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Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

Sorry, dear angels, I’ve always perceived you as white (and mostly male).

I’ve done a fair share of deconstructing my perception of God, and of Jesus. I’d like to think that I’m past putting the concept of “God” in a specific race or gender role; for Jesus, specifically, I’m more than willing to accept as his human nature a male Jew of the first century. But you guys: I still see you as white people.

May I speak openly, to your angelic faces? I don’t want to see you like this anymore. Thank you: for being the pillars of consciousness along this journey. For pointing out how far I’ve still got to go in order  to let go of myself. May your memory always serve to remind me, that plastering over does not remove; that skin-deep transformation of perception is not transformation at all, but trickery. Yes, I’ll leave you as signposts.

But now, I bid you adieu.

 

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Reading a story as a story can be a beautiful thing! (With this, I don’t mean to imply that things aren’t necessarily true; I’m just referring to the concept of narratology – yes, it’s a word – where one looks at the characters, plot, scenery, action, etc. of a story.)

The same can be said of the Gospel of Matthew as a whole. By looking at Matthew’s depictions of his characters, the time in which the narrative is set, the “atmosphere” that is created, etc., one learns a lot about what he is trying to say. In this vein, I’d like to make a few remarks upon Matthew 25:31-46 – the so-called Last Judgement section.

Just to give a bit of background, Matthew has five big discourses cemented in-between the narrative parts. The first and most well-known of these is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Chapters 23-25 forms the last one; of which verse 31-46 forms the last part.

At the start of this section of text, we are told that the Son of Man will “sit” on his “throne of glory”. “Sit” is very important here – because the bigger discourse starts with the pharisees and the scribes “sitting” on the “seat of Moses”. But wait! There is more! We are also told right at the start of the discourses, in the Sermon on the Mount (chap 5:1), that Jesus “sat” and taught the disciples.* So RIGHT at the start and RIGHT at the end we’ve got a reference to teaching (and to authority, and interpretation of the Law). We’ll return to that shortly.

Two ways to stress something (if one doesn’t have recourse to bold or italics etc.), is by repeating something or saying it V-E-R-Y   S-L-O-W-L-Y. Matthew does exactly this in his story of the Last Judgement. Which is kind of strange, because we tend to remember the following as being the main thought of the passage:

The Son of Man will come, He will judge people by separating them into “sheep” on the right and “goats” on the left, the former will go to heaven and the latter to hell.

Very well, a summary is always shorter than the main text. But what is interesting is that Matthew repeats a VERY long piece of text (by the standards of discourse in the Gospel; and seeing that words were used rather more sparingly in ancient texts). He repeats it not twice, not thrice, but FOUR times! It reads (NIV):

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

This is repeated two times in the positive** – for the “sheep”; and two times in the negative, for the “goats”. In other words, Matthew repeats this AND makes us read it V-E-R-Y   S-L-O-W-L-Y. Obviously, for Matthew, this thing that happens in the very present, not somewhere in the future (the judgement somewhere in the future / eschatology), is a key theme in the passage.

Now, back to the pharisees/scribes (P/S) vs. Jesus debate, into which I won’t go too much here. Matt 5-7 is generally seen as a “new” take on the Law – against that of the P/S. In the bigger scheme: Jesus taught with authority (7:29); the P/S were given authority but used it hypocritically (chap 23). There is also a final contrast between chap 23 and chap 25 – the final two opposites. In light of the P/S’ hypocritical nature, the drawn out and repetitive theme of actually doing and caring as being THE decisive factor becomes critical. The Last Word on Judgement, then, is not on the interpretation of the Law, but on doing it. We should always, always add this element to our eschatological understanding of this passage.

P.S. Gosh! I love what I do for a living.

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FOOTNOTES:

* Sitting was the normal position for someone to teach in the ancient world.

** Matthew does some fancy footwork here. For the surprise of the “sheep” surprises the reader: these people were given permission to enter, yet still they pause to ask why. Although this may naturally serve some other purpose, it gives the opportunity to repeat this key theme in the speech of the “sheep” again!

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Reading the Bible is like looking into a pond. In some places, the water is all murky; in other places, the water is quite clear. In yet some other places, the rocks and pebbles at the bottom of the pond have shifted.

More importantly, when one looks into the pond, one sees a reflection of oneself. This reflection is surely not the only thing one sees, but it is there. An excessive case of narcissisim can lead one to read into the Bible exactly what one would like to read. If one is aware of one’s reflection, one could try and counterbalance it – to look beyond it – but it will always be there.

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While reading Joshua 3 with some of my Hebrew students, I drew a bit more complicated version of the picture below on the whiteboard:

Hermeneutics of Joshua 3

Hermeneutics of Joshua 3

This shows the complicated nature of this text in Joshua. An original event occurred long ago; the story of this event was probably handed down via oral tradition; the story was written down from at least two perspectives (in the case of Joshua 3, from the perspective of a writer focussing on the ark and priests, while another focussed on the crossing of the river); a redactor put these stories together to more or less form the story as we now have it in the Masoretic text tradition. Each of these “retellings” of what happened at the original event was penned in a specific time, with a message for that time. The story of the redactor was then handed over via the textual tradition – which adds a few twists and turns. Finally, we have the text as we know it today – mostly read in different translations.

When looking back into the past, then, from today’s perspective, one can hardly speak with absolute certainty about the original event – removed from our context by quite a few steps. In any case, which of these contexts are the legitimate one? Is it the redactor’s that should be taken as the context – the one with authorial intent? Is it the event itself? Why then is it told from a certain perspective? Doesn’t Author 1 and Author 2 also deserve some attention? Finally, what does this text mean for today?

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