Friday 14 January 2011

A snake in the grass

From Robert Crumb's 'Book of Genesis'
I came upon a new term recently: "direct rectilinear messianic prophecy." It's a beauty, and describes the much-loved strategy of finding prophecies of Christ in unlikely places in the Old Testament. A week ago on this blog there was a piece about Genesis 3: 14-15 as an etiological story about snakes, why they have no legs and why humans are repelled by them. Take off the deliberately distorting lenses of metanarrative and even a cursory reading of the passage shows no sign of it being a prophecy of Christ.

In response Steve wrote: even though the reading is foreign to the text itself apocalyptic reading of this passage is bolstered if not implied within the canon itself (when taken together as an authoritative corpus): in Romans 16.20, "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" evokes Genesis 3 imagery, and Revelation refers to Satan as "that ancient serpent".

Which is fair enough, as long as it's clear that any "apocalyptic reading" is an interpretation. Paul in Romans is crafting what seems to be an intertextual reference back to Genesis 3, and the author of Revelation may have the same imagery in mind. Granted; but does that then determine the meaning of the verses in Genesis? There are New Testament passages that clearly refer back to apocryphal literature too (compare the ascension of Raphael in Tobit 12:15-22 with the subsequent reports of Christ's ascension), but few are those who are much bothered with that.

At best we can say that Paul found this meaning in such-and-such a passage, or that the writer of the Apocalypse attributed a particular significance in this-or-that phrase. That's what interpreters do, but it doesn't determine the meaning of the text itself. Steve almost gets it right when he hauls out the qualification "when taken together as an authoritative corpus." He needs to add something about "internally consistent" though. Unfortunately the canon (whether we're talking Jewish, Catholic or Protestant) is anything but consistent. Quoting Revelation 12:9 (as the commenter suffering under the nom de plume "Puritan" does) establishes nothing about the text under discussion, unless you want to argue for - wait for it - "direct rectilinear messianic prophecy." Even then the verse is allusion, not exegesis.

There is a famous example of this problem in Paul's writing, which I'll get to next time, though I suspect Dennis and others are way ahead of me. But to stay with Gen. 3 for the moment, here's what Richard Elliot Friedman has to say in his Commentary on the Torah.
Stories in Genesis frequently develop etiologies - explanations of the origins of names and practices - but none comes close to the number of origins accounted for in Genesis 3. Namely:
1. It is the story of why snakes do not have legs... 2. The story is the etiology of what was perceived to be the natural enmity between humans and snakes...  .
He then goes on to list another eight examples that follow on in this one chapter. None of which have anything to do with predicting the life or death of the Messiah.

Unless you want to read it back into the text 'rectilinearly', and consider that a legitimate exegetical practice. But why would anyone want to bolster their beliefs with bad arguments?


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  2. I resisted the temptation...

  3. Nicely balanced posting Gavin.

    How floored the fundamentalists and certainly all COG ministers would be to realize that there is NO prophecy of the one who appears in the NT story of Jesus, in the Old Testament.

    NT authors read back into OT texts meanings they never meant along with a bit of cut and paste or not reading on in the text to get the context. Of course there is Midrash as well, which not one minister I have ever met knows a thing about.

    Matthew makes the OT text mean what it never meant eight times in his birth narrative "fulfillments."
    He over reaches, but it was ok and a way to flesh out a story that no one really knew the reality of.

    Jesus birth stories are OT spectacular because in fact, NO ONE has a clue when or how the figure of Jesus was born. Just as Genesis 3 is more an answer of why humans have a natural aversion to snakes etc...Matthew and Lukes birth narratives answer the doubts about Jesus birth circumstances, paternity and origins. It's what humans do when they don't know what to do.

    The long winded speeches in Acts and John are a writing style where, again, the author is writing what he imagines the character would have said in such circumstances. It is not transcribed from a tape of the event.

    When doing Passover services year after year and reading John 13-17 until we almost fell out of our chairs, I always wondered "who wrote this all down accurately?" Who knew what Jesus said alone in Gethsemene while everyone slept. Jesus got arrested and sequestered immediately after so I doubt he had time to slip an accurate copy to John.

    We won't even begin to explain that it was only hundreds of years later the serpent of Genesis became Satan. In the original context, it was a Hebrew slam against the wise counselor to the Goddess, Python, that was taking the hit. We have lost that meaning after so long.

  4. Why people use bad arguments,

    Because they are the arguments they are taught, not their own.

    Handed a canned argument people will take the easy way out rather than examine what they are given. Instead of saying, "hey, you want me to dig this plot of earth with a stick when there's a real nice tractor and plow over there", they'll keep poking at the dirt with the stick and not look at the tractor. Then wonder why the heck it's such hard work with so little return.

    Incidentally, I was told at AC that they offered a logic course at one time, but had to quit offering it because it caused too many problems with students questioning the faculty.

  5. why would anyone want to bolster their beliefs with bad arguments?

    Because it makes money and brings power?

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  7. If the Genesis reference is to show that snakes no longer walk upright, then just why is that Snakes in Suits have two legs?

    Still, you must admit, it does explain our aversion to those same Snakes in Sheep's clothing.

  8. Nevermind the snakes in sheep's clothing - watch out for the snakes in shepherd's clothing.