Doodle: Interpretation versus Information

LibraryA few weeks ago, after the men’s Bible study that I am involved in, someone asked me what study notes and material I received at Bible college. We have been reading through Romans and anyone who has read it carefully will be familiar with the occasional confounding phrase, even passage. Therefore the question is understandable. Furthermore, I remember being in awe of Bible teachers as a young Christian in my teens and assuming that with enough commentaries I would be able to do what they did. However after an honours in theology and just over five years in local church ministry I was able to answer this man’s question quite differently to how I might have ten years ago. While there is no denying my library has grown in that time, while my savings have shrunk, what I have learnt formally and in my day-to-day Christian life is that reading and understanding the Bible has less to do with information and more to do with interpretation. Let me explain.

At college we did have courses on specific books of the Bible: Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Mark’s Gospel, Acts, Romans, and Ephesians. But, as you might picked up from that list, many books were excluded, even though I lived on campus as a full-time student. You might also have noticed from the list above that seemingly more important books, if one can make such a distinction, were omitted: Genesis, Isaiah,  John’s Gospel, and Revelation. But the value of the book studies we did, along with other more general courses, was that we were taught principles for interpretation, tools for faithful reading. What are those? Simply put, we were equipped to read biblical texts carefully, in context, and by considering things like genre and original or authorial purpose. For example, in our course on Ezekiel we learnt tools for understanding Ezekiel that can be applied to all Old Testament prophecy. Sadly, such an approach is all but lost in many churches today where Bible verses are treated like the sayings of Confucius, explaining the vast theological confusion that currently reigns.

In his useful, compendious, free, and excitingly titled essay New Testament Hermeneutics, G. K. Beale provides a few questions that might further help you understand what I mean by interpreting the meaning of a text:
1. Does the meaning reached fit with the larger context?
2. Is it in harmony with rest of biblical revelation?
3. How well does it illuminate the rest of the passage?
4. How does it compare with other commentators’ interpretations?

What you will notice from Beale’s questions is that commentaries are only mentioned in the last. The preceding questions deal with reading the passage in its context (historically and in the biblical storyline), making use of clearer passages in Scripture, and considering a passage or verse within its immediate surroundings. How you read the Bible is in some ways more important than what you read about the Bible. In the same way that you do not pick up a novel, open up to a page at random and read a couple of sentences believing that that is what the novel is about, we should not treat Scripture as a repository of unrelated but inspiring sentences. Meaning is determined by close reading, knowing the context, and comparing your interpretation with the rest of God’s revelation in Scripture.

HermeneuticsIn conclusion, if these disparate thoughts can actually be brought together, the Christian faith is not housed in a body of work or library but in the living text, God’s inspired words. We benefit immensely by reading scholars who have sought to correctly interpret the Bible throughout history, we even learn as we study those who interpreted it incorrectly. But at the end of the day we must meet God in his Word, as he addresses us in his text. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself, rebuke his people, and reach those who do not know him.

How Literary Criticism has Damaged Our View of the Gospels

Four Evangelists stained glassI few months back I posted lauding literary criticism, propounded specifically by Old Testament scholar Robert Alter. Those posts might have given the impression that literary criticism is faultless, perhaps even the silver bullet for interpreting biblical narratives. But in this post I want to briefly discuss a negative outcome that has arisen from literary criticism, affecting the way that we view and interpret the four Gospels.

Literary criticism avoids many of the problems resulting from the historical critical approach to the Gospels. As James argues in a post on the pitfalls of literary criticism: the text is viewed as a whole, not an overly edited stitch work of traditions and sources; and the narrative is brought into focus reducing the emphasis on mirror reading. Mark Allan Powell contrasts historical and literary criticism with the very helpful metaphor of a window and a mirror. Powell notes that historical criticism treated texts like windows, things that the author might peer through to learn (and imagine) about another space or time. Literary criticism, on the other hand, acts as a mirror, drawing our attention to the text itself, as insights are discovered in the interaction between reader and text. But this does not mean it is without its own problematic assumptions and aftereffects.

The negative outcome that I want to address is ironically not too dissimilar from overreaching consequences of historical criticism, which made Scripture the means to historical conjecture and reconstruction. I am referring to the advent of what we call the “Matthean Jesus” or the “Lukan Jesus.” As adjectives indicating which Gospels we are referring to these are helpful markers, but the danger inherent to this language is the advent of four Jesuses. So, as it was with historical criticism, our attention is drawn to what lies beyond the window. Furthermore we are duped, by the stress on four single Gospels, into losing sight of the single historical Jesus. Our aim in studying the Gospels is not to discern the “Markan Jesus” from the “Johannine Jesus;” it is to encounter the Lord Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and men. An overzealous literary critical approach to the Gospel narratives can result in the conjecture embodied in historical criticism.

Courtyard in RomeI have no interest in denying the many distinctions between the four Gospels, especially when one contrasts the Synoptics with the John’s Gospel. As T.D. Alexander says in his short book Discovering Jesus (p14), we must seek to understand why Jesus’ earliest followers embraced four accounts of his life and also appreciate the unique contribution each Gospel makes to offer us a rich picture of who he is. In another succinct work, The Message of the Cross, Derek Tidball offers a memorable and helpful illustration. Asking us to imagine the four Gospel writers as witnesses to the a scene being played out in a public square, he writes, “[They] throw open the windows, one on each side of the square, and describe what they see. Their reports have plenty in common, but each records what he sees as he views it from his own angle…No doubt each is alert to those aspects of the scene that fit his own interests and strike him as particularly relevant to the audiences for whom he writes” (p118). There are undoubtedly four peculiar Gospels, yet one unique Lord.

C.H. Dodd, who held a very liberal view of Scripture, argued convincingly in The Founder of Christianity for such a single, historical Jesus: “This whole body of sayings, handed down through different channels, has [the] unmistakable stamp [of a single mind].” For Dodd the differences across the four portraits in no way steered the reader away from the sane immense person pictured in each. We would do well to follow in his studied conclusion, along with others’ careful consideration, of the four Gospels’ life in the early church, that looks into the mirror before trying to look through them.

Risks in Reading for the Art of Biblical Narrative

Poetry is a dangerous game-by-whitefeatherGraham has recently written a couple of posts (here and here) on Alter’s seminal work, “The Art of Biblical Narrative”. The “New Literary Criticism” movement is not new any more although it certainly retains its exciting lustre for Bible students. This is true because the literary movement (the “new” one anyway, as opposed to the old “redaction critical” type of “literary movement”, in case any nerds were wondering) has a number of great strengths over its predecessors.

First, I love the fact that we are encouraged to view texts as a whole, assuming the author/editors were not idiots and were constructing something coherent. I love the fact that discernible shifts that would previously have caused scholarship to break texts apart now inspire attention to why they would have been brought together and how they build on one another.

Second, because the shift (especially in Old Testament studies) has been from a “looking through the text at the period in which it was written” kind of approach to an analysis of the text itself, I appreciate the new focus. Now the text is at the forefront. This is great news for people who think the Bible is living and active and suitable for training in all righteousness. It great news for people who think Scripture is God’s Word and has something to say to us today.

Third, studying the Bible does not have to be an obscure scholarly discipline dependent on thorough knowledge of original languages, etymology and some strongly held opinions on historical reconstructions that are mostly best guesses. It is something anyone can do because much of what should be gleaned from a narrative can be gleaned in a secondary language. It’s like the reformation or the translation of the Bible into English that saw the lay person empowered to interpret Scripture for him/herself. Of course it comes with its own set of problems but they’re a better set of problems than the alternative. One thing to note is that this is less and less the case as literary techniques are carried over and the field once again becomes filled with jargon and defined methodologies not apparent to the lay person. Nevertheless, pointing someone to the text and saying, “read it and try to make sense of why it was written” is not a bad start and it’s encouraged by the literary movement.

There are, however, two dangers associated with literary techniques. If you’ve read this far, you should check out Longman’s article, “The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls” which I have found valuable to my own thinking and has been formative in my thinking on the subject. The critiques I’m raising are not ground breaking nor are they necessarily the most significant. They are simply the concerns that are at the forefront of my mind and are simply raised to contribute to the discussion Graham has started.

1. Loss of Grounding in History

Well GroundedI think the most disturbing trend in literary readings is the willingness to abandon external objectivity. If all that matters is the text and its effect on me today, then reference to anything historical loses significance. One of the most disturbing features of The Art of Biblical Narrative is Alter’s dismissal of David’s historicity. As far as Alter is concerned, there was perhaps a king named David but all that stuff about giant slaying (and most of the rest of his life actually) is myth built up around him so that Israel have something in their history to be proud of.

Alter’s perceptive observation of type-scenes, while insightful, results in a further severing of text from history. Now every time we find a meeting at a well we know that we are not reading actual occurrences, it’s just the “ol’ hookup at the well scene” – the Hebrew idiom for engagement. To be honest, this doesn’t seem like much to lose – and it’s not if the well scene is just the Hebrew idiom for engagement – in fact it’s a superior reading, but only if we are right that an account couched in historical setting is really idiomatic. The advantage is that we realise how often historical grounding doesn’t matter much (and so we don’t have to fight to the death over how many years the Judges period covers, for example) but the danger is that we similarly don’t worry when it does. The question is, are we losing something if we read the stories of David as ahistorical? It’s a question that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time but not one I think is anywhere near being solved.

Down The Rabbit HoleNevertheless, in his article, Longman (1985:394) quotes Frye, “The Bible possesses literary qualities but is not itself reducible to a work of literature.” This seems an important corrective. As we venture down the literary rabbit hole – often in flight from historical-critical methodologies – we need not (perhaps, we must not?) let go of history. In their major contribution to the subject Provan, Long and Longman (2003:81) write, “The ahistorical path is a dead end. Where biblical texts make historical truth claims, ahistorical readings are perforce misreadings – which remains the case, whatever one’s opinions may be regarding the truth value of those claims.”

If in our quest for literary readings, we gain textual unity and prominence but lose its historical roots I think the quest will, in the end, have been futile.

2. Loss of Stability in Interpretation

JengaLongman’s (1985:391) fourth concern is “the danger of moving completely away from any concept of authorial intent and determinant of meaning of a text.” In recent years the idea of textual meaning outside of its reader has been radically challenged. In “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”, Gunn and Fewell’s follow up to Alter’s “Art of Biblical Narrative”, we find one of the more eloquent defences of reader response interpretation. We read (1993:xi), “Most significant, however, it differs from all these books in its hermeneutical assumptions. Unlike the others … our book understands interpretation to hinge crucially upon the reader, and not just in terms of a reader’s ‘competence’. Meaning is not something out there in the text waiting to be discovered. Meaning is always, in the last analysis, the reader’s creation, and readers, like texts, come in an infinite variety.”

To be fair, my experience of Gunn and Fewell has been that they are pretty responsible. The point is that when the author’s stabilising influence is lost, the stabilising influence of the text is lost for the same reasons. In the end, the many and varied interpretations of the reader(s) are all that is left. This means that there is no stability to meaning. Whether or not this matters is the topic for another oversized post, I’m going to assume that it is.

An example of this was given in a recent Christianity Today article about the Bible and Technology,

Bible tech has provided personal epiphanies, such as when he [Evans] learned the Hebrew word for bread, lehem. “Lehem is bread! Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’! Jesus is the Bread of Life! Hebrew is magic!” But the same software that draws such connections also taught him to think more skeptically—even about the very connections that got him so excited, Evans said. “What we’re doing here makes it very easy to run with theological scissors.” The tools can be used, to use an example several people referenced, to develop an intense numerological theory about the significance of the 153 fish caught in John 21. It’s kind of a throwback to the early church, when preachers loved pontificating on repeated words, images, and numbers in disparate biblical books. But database-driven interactive text seems to especially encourage this kind of reading, where one simple mouse click pulls up thousands of pages of cross-references and commentary on each word. It’s an awful lot like 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, where Nobel laureate John Nash is able to see real patterns no one else had seen—but also sees patterns that don’t really exist.

In his small masterpiece, Exegetical Fallacies (an absolute must read), Carson speaks of “Verbal Parallelomania” in which the “bare phenomena” of verbal parallels are said to “demonstrate conceptual links or even dependency” (2nd Ed. pg43). Carson is particularly critical of these parallels when they are found in extra-biblical literature (à la Babylonian creation myths?).

It is remarkably easy to find parallels (in fact Carson speaks of “conceptual parallelomania” later in Exegetical Fallacies as yet another way of finding dubious parallels) especially with the power of Google on your side. In the era of literary readings, it is difficult to critique the abundance of parallels that can be discovered because those parallels are discovered by the reader and, for better or worse, the reader has become the hermeneutical pivot around whom meaning revolves. Maybe it’s just that I’m a stodgy conservative but that is a bit of a problem for me. Carson noted that of the 300ish parallels found by Bultmann and Dodd in the prologue of John there was only a 7% overlap.

Running with ScissorsThis is not to say that parallels never exist and certainly not that they never matter. It is, however, a caution to this author. I have often found myself making the argument “the writer of this passage of Scripture has the entire corpus of biblical literature memorised, so of course when he says this similar sounding thing he has in mind that primary idea which he is extending”. It is very easy, by means of methodologies introduced by the new literary criticism, to introduce radical instability into textual exegesis or to, “run with theological scissors”.


The loss of history and the loss of stability in meaning are not inevitabilities in literary readings but they are both pitfalls into which literary critics have already fallen. In our era it is in vogue to be a sceptic but I am confident that as the philosophical tides change we will look like real plonkers if we are found to have succumbed to absolute relativism, having detached everything from anything. In the process of investing our time and energy into the new literary criticism which, as has been seen, promises much fruit, we must coordinate our text with history and we must not descend into a myriad of meanings that leave us in a sea of meaninglessness waiting and hoping the tide will carry us back to land.

Readings Cited

Carson, Exegetical Fallacies. 1996.

Longman, The Literary Approach to the Study of the Old Testament: Promise and Pitfalls JETS 28:4 pp. 385-398.

Provan, Long, & Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.  2003.

Yee, The author/text/reader and power: suggestions for a critical framework for biblical studies eds. M. A. Tolbert, F. F. Segovia – pg109-118.

Basic Exegesis Diagram in isiZulu

Zulu Bible: iBhayibheli ElingcweleOne of the most exciting elements of my ministry this year is that of training lay preachers. In South Africa many rural churches share a pastor who alternates visiting churches under his leadership and so sees each once a month (and sometimes less frequently than that). As a palliative measure (which has turned out to be permanent), lay people generally preach on the Sundays the pastor is away. The lay preachers often have very limited biblical literacy and so depend more heavily on their abilities as public speakers. It is, therefore, an enormous need and an enormous opportunity to train people to whom the preaching of God’s word is entrusted most weeks of the month.

I am covering Bible Handling skills and in the first lesson I presented, I included the following diagram which may be useful to others doing exegesis or hermeneutics courses in Zulu so I thought I’d put it online.
Indlela Yokuhluza iBhayibheli
Each step involves looking somewhere:

  1. Up: Prayer
  2. Down: Studying the words
  3. Back: looking at the text’s Biblical Theological context
  4. Forward: Looking to where it points
  5. Here: Applying the text to the present day

I hope it’s useful to someone out there.

Exodus: The Journey of God

David Roberts - Israelites leaving EgyptIn his magnificent work on the Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter notes that the reader experiences a distancing from God in the book of Exodus. He argues there is a regression as we move from Genesis for, “God in Exodus has become essentially unseeable, overpowering, and awesomely refulgent” (p301). God has become an ungraspable mystery and the salient aspects of the divine character emerge as sheer power, supremacy and implacability against those who would thwart him (p302). When I wrote this paper at college my aim was to demonstrate that Alter, despite being one of the most outstanding narrative critics alive, is mistaken at this point. I will argue that the presence of God is in fact the central theme developed in Exodus. Terence Fretheim, in his Interpretation commentary, offers a contrary tale to Alter’s, which I am convinced is told in Exodus: “the journey of God.” Fretheim’s thesis can be summarised like this: Exodus advances from an oppressive situation in which God’s presence is hardly noted to Yahweh’s filling the scene at the completion of the tabernacle. Moving through the narrative, we see God moving towards his people, culminating with his glorious presence at the tabernacle.

The problem is Exodus’ complex genre, for while it possesses a narrative framework its latter half is dominated by voluminous laws, liturgical practises and vast architectural details. In order to make sense of these elements, which appear irrelevant to the modern reader, we must maintin a narrative framework. If Fretheim is right, we can understand these aspects as contributing to the overall destination of the book, rich communion between Yahweh and his chosen people. So with the hope of placing and interpreting all the events and elements of Exodus, we turn to the book and ask if Fretheim’s “journey of God” is really the key theme in Exodus.

Exodus 1-18: Liberation from slavery through salvation for service

Red Sea CrossingAs we set off in Exodus we meet Israel, who are experiencing staggering posterity despite their suffering and oppression in a foreign land; this is by God’s preservation and faithfulness to the patriarchal promises. Thus the promises made by God to Abraham must also be kept clearly in view, for they are interwoven into Exodus. But Israel’s situation in Egypt does not square with the promises and while they languish under oppression it seems as though God is absent or disinterested with his people. But as we move through the first half of Exodus we cannot deny the narrative’s momentum tends steadily toward Israel’s establishment as God’s nation at Sinai. Yahweh determines to free them from their enforced ‘service’ of Pharaoh for ‘service’ of Yahweh (the same Hebrew word is found in 1:13-14 and 3:12). Fretheim picks up on this arc, slavery to worship, stating it reveals the central theme of the narrative (p20). While Israel longs for political liberation, what Yahweh desires for his people is liberation for worship and service. Yahweh’s personal disclosure to Moses, which finds its terminus in revelation to the nation at Sinai, is paramount to his desire for genuine relationship.

Beyond hearing their cry and remembering his covenant with them (Exodus 2:23-24), Yahweh knew their suffering (2:25; 3:7), and came down (3:8). Yahweh reveals his name, history and purposes to Moses – before achieving their liberation – and this suggests that Yahweh is coming nearer. Obviously the presence of Yahweh is predominantly mediated by Moses. Once Yahweh has liberated Israel, defeated Pharaoh they leave Egypt being led by Yahweh (Exodus 13:18, 22). And this presence, which finally destroys Pharaoh at the Red Sea crossing, is celebrated in song (Exodus 15). Note that Moses’ song climaxes with the hope of establishment on Yahweh’s “own mountain”, not Canaan (Exodus 15:17-18). Israel celebrates Yahweh’s powerful presence with them to save; and the promise of an even greater presence, denoting rest in the future. Israel then set off on three months in the wildness. Here freedom from Egypt and their new obligations are realised and Moses’ leadership is further authenticated. Before moving on we should notice the often overlooked promise from Jethro in Exodus 18:20, 23. Following his own calling on Yahweh’s name he assures them that Yahweh will be with them. Moses is also released from seeing to smaller matters so that he can continue as Yahweh’s mediator, bringing Israel closer to the presence of God.

If the theme that drives Exodus is the forging of the relationship between Yahweh and his people, then Exodus 1-18 essentially traces the beginning of this relationship. He reveals himself personally to them, defeats their enemy, leads them through the wilderness while providing for them, and preserves Moses as their mediator.

Exodus 19: Narrative hinge

AWilliam Brassey - Sinai helpful way to get around placing Exodus 19 in the narrative structure is to deal with the chapter as a hinge. I suggest this because it presents both broad panels of Exodus: Yahweh delivered Israel from Egypt (19:4) and Yahweh gives Israel Torah enabling them to realise their unique vocation to the nations (19:5-6). Moses is authenticated (19:9) and acts as the mediator of the covenant between Yahweh and the newly liberated Israel. Previously Yahweh’s relationship with Israel was exclusive and at most demanding, from here on in we see it is regulated, mediated and sanctuary-centred (Moberly p104, The Old Testament of the Old Testament). Yahweh has liberated his people for relationship with him, but this relationship must be carried out exclusively on his terms.

While Exodus 1-19 is a compelling story that moves from enslavement to liberation and finally epiphany, the climax is a set of boring legal injuctions and by no means a page turner. It seems not only to fail the potential and momentum gained with the first half of the narrative but does not grip the reader in any exciting way. Alter emphasises that Sinai and the law is in no way anticlimactic, for it is there we meet the newly established nation of Israel, who are addressed in their entirety, as individuals, with the keenest sense of urgency (p303). So in our treatment of Exodus as a complete narrative we must ask why the author (and editors) located this voluminous, at times boring, set of instructions here. More importantly we must ask how they contribute to our theme of God’s increasing presence with Israel.

Exodus 20-24: Law and covenant, promises with strings attached

Fretheim believes all that happens at Sinai supports our central theme since theophany, law-giving and covenant-making all concern worship and indicate the presence of God (p21). It is hard to ignore the reiteration through repetition that Moses serves as a mediator between Yahweh and Israel at Sinai. Moses communicates Yahweh’s instructions to the people and their responses to him. But in contrast to his mediatorial role to Pharaoh, here a relational covenant is established between Yahweh and the people. The distance between Yahweh and Israel is not simply closed but the cutting of the covenant is a development of relationship, and Yahweh’s journey nearer to his people. We often speak of Israel as a nation set apart, and with the ratification of the covenant Israel is defined by its holiness and obedience to moral law, like no other nation.

Moses with tablets

Furthermore it is the covenant which qualifies Israel as those who can construct the tabernacle, the space to meet with and worship Yahweh. Law is thus integrated into Israel’s life and journey, seen in the arrangment of material shifting repeatedly between narrative and injunction. This is a start towards understanding both law and covenant in personal and relational terms. Yahweh provides instruction that will result in the best life for his people. It will contribute to their sanctification, being set apart from the nations, in order that the name of Yahweh is proclaimed. Obedience to the commandments is demanding but it will make Israel the upright people they were saved to be. The commandments were given to test Israel (20:20), cultivating fear of Yahweh and diminishing their sin. Prior to the ratification of the covenant Moses was the sole mediator, the only one who saw Yahweh, but now Israel’s representatives meet with Yahweh too (24:10). Again, I would suggest in conclusion that we are seeing new avenues for access to Yahweh and an increasing openness to the people of Israel, which will reach its climax in the tabernacle.

Exodus 25-40: The tabernacle, appropriate worship and the presence of Yahweh

We learn as we move into this last major section of narrative that the tabernacle’s purpose is to be a dwelling place for Yahweh (25:8), and that is realised when we come to the end of our story (40:34-38). At Sinai even though Yahweh was imminent (19:3) he was also transcendent (19:9, 11, 16, 18-19; 20:21). But this final movement of the narrative concludes with Yahweh’s presence amidst his people. The tabernacle represents the God who was far off setting up his presence at the heart of the people. Fretheim (1991:21) goes as far as calling the tabernacle Israel’s ‘community worship centre’ (p21). The tabernacle is a manmade sphere where Yahweh can meet with and dwell amongst his people. Though built by human hands, the tabernacle, and this last narrative section, strongly impresses on the reader that the Israelite faith is not manmade. In his essay, Heaven on Earth, in Exploring Exodus, Barry Webb argues that the tabernacle is the repository of the law (see 40:20) and therefore represents the revealed religion of Yahweh, and his initiative to meet with his people.

Tying this all together the author of Exodus placed the golden calf incident and its ramifications – Moses’ interceding for Israel and the reinstatement of the covenant – as the focal point of a massive chiasm. That serves as an example of inappropriate worship, in contrast to obedience to the law and worship at God’s prescribed tabernacle; to quote Fretheim, “Certain negative possibilities are rejected, while positive directions are encouraged and commanded” (p21). Fretheim, along with Waltke, go further and argue that the narrative also shows us that only the faithful will fellowship with Yahweh in the tabernacle. Inappropriate worship drives Yahweh away, and the reinstatement of the covenant does not only promise God’s presence with his people but reminds them that they meet him on his terms.


Seventh plague by John Martin

Tracing our path through the narrative we see the longed after liberation was given, the nation constituted under Yahweh, and God’s presence richly though not fully realised in Exodus. Much is (rightly) made of deliverance from slavery through salvation for service, in the narrative. Yahweh comes true to his promises and is faithful to them. But with the story leading us into the cul de sac of law, covenant and tabernacle we need to assess the book’s aim. It is not enough to make our basic point the shift from alien oppression into freedom and obedient service without asking why reams of regulations are given. And the answer is that Yahweh has come to his people. Our story is significantly advanced from this point in history, but for the Israelites at Sinai the narrative is emphatic that Yahweh’s journey has brought him into their midst. So much is made of how Israel should worship and behave, because the God who was seemingly absent has made himself present at the tabernacle. With this narrative arc of the entire book in mind we can make sense of the difficult and dull elements of Exodus: they are regulations for their relationship with Yahweh in their midst. His holiness demands that the people are themselves holy, for his presence is a consuming fire.

Allegory in Our Reading of Exodus 3

Exodus 3 - burning bushRudolf Otto famously wrote, ‘Mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, to explain the human experience of the divine, the Holy. Literally it means something like, ‘fearful and fascinating Mystery’. Otto’s idea of the Holy was that we are drawn toward its magnificence in wonder, yet repelled by its awesomeness. R.W.L. Moberly suggests that a fire that burns without consuming is perhaps the prime symbol for God because it attracts (by its vivid movement) and deters (by its heat). But is this the intention of Moses’ first theophany, in Exodus 3? How are we meant to understand this great sight, a bush that burns and is not consumed (3:2-3)?

I ask the question because I recently preached on Exodus 3 and engaged with the commentators and listened to a few sermons. Many interpretations – even if only in passing – sound like Rudolf Otto.  The fire that does not consume is interpreted as a picture of Yahweh’s presence amongst his people; despite his transcendent holiness he comes near to the Hebrews in the exodus event. Bruce Waltke says in his Old Testament theology: the image of fire inhabiting that fit for kindling is a foreshadowing of God amongst the Hebrews (p363). There is no doubt that fire is linked with God’s presence in Exodus; the Hebrews are lead by a pillar of fire and cloud (13:22), fire symbolises God’s presence at Sinai (19:18), and God’s glory descends as cloud and fire onto the completed tabernacle (40:34-38). But can we conclude from this that the unaffected burning bush depicts the holy Yahweh dwelling amongst a people his nature should consume?

God went before Israel

Alan Cole thinks the fire might signify the “purificatory, as well as destructive” properties of God’s presence. That would come closer to my understanding of God’s holiness; which is not mere otherness and transcendence but an outwardly flowing attribute that creates holiness, destroys evil. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, ‘It is fit, as there is an infinite fountain of holiness, moral excellence and beauty, so it should flow out in communicated holiness’ (quoted by John Webster in Holiness, p52). One might even go as far to suggest that we see this in the ground surrounding the burning bush becoming holy, with Yahweh’s condescension (3:5). However, the question remains unanswered: can we see the burning bush as a picture of God’s gracious nearness to sinful and unholy Hebrews?

Alec Motyer, in his BST commentary on Exodus, spills the most ink in making this link. He writes, “The juxtaposition of the transcendent God in all his holiness and vitality and the ordinary, earthly bush is a powerful metaphor for the indwelling, transforming presence of God with his people” (p56). I like that Motyer sees God’s holy presence as transformative. But I am unconvinced that is the purpose of this theophany. In p51-56 Motyer vividly unpacks the burning bush: fire affirms wrath, but outreaching mercy is supremely displayed; without abandoning his divine essence God is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners; the fire is his holy presence and the smoke serves as a veil for that holiness. We want that to be the meaning, because that theological interpretation comes standard with application for preaching. But I wonder if our theological categories at this point are not overshadowing the literary context.

TetragrammatonMotyer offers a second way of understanding the burning bush which – in my opinion – does justice to what is going in at the narrative and what Yahweh is about to reveal about himself to Moses: “I AM WHO I AM” (3:14-15). Moses encounters a fire nourished by its own life, a truly living flame that needs nothing outside of itself to burn. Motyer writes, “The essence of this revelation is that Yahweh is the living God, a self-maintaining, self-sufficient reality that does not need to draw vitality from outside” (p56). This surely makes more sense given the context. So God is not as much revealing his holiness as he is demonstrating his glorious self-existence, independent eternality. When we begin to appropriate this truth we are not struck by God’s condescension; we are moved to awe and assurance by his underived and completely independent power over what he has made, his true divinity.