The Malleable Nature of Scripture is ScripturalBy: Bored in Vernal
Any Mormon worth his salt knows that scripture is meant to be “likened” unto ourselves. Latter-day Saints from Joseph Smith to the most recently-called missionary have cheerfully wrested scriptures from their context and misapplied the prophecies to their own lives. One might be tempted to urge caution when so doing, but with this Sunday School lesson I am going to throw that caution to the winds.
The Book of Ezra recounts the story of Cyrus, king of Persia and patron of the Jews. This king’s decree that the Jews are to be allowed to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple is in fulfillment of prophecies made by Jeremiah and Isaiah. Our lesson explains that a passage of scripture written 150 years before his birth spoke to Cyrus personally and mentioned him by name:
Why did Cyrus decree that a temple should be built again in Jerusalem? (See Ezra 1:1–2.) How did Cyrus know the Lord wanted him to do this? The words of Cyrus that are recorded in Ezra 1:2 refer to a prophecy in Isaiah 44:28 that mentioned Cyrus by name (see also Isaiah 45:1–5; explain that although the story of Cyrus comes before the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, Isaiah lived about 150 years before Cyrus was born). The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported that Cyrus read his name in Isaiah’s prophecies, was touched by the Spirit of the Lord, and desired to fulfill what was written.
The student is asked:
How would you feel if you were reading the scriptures and read a prophecy that gave your name and described specific things you would do?
Have you ever been reading the scriptures and felt that a particular passage spoke directly to you? (Invite class members to share their experiences.) How have the scriptures helped provide direction specifically for your life?
As you exercise this principle, you need not worry about the scripture’s original historical intent – to misapply scriptures is biblically sanctioned, as I will demonstrate.
A common method of interpretation in Second-Temple Judaism was Pesher interpretation. Using this method, a teacher would take a biblical text which may have originally applied to one group of people or circumstances and apply it to another. Sometimes great leaps of logic may even have been required to make the text “fit.” A prime example of this was found in the Dead Sea Scroll Pesher Habbukkuk. This scroll included most of the text of Habbukkuk with an interpretation applying it to contemporary individuals and events in the Qumran community. Decontextualization (the isolation of the biblical verse from its immediate context), the use of variant readings and assigning multiple meanings to words are all evident in this pesher.
The New Testament is also somewhat egregious in its application of biblical prophecy to contemporary event.
For example, In Isa 7:14 Isaiah says to Ahaz that God would give him a sign: the virgin (MT: ha-almah, or young woman) will give birth to a son, and will call his name Emmanuel; before that child knows the difference between right and wrong the two kings that Ahaz fears will no longer be a threat to him. The author of Matthew finds a further meaning for this passage: It is predictive of the virgin birth of Jesus, who is born of a “virgin” (parthenos) and is named appropriately Emmanuel, “God with us.” In other words, he interprets Isa 7:14 in pesher fashion, finding a second, eschatological meaning for this text.
Jesus himself gives an important reinterpretation when he reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue at Capernaum, sits down, and then proclaims, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In the original context, the one speaking in Isa 61:1-2 is the prophet, but, apparently, the fact that Isa 61:1 says that, “The Lord has anointed me” allows Jesus to conclude actually it is the Messiah who is speaking. Jesus interprets this text messianically and then claims implicitly to be the Messiah because he has been doing what is described in Isaiah 61.
The early Nephite prophets often applied Old Testament prophecy to their own people, using the word liken for their practice of applying parallels rather than strict historical context to the passages. Just as the writers of the Qumran scrolls, early Book of Mormon prophets displayed an awareness of the larger meaning of prophecy and its narrower application to their own “branch.” Nephi, who quoted more chapters of Isaiah than any Book of Mormon personality, announced: “I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah, for I did liken all scriptures unto us” (1 Nephi 19:23). An example of Nephi’s “likening” brought together several passages from the Pentateuch and Isaiah on the subject of the Messiah’s mission and the latter-day gathering, insisting that “it meaneth us in the days to come, and also all our brethren who are of the house of Israel” (1 Nephi 22:6).
Indeed, there is plenty of precedent throughout the ages to use the scriptures creatively to give insights upon our own lives and circumstances. This accords with the counsel of Dallin H. Oaks in this week’s lesson: