Monday, October 09, 2017

In retrospect

To understand the Spirit of the Lord in the OT it is first necessary to recognize that the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit (as a distinct person of the Trinity) is due to progressive revelation and is not exactly how the Israelites would have viewed the Spirit of the Lord, in the Old Testament, and especially in the book of Judges, the Spirit of the Lord is portrayed as an extension of the presence, power, and authority of Yahweh. 

While some scholars have identified the appearances of the angel of the Lord as theophanies or Christophanies in which God (or the Second Person of the Trinity) himself is revealed, there are a number of problems with such a view. First, the Christophany view forces NT theology onto earlier OT texts, which violates the concept of progressive revelation and makes exegesis secondary to theology. Second, the Christophany view dilutes the uniqueness of of the incarnation event and undercuts the teaching of Heb 1, which reveals Christ's superiority over the angels (cf. 1 Pet 3:22). Third, both views ignore what is now widely known from ancient Near Eastern practices that envoys, who were sent by kings or deities, functioned as authoritative mouthpieces for their superior. Like a prophet, who occasionally shares the same title (malak, see Hab 1:13; cf. 2 Chron 36:15-16; Isa 42:19; 44:26; Mal 1:1; 3:1), the messenger would often speak the words of his sender in the first person, and the recipients would respond to it as though they were dealing directly with the sender. Thus is it preferable to understand the angel of the Lord not as an ontological equivalent to God himself (e.g. note how the Lord is distinguished from the angel in Judg 6:21-23 and 13:16) but rather as a function that is filled by a human or angelic intermediary who is sent by God to speak and act on his behalf. K. Way, Judges and Ruth (Baker 2016), 30,79.

This raises some perennial issues in hermeneutics. I've discussed the general issue on many occasions, but now I'd like to approach it from different angles:

1. The first time you see a movie or read a novel, or read a history book (assuming you don't know the plot), you're in the same situation as the characters or participants. Like theirs, your viewpoint is prospective. You don't know what to expect. You don't know how things will turn out.

When, however, you see a movie or read a novel for a second time, your viewpoint is retrospective. Because you now know how the story ends, you bring that later insight into how you interpret the earlier action. The first-time perspective is unique and unrepeatable. 

There are, in fact, some people who only see a move once or read a novel once because, having lost the element of surprise, they lose interest. But that's pretty shallow. 

2. Take some concrete examples. If you're reading Gen 2-3 for the first time, you share the blinkered viewpoint of Eve. You don't know what the serpent is up to. 

But on a second reading, the scene has dramatic ironic because you now know something Eve doesn't. She's oblivious to her peril. This conversation will lead to expulsion from paradise. There's a particular suspense in seeing that someone is in danger when they themselves are oblivious to the danger they are in. Alfred Hitchcock used the example of having viewers see a man put a time bomb in a box, and put the box under a table. The audience knows when the bomb will go off. People sitting at the table have no idea.

Or take the scene of David viewing Bathsheba's bathe. On a second reading, you don't view that incident in isolation. Rather, you know that this will set in motion a disastrous chain reaction. You know far more about the consequences of David's fateful lust that he knew at the time. You know where it all leads, like falling dominoes. 

Consider the curse sanctions in Deuteronomy. Reading them in hindsight, which is, of necessity, what all of us do, is a different experience than hearing the warnings for the first time, in advance of the Babylonian exile and Assyrian deportation. We can't really forget what we know. What was future for them is past for us. We inevitably read those dire warnings with a sense of fatalism, not in the que sera sera sense, but because we know what happened and how it happened. 

Or take a thriller in which the behavior of one character is initially puzzling and intriguing. As the plot unfolds, it turns out that he is a spy. That explains his enigmatic behavior early on. It's not as if, upon each rereading, we should try to forget the plot. That's not something we can do, even if we tried.

3. In general, there's nothing exceptional about bringing later information to bear when we interpret a story. That isn't unique to how some Christians read the Bible. To the contrary, that's how we read stories generally. 

4. To be sure, we need to guard against anachronistic interpretations of a certain kind. This in part raises the question of whether the viewpoint of a particular audience supplies an interpretive frame of reference, and if so, what audience would that be? Is it the original audience? Or is it the canonical audience? Compare an OT Jew who only had the Pentateuch–with post-exilic Jews (e.g. Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah, Malachi, the Chronicler). They read the Pentateuch, not as a self-contained literary unit, but in light of Israel's evolving history as well as Israel's evolving canon. They are able to see a trajectory leading out of the Pentateuch. Is that a misguided perspective? How can they not read the Pentateuch in light of subsequent historical and canonical developments? That's well before we ever get to the NT. 

5. If the Spirit of God is same individual in the OT and the NT, if the OT successful refers to the same individual, if the Spirit of God is a distinct person of the Trinity, then he will have the same attributes across time (indeed, across possible worlds) even if our knowledge of the Spirit is progressively revealed. Like my example of the spy in the thriller. He was already a spy when the story began. His true identity only became apparent in the subsequent course of events, yet even though other characters were ignorant of his true identity, the reader is privy to something they don't know. 

Suppose oil reserves are discovered on a parcel of land in 1950. Although that's the first time the property was known to have oil reserves, the land had those reserves for thousands or millions of years. That was already true about the land, in the distant past. 

6. To take a different example, Abraham is the ancestor of David. Of course, you wouldn't know that if all you had to go by was Genesis or the Pentateuch. But suppose you're a Jew living at the time Samuel was written. So you have everything up to and including Samuel as your canonical frame of reference. That will shed a backward casting light on Abraham in Genesis. On God's plans for Abraham and his posterity. On the historical significance of his covenant with Abraham.

7. My maternal grandfather is one of my ancestors. He died before I was born. At what point did he become my ancestor? There are different ways to answer that question. You might say he became my ancestor when I was conceived. But given my existence, he was always going to be my ancestor.

Suppose you were alive when he was alive. Suppose you had foreknowledge of his progeny. You'd already view him in the larger context of his descendants. 

Or, to consider this from yet another angle, if my mother is my ancestor, and her father is her ancestor, then he became my ancestor when she was conceived. The ancestor of my ancestor is my ancestor. I can view his ancestorship retroactively. 

8. Over and above the general hermeneutical issue of progressive revelation in reference to the angel of the Lord:

i) What's the difference between a theophany and a Christophany? In my opinion, the OT usually refers to "God" or "Yahweh" without further Trinitarian specification. By the same token, the angel of the Lord doesn't necessarily represent out any particular person of the Godhead. It could just be generic. 

If so, there's a sense in which a theophany will include a Christophany, just as the Trinity includes the Son. Although a theophany doesn't single out the Son, the Son will be included in a theophany. In that respect, there's a false dichotomy between theophanies and Christophanies, for a Christophany is a subset of a theophany. 

ii) An OT Christophany wouldn't dilutes the uniqueness of of the incarnation event for the obvious reason that an OT Christophany isn't an OT incarnation. It's categorically distinct.

iii) An OT Christophany wouldn't undercut the teaching of Heb 1, which reveals Christ's superiority over the angels, for the obvious reason that, on a Christophanic identification, the Angel of the Lord isn't an "angel" in the sense of heavenly, discarnate creatures, but God manifesting himself by simulating an angel.

iv) Some apparitions of the angel of the Lord are neutral on whether that's a theophany or angelophany, but in other cases (e.g. Gen 18; Exod 3), it doesn't have the same status as a creaturely envoy, like a prophet of God.   


  1. The only significant theological difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the trinity or in the incarnation but in Christianity’s revival of the notion of a dying and rising God, a category ancient Israel clearly rejects. 62 – Benjamin D. Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel, p. 135-136

    All those "angel of the Lord" and Daniel 7 etc texts were interpreted by a lot of Jews to mean "two powers in heaven".

    Think of it like Roman Catholicism after Trent repudiating stuff in its past that was supportive of the Reformation. Jews did similar stuff.

    So given that this quote

    //Thus is it preferable to understand the angel of the Lord not as an ontological equivalent to God himself (e.g. note how the Lord is distinguished from the angel in Judg 6:21-23 and 13:16) but rather as a function that is filled by a human or angelic intermediary who is sent by God to speak and act on his behalf.//

    strikes me as exceptionally bad reasoning.

    1. As I quoted in one of my blogs,

      Sommers wrote in his book, "The Bodies of God":

      "“Some Jews regard Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion with grave suspicion, both because of the doctrine of the trinity (how can three equal one?) and because of Christianity’s core belief that God took bodily form. . . . No Jew sensitive to Judaism’s own classical sources, however, can fault the theological model Christianity employs when it avows belief in a God who has an earthly body as well as a Holy Spirit and a heavenly manifestation, for that model, we have seen, is a perfectly Jewish one. A religion whose scripture contains the fluidity traditions [referring to God appearing in bodily form in the Tanakh], whose teachings emphasize the multiplicity of the shekhinah, and whose thinkers speak of the sephirot does not differ in its theological essentials from a religion that adores the triune God.”"-
      Dr. Benjamin Sommer, a professor in Bible and ancient Near Eastern languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary