Thursday, February 23, 2012

Back to the future

I believe that “the meaning of the prophecy” must be derived from the words and grammar employed in the situation in which they are used (just as in this correspondence or in any normal communication.
I hold that in the OT we can locate that meaning by paying attention to the words and sentences and paragraphs in context.  Thus, “Israel” means the nation God called by that name.

Once this view is adopted, any unity cannot, of course, be arrived at via plain-sense, law of identity interpretations.

Let’s take a test case, quoting some verses from Ezekiel’s famous oracles about Gog and Magog:

38 The word of the Lord came to me: 2  “Son of man, set your face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the chief prince of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him 3 and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. 4  And I will turn you about and put hooks into your jaws, and I will bring you out, and all your army, horses and horsemen, all of them clothed in full armor, a great host, all of them with buckler and shield, wielding swords. 5  Persia, Cush, and Put are with them, all of them with shield and helmet; 6  Gomer and all his hordes; Beth-togarmah from the uttermost parts of the north with all his hordes— many peoples are with you.
11 and say, ‘I will go up against the land of unwalled villages. I will fall upon the quiet people who dwell securely, all of them dwelling without walls, and having no bars or gates,’ 12 to seize spoil and carry off plunder, to turn your hand against the waste places that are now inhabited, and the people who were gathered from the nations, who have acquired livestock and goods, who dwell at the center of the earth. 13  Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish and all its leaders will say to you, ‘Have you come to seize spoil? Have you assembled your hosts to carry off plunder, to carry away silver and gold, to take away livestock and goods, to seize great spoil?’
21  I will summon a sword against Gog on all my mountains, declares the Lord God. Every man's sword will be against his brother.
39 “And you, son of man, prophesy against Gog and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, O Gog, chief prince of Meshech and Tubal. 2  And I will turn you about and drive you forward, and bring you up from the uttermost parts of the north, and lead you against the mountains of Israel. 3 Then I will strike your bow from your left hand, and will make your arrows drop out of your right hand.
9 “Then those who dwell in the cities of Israel will go out and make fires of the weapons and burn them, shields and bucklers, bow and arrows, clubs and spears; and they will make fires of them for seven years, 10 so that they will not need to take wood out of the field or cut down any out of the forests, for they will make their fires of the weapons. They will seize the spoil of those who despoiled them, and plunder those who plundered them, declares the Lord God.

i) According to dispensationalists, this passage points to an eschatological battle at the end of the church age. But let’s pay attention to the wording of the passage:

ii) The battle is depicted in terms of ancient warfare, viz. archers, charioteers, bows, arrows, horses, cavalry, swords, bucklers, helmets, shields, armor, clubs, spears.

iii) The enemies are named after 7C BC kingdoms, people-groups, and political borders. Cf. Zondervan Illustrated Backgrounds Commentary (Zondervan 2009), 4:484-485.

iv) The socioeconomic setting envisions firewood, livestock, rural settlements (in contrast to fortified cities).

If, on the one hand, we think this prophecy will be fulfilled, at the earliest, in the 21C AD (or later), while, on the other hand, we think it “means what it says,” according to the “face-value” sense of the specific wording, then God must replicate the military hardware, political borders, and socioeconomic conditions of the 1st millennium BC. 

v) In my opinion, this is a clear case in which the future is envisioned, not in futuristic terms, but historic terms. Put another way, it projects present conditions into the future. By “present,” I mean the timeframe of the speaker and his immediate audience.

vi) But in that event, the reason that Ezekiel has cast the battle in terms of “Israel” and her enemies is because that’s part of the archaized depiction of the future. “Israel” is a placeholder for the people of God.

If a Bible writer is depicting the conflict between God’s people and their adversaries, and if he’s using imagery from the past to depict future events, then ancient “Israel” represents the people of God in this depiction, not because ancient Israel is the actual referent, but because those were the players at the time of writing. They fill in for whoever the actual people will be when the prophecy comes to pass.

The players change, but the play remains the same. Ezekiel is using ancient representatives because he’s referring to the future in archaic terms familiar to his immediate audience.

In that case, “Israel” is not a rigid designator for ethnic Jews, any more than “Sheba and Dedan and the merchants of Tarshish” will replicate their ancient counterparts. Rather, “Israel” is a stand-in for God’s people. It could just as well be Gentile Christians, or a combination of modern Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians.

In response to my objection, Henebury said:

The “ancient warfare” language could become up-to-date surprisingly quickly if, for some reason, there was no oil and electricity.  But I don’t know how it will all work itself out.  I just believe it shouldn’t be swept aside or spiritualized.  As I have said before, if Abraham had believed in typological interpretation he would not have taken Isaac up Mt. Moriah!
Even today Egypt is called Misr (derived from Mizriam) by the Egyptians themselves.  We still speak of Semitic peoples.  Some have studied the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10 and identified modern descendents of the names mentioned there.  Even more liberal scholars are prepared to see some correspondence between the names in Genesis 10 (which they say comes from two or more sources) modern counterparts.  It is not impossible, therefore, that these “pagan adversaries” are alive today.  Whether their respective kingdoms need to be resurrected is debatable.

In fairness to Henebury, he was responding to a less detailed version of my objection. But as I’ve illustrated, the setting of Ezk 38-39 is systematically archaic. That’s because different periods of history are distinctive and holistic. They have integrated political and socioeconomic systems. The political borders in one century aren’t the same as the political borders in another century. You have invasion and migration.

Ezk 38-39 isn’t like one of those dystopian science-fiction films where you can still see the Manhattan skyline looming in the distance even though the ragtag survivors have reverted to a more primitive lifestyle. Rather, the world of Ezk 38-39 is clearly the ancient Near East–not the modern Mideast.

So Henebury’s hermeneutic is quite unstable. Not consistently faithful to the actual wording and “face-value” meaning of the text. Rather, we have an ad hoc, piecemeal effort to retrofit the text to modernity. Or maybe I should say, retrofit the text to dispensational eschatology.


  1. "vi) But in that event, the reason that Ezekiel has cast the battle in terms of “Israel” and her enemies is because that’s part of the archaized depiction of the future. “Israel” is a placeholder for the people of God."

    Fascinating point. However, there are modern direct equivalents of the physical items in that passage (e.g., horses & chariots -> battle tanks), so a consistent rendering of the passage can be done without spiritualizing away the normal rendering of the text. There's no textual warrant provided for replacing any of them with something dramatically other than their logical modern equivalent.
    So, too, with the nations listed. Most-all of the nations named have modern equivalents, whether direction 1-for-1 or in a couple cases the geographic region of the ancient nation covers a couple states in modern times. And there is a very conspicuous nation in the same geographic region and identified with the same religio-ethnic people-group today as the nation of Israel of that time. To ignore the obvious corollaries and attempt to replace "Israel" with some generic "people of God" is a fine example of... some cliche or other.

  2. i) Even if that were true, that's not the "face-value" meaning of the passage.

    ii) And that's not "plain" to the first hearers.

    iii) Typology involves a controlled correspondence.

    iv) The implication of your argument is that modern counterparts substitute for ancient referents. You yourself are "replacing" one referent with some modern-day "equivalent". But that's typological.

    v) The ancient text isn't describing modern corollaries. So that's something outside the text which you must bring into the text.

  3. "The implication of your argument is that modern counterparts substitute for ancient referents. "

    No, the sum total of my point - what I'm actually saying - is that if someone is going to equate the ancient referents with modern counterparts, they must do so consistently. That's all.

    I wasn't arguing "face value" or anything else.

    God bless.

  4. You've shifted from identity to analogy. That the fulfillment will be analogous to the prophecy. Something that's merely analogous to "Israel," &c.