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New Testament Eschatology -- Old Testament Background

Often times, the reason people insist that the New Testaments writers were wrong about the 'end of the world' -- i.e., the writers believed it was going to take place very soon for them -- is because of an almost 'wooden' literalism that is used when reading those passages. I find this a little amusing because a lot of times, those same people don't hold to a 'literal' interpretation of the Bible. Yet, they either assume that the writers of the New Testament held to a 'literal' interpretation or we should understand those New Testament passages in a literal way. I hope to show a little different path. But to help us in our journey, before we can look at the New Testament passages themselves, we need to look at some Old Testament passages.

Why?

The reason for this is because the New Testament is a continuation of the Old Testament story. In other words, the Old Testament is the foundation or frame-work from which the New Testament writers were working. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the first Christians saw themselves living at the beginning of the climax to the Old Testament story. So, to get a better understanding of what they meant, we should have some kind of working knowledge of the guide they were using. Our first passage to consider is found 'way back' in the book of Genesis.
Genesis 37.9-11. Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!”

This time he told the dream to his father as well as to his brothers, but his father scolded him. “What kind of dream is that?” he asked. “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow to the ground before you?” But while his brothers were jealous of Joseph, his father wondered what the dreams meant.

I'm sure we are all pretty familiar with the story of Joseph and the 'coat of many colors' that his father, Jacob (Israel), gave him. Well, one of the things about Joseph was that he was a 'dreamer' and an interpreter of dreams. In the passage above we have one of the first dreams he had. There are some interesting things in it. Briefly, Joseph dreamed that his elders would bow before him. This included his father, mother, and eleven brothers. For us, the important point is the apocalyptic language or (I prefer) poetic imagery used in the dream. Joseph's mother and father would be the 'sun' and 'moon' while his eleven brothers would be the 'eleven stars'. I submit that this as an example of how apocalyptic language functions. Often times, the use of celestial images corresponds to terrestrial authority. This, like most 'sciences' (and anything with 'ology' at the end of it usually means it's a science), isn't a hard and fast rule. It is more of a guide. Here, our guide is showing us that celestial images are used for those people who have authority over Joseph in the terrestrial realm. (And even here we can see the short comings of the guide. Joseph's younger brother Benjamin was one of the eleven 'stars' and he probably wouldn't have authority over Joseph.)

On another side of this, we wouldn't take a 'literal' approach to understand this dream. There isn't a need. Joseph's father, Jacob, already interpreted the images for us. But, if we used the view of some people, we would say that this never took place because the 'sun, moon, and eleven stars' never actually (literally) bowed down to Joseph. Instantly we can see how silly that interpretation would be. No. We are shown that the proper understanding of the dream is that Joseph's family would bow before him at some point in this life (another important point). And they did just that when they came to Egypt looking for famine relief (Genesis 43ff).

Next time, we will look at a couple of the prophets that use symbolic language.

Peace be with you.

OD

Comments

Pinball said…
I almost hesitate to bring this up because it is off the subject entirely. I wonder, what if Jacob was wrong in his interpretation? The Bible doesn't tell us one way or the other. It just reports the story. Here's why I ask: Jacob identifies the moon as Joseph's "mother", but Joseph's mother died giving birth to Benjamin. So who is he talking about?

Then again, Rachel was already dead by the time this dream happened, wasn't she? So maybe my point is entirely moot. Perhaps by "mother", Jacob meant Leah, who was the woman of the house at this point.

Which only goes back to prove your point: Be careful when taking things literally!
Odysseus said…
Well, Jacob never tells us who is the 'moon' and who is the 'sun'. So, there is a little bit of reading into that.

Secondly, I think you're right in that we shouldn't take it too literally. That is the point. The images are symbols to point to the whole 'world' giving homage to Joseph.
Ted M. Gossard said…
Amen. I look forward to your continued development of this, OD. Thanks.
Pinball said…
Now you've done it. In challenging my assumption that the mother is the moon, you've opened Pandora's Box of Picking Nits.

First, let me defend my assumption. Joseph, being the head of the household in an extremely paternalistic society, would almost certainly see himself as the brighter and larger of the 2 lights.

Now for the Outrageously Natty Nitpick of the Week: You referred to the sun and moon and 11 stars as representing Joseph's "elders", but one of those 11 stars would be for Benjamin, who was younger.

I think I'm done now.
Odysseus said…
I actually addressed this in my blog. I said, '...like most ’sciences’ (and anything with ‘ology’ at the end of it usually means it’s a science), isn’t a hard and fast rule. It is more of a guide. Here, our guide is showing us that celestial images are used for those people who have authority over Joseph in the terrestrial realm. (And even here we can see the short comings of the guide. Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin was one of the eleven ’stars’ and he probably wouldn’t have authority over Joseph.)'

So...there :P
Pinball said…
Wait a minute...

Did you edit this? I just now saw your parenthetical comment that explains that Ben was younger. So maybe it should say "family" instead of "elders" in the first mention.
Odysseus said…
No I didn't edit this. That is what I had written from the beginning. I do like the idea of 'family' instead, though. So, I think I will edit it to have that. Then I wouldn't need the parenthetical statement.

But, upon further reflection, that takes away from the poetic language guide. Most of the time, celestial images point to terrestrial authorities. So, I think I will leave it just the way it is.

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