms with the literary context of each text, as well as with that of entire epistles. When one speaks about literary context, one can refer to a number of things: the immediate context (sentences, paragraphs, sections), a larger context (the entire epistle, or even the thirteen letters making up the entire body of the Pauline correspondence), or an even larger context (the literary genre). Let us briefly consider some of those literary contexts.
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1. Identifying the literary genre is fundamental to interpreting any part of Scripture. One does not read Paul’s epistles as one would read a Psalm, genealogies, parables, parts of the Law of Moses, pieces of poetry, words of prophecy, or sections of historical narrative. Patrick Gray, who recently published a guide on interpreting Paul’s epistles, writes: “Reading Paul’s letters begins with an awareness of their genre.”1 “Literary genre” refers to what constitutes a specific kind of literature, style, or category of writing. A literary genre enables one to group texts according to “families,” thus producing specific expectations in the minds of readers. “Once upon a time” is a clue few people miss when reading fairy tales. Books or parts of books belonging to the same genre can be identified by the fact they share a number of literary devices (such as poetry), content (e.g., science fiction, mystery), or purpose (e.g., comedy, drama, novel). In the Bible, one finds a variety of types or categories, each to be interpreted according to specific guidelines.
Almost all scholars agree that Paul’s epistles are fundamentally letters. What were first century letters, and how did they function? Typical of first century epistles were their form and their purpose (a desire to communicate something to an addressee). In terms of form, letters written during the first century typically included an opening (where one learns about the author or sender, the addressees, and a greeting), the body of the letter as such, and a closing. Although Paul adopted the conventions of letter writing of his time, he somewhat adjusted those to his purposes. Not only do we find the author’s name and his addressees, but the openings of Paul’s letters often also included a blessing and a prayer on behalf of his readers. So common are those elements among Paul’s epistles that any departure from that pattern (such as the opening of Galatians, lacking a blessing and a prayer) becomes significant. Likewise, Paul sometimes added to the greeting. The most noteworthy example is found in his epistle to the Romans: Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1–7) (italics ours). This long italicized section is formally parenthetical to the greeting usually found in first century letters. Paul here summarizes and briefly explains the theme of his letter (i.e., the gospel), specifies the content of the gospel (i.e., the person of Jesus, His provenance, authority and identity), and underlines the nature and purpose of his own mission (apostle sent to bring Gentiles to the “obedience that comes from faith”). A careful reader will take note of such summaries, often found in the opening (and sometimes in
the closing) of Paul’s letters. Other examples can be found, among others, in Rom 16:25–27, 1 Cor 1:4–9, Phil 1:3–6. In terms of function, Paul’s epistles intended to communicate specific information. Although they do contain a significant amount of theology, we must remember that Paul’s epistles are not theological treatises; they are not “books in the ordinary sense of the word”2; they are first and foremost real letters, addressed to real people. Reading them as such is key to rightly understanding them. As Thomas Schreiner aptly notes: “Paul did not write gospels…. He wrote letters to specific communities and individuals. Interpreters must take into account the difference in genre when they interpret the Pauline letters.”3 He adds: “[Paul’s Letters] are not systematic treatises intended to present a complete Christian theology. They are pastoral works in which Paul applies his theology to specific problems in the churches.”4 Said otherwise, Paul’s letters are what we call circumstantial literature. Carefully reading Paul’s epistles is an exercise in reading correspondence between the apostle and first century Christian communities. When reading Paul’s epistles, we are in fact reading other people’s mail, “reading over the shoulders of relative strangers.”5 2. A proper understanding of any passage in Paul’s epistles requires one to carefully read that passage in light of the entire epistle.6 Often neglected, this step in interpretation is a safeguard against an atomistic reading. One can easily extract one sentence or one word out of context, and build a case for a specific point in theology. A more proper reading will recall that words have no meaning apart from sentences where they appear, while sentences depend on the paragraph to convey any sense, and paragraphs themselves are part of larger arguments running through entire chapters, often even more. For example, what Paul says about women in 1 Cor 14:33b–35 needs to be understood in light of the flow of the entire chapter, let alone the larger context of 1 Corinthians 12–14. Needless to say, what Paul writes about women in 1 Cor 14:33b-35 also needs to be read in light of what Paul says elsewhere about women in 1 Cor 11:5, where they are given permission to speak in the church under certain conditions (regardless
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of how one interprets the issues pertaining to veils, authority, and the like). Likewise, 1 Corinthians 13 has more to do with “the most excellent way” believers are to serve others with their spiritual gift in the body of Christ, than with love in general; more than a text to be read at wedding ceremonies, this teaching deals with how members in the family of God are to edify others, regardless of the nature of each one’s spiritual gift. Competent readers will also note that Paul, like any other writer, never says everything he has to say or could have said on any topic in any given place. One cannot, for example, fault Paul for not mentioning Jesus Christ’s resurrection in Phil 2:6–11, as if Paul could conceive of Jesus’ death and ascension without his physical resurrection, something he forcibly denies in 1 Corinthians 15. Even a great passage such as Phil 2:6–11 has a specific purpose in mind: to model the thoughts and attitudes believers are to adopt towards one another (v. 5), and not to provide a complete description of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session. 3. In fact, when looking at the literary context, one needs not only to consider an entire epistle, but also the totality of Paul’s correspondence, all thirteen Pauline letters. It will not do to pit Paul (in one epistle) against Paul (in another epistle), what Paul writes, say, about eschatology, the role of the law, the nature of faith, and so on, as if nuances in his theology could not be explained by the occasional nature of his writings. Even those who do not read contradictions, but who see developments in Paul’s thought, need to recognize, as Schreiner rightfully notes, that “Paul had been a missionary at least fifteen years before writing any of his letters.”7 It is only fair to suppose that Paul’s theology rested on solid ground before putting reed to any papyrus. At best, theories about contradictions or developments in Paul’s theology are speculative.
Interpreting Paul’s Epistles According to their Historical Context Given the circumstantial nature of Paul’s letters, a wise reader will seek to find as much information as possible about Paul’s addressees. Obviously, the first place to seek this kind of information is within the
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letters themselves. For example, one can read about divisions and quarrels, sexual immorality, lawsuits among the Corinthians, or about the presence of troublemakers among the churches in Galatia, who attempted to bring Gentile believers back under the tutelage and slavery of the law of Moses; one can discern the lack of unity among believers in Philippi, or read about false teaching appealing to the believers in Colosse, and so on. These elements, explicit in the text, often serve as the occasion prompting Paul to contact churches and individuals. This kind of approach to interpretation is called “mirror reading.” As we pay attention to the text, we find information about Paul’s exhortations, corrections, warnings, teachings, but also about the different situations which gave birth to these letters in the first place. This task must be done carefully, though, for we only hear this part of the conversation. To that effect, Schreiner provides a few safeguards against inappropriate mirror reading:8 1. One should not postulate more than one opponent unless the evidence compels one to do so. Presupposing many opponents, each using different strategies (e.g., Paul having to fight on two fronts, facing both legalists and antinomians in Galatians), is nothing more than a mere hypothesis (scholarly commentators notwithstanding), and is often unwarranted and distracting. 2. One should avoid identifying some phrases or words as those of Paul’s opponents. For example, though there is value in pondering whether the statement “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) conveys Paul’s teaching or rather echoes his opponent’s (something maybe more likely, in light of the following verses), it is much more hypothetical to attribute to Paul’s adversaries expressions such as “the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Drawing connections between 2 Cor 6:14–18 and documents found at Qumran is one thing, but to conclude that this section of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is an Essene interpolation based on common vocabulary is methodologically deficient. 3. One should be very cautious about trying to find issues and difficulties from the paraenetic sections. Not every exhortation, not every teaching, necessarily
aims at correcting moral problems, wrong behaviour, dubious doctrine. Many of Paul’s exhortations, namely the famous “household codes” (e.g., Eph 5:22– 6:9, Col 3:18–4:1), are also found elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. 1 Pet 2:18–3:7) without any trace of specific problems in those churches, not to mention that they also appear outside New Testament texts. 4. One must resist the temptation to identify opponents too precisely. Among those often presupposed, Schreiner mentions Gnostics, Pharisaic Judaism, and the Qumran movement. For example, attempts to define a Colossian heresy have sometimes gone way too far, while others have denied any specific heresy.9 In summary, let us be cautious about seeing danger behind every bush in Pauline epistles. The interpreter will have more success in terms of historical background when consulting general or specialized first-century historical studies, as well as solid Bible encyclopedias.10 In one sense, the more we know about cities, Greco-Roman society and mindset, first-century religions rivaling Christianity, politics, morality, family life, and so on, the more we will appreciate Paul’s teachings, exhortations, prohibitions, corrections, and warnings. Pauline epistles are circumstantial letters, and knowing as much as possible about those circumstances will shed more light on the meaning of those letters written nearly two thousand years ago to believers about whom we know very little outside the New Testament.
Interpreting Paul’s Epistles According to their Theological Context We have mentioned above the necessity of reading Paul’s letters in light of their literary context. This context includes not only sentences, paragraphs, entire epistles, but also the whole of Paul’s contribution to the New Testament. The theological context referred to at this point encompasses the entire Bible. Though the date of writing of Paul’s letters precedes that of the four canonical Gospels, events mentioned in the Gospels, namely the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, take place before events referred to in Paul’s epistles. A careful interpreter will therefore read Paul’s contribution to the New Testament in light of these central
events in Jesus’ life and ministry. Without a proper theological understanding of the progressive nature of God’s redemptive plan (say, not realizing that Paul’s numerous calls to obedience require the presence and enablement of the Holy Spirit [cf. Romans 8]), one can easily transform Paul’s exhortations and teachings into a new form of legalism or moralism. Graeme Goldsworthy puts it well when he writes: We can preach our hearts out on texts about what we ought to be, what makes a mature church, or what the Holy Spirit wants to do in our lives, but if we do not constantly, in every sermon, show the link between the Spirit’s work in us to Christ’s work for us, we will distort the message and send people away with a natural theology of salvation by works.”11
Conclusion Competent interpreters of Paul’s epistles are careful readers, intent on trying to understand the text on its own terms, in light of its literary context, its historical context, and its theological context. Instead of reading our own agenda, let us again recognize we are reading other people’s mail, while hearing God’s voice in Paul’s letters—as Paul himself understood his own writings—to churches and individuals. Dr. Pierre Constant is the Chair of New Testament Studies at Toronto Baptist Seminary. 1 Patrick Gray, Opening Paul’s Letters: A Reader’s Guide to Genre and Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 40. 2 Ibid., 2. 3 Thomas R. Schreiner, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 2. 4 Ibid., 30. 5 Gray, Opening Paul’s Letters, 95. 6 One will find some appreciable help from Schreiner in his Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, chap. 6, entitled “Tracing the Argument.” 7 Ibid., 139. 8 Ibid., 37–38. 9 See, for example, Morna D. Hooker, “Were There False Teachers in Colossae?” in Christ and Spirit in the New Testament, ed. B. Lindars and S. S. Smalley [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, 315–31), who marvels why Paul is so calm when supposedly confronting such an eminent danger in Colosse. 10 One will consult with much profit Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003). 11 Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 237.
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