Monday, October 13, 2014

Foresight and insight

This is related to some other recent posts of mine. Should NT commentators emulate apostolic exegesis? Did OT prophets understand what they were predicting? Did OT prophets really foresee the future? Do NT writers rip OT passages out of context? This also has some bearing on the current debate over christotelism. 
I. Hindsight
Although we tend to think of OT prophets as forward-looking, a basic function of OT prophets was to be backward-looking. They reminded OT Jews of their duties under the Mosaic covenant. They remind OT Jews of what God had done for his people in the past, especially the Exodus, but also guiding and guarding the patriarchs, providing for the Israelites in the wilderness, and protecting Israel from her enemies. 
By itself, hindsight doesn't require supernatural knowledge. It is, however, possible that just as Moses saw the tabernacle in a vision, which was the model for the earthly tabernacle, so the early chapters of Genesis were based on direct visionary revelation. 
II. Foresight and insight
i) We most associate prophets with inspired foresight, in part because that's clearly supernatural. In that regard it's important to distinguish between foresight and insight. These can be combined or be separated. Revelatory dreams are a good example. 
ii) Take Joseph's two related dreams (Gen 37:5-11). These are predictive dreams. However, Joseph didn't know how they'd be fulfilled. He had to discover how they'd be fulfilled by experience. The dream was prospective, but his understanding was retrospective. The correct interpretation was based on the context of fulfillment.
In what sense did Joseph understand the dream? He could describe what he saw. The dream used recognizable images. And he caught the drift of its allegorical import. His father and brothers would be subordinate to him. But he was in the dark regarding what, precisely, was the literal counterpart to the allegory. What would be the concrete circumstances?
iii) Take the dreams of the baker and cupbearer (Gen 40). In this case, Joseph was not the dreamer, but the interpreter. In this situation he was given insight rather than foresight. 
Their dreams are predictive. However, a dreamer wouldn't necessarily know that a dream was predictive ahead of time. Absent inspired interpretation, for all he knows it might just be an ordinary dream. It's only if and when the dream comes true that its predictive nature becomes evident. 
The baker and cupbearer seemed to think their dreams were predictive. That might be because they were naturally nervous about their fate. They'd fallen out of favor with Pharaoh. Would they be restored or executed? Were these dreams an omen? 
In fact, they were right to sense that their dreams were predictive. However, there's nothing in the dreams themselves that contains unmistakably predictive clues. And, of course, the allegorical nature of the dreams compounded the ambiguity. That's why they required interpretation. 
If, by contrast, a revelatory dream or vision employs literal, representational imagery, then that simplifies the interpretation. And that makes it clearer at the outset if the revelation is predictive. 
iv) Then you have Pharaoh's two related dreams (Gen 41). Once again, these are predictive, allegorical dreams. Considered in isolation, the dreams aren't clearly predictive. Of course, with the passage of time, their predictive nature would become evident. 
So there are two ways of knowing whether a dream is predictive. You can find out after the fact. Wait and see. But to know that in advance requires inspired interpretation. 
v) Then you have the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2; 4). One pressing issue in dream interpretation is whether the interpreter has any actual insight. Or does he just pretend to be insightful? How can you tell if his interpretation is correct? 
Nebuchadnezzar is shrewd in that respect. He has a simple test. Instead of telling the interpreter what he dreamt, he requires the interpreter to tell him what he dreamt. Obviously, that's not something an interpreter can fake. He can't do that unless he has supernatural knowledge. That, in turn, corroborates his interpretation. If he has the supernatural ability to recount what the dreamer dreamt, then he presumably has the supernatural ability to explain what it signifies. Nebuchadnezzar's tactic is a way of smoking out the charlatans. 
vi) In principle, God can give a prophet foresight without insight, insight without foresight, or give him both. God can give a prophet advance knowledge. The prophet knows what he saw, and what he saw is a future event. In that sense, the prophet knows the future.
Yet a prophet may or may not understand what he saw. That depends, in part, on whether God gave him the interpretation of what he saw. In some biblical visions there's an interpreting angel. The seer asks the angel questions, and the angel explains the imagery. 
He's able to grasp what he sees in the sense that he can describe it. The imagery is familiar. But he may not know what it represents–assuming it uses symbolic imagery. If it uses prosaic imagery, then what it points to may be self-explanatory. 
In principle, the relationship between OT prophecy and NT interpretation might be the relation between foresight and insight. A distinction between advance knowledge and interpretation.
I'm not claiming that's the norm. I just use that as a limiting case. Even within the OT, you have that distinction. Therefore, if you had that distinction between the OT and the NT, that wouldn't be a new distinction. Rather, that would be a preexisting principle. Something already in play in OT times. 

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