The Interpretation of the Bible -
The Interpretation of the Bible
The Hebrew Bible's Interpretation of Itself
Michael D. Coogan
Since the different books that make up the Bible were written and became authoritative at vari‐ous times, later books refer in various ways to earlier ones. From the beginning of this process, whenever the Bible or any section that eventu‐ally became part of the Bible was read or recited, it was interpreted. This is a natural process; no text can be read purely in the abstract, since we all bring our lives and experiences to the text and often attempt to bring the text closer to our lives. It is thus not surprising that according to Neh 8.8 , when sections of the biblical text were read to the postexilic community in the fifth century, “They read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Like any book, the Bible required interpretation. Since it was to them an authoritative book, the people needed to hear not only the text itself but also its correct interpretation because, like any literary work, the Bible is at some points ambiguous.
Since the covenant‐making ceremony men‐tioned above occurred in the fall, it was likely that one reading from the Torah would have been Lev 23.33–43 , which outlines the com‐memoration of the fall harvest festival of booths (Sukkot), beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (counting from Nisan, in the spring, not Tishri, in the fall). According to v. 40 , proper commemoration of the festival in‐cludes the following: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” This passage is ambiguous on at least two points: What should the worshipers do after they “take” these vari‐ous greens? What is meant by “the fruit of ma‐jestic trees” and “boughs of leafy trees,” which are interspersed with very specific tree names (“palm,” “willow”)?
The treatment of Lev 23.33–43 in the later passage in Neh. 8.14–15 shows how this postex‐ilic community interpreted the text of Leviticus, resolving these ambiguities: “And they found it written in the law [Heb torah], which the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the people of Is‐rael should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, ‘Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is writ‐ten.’” Thus, the term “take” from Lev 23.40 is interpreted in the context of the immediately fol‐lowing legislation (v. 42 )—“You shall live in booths for seven days”—to mean “take” for the construction of “booths.” Furthermore, the am‐biguous trees are specified as olive trees and myr‐tles. The way in which this later text clarifies how the earlier text should be understood is not at all remarkable: The types of branches to be used are clarified and, naturally enough, the broader context of the fall festival laws of Lev 23 is used to explicate the purpose for which these branches are taken.
The process of inner‐biblical interpretation, where we can see a later biblical text interpreting an earlier one, began early in the history of the development of the Bible. But it was certainly ac‐celerated by the canonization of the Torah (see the essay “The Canons of the Bible” on p. 453 ES and the Introduction to the Pentateuch, p. 3 HB ). It is especially obvious in Deuteronomy, which in both its legal and its narrative sections reuses and interprets earlier biblical traditions. One ex‐ample from each genre will illustrate the perva‐sive interpretive nature of Deuteronomy.
The law of a Hebrew slave is found in Ex 21.2–11 , the Covenant Collection, and in Deut 15.12–18 as part of the Deuteronomic Law Col‐lection. A quick glance indicates that these two texts are closely related and interdependent. Moreover, biblical scholarship has ascertained that the Deuteronomic Law Collection (D) is later than the Covenant Code (C). It is thus sig‐nificant that the words “without debt” from Ex 21.2 are missing in D's retelling of this law. In‐stead we find the following which, based on its placement and context, is most likely D's inter‐pretation of C's “without debt”: “And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty‐handed. Pro‐vide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you” (Deut 15.13–14 ). The Deuteronomist has naturally subsumed the text of C into his own intellectual‐theological frame‐work, which includes the idea that the under‐privileged must be looked after carefully. For the Deuteronomist, “without debt” could not be in‐terpreted literally and narrowly; instead it sug‐gested that the slave must be released with re‐sources to enable him to be self‐sufficient so that he will not immediately find himself in debt again; thus the slave must be provided for. While this is not an obvious interpretation of Exodus and is certainly not what the author of Exodus intended by the phrase, it offers a good example of how a word may be reinterpreted by a later writer to fit a later ideology.
In fact, this particular reinterpretation is mild when compared with other, more radical re‐workings of the earlier law in Deuteronomy. Take, for example, the insistence that the same law applies to both male and female slaves, in contrast to Ex 21.2–6,7–11 . Note that the ear‐piercing ceremony, which transpires if the slave opts to stay with the master, must take place at the owner's house (Deut 15.17 ), while Exodus suggests that it happens “before God,” namely at the local shrine (Ex 21.6 ). According to Deuteronomy, the local shrines were illegitimate, and worship was permitted only at the Jerusa‐lem Temple. This suggests that later writers, fac‐ing differing circumstances, did not always feel bound by the letter of earlier laws and could “in‐terpret” them into new laws which the earlier legislators would hardly have recognized.
These same tendencies may be seen in Deu‐teronomy's reinterpretation of earlier narratives. Both Ex 18 and Deut 1.9–18 narrate the estab‐lishment of a judicial system in ancient Israel so that Moses would not be responsible for all legal cases. The theme and vocabulary of the two sto‐ries are so similar that it is clear that Deuteron‐omy has created its story by “interpreting” Exo‐dus. Some of this interpretation is quite reasonable; for example, Deut 1.17 , “Any case that is too hard for you,” clarifies the somewhat ambiguous “every important [lit. “great”] case” of Ex 18.22 . However, the change of Ex 18.21 , “able men … who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” to Deut 1.13 , “individ‐uals who are wise, discerning, and reputable,” is not based on a straightforward interpretation of the earlier text. It is as if the author of this pas‐sage thought: Is it reasonable that righteousness in religious observance is the most important quality of judges? Surely not. Surely he meant “wise” when he said “men who fear God”! There are other cases of radical revision in this interpretive passage in Deut 1 . The Deuterono‐mist, for example, “ignores” the fact that this ju‐dicial system was set up at the instigation of Moses' father‐in‐law, and transfers the initiative to Moses. Like any reader, the Deuteronomist interprets the story within his own mental framework, even if this means that a “new” story quite distinct from the original is created.
The previous illustrations show how ambigu‐ities in texts are resolved, and how a text can be (consciously or unconsciously) removed from its original context and reinterpreted within the framework of the later reader's context. They reflect cases where the later biblical interpreters are simply acting as readers of texts, and these readings, though at points radical, have paral‐lels to the way contemporary readers might en‐gage secular works. As a composite canonical text, however, the Bible presents challenges of interpretation which are quite different from contemporary literary works. In particular, the Bible contains diverse legal traditions that are ultimately incorporated into a single work and thus somehow need to be read together or rec‐onciled. Additionally, particular parts of the Bible, especially from prophetic texts, present themselves as divine truths; when these seem not to have come true, they must be interpreted dif‐ferently.
A simple case where laws are contradictory occurs in the legislation concerning the cooking of the Passover lamb. Exodus 12.8–9 notes, “They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs.” Deuteronomy 16.7 , however, insists, “You shall boil it [NRSV “cook it” reflects an incorrect attempt at harmo‐nizing the various laws] and eat it at the place that the LORDyour God will choose.” These dif‐ferences are not at all surprising within a source‐critical model, which suggests that they reflect different practices of different groups of people at different times. But what are we to do when both texts enter the canonical Bible?
We are not the first to appreciate this problem; it was already felt, for example, in the postexilic book of Chronicles, for which the Torah (more or less in the form that we know it) was author‐itative. The Chronicler depicts the Passover cele‐bration under King Josiah (2 Chr 35.13 ): “They boiled the passover lamb with fire according to the ordinance” [a literal translation; NRSV is harmonistic and incorrect]. The Chronicler has thus reconciled the two traditions by choosing elements from both: The offering is “boiled,” following Deut 16.7 , but “with fire” reflects the “roasted over the fire” of Ex 12.8–9 . Through the brilliant (but problematic) expression “boiled … with fire,” the two variant authorita‐tive traditions are retained, and in some sense reconciled.
The manner in which various problematic prophecies are already interpreted within the Bible, so that they become true, is quite remark‐able. The clearest example of this is from one of the latest texts of the Hebrew Bible, Dan 9 . The background of this text is the prophecy in Jer 25.11 , which suggests that Babylon will be given dominion over the world for seventy years; Jer 29.10 builds upon that prophecy, sug‐gesting that after these seventy years are com‐pleted, Israel will be restored. This presented a serious problem for the author of Dan 9 , living during the reign of the (Seleucid) Greek king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who persecuted the Jews and forbade them to follow the most fun‐damental laws (see Introduction to Daniel). In this period, between 167 and 164 BCE, it seemed that Jeremiah's word, which claimed that a complete restoration would transpire, was false. But also by that time it is likely that Jeremiah was already considered a true prophet, whose book was canonical. How could this true prophet utter an oracle that was so patently and painfully false?
This explains why Daniel “intensively con‐sulted [NRSV “perceived in” is incorrect] the books concerning the number of years that, ac‐cording to the word of the LORD to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years” ( 9.2 ). Because Jeremiah's prophecy seemed not to be true, in‐tensive consultation was needed, so that the real meaning, the proper interpretation of the seem‐ingly unambiguous “seventy years” [Heb shib im shanah] could be deciphered. The angel Gabriel (v. 21 ) finally offers Daniel the correct interpretation (v. 24 ): “Seventy weeks [Heb shabu im shib im] are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.” The consonants of Jeremiah's shib im, seventy, are read twice, first as shabu im, “weeks,” then as expected, as shib im, “sev‐enty.” (In the period when Daniel was written, Hebrew used consonants only, so the same word could be pronounced, and understood as, two different words with different vowels.) The re‐sult of this intensive consultation is that Jere‐miah's seventy means seventy weeks of years: seventy times seven or four hundred and ninety years. Thus, Daniel updated the prophecy and gave Jeremiah a four‐hundred‐twenty‐year ex‐tension so that his prophecy could still be true.
The author has here engaged in what one scholar has called (in reference to similar rab‐binic texts) “creative philology,” reading and in‐terpreting words in a highly creative fashion. Here, as in later rabbinic texts, this is not frivolous but is done out of necessity, in order to maintain the status of Jeremiah and his prophe‐cies. Closely related to “creative philology” is “creative historiography,” where an interpreter rearranges or adds to earlier texts, thereby creat‐ing a fundamentally new historical tradition. This may be seen very often in Chronicles, which frequently and ingeniously rearranges or adds to its sources, typically the books of Samuel and Kings. A classic example of this type of interpre‐tation through “creative historiography” may be seen in 2 Chr 8.2 , which claims that “Solomon rebuilt the cities that Huram [a variant spelling of Hiram] had given to him, and settled the peo‐ple of Israel in them.” This is an imaginative re‐vision of 1 Kings 9.11–12 , which tells of cities that Solomon gave to Hiram! The Chronicler read his source within his own interpretive framework and theology, which included the no‐tion that the righteous Solomon could not possi‐bly give away cities from the holy land of Israel; 2 Chr 8.2 is an interpretive attempt to deal with this theological problem.
These examples illustrate how later biblical passages interpret earlier passages. Many other examples from almost every biblical book could be offered, including more subtle cases where the interpretation is accomplished through tex‐tual juxtaposition, or the interpretive tradition is not found in a separate text (like Chronicles), but has entered as a type of gloss in the original text that it is interpreting. The examples cited above are meant to illustrate the range of inner‐biblical interpretations; some are rather straight‐forward, clarifying ambiguities, while others are remarkably radical, transforming legal or narra‐tive traditions in a quite extreme fashion. Finally, when seen in combination with the fol‐lowing essay on the premodern Jewish interpretation of the Bible (pp. 478–484 ES ), these il‐lustrations highlight the continuity between inner‐biblical interpretation and early rabbinic interpretation. This continuity should not be surprising; not only are the two historically con‐tiguous, but both work within a canonical framework. As a result, both are beset by all the problems, as well as the opportunities, that the canonization of the Hebrew Bible presented.