Interpreting the Bible for today
A time ago I mentioned my conversation which I had with two Jehovah’s Witnesses. I received both support and criticism for the fact that I believe it is not in the best interests of the Kingdom of God to chase representatives from other faith groups away from my door. I have also had someone from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who responded to this and we have had quite a discussion going on some issues. If you want to follow the thread, you can find it here: My conversation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I decided to start a new blogpost, on the one hand because the response would become too long and also because I believe that this has importance, not only for the discussion between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses but also for the ongoing arguments between the so-called Fundamentalists and Liberals. It all has to do with our method of interpreting the Bible.
I did my PhD on the influence that our view of eschatology has on our view of mission. The thesis is available on the internet for those who are interested, but unfortunately (and I consider this as one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made) I wrote it in Afrikaans and therefore you will need to be fluent in Afrikaans to be able to read it. You can find it here: http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-02212006-093453/unrestricted/thesis.pdf
One of the things I realised was that the Bible would often prophesy something, but then it would not become literally true. One example, out of many: In Joel 2:28-32 we find a prophecy from God. According to Peter, in Acts 2:1-4 this prophecy was fulfilled when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers on the day of Pentecost. This causes a huge problem for people who want to interpret every single word in the Bible literally. Let me explain:
In Joel, the following signs would appear when the prophecy is fulfilled:
- Boys and girls will prophecy (28)
- Old people will dream (28)
- Young men will have visions (28)
- God’s Spirit will come upon people (29)
- Blood (30)
- Fire (30)
- Clouds of smoke (30)
- Sun will become dark (31)
- Moon will become red (31)
Compare this with the signs which Luke describes in Acts 2:1-4:
- Wind (2)
- Tongues of fire (3)
- People were filled with the Spirit (4)
- Began to speak in foreign languages (4)
The only reasonable explanation for this is that Joel wrote from his own perspective, realising that something magnificent was going to happen but lacking the words to know exactly what it would be. Using “war terminology” (blood, fire, smoke) he tries to make his readers realise that something big is going to happen. When the prophecy is fulfilled in Acts 2, it is not war that takes place, but the wonderful outpouring of the Hole Spirit. Peter immediately realises that this was indeed the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, but he also realises that the fulfilment is better than the prophecy. And to that we would all agree. What happened on the Day of Pentecost was so much better than the vision of war that Joel had.
Certain things in the Bible can and should be interpreted literally. The prediction of the birth of Jesus is interpreted literally. The prediction that He would die and would rise again from the dead should be interpreted literally. The prediction that Jesus will come again should be interpreted literally. The promise that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for our sin, thereby restoring the relationship between us and God, should be understood literally. But there are many prophesies which were not fulfilled literally. In a broad sense, they were fulfilled. The exile into Babylon did indeed happen. Did it last exactly 70 years? This is the question I was asked by TJ, a Jehovah’s Witness.
I am, thankfully, not an historian. But going through literature, it seems that the literal 70 years can only be explained by making a huge number of assumptions, such as that the dating of the start of the exile (587 BC) is totally incorrect, the viewpoint of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who date the start in 607 BC. Others try to play around with different year calenders, some starting in fall, others in spring, with a small number of people being moved to Babylon long before the exile and then saying that this was actually the real start of the exile. I find these arguments unconvincing and unnecessary.
One of the amazing things (as far as I am concerned) about God is that God can change. A few examples: In 1 Kings 21:21 we read: “I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel–– slave or free.” The reason for God’s anger we find in verses 25 & 26: “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.” But this is followed by Ahab’s repentance in verse 27: “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.” And then God says (and this is amazing): “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
The story of Jonah is another example: Jonah was sent to inform the people of Nineveh of their imminent destruction: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). Did it happen? No! Why not? Because the people of Nineveh repented! The clear prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed within forty days therefore did not come to fulfilment. Is this a sign of a false prophecy or rather a sign of a gracious God?
In Daniel 9:2 we read that Daniel discovered in the Scriptures that God has said that Jerusalem would be desolated for 70 years. Then we read in verse 3: “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” The rest of the chapter is dedicated to the remarkable prayer of Daniel, confessing his own sin as well as the sin of his people. If God had been gracious towards Ahab, is it not possible, even highly probable, that God would have listened to the humble prayer of Daniel and decided to shorten the 70 years out of mercy for His people? Such an explanation would not only be in line with God’s conduct in other places in the Bible but would make the egg dance which needs to be done to prove the literal period of seventy years totally unnecessary.