Day Three of “Through Advent with Isaiah”
What happens when we read?
How do we understand a text?
We are such a literate culture that we take reading for granted; we really don’t know what it is like to live without writing. However, having just moved to Greece over a year ago, I have a bit of a sense. While I already knew the Greek alphabet I was not sure of the pronunciation and long words took awhile to piece together. In a grocery store I sometimes went by pictures as much as anything. When I first tried to use a washing machine I was completely baffled.
One of the assumptions we make is that there is meaning in a text. Yet, a biblical text is just ink and paper (or ink and vellum, or 1s and 0s in a computer creating an image on a screen). The material of the book (iPad, Kindle, smart phone) is not conscious – it does not know what it says. Rather, it encodes sounds I make when I speak (or silently create in my mind as if speaking, and sits there, waiting for someone to decode it and sound it again. If the creator of a text and the reader of a text share the same language and culture, generally speaking the code works and a person receives some information. The meaning is recreated each time a person reads it.
So where does the meaning reside? If it is simply encoded in the text, one might say it is there – but it is merely potential, not active, not alive and doing anything. We might argue that it sits in the reader who decodes the passage and understands it. However, I’ve often found that if you ask two people to read a text they will come up with different readings. Does it sit with the author? Perhaps, but that assumes the author knew what she was doing. The writers of song lyrics are notorious for not saying what a song is about, and often will say that it has multiple meanings depending on who’s doing the listening.
Literary theory is all about understanding texts. However, there are many theories about how one should interpret a text.
- Some theorists believe that one should simply look at a text and pay attention to the words themselves and the rhetorical devices used in prose and poetry. This is called “close reading” and is associated with people like T. S. Eliot (as a critic, not as a poet).
- Others look at who the author is and ascribe great importance to authorial intention and background. The meaning of Eliot’s The Wasteland is illuminated by knowing that he was dealing with the breakdown of his marriage and his wife’s mental illness. Shakespeare’s Sonnets would be much clearer if we knew the identity of the Dark Lady, right?
- Still others look at a text in process. Thus, the finished text of The Wasteland is an edited version of a much longer poem. Ezra Pound did most of the editing – is he to be considered an author as well? Do his intentions and background inform our reading of the text? W. H. Auden was notorious for rewriting his poems; is one more authoritative than the other? There are three very different versions of Hamlet – is one of them more authoritative than the others? What is the relationship between them?
- A popular way of reading from a few generations ago was to apply a Marxian analysis, which is to say, to apply issues of class differences to understand what is happening. Thus, someone like Terry Eagleton would see literature as a place where a literary elite place value after the Enlightenment had dethroned religion and the divine right of monarchs; literature is the nearer of the new holy thing, culture. In a wealthy consumer society such as ours popular culture is raised up over the old elite literature, so that the music of the Beatles and Beyoncé is of greater importance than that of Ralph Vaugh Williams or Schumann.
- Others apply a post-colonial analysis to the text. Jane Austin, whose books never refer to current events, has nevertheless been analysed this way. Where does the wealth of an upper-middle class family such as Jane Bennet’s come from? Do Mr Bennet and Mr Darcy work? Given that the wealth of much of England in the Regency era came from the work of slaves on sugar plantations in the West Indies, and from the ruthless exploitation of India, does this change at all how we read the book Pride and Prejudice?
- Then, again, there is feminist analysis. We enjoy the novels of manners that Austen writes, but as we are 21st century readers we know that the situation of the women and men in those novels is very different from that of today. Given that, what is the significance of such texts for us? Are they merely entertainment, or are they more than that?
- Others look at a text in relation to other texts, perhaps by other authors. The Wateland is a poem, but Eliot read James Joyce’s Ulysses and seems to have incorporated some of his styles in the poem. Cinema Show by the prog rock group Genesis is lifted right out of The Wasteland – what is the effect of this kind of transformation?
There are, you may be dismayed to know, even more approaches to interpretation than this. One might think that all of this is irrelevant to our ordinary lives, except that the study of interpretation – hermeneutics – is crucial in both law and Bible Studies.
In our common law tradition jurisprudence is the interpretation of statutes and precedent. In the United States many constitutional lawyers and judges subscribe to the idea that the Constitution or a law means what its original authors intended it to mean; if a judge establishes a precedent that seems to suggest that the Constitution evolves in any way other than constitutional amendment, or a law changes in any way other than by passing a statute in a legislature, then this is just judicial activism. Thus they object to the idea that same-sex marriage is somehow enshrined in the Bill of Rights, as the Framers would have been aghast at the idea.
In Canada we have what is called the Living Tree Doctrine of constitutional law. The Supreme Court of Canada has stated, referring to an originalist approach as “frozen concepts”:
The “frozen concepts” reasoning runs contrary to one of the most fundamental principles of Canadian constitutional interpretation: that our Constitution is a living tree which, by way of progressive interpretation, accommodates and addresses the realities of modern life.
These two approaches are incompatible. Which one do we choose, without our biases for particular outcomes getting in the way?
All of these issues show up in Biblical reading as well. Where is the authoritative reading of scripture? Is it in the work of biblical scholars using historico-critical methods? Is it found by ferreting out the author’s intention? Do we assume there is non-contradiction in the various texts of the Bible, and any apparent conflicts are just willful ignorance? Do we assume a “plain reading” of scripture, or do we use analogy and typology to get into the deeper meaning? If it appears that there are different sources in a text, as in, say, the Torah, where we might discern a Priestly author (P), the Yahvist (J), the Elohist (E), and the Deuteronomist (D), do we first need to fragment the texts and discern the author’s various theologies before trying to make sense of the whole? Or do we take the text as it is? How do we decide from the many ancient manuscripts and all their differences what the best text is?
My own belief is that we need to consider all of this. Every time I read a text I recreate it. Every time I re-read a text I recreate it anew, for I am a different person from the one who may have read this two years ago, and thirty years ago. I may even have been changed by the reading of a text, which means that I read other things differently in light of that text. I will probably talk more about this later.
In Evening Prayer this Tuesday after the First Sunday of Advent we read this passage from Isaiah 43.1-13:
43But now thus says Yahweh,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am Yahweh your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’
8 Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
9 Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’
10 You are my witnesses, says Yahweh,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
11 I, I am Yahweh,
and besides me there is no saviour.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says Yahweh.
13 I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?
A few observations.
First, this is poetry. Biblical Hebrew poetry is usually pretty obvious, as it is typically grammatically different from prose. As well, it has that parallelism that we see so often in the Psalms, where an idea is stated in the first part of a verse and it is then repeated or expanded in different words in the second (and sometimes third) part. Hebrew poetry does not rhyme and it does not have a set meter – at best it has a rhythm with similar beats or emphasis. Walt Whitman borrowed this style in Leaves of Grass.
Second, just to point out the obvious, this is a translation here, from the New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”). It is contemporary late-20th century English, not the early 17th century English of the King James Version (“KJV”), or the mid-twentieth century English of the Revised Standard Version (“RSV”). Biblical Hebrew has a smaller vocabulary than contemporary English, and so the translator has to make some choices when translating. Does she seek word for word equivalence? Does she try to get the sense of a phrase or a sentence without sticking too close to the actual wording? Are obscure metaphors replaced by things in the modern world that the translator thinks still convey the sense if not the literal meaning? In any case, unless one is competent in Biblical Hebrew, one must depend on translators and the scholarship behind their choices.
Third ,I have changed the text – I have replaced “the Lord” with what is there in the original Hebrew , the personal name of the God of Israel, to wit: יהוה or Yahweh. This is always a bit jarring. Since the first century BCE the personal name of God was considered so holy that pious Jews would not say it, but replace it in speech by Adonai, or “the Lord”. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanacj did this, and Jesus did as well, so Christians carried on with that practice. However, it is sometimes good to be jarred back to the 5th century BCE, when God did have a personal name and a personal relationship with a particular people.
Fourth, this is a passage about the redemption of Israel. The Twelve Tribes of Israel have been scattered by the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, as well as emigration by Israelites and Judeans from their inherited lands. Verses 5 through 7 speaks of an in-gathering of theses dispersed peoples – the Diaspora – back to the Holy Land. This hope, seemingly announced back in 538 BCE or later, was partially realized as Jews returned from Babylon to Judea, and as they rebuilt the Temple. The full nature of this pronouncement continued to be a dream for Jews for the next fifteen centuries, as they said at Passover, “Next year, in Jerusalem!” It drove Zionism in both its secular and religious forms, resulting in the establishment of the State of Israel by United Nations resolution in 1947. The power of these texts is great!
The first few verses speaks to Israel of their God as one who created them and who is with them through water and flame. For many Christians this will remind them of the middle verses of How Firm A Foundation:
3 “When through the deep waters I call you to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be with you, your troubles to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.
4 “When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie,
my grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply;
the flame shall not hurt you; I only design
your dross to consume and your gold to refine.
Fifth, the latter part of the reading speaks to the growing assertion of Yahweh as the only God. In older scripture Yahweh is no more and no less than the God of Israel, as Marduk was the god of Babylon and Ba’al the god of the Caananites. By the time this text was written down we find the assertion that Yahweh is the only God – there are no others. At one time humanity knew Yahweh as God, but in the course of time they turned away, became blind, and worshiped idols. Now, as the one and only God he is seen to be all powerful as he does his mighty acts, working through unwitting rulers such as Cyrus, and brings the exiles home. If we retain the name of Yahweh here – as The Jerusalem Bible does, we have a sense of how this would have been jarring back at the turn of the fifth century BCE.
It is striking to see the vision of the author here, where all the nations become witnesses to Yahweh as he claims to be the only God, and not just the God of Israel or Judea. This passage of Isaiah raises the stakes.