‘Ambiguity proposes, preference disposes’: We have to choose

‘Ambiguity proposes, preference disposes’: We have to choose June 17, 2014

“It’s simple,” my friend says. “I believe the whole Bible, just as it is.”

But if he thinks that’s simple, then I suspect he’s never read the whole Bible, just as it is.

To read the Bible is to interpret the Bible, which is to say it requires us to choose between possible meanings. This choosing is constant and unavoidable. There is no such thing as reading the Bible without making such choices. Those, like my friend, who imagine that they are reading the Bible without choosing are simply choosing subconsciously, or unconsciously. Or blindly accepting the choices made by others.

We have to choose. We cannot read the Bible without choosing.

Start at the beginning. Start at “In the beginning …” in Genesis 1:1. The first 34 verses of the Bible give us a creation story in which God creates the universe in six days. First the light, then the dry land, then plants, fish and so on, until finally, on the sixth day, God creates a bunch of humans. That’s the first story.

But that first story is immediately followed by a second story, beginning in Genesis 2:4. That second story is very different. It all takes place on a single day, with God first creating a single man, and then after that creating animals and plants and all the rest.

These two stories share many similar themes, but their sequence and chronology cannot be reconciled. Those like my friend, who insist that the Bible’s self-evident meaning requires no interpretation, have developed elaborate schemes to “harmonize” these two very different stories. Regardless of whether or not such schemes can actually be made to work,* the undeniable fact is that these “harmonizations” are not, themselves, a part of the text. They are external mechanisms brought to the text from outside of the text, which is to say that they are interpretations — choices.

“It was found written that no Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God” — Nehemiah 13:1. (“Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab,” William Blake, 1795)

The Bible always forces us to choose because the Bible is ambiguous, and ambiguity requires us to make a choice.

The ambiguity introduced right from the beginning starts even sooner than my discussion of Genesis 1 and 2 suggests, because Genesis 1:1 doesn’t actually say “In the beginning.” What it says, rather, is בְּרֵאשִׁית. The Bible wasn’t written in English, but in Hebrew. Does the process of translating that Hebrew text into an English text introduce further unavoidable ambiguity? Does a bereshit in the woods? To translate is to interpret. To translate is to choose.

Skip ahead to the beginning of the New Testament. Here again we are given multiple versions of a story — all similar, but not all reconcilable. Matthew, Mark and Luke repeat many of the same stories, but not in the same order and they alter the details. Again, those who like to pretend their interpretation involves no interpretation have devised complex systems attempting to “harmonize” the Gospels. And again, regardless of whether or not such schemes can actually be made to work,* these harmonizations are, themselves, undeniably not a part of the original texts. They are a separate construct imposed on the text by those who have chosen to employ such a construct. They are a choice — one of many possible choices in response to the ambiguity of the text itself, which always requires that we choose.

Systematic theology tends to be more thoughtful and more careful than those clumsy attempts to “harmonize” the Gospels, but even the most sophisticated systematic theology runs into the same need to interpret and to choose between possible meanings. Consider the matter of christology in the Gospels. Luke’s christology is not the same as Mark’s christology, and John’s christology is very different from both of those. A good systematic theologian will synthesize an overall christology that attempts to honor and include all of these Gospel perspectives (along with the various other New Testament christologies found in Paul or in Revelation). Such a synthesis can provide us with a single “biblical” christology, but that end result gives us a “biblical” christology that is not the same as Luke’s christology or John’s christology. That seems to put us in the awkward position of saying that we have a biblical theology, while the original evangelists who wrote the Gospels did not.

Again, I’m not concerned with whether such syntheses and systematic theologies are right or wrong. My point here is that they are interpretations that we must choose to accept or to reject.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. The Bible has always required its readers to choose between ambiguous meanings.

Let’s look again at one of my favorite examples of this, a story from the Bible in which people read from the Bible.

Acts 15 tells us about an argument among the leaders of the early church over the status of Gentile believers. James gets up and speaks in favor of including these unclean outsiders in the community of believers. He quotes the Bible in support of this position:

“This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord.'”

He’s quoting there from the book of Amos — Amos 9:11-12. But here’s the odd thing: according to the book of Amos in our Bible, he’s quoting it wrong.

Keep one finger there in Acts 15 and turn to that passage in Amos in the same Bible you’re holding there in your hands. You won’t find what James says there in Amos. Instead, you’ll read something like this:

On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom.

That’s not the same at all. That says the opposite of what James says it said.

James is there in Acts 15, claiming that Amos 9:11-12 tells us that the dwelling of David will be built up “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord,” but when we turn there ourselves we find Amos saying, instead, that the dwelling of David will be built up so that David’s people “may possess the remnant of Edom.”

One choice offers a radically inclusive view in which Israel was chosen so that salvation could come to every last person on earth. The other choice offers a radically exclusive view in which Israel was chosen so that it could utterly vanquish every last remnant of its enemies.

And they’re both right there in the same Bible. You’ve got one finger stuck in a passage defending one choice and another finger stuck in a passage defending its opposite. And these conflicting meanings don’t even come from two different passages — they come from the exact same two verses. What gives?

This particular ambiguity has to do, in part, with the difficulty of translation — and in particular the difficulty of translation involving a language without written vowels. Plug one set of vowels into those verses in Amos — as the translators of the text we get our “Old Testament” from did — and you wind up with “that they may possess the remnant of Edom.” Plug in a different set of vowels — as James did at the Council of Jersualem — and you wind up with “that all other peoples may seek the Lord.”

But this quirk in translation is only possible because of the larger, pre-existing ambiguity between those exclusive and inclusive viewpoints. Ambiguity proposes, preference disposes. That ambiguity — that perennial argument — between exclusion and inclusion pervades the entirety of scripture. And preference predisposes which side of that argument we choose to endorse.

“I cleansed them from everything foreign,” Nehemiah boasts, after striking a blow for Team Exclusion by overseeing a mass divorce and expelling all foreigners from Jerusalem. In response, the author of Jonah writes for Team Inclusion. “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?”

Nehemiah seemed certain that his expulsion of foreigners was based on a simple reading of the Bible, just as it is. “On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God.” So what then are we to make of the book of Ruth — the story of King David’s Moabite great-grandmother? We have to choose. We can choose Nehemiah’s ruthless exclusion, or Jonah’s radical inclusion. Or we can try to choose some convoluted scheme to harmonize or synthesize the two. But that’s still a choice, regardless of whether or not such schemes can actually be made to work.*

We always have to choose.

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* Such schemes cannot actually be made to work.

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