Often times, the reason people insist that the New Testament writers were wrong about the “end of the world”—i.e., they believed it would take place within their lifetime—is because of an almost “wooden” literalism that’s 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 assume either the writers of the New Testament held to a “literal” understanding of those things or we should interpret those New Testament passages in a literal way. I hope to show something different. But, before we can look at the New Testament passages themselves, we need to look at some passages from the Jewish Scriptures.
The reason for this is because the New Testament is the continuation of the story told in the Jewish Scriptures. In other words, the Jewish Scriptures are the foundation or framework from which (most of) the New Testament writers were working. Through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the first followers of The Way saw themselves as living at the beginning of the climax to the story of Israel. So, to get a better understanding of what they meant by the phrases and images they employed, we should have some kind of working knowledge of the guide they used. Our first passage to consider is found “way back” in the book of Genesis.
Genesis 37.9-11: Then Joseph had another dream and described it to his brothers: “I’ve just dreamed again, and this time the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
When he described it to his father and brothers, his father scolded him and said to him, “What kind of dreams have you dreamed? Am I and your mother and your brothers supposed to come and bow down to the ground in front of you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father took careful note of the matter.
I’m sure we’re pretty familiar with the story of Joseph and the “coat of many colors” which was given to him by his father, Jacob (who later changed his name to Israel). One of the things about Joseph was he was a “dreamer” and an interpreter of dreams. This passage tells us about one of his first dreams. There are some interesting things in it. Briefly, Joseph dreamt 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 (as I prefer) poetic imagery used in the dream. Joseph’s mother and father would be the “moon” and “sun” while his eleven brothers would be the “eleven stars.” I submit this as an example of how apocalyptic language functions. Often times, the use of celestial images corresponds to terrestrial authority. However, like most fields of study, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. It’s more of a guide. Here, our guide’s showing us that celestial images are used for those people who have authority over Joseph in the terrestrial realm. (And even this has its shortcomings. Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, was one of the eleven “stars” and he probably wouldn’t have authority over Joseph.)
Now we wouldn’t take a “literal” approach to understand the dream, even though Joseph used similar imagery to what we find in the New Testament. 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 bowed down to Joseph. Or, we would say that the writer of the story was obviously mistaken since because, again, the writer believe the literal “sun, moon, and stars” would bow before Joseph. Instantly we can see how silly that interpretation would be. We’re shown that the proper understanding of the dream is that Joseph’s family would bow before him later in this life (another important point). And they did just that when they came to Egypt looking for famine relief (Genesis 43).
Next time, we’ll look at a couple of the prophets and their use of poetic language. Click here for the next post in this series.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC