Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rethinking It All: Symbolic Interpretation

Reading through The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism has brought up a few things that I have not considered in a long time: interpretive maximalism. This idea, proffered by James B. Jordan and expounded by David Chilton in his magisterial Days of Vengeance, looks for symbolic resonances throughout Scripture. In many ways, it is sort of a "Scripture interpreting Scripture" on steroids. The thought behind it is that in an aural and oral society, verbal and symbolic resonances would be easily picked up by the hearers with a minimum of forward allusions. The classic example, if I remember correctly, is that of Abimelech's death in the book of Judges. He, an enemy of God's people, is killed by having a woman throw a stone upon his head. The verbal and symbolic import of the text, though, (not to mention syntactic parallels) ties it in with the promise of the redeemer in Genesis 3: an enemy of God's people, the serpent, is killed by the seed of the woman crushing his head. The key symbols here are the enemy, the woman, and the head-crushing (compare, once again, Sisera and Jael elsewhere in Judges). It is not, of course, an exact parallel, but rather an evocative way of telling a story. The idea of "intertextual echo" proffered by Richard B. Hays is in some respects similar, but his has to do more with narrative underpinnings, rather than symbolic repetition.

In reading an essay in Jewish Roots by Margaret Barker, these ideas came running back. While Ms. Barker tends to be into what I might call the strange side of interpretive maximalism (believing YHWH to be the son of El Elyon, for example), some of the resonances that she brings up about the high priest in ancient Israel deserve closer attention. Sometimes, when interpreting Scripture, it can be easy to stick just with rational and narrative analysis, which have arguably been the Protestant's bread and butter since inception. Oftentimes, as Barker proves unwittingly, this sort of symbolic interpretation can lead into some weedy territory, which the early Reformers wanted to avoid, especially as they saw it in some allegorizing in the Catholic tradition. To avoid symbolism in the Bible, though, is to throw the proverbial baby out with the (equally proverbial) bathwater. Care, of course, must be exercised and other interpretive methods must be used to balance the symbolic. Once this is the case, though, the symbolic can then be used in tandem with historical, narrative, and theological interpretive criticism to further probe the meaning of Scripture in its original context and for us today.

The difficulty, as I see it, is reconstructing anything like the ancient symbolic worldview. Our symbolic universe, replete with the goddess Freedom and her entourage, is hard enough to pin down since our public discourse is largely demythologized. Instead of the evolving hand of Marduk, we speak of evolutionary processes. Instead of the cruel mastery of Mammon, we talk about economic determinism, both capitalistic and socialistic. The list, as always, could go on and on. The ancient worldview, at least the ancient Israelite shared (with significant variation and mutation) by the Biblical authors, is populated by angels and demons, primeval "welter and waste", gardens, serpents, nudity and clothing, names and Names and naming, blood crying out from the ground, and wanderers with marks of protection, just to mention some of the symbols from the first chapters of Genesis. We hear talk of the earth, the heavens above, the waters in division, and the grave below: so temporal space is conceived tripartite, with the sea in league with the underworld. This symbolism is powerful and still resonates today, but with a muted voice. Reclaiming it in a post-secular, post-Enlightenment world may be impossible for life, but essential, at least, for understanding the Biblical mindset.

One of the things that Barker argues is a symbolic tie between the high priest's work and Jesus' acclamation in Philippians 2. I've heard interpretations using Adam and Israel and the Servant (all of which have very good points, but that it for another time), but never the high priest. The parallels that she draws are quite intriguing, if I ultimately disagree with her overall interpretive scheme (she has a hammer of Temple symbolism and therefore everything is a Temple nail). It is an occasion to further study in a passage that I love and deeply lack understanding of (most of the Biblical passages that I keep returning to in my studying and questioning I deeply lack understanding). But it must be carefully tempered, otherwise we may develop symbolic worlds that make sense to us, but separate us from the realities that they are supposed to point us towards.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Russ,

I am really enjoying and learning a lot from your "Rethinking It" series, although most of these issues I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about (if any).

I am intrigued by symbolism in Scripture because it appears everywhere, and there are Christians who interpret these symbols as being literal. For example, there's the Maker's Diet which claims to be the most "holy" diet because it is taken from the Old Testament - it was what the ancient Israelites ate. But, a more reputable book, "What did the Ancient Israelites Eat?" shows through archeological and agricultural studies how they did not eat well and had poor health. In fact, the land of "milk and honey" is just a symbolic representation of Canaan's abundance - that area wasn't known for its milk or its honey. You should read the book, it's interesting.

With all that said, it brings me to a point that I have been thinking about a lot - the christiological reading of the Old Testament. It seems most reformers like to read Christ into the Old Testament (I once heard a sermon on a psalm, and the person mentioned that the psalm was referring to Jesus); however, I hope to read Christ out of the Old Testament in order to understand him in the New Testament. This is a touchy topic because one could argue (and rightfully so) that Christ was throughout the Old Testament; however, this often leads to shaping the Old Testament to our (present day) sociological tendencies. As you were saying, we are mixing symbols. It also leads to the separation of the Old Testament from the New Testament (as if they are two separate worlds), which is something perpetuated by Greek thinking and Gentilian church history.

I am hoping to read Christ out of the Old Testament so that I can better understand where he came from and how is world was structured. Do I believe in messianic prophecies? Yes, but I do not believe we can read the Old Testament and say "This is Christ or this is Christ!" David wrote the psalms with messianic longings, but I think even he would be surprised by the nature/person of Jesus and his humbling sacrifice.

On another note, I just read this morning the story of Jael in Judges. Ironic, I don't think so.

Anyway, I don't know if this really relates, but it seems to. I hope to talk to you soon.

Christian Eriksson