Saturday, August 23, 2008

Typological Reading

Jordan discusses typological engagement in Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary (pp. xii-xvii):

The symbolism or typology of Scripture is more or less vague. There is nothing wrong with vagueness. We have to have some vague words in our language as well as some more specific words. For instance, to tell someone that a room is "large" is vague compared to telling him that the dimensions are 12 X 12 X 120 feet - yet "large" conveys information better than the specifics would. Similarly, to say that the sun rose today around 6:00 A.M. is perfectly clear, yet it is relatively more vague than to say that the horizon of the earth lowered to reveal the sun at precisely 5:58:45 A.M., Eastern Daylight Time, as viewed from Athens, Georgia.

Some of the parables of Jesus are very specific, so specific as to be virtual allegories (such as the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-13), while others are more vague or general. This is also true of the stories of the Old Testament. Some events are clearly and pointedly symbolic and typological, while some are only vaguely and generally so.

We have to explain this in order to distance ourselves from the "interpretive minimalism" that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years. We do not need some specific New Testament verse to "prove" that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God.

Such a "maximalist" approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers. It seems dangerous, because it is not readily evident what kinds of checks and balances are to be employed in such an approach. Do the five loaves and two fishes represent the five books of Moses and the Old and New Testaments? Almost certainly not. What, however, is our check on such an interpretation? We have to say that the check and balance on interpretation is the whole rest of Scripture and of theology. As time goes along, and we learn more and more, our interpretations will become refined. If we do not plunge in and try now, however, that day of refinement will never come.

Let me take an example now. In Judges 1:11-15 we have the story of Othniel and Achsah. The characters here are the Enemy (giants), the Father (Caleb), the Son (Othniel), the Daughter (Achsah), and two other factors: springs of water and a donkey. The Son destroys the Enemy in order to win the Bride from the Father. Can we see a vague image of the gospel here? Certainly; it fairly leaps off the page. After the marriage, we find the Bride asking the Father for springs of water. Can we see in this a vague image of the Church asking for and receiving the Spirit? Also, we see the Bride riding on an ass, an unclean beast. Given the fact that unclean animals signify the unconverted nations (Acts 10, 11), and that the false Bride of Revelation is seen riding on the back of the Beast (Rev. 17:3), can we see in this a vague picture of the Church riding on dominating the heathen world? I think so.

These are vague images, snapshots of truth as it were. It would be stretching matters to try to make this story into a prophetic type in the full sense, but at the same time we ought not to blind ourselves to the possiblity that a more general picture of the kingdom of God is presented here. Without any doubt, the story of Othniel and Achsah is designed to picture for us the winning of the kingdom, and the blessings that come to the righteous after the kingdom is won. In a general way, this is parallel to the work of Christ in winning the kingdom, and the blessings that come to the Church afterwards. Given this general truth, we are invited to inspect the passage more closely to see more specific parallels, as I did above.

One does not burn at the stake for interpretations such as this. At the same time, we would not be doing our duty to the text if we did not at least give some reflection to them. In this commentary, I shall be interpreting the text "maximally." The reader must consider the ideas I throw out, and if he finds that some are not really well supported, or not credible, that is find. The important thing is to engage in the interpretive discussion, and strive for a fuller understanding of the prophecies before us.

The second "secret" is to keep an eye on the interaction between God and man. We ask three questions:
  1. What is God's Word of promise and command?
  2. What is man's response (rebellion or faithfulness)?
  3. What is God's Word of evaluation (judgment or blessing)?

Every Biblical narrative contains all three elements, at least by implication. Sometimes the Word of promise/command is not expressed, because it is contained in the Law, which is the background for all the later books of the Bible. Every promise is a command, for the faithful knows that he needs to pursue the blessing in the promise; and every command is a promise, for God will always bless those who submit to His commands. We then come to man's response. Men are either faithful or rebellious - sometimes a mixture of the two. Then, third, we come to God's evaluation or judgment, which entails either curse or blessing.

This threefold action underlies every narrative in Scripture. Adam was given a command/promise. He rebelled. God came to judge him. Humanity as a whole is given a command/promise from God. Human history as a whole is the response of humanity. The Last Judgment is the final evaluation made by God. Abram was given a command: move to Canaan. Abram obeyed. After he arrived in Canaan, God met him and blessed him - and gave him his next orders, which Abram obeyed, and God blessed him and then gave him his next orders, wich he obeyed, etc., etc.

The third "secret" is to take note of the larger covenant-historical context of the book. The Bible presents one basic story over and over again, with variations each time, designed for our instruction. This is the story of creation, fall, decline, judgment, and re-creation. This pattern happens in three very large historical sweeps during the Old Covenant. The first occurence is the creation of the world, the fall of Adam, the decline recorded in Genesis 6, the judgment of the Flood, an the re-creation in Noah.

The second occurence of this pattern in its large form begins with the re-creation of the world after the Flood. This re-creation takes the same form as the first creation: First the wider world is made (Gen. 1; Gen. 10, the nations), and then the sanctuary is set up (Gen. 2, Eden; Gen. 12, call of Abram). The creation section continues until Israel is fully settled in the land, when David finally conquers all of it. Then comes the fall, with Solomon, and a progressive decline until the Exile, when the new Adams and Evees are once again cast out of God's sanctuary. The re-creation comes with Daniel and Ezra.

The third occurence of this pattern begins with the re-creation of the world under Daniel, and the re-establishment of the sanctuary by Ezra. The big fall comes when God's people crucify the Lord of Glory. The decline continues until A.D. 70, and issues in the destruction of the sanctuary. The final, third re-creation is, thus, the Church, which is permanent.

I have identified these three large occurences of the pattern by using the rule of the sanctuary. In spite of all the ups and downs in Israel's history, they were not cast out of the land until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem. Thus, from Abraham to Nebuchadnezzar is one large history. Accordingly, the first three "days" of history have at their centers three sanctuaries: Eden, the first Tabernacle/Temple, and the second (Ezra's) Temple. Christ's death in the third cycle (on the third "day") broke this cycle forever. In spite of her ups and downs, the history of the Church will be one of progressive re-creation and culmination.

Now, within the second great occurence of this pattern (from Abraham to the Exile), there are three smaller manifestations of the pattern:
  • Basic pattern No. 2a:
    • Creation: Abraham to Exodus
    • Fall and Decline: Wilderness
    • Judgment: Death of that generation
    • Re-creation: Death of Aaron, as high priest, enabling people to leave wilderness "city of refuge" and once again take possession of their lands (Num. 20:29 and 21:1ff.)
  • Basic pattern No. 2b:
    • Creation: Joshua and the conquest
    • Fall: Judges chapter 1
    • Decline: book of Judges
    • Judgment: capture of the Ark at the time of Samson, Samuel and Ruth (I develop this in detail in chapter 12 of this book)
    • Re-creation: the return of the Ark
  • Basic pattern No. 2c:
    • Creation: Samuel and David
    • Fall: Solomon, who breaks all the laws for kings (compare Deuteronomy 1716f. with 1 Kings 10:14ff., 26ff.; 11:1ff.)
    • Decline: the two monarchies
    • Judgment: the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile
    • Re-creation: Ezra, Nehemiah

Throughout the Bible, there are smaller manifestations of this pattern as well. Our concern in this third "secret" of interpretation is to note the position of the book of Judges in the overall sweep of redemptive history. Judges records the fall, decline, and judgment of Israel, and also (in Samson and in the last chapter) the beginnings of re-creation. This is an important structure for understanding the book.

The fourth "secret" of interpretation is to pay close attention to the specific details in the text. God does not waste words. God has absolute superintendence of events, and every detail recorded in the text is to be pondered for significance. Judges 9:53, for instance, does not say, "Someone threw a strone and hit Abimelech so that he was dying." Rather, it says, "A certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech's head, crushing his skull." Every detail is important, as we shall see in chapter 8 of this study: that it was a woman, that it was a stone, that it was a millstone, that it hit and crushed his head.

Similarly, numbers are usually important as symbols in the text. Ancient writers always used numbers symbolically, and it strains credulity to think that the writers of the Bible did not do so. People today don't think of numbers symbolically, but in the history of the world, modern man is a great exception on this point. To be sure, the numbers are also literally true, but since God has superintended all events, we are certainly invited to consider the deeper significance of the number of patterns in the text.

The writings in the Bible are carefully constructed literary masterpieces. Failure to keep that fact in mind leads to sloppy interpretation. (Undoubtedly there is a fair share of sloppy work in this present commentary, but let us agree at the outset that we shall at least try to be as careful as possible.) If something is repeated in the text, it is repeated for a reason. If someone's name is given, or omitted (as with Samson's mother), there is a reason. If attention to called to specfic numbers, there is a reason. In other words, a "host of 7000 men" is not interpretively the same as a "large host of men." Details are important.

By keeping these four "secrets" in mind, we can have a God-centered approach to the message of Judges. Primarily, after all, these are not moral tales of what men did rightly and wrongly. Primarily they are stories about how God deals with man, in judgment and redemption. The interplay between God and man is the heart of history.

So, as we retell these stories, we shall be looking at their prophetic meaning. What did they mean to the people of that time? What lessons were they supposed to draw from the text? And what lessons are we to draw, as well? [source]