Why the Hebrew Bible is so Easy/Difficult to Interpret

See Also: How to Read the Torah

By Kenneth Seeskin
Northwestern University
January 2018

Any interpreter of the Hebrew Bible faces a number of challenges. It is not just that the text describes a prescientific culture that lived over 2,500 years ago. That much could be said of Homer’s Iliad. It is rather that the Bible contains a number of features that make it unique.

The first is that it claims to be the word of God or at least to inform us about the actions and thoughts of God. Although one might expect people who read the Bible to approach the subject of God with humility, history shows that the opposite is the case for generations of readers have gone to great lengths to show that their views are in perfect harmony with God’s views.

When Philo of Alexandria read the Bible, he found the principles of Platonic philosophy; when Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas read it, they found the principles of Aristotelianism. Countless aristocrats found support for divine right of kings, while Spinoza found support for republicanism. Plantation owners in the American South found support for slavery, while liberals found support for universal brotherhood. In religious quarters, the Rabbis of the Talmud found support for their version of Jewish law, while Christians found support for the coming of Jesus.

The second challenge has to do with abbreviation. The creation of the universe is covered in 31 verses, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden in 24, and the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in just 19. What was Abraham thinking during the three days that it took to get to the mountain? Why did he not inform Sarah of what he was doing? Did he ever suspect that God would relent? Did Isaac knowingly participate or was he taken by surprise? We are not told. It is as if the Bible is asking us to fill in the details on our own. It is hardly surprising, then, that everyone from the Rabbis to the Church Fathers, from Kant to Kierkegaard, and from Caravaggio to Rembrandt has given us a different version of the story.

The third has to do with literal and figurative discourse. When does the Bible mean exactly what it says and when does it speak in an elliptical fashion by pointing to something else? It is generally agreed that passages that talk about God’s face or arm are metaphors. But this hardly settles the issue. Metaphors for what? And what about more complicated passages like Jacob’s ladder, Isaiah’s claim that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, or the sexual imagery of the Song of Songs? What are these passages really about? Again we are not told.

The problem of literal versus figurative discourse is complicated by the fact that even in modern English, there is no hard and fast criterion for deciding when we have one and when we have the other. Astrophysicists talk about the Big bang even though the origin of the universe has little in common with the explosion of a firecracker. By the same token, computer viruses have nothing to do with coughing or sneezing, and the wall of separation between church and state is not made of bricks and mortar.

In ancient times as in modern, people often describe one thing in terms normally suited for another. The question of whether one is speaking literally or figuratively is often decided by context. What serves as a metaphor for specialists may by literal for laypeople. What is literal in a news story may be figurative in a love song. The problem is that the contexts in the Bible keep changing as do the literary genres in which they are embedded. For all intents and purposes, the Bible is an anthology containing epic narrative, poetry, parable, legislation, prophetic utterance, and historical reflection. No one in her right mind would claim that only one kind of discourse is used throughout.

Putting these three considerations together, we can see why, in one sense, the Bible is so easy to interpret: given the tendency to link one’s own views with God, the abbreviated nature of the text, and the variety of modes of expression, it is almost impossible not to find whatever you are looking for. If you want to argue that the Bible teaches that God is stern and vindictive, there are passages that support you. If you want to argue that it teaches that God is generous and forgiving, there are passages that support you too. The same holds for war and peace, particularity and universality, hope and fear.

In the Seventeenth Century, Spinoza argued that the only way to guard against projecting one’s own views into the biblical text is to distinguish meaning from truth. Simply put: what the Bible means may be different from what we hold to be true. The only way to ensure that we do not confuse them is to approach the text in a purely historical fashion putting aside our own beliefs about God, love, war, peace, and most everything else. As Spinoza rightly notes, the Bible was produced over a number of centuries by authors representing different perspectives. In this day and age, few people doubt that it was edited and re-edited numerous times.

It is for this reason that the Bible is difficult to interpret. How do we know that we have put our beliefs aside and not allowed them to influence our judgment of what the text is trying to say? As indicated above, Spinoza himself found support for republicanism, not to mention a theory of the nature of prophesy and several other claims about the purpose of human life. How do we know that we have the right version and have identified the right author(s)? Did Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah say everything that is attributed to them or are we sometimes looking at later emendations?

Beyond these difficulties, there is the question of whether meaning and truth are as separate as Spinoza thought. The Bible is no ordinary text. As we saw, it claims to be the word of God. Why would God want to reveal things that are not true? Is not the whole point of the biblical text that it is telling us something that needs to be taken to heart? If so, truth has to be a factor in how we read it. To be sure, literal truth is only part of what we mean by “true.” Sometimes “true” means true to life, sometimes morally sound, sometimes authoritative, sometimes trustworthy or dependable. Whatever the case may be, it is questionable whether we should separate truth from a text that claims above all else that it is sacred.

Not only is truth a relevant consideration, if we are going to remain faithful to the text, we have to think about eternal truth. Although it was produced by an ancient civilization, many passages look beyond that civilization and point the way to something different, something that no one living in that civilization may have seen or heard of. When Isaiah said that people will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, he knew perfectly well that nothing like this had happened before. Though an account of the historical climate in which he lived would be helpful, it can hardly be the last word on the subject. He was asking us to look beyond history to an ideal order in which human life would take on a whole new meaning.

With these considerations in mind, let me recommend two things. The first is that in addition to studying the history and philology of the culture that produced the Bible, we have to open our minds to the direction to which it points. Needless to say, when a text points to something radically new, it does not necessarily follow that the author knows exactly where his words will lead. My claim is simply that looking at where an author’s thought leads helps us to gain a perspective from which to appreciate the significance of what he said.

The second recommendation is that the Bible is too rich for any academic discipline to claim a monopoly on its meaning. To do it justice, we need to take a broad approach, which means studying the art and architecture it inspired, listening to the music, reading the literature, and reflecting on the philosophy and theology. I imagine a round table in which people from a variety of disciplines, historical, systematic, and theoretical, contribute to an on-going discussion about interpretation. Anything less would amount to selling the book short. To my mind, that would be a real tragedy.

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