Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Interpreting the Scriptures

My institute teacher recently gave us some material that made a lot of things make a lot more sense. A lot of times in the church we tend to split hairs over things like "What did Isaiah mean," or "What was Nephi trying to say with this." We also look very strongly at our own personal feelings and the impressions we get when we read Isaiah or Nephi or any of the other prophets. While I was at BYU, some students almost drew up battle lines over this issue, trying to divide the religion department into the more academically trained teachers and the more seminary / EFY type teachers. Each group of students had their own reasons for claiming that their teachers, and their corresponding methods of interpreting the scriptures, were superior.

In the end, we can all see that all these different methods have value in their own place, but sometimes it can be hard understanding how all the different ideas fit together. My institute teacher said that this was actually a problem that the Jews have had for centuries, and we can actually learn quite a bit from the way they approached it. (He also basically said that any time he wanted to understand academically how to deal with issues like this regarding the scriptures, he would usually look to the Jews because they have been studying the scriptures longer and more faithfully than just about anyone.)

Essentially, for hundreds of years the Rabbis had been interpreting the scriptures to help the people understand how to apply, and how the Law of Moses did apply to their lives. Then, about the 11th century, people began to take a more academic, contextual, historical, even archaeological view of the scriptures and they found that many of the interpretations were actually quite the opposite of what Moses probably meant in context. This caused a major controversy. What interpretation should the people use to guide their every day lives? Should they throw out the Rabbinical interpretations because of the work of the academics? After a great deal of discussion and debate, they decided that the Rabbinical teachings were still authoritative because (and this is the part that really hits home with me as a Latter-day Saint) the Rabbis held independent authority to interpret the scriptures. In other words, even though what the Rabbi said may not have been exactly what Moses meant, it is still the word of God, because he has authority to give (or at least interpret) the word of God. The work of the academics was still important, but it did not negate the Rabbinical interpretations.

This is a lot like what we see today. If we look at Isaiah 2:2, "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it." We all know that this refers to the temple, or even specifically the Salt Lake Temple. (one reference here.) However, we read in verse 1, "The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem." Most likely, if we were to go back in time and ask someone who heard Isaiah speak, "What did he mean by this paragraph?", they probably wouldn't have understood it to be a talk about Utah or the Salt Lake valley. Most likely, they would have understood it to be a talk about their temple, in Jerusalem. (However, knowing Isaiah, he might have had both fulfillments (and several more besides) in his mind when he gave the talk. He was really good at keeping two or three different epochs straight in his head at any given time. The whole "eternal now" thing must have really rubbed off on him.) Nonetheless, I can say with complete certainty that Isaiah 2:2 refers directly to the Salt Lake Temple (as well as other temples), Utah, and the 2002 Winter Olympics, not because I have to go back and ask Isaiah or his listeners or some literary scholar what he meant, but because I know that the modern prophets have authority to interpret and give the word of God. (This exact example might not be the best one, but I hope my message is clear.) (Wow, I'm really getting long-winded on-line too.)

Well, this is summed up in two kinds of interpreting the scriptures that (according to my institute teacher) are known as Dera&scaron and Pešat (pronounced "Derash" and "Peshat").







































Two kinds of interpretation
Pešat Dera&scaron
When? Then Now (whenever "now" is)
Who? As applied to, or understood by, original audience(s) Us (whoever "we" are)
How do we get this interpretation? Academic means
(knowledge of languages, history, culture, etc.)
The Holy Ghost
Main Difference? Contextual
-- "What did Isaiah mean?"
Non-contextual
-- "What does Isaiah mean to me?"
Examples? FARMS, commentaries, scholarly papers, etc. The scriptures, the Ensign, General Conference
How many interpretations? One or a few Many possible
(The Lord can help different people understand the same scripture in different ways to give them the individual help they need.)



(Most of the previous table comes from a handout my institute teacher gave us, so this is not my original work.)

The main point of all of this is that both types of interpretations are important! Even though I doubt that Alma or Mormon had my, specific mission in mind when they penned Mosiah 24:13-14, doesn't mean that the Lord can't use that scripture to speak to me on that subject. (And I imagine the Lord had me, and each one of us in mind when He inspired those words -- He just might not have let Alma or Mormon know all the details, but that's beside the point.) So, that interpretation is valid and authoritative for me. Even Nephi did this exact same thing when quoting Isaiah. Elder McConkie tells us that Nephi "gave, not a literal, but an inspired and interpreting translation. And in many instances his words give either a new or greatly expanded meaning to the original prophetic word." (Source: "Keys to Understanding the Bible" in Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie, 290-291.)

I guess the point of what has turned into a very long-winded post (my wife knows I get long-winded in real life too) is that we don't need to think that a personal, spiritual interpretation is any less authoritative then trying to understand what Isaiah "meant". Nor do we need to put down all the academic and archaeological scholars as second rate, because their work is valid and important too.

1 comment:

Candace E. Salima said...

Excellent point, Bill. I love to read the thoughts and interpretations of the brethren as well as a select few theologians. These studies always trigger my own thoughts and I always end up on a journey with a very satisfactory conclusion.

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