Sunday, March 02, 2008

One thing God has spoken ...

One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard …. Psalm 62:12 (NJPS; in NIV Psalm 62:11).
When we discuss passages of the Bible, there is a drive to find out as best we can what any given passage originally meant. That is certainly a good thing to know. It keeps us close to the original thoughts conveyed and the plain sense of the words. But it can prevent us from noticing -- or taking seriously -- the very real phenomenon of passages with layers of meaning.

The verse "One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard" is accompanied by these comments in a Jewish study Bible:
This parallelism is one of the classic texts expounded in rabbinic culture to mean that God’s word is multivalent and needs to be interpreted in a variety of special ways (see, e.g. b. Sanh. 34a). (The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 1999)
The example referenced in the Talmud:
For Scripture saith, "God hath spoken once, twice have I heard this, that strength belongeth unto God." One Biblical verse may convey several teachings, but a single teaching cannot be deduced from different Scriptural verses. In R. Ishmael's School it was taught: "And like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces" (Jeremiah 23:29) i.e., just as the rock is split into many splinters, so also may one Biblical verse convey many teachings. (Sanhedrin 34a)(Sanhedrin 34a)
The study Bible's notes on the passage in Jeremiah state,
"In rabbinic tradition, however, this is a central phrase suggesting that God's words may be interpreted in a wide variety of legitimate ways (b. Sanh 34a)."
The ancient rabbinic schools established various safeguards for keeping the different interpretations from running wild or giving too much exegetical license. Interpretive principles were devised for deriving other legitimate meanings from a text while screening out ones that had no basis.

The drive to return to original meaning was probably a needed corrective in returning to the source after some of the fanciful allegorical interpretations which did not follow any particular interpretive principles, but rather followed the fancy of the interpreter. There had been a history of intpreters taking license to read things into the text that were not there; it was a predictable counter-reaction that people sought the original meaning. But a rigid focus on one meaning had a regrettable effect: it took away the license to read other layers of meaning that were already latent in the text. If we acknowledge that in any literature with depth, there are layers of meaning, then our interpretive principles need to allow for that. Otherwise we allow more depth in Shakespeare and Dickens than in the Bible. It remains to us to consider what interpretive principles will allow us to see all facets of a text without either opening the door to the reader's fancy or closing the door on a more complete understanding and appreciation of what was written.


Teci Pulido said...

I was looking for details on Psalm 62 and was drawn to this blog. Let us love and honor God with every fiber of our being. God bless you more :)

Weekend Fisher said...

And the Lord be with you.

Anne / WF