Interpreting Aesop

Interpreting Aesop July 22, 2019

About 2 years ago, after I had just been hired at GLCC, I accompanied one of our VPs to a Northern Indiana Men’s Fellowship. I was introduced as the OT professor and I gave a message. Afterward I was greeting some of the men and the inevitable question was asked of the “OT Guy”—“Do you take Genesis literally?” Ah the age old question of interpretation.  It’s a terrible position to be put in. Especially because it’s hard to distill lots of years of education into a 5-10 minute conversation with a random stranger.

There’s a lot of freight and baggage bound up in the question and in your answer. If you say “yes” then you kind of logically end up in the young earth creationist camp. If you say “no” then you get lumped into the liberal camp who don’t believe in a certain view of inspiration. So, it is vital to interpret different genres of the Old Testament in a way that takes into account divine inspiration while respecting the original author and context. In order to get there let me begin with a short exercise. Read the following Aesop Fable:

 

THE LION, THE BEAR, AND THE FOX

Milo Winter / Project Gutenberg

Just as a great Bear rushed to seize a stray kid, a Lion leaped from another direction upon the same prey. The two fought furiously for the prize until they had received so many wounds that both sank down unable to continue the battle.

Just then a Fox dashed up, and seizing the kid, made off with it as fast as he could go, while the Lion and the Bear looked on in helpless rage.

“How much better it would have been,” they said, “to have shared in a friendly spirit.”

Now a simple question—What is the meaning of this story? A variety of answers might be given.

Work smarter not harder
If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’
Aesop gives his own meaning: It sometimes happens that one man has all the toil, and another all the profit.

But I would go further and ask, “Do you have any other questions about this story?” I’m doubting any of you asked, “What kind of a bear was it? How old was the kid? What part of the world did this happen? Did the fox eat the kid or help him grow up and flourish?” Or perhaps the most obvious question, “Why are animals talking?”

Questioning the Bible

Why do we not ask such questions? Because we understand that it is a certain kind of genre requires certain techniques to interpret. We understand that a fable or a story is able to suspend reality for the sake of the story. There is a meaning that is at stake more than explanation.

So why do we ask such questions of Biblical accounts, especially Genesis 1-11? Because we misread genres. We expect biblical texts to act in a certain way when in reality they were never intended to. We struggle with the tension between regarding this as Holy Scripture and allowing it to speak from its own context.

Our churches are filled with this same tension but we use different terms. It’s the difference between the modern and the post-modern mindset. The modern mindset wants proofs and scientific principles. The post-modern mindset wants to create its own meaning outside of facts.

But the biblical writers weren’t modern or post-modern. They were story tellers, crafting meaning from their circumstances and histories. Facts were important, but they weren’t the purpose of their story telling. Their stories were conveying sentiments about God, about humanity, and right and wrong, good and evil, and about how they were supposed to live in this world. So if the facts of a story were altered in order to make a point, they were okay with that.

Fake News?

And that is a hard thing for many of us and those in our congregations to face isn’t it? In a #fakenews culture, when people alter facts we feel lied to and deceived. But the ancient world didn’t feel that way. This is a tough concept for many to accept, but the biblical writers cared more about truth than they did facts. If you hold to a certain view of inspiration that sees the Bible as dropped out of heaven and so has to be adhere to a certain standard, then what I’m saying is probably making you uncomfortable. After all, what about the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility?

That might be a discussion for another day, but for today, let me leave you with this: if we allow ourselves to get over the uncomfortable feeling, we might find that it can be liberating to read the Bible in this way. We don’t have to force it to carry weight it was not designed to. We can let it speak truth into our lives and the lives of our congregations. We can let the greatest story ever told do what it was intended to do.

What if we let our interpretation of the Bible be driven by same techniques that we apply to other genres? Perhaps these interpretive lenses would open up the rich and original meaning that the authors intended.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • swbarnes2

    Their stories were conveying sentiments about God,

    Sure, there might be little details, like exactly how many of Job’s children were killed, or maybe Pharaoh’s handmaiden didn’t have a son…but what really matters is the the Bible correctly and accurately describes the sentiments of a God who killed innocent women and children.

  • billwald

    Agree. Modern Americans are illiterate and that’s what Democrats need and want.

  • I wish I had learned this 20 years ago,who knows where I would be now.

    I guess I’m a little confused what good the OT stories are even if we do take them as fables. Like the garden of Eden. The upshot of that story is “People who had no knowledge of good and evil were punished for doing evil,”
    Or, “Seeking knowledge is a bad thing”
    Or, “Every hardship in the world is your fault, wretched human, and you should feel ashamed.”

    How do you get a good moral out of that?

  • Sounds like a non sequitur to me

  • fractal

    Good.

    Now can we admit that Men wrote the bible, and stop with the blame Eve game?
    And once we do that, can we stop with the “little woman needs to know her place” game?

  • fractal

    My interpretation of the Eden story is:

    The sins of the ancestors are too often paid for by their descendants.
    Has a lot of application today, doesn’t it!

  • swbarnes2

    “too often” implies that punishment was in this case too much for the crime. Is this really how you think the story was meant to be interpreted? That God messed up went overboard?

  • fractal

    You sure like to put words into my mouth that I never say, with your interpretations of “implications” etc…
    And you have done it many times.

    It is a dishonest and pushy way to argue about meaningless trivia.
    Just stop commenting to me please.

  • swbarnes2

    You wrote what you rote, I literally quoted you. What else can “too often” mean? It means that someone has judged that it’s happening in excess to the right amount. So who are you claiming is the judge of what the “right” amount is? God? You?

  • fractal

    Blocked.

  • Maltnothops

    What genre is the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection? Tall tale, like Paul Bunyan, I’d say.

  • Bravo Sierra

    Zombie fiction, I say.

  • davidt

    In regards to the new testament how did the Mary pranksters to become the mary’s pranked?
    Interesting rotation over Time.

    Hidegard DeBingen said “we cannot live in interpreted reality for interpreted reality is not home”

    .in the metphor vs literal debate a two headed coin is perfect. I see the coin everyone else sees what they see. God does not play fair and neither does nature.if I lt did random would be fact.

  • Bravo Sierra

    Here’s a distillation for you: It’s great to learn about literature and to learn about life through literature, but it’s not okay to think your imaginary friends are sending you messages, embedded in the books you read, about how you and the people around you should live their lives.

  • Maltnothops

    Not something I’m familiar with, but it sounds right.

  • Bravo Sierra

    If you’re not familiar with zombie fiction, The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey is a good place to start.

  • Maltnothops

    Oh, I’ve read that! Loved it. So that’s zombie genre?

  • David McGrath

    My beloved Irish uncle who taught me so many wonderful tunes and tales would always say, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story!” That bardic tradition has never died, even though it was banished from many sanctuaries, and declared profane by the gatekeepers. I am grateful for a Jesuit high school education which encouraged me to look at how the written word is a blessing and a curse for us: a secure repository of accumulated knowledge, but at a cost of the immediate learning value of stories and fables.

    I am not suggesting we bring back bards; Netflix is much more efficient. I love reading those OT stories and imagining which current movie actors would play the characters best.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Rational humanism based on evolutionary sociology?

  • Ormond Otvos

    So the gist of this homily is that we shouldn’t exercise rational analysis of biblestories?
    Yet, rationality is the antidote to so many forms of maladaptive psychology.
    I’ll read no more of this devilish wordslinger.

  • Like the garden of Eden. The upshot of that story is “People who had no knowledge of good and evil were punished for doing evil,”
    Or, “Seeking knowledge is a bad thing”
    Or, “Every hardship in the world is your fault, wretched human, and you should feel ashamed.”

    How do you get a good moral out of that?

    The garden of Eden story is about loosing the innocence of Truth, which is the indivisibility of God. The Oneness of The “I Am”. The Self of all selves.

    Knowledge of “good” and “evil” was the birth and subsequent misidentification of the ego, with mortality of the body and mind. Man came to imagine that he was an island unto himself, the Eternity of God outside, and separate.

    Hence the sudden need for fig leafs.

  • DrKennethNoisewaterMD

    Where?

  • DrKennethNoisewaterMD

    Progressive Hippianity is so eager to pull the post-innerancy thread. At the other end of the sweater, of course, is the goal, the Resurrection. Subjecting God’s word to human reasoning makes human reason the higher authority. Nothing new.

  • Clint Meyer

    “Subjecting God’s word to human reason makes human reason the higher authority”

    Not quite. By God’s Word I presume you mean the Bible and everything in it. Subjecting the Bible to human reasoning is merely a challenge to the belief that we have a perfectly well-kept recording of God’s specific words to mankind.

    And a fair challenge in my opinion. After all, what do you mean by God’s Word being the Bible? Do you mean the Protestant Bible? Perhaps the Catholic or Orthodox Bible? What about going back to the original languages? Do you prefer the Greek Septuagint or the Hebrew Masoretic text? Is the Jewish Torah correct, or should we turn to the Samaritan Pentateuch?

    My rambling comes down to this: when it comes to claiming the Bible as God’s perfect and final revelation, such a claim demands intense scrutiny. We’re talking about God, after all, which is a fairly serious topic. It’s wise to be open to impartial investigation.

  • I understand what all of those words mean–I think–but when you put them in that order I can’t make heads or tails of it…

  • I understand what all of those words mean–I think–but when you put them in that order I can’t make heads or tails of it…

    I start from a Monist’s understanding of God, which inspires intuitive comprehension of Infinitude.

    The Monotheist understanding, maintains God and man as separate. Keeping the limitations of relativity front and center.

  • soter phile

    Jesus called what Moses wrote the “Word of God” (Mk.7:10-13): human & divine authors.
    He treated it as such – quoting it incessantly, saying every jot mattered, and that it all points to Him.
    (NB: Jesus was roughly 1500 years removed from Moses, yet gave no such rambling caveats.)

    Not only does that make it a Christological matter… but it presses the underlying question:
    If one claims to follow Christ, why wouldn’t you follow his view of the Scriptures?

  • soter phile

    Since when did reading literature through the lens of its genre = jettisoning rational analysis?

  • soter phile

    I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.

    – CS Lewis

  • DrKennethNoisewaterMD

    You show a formative and representational understanding of what the Bible actually is. I agree, it demands intense scrutiny, not subjective 21st century human reasoning from a liberation theology perspective. People who actually scrutinize it fairly come to similar conclusions as Wm Ramsay did of Acts and Luke: “Further study … showed that the book could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement,” and, “You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.”

  • DrKennethNoisewaterMD

    Surely you haven’t studied women in the bible. Especially not women who served the church with Paul.

  • Maltnothops

    “Of this text there are only two possible views.”

    There’s his mistake.

  • Clint Meyer

    I am not sure I understand your reasoning. When someone questions the reliability of a text, you cannot use the text itself to dismiss such claims. Why do Muslims believe the Quran is true? Because the Quran says so! You simply can’t say it is logically consistent to let the text justify itself, and then say, “See, that settles it.”

  • Clint Meyer

    Also, I wasn’t actually rambling. I was piling important questions and considerations together, none of which anyone has attempted to answer, leading me to conclude no one has any good answers to give.

  • Clint Meyer

    Well, I’ve studied the matter and listened to those who have studied much more extensively than myself. I could hardly conclude the Bible is entirely literal and historical is every aspect, without a serious violation of scientific endeavors, archaeological investigations, and simple moral principles.

    Which one of you would suggest that we are all the descendants of a single human pair, whose genetics somehow allowed for now 7.5 billion people to coexist—all this from interbreeding? Who further would suggest that God commanded a genocidal expulsion of undesirables from a land they were born in, despite their age or gender? I cannot in good faith accept that either of these pseudoscientific and heinous actions are actually historical, or at the very least commanded by the good God I believe in.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Rhetorical question, but…
    “Inspired by ‘god'” IS the genre.
    Shall we just genuflect and stop thinking?
    I dislike disingenuous apologists, for any genre.

  • fractal

    Excuse me.

    I had daily religious instruction for at least nine years of my life; we all know what being a woman in the Bible is about.
    Men writing the Bible mansplain women’s POV, when they don’t have a clue.

    And really, what does any of that have to do with Eve-blaming?

  • fractal

    I think the real story of the Garden is how descendants Always pay the price for the sins of their ancestors.

    Original sin is a metaphor for not being able to escape the history of your tribal atrocities and/or the cycle of abuse, poverty etc… instigated by those in power within your family.

    Can’t run from it/gotta stop and heal it.
    Doesn’t matter if you personally are responsible for it.

    There is a movie called The Thin Red Line, and in it the protagonist wonders if perhaps there is only one soul for Humanity—and we all share it and have responsibility for it and each other.

  • a Pagan in Arizona

    You’re really full of it Bill.

  • soter phile

    I’m sorry; I mistook your concerns as from someone within the faith.
    For Christians, how Jesus approaches the Scriptures is definitive.
    But yes, that’s a circular approach if one is asking from outside the faith.

    So, in terms of secular scholarship, the questions must follow classic lines in order that we are not simply asserting authority through special pleading.

    a) you seem to want to appeal to English variations. As Bruce Metzger (widely regarded as the foremost Greek NT scholar of the last century) pointed out, we functionally have the original Greek. We can argue over particular words, but the original & primary content is not really in doubt.

    and the LXX, Masoretic texts & Dead Sea scrolls demonstrated one definitive result: the claims of a corrupted text over time were largely fabricated. again, the original content is readily discerned. very few scholars (esp. since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) argue that we are too far removed to know. after all, the Masoretic texts are roughly 900 years later than the Dead Sea scrolls yet are virtually the same. so much for the ol’ “telephone game” theory…

    b) you said: such claims demand intense scrutiny.
    the Bible is the most read, most influential, most scrutinized book in history. what do you mean by “intense” if not the history of biblical scholarship?

    c) you said: we’re talking about God… a fairly serious topic… It’s wise to be open to impartial investigation.
    is it possible to have an “impartial investigation”, when the answers to these questions – if found to be true and accurate – necessarily entail significant demands and changes for one’s life? This isn’t choosing between vanilla & chocolate ice cream. if it’s true, it means nothing less that a complete revolution to one’s life, orientation to existence, and sense of meaning. it’s disingenuous to think such a pursuit can be a clinical enterprise in which one is ‘objectively’ disinterested in the answer regardless of the outcome. that’s the myth of neutrality on the ultimate question.

    d) as for God’s perfect and final revelation… even the Bible says that is Jesus, not merely the written word (Ps.19:7 notwithstanding). Jesus taught the whole of the OT pointed to him (Jn.5:39-40; Lk.24:27,44) and certainly the whole of the NT does. the goal of the Bible is to point us to the God who has revealed himself therein.

  • soter phile

    He’s a lifelong scholar on myths. You might want to read the whole essay (since it appears you missed his point) – which was given to biblical scholars at Cambridge. His logic stands.

    Underestimating CS Lewis – there’s your mistake. Fern Seed & Elephants – google it.

  • Clint Meyer

    Let me start by a statement of respect; you clearly aren’t interested in personal attacks or silly trite information spiels. I appreciate your approach, and will continue in the same way.

  • Maltnothops

    I didn’t miss his point. I disagreed with it. It appears you missed my point.

    I’ve read a fair amount of C.S. Lewis in an effort to understand why he is revered by Christians. He is overrated. His “logic”, such as it is, has too many fallacies.

  • Maltnothops

    A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual.

    A man revivifying after 36 hours dead is an unbelievable element. The gospels relate the story as if it were true and factual.

    What do you disagree with?

  • Clint Meyer

    Now, I do consider myself part of the Christian community. I follow the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, who is not some fictional character of myth, but the actual incarnation of divinity. However, I do not consider this to mean by necessity that I accept that the Scriptures which speak of the Lord to be perfect in both content and copying.

    And thank God I don’t, because the scriptures are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, if you take them in a completely literal sense. There are multiple moral problems, as well as not a few discrepancies. I’ll name a few: the immoral, genocidal expulsion of the Canaanites by Israel, the repression of women to second-class citizens (sometimes property), and God’s over the top punishments of those deemed wicked, such as Achan and his family (Book of Joshua) and David’s illegitimate child (2nd Samuel).

    There’s more to be said, but I’ll limit myself for now. With regards to what you said:

    You’re correct in that the Bible has been scrutinized greatly over the last few millennia by a variety of people. Indeed it is impossible to completely remove bias from oneself while conducting an investigation. But that does not mean we should just take the Bible face value as God’s perfect word. We ought to be willing to have our assumptions challenged by those whose views differ from ours.

    I’ll put it this way: if you ever try to convince someone to question their worldview and accept yours, you MUST be willing to do the same in turn. We mustn’t ask anyone do that which we aren’t willing to do ourselves.

    With regard to my statement regarding the original languages, I might have made a point different from what I intended. I meant that the fact that different groups of Christians have different manuscript traditions and whole additional books that they consider canon, there is perhaps therefore warrant for dialogue about what counts as canon, ie God’s inspired Word, and how essential canon actually is. I won’t disagree with you that the text has remained largely the same since compilation, but there is certainly some variation between certain manuscript traditions beyond merely grammatical issues. However, we don’t have much to argue here.

    With regard to Jesus as the true and final revelation, we are in complete agreement, and I’ll waste no more space on the subject.

    I apologize if I missed something in my reply, it was not by intention to dodge.