The Malleable Nature of Scripture is Scriptural

by: Bored in Vernal

December 5, 2010

OT SS Lesson #47

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?

and further:

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:

“We may … find that a specific verse of scripture that was spoken for quite a different purpose in an entirely different age will, under the interpretive influence of the Holy Ghost, give us a very personal message adapted to our personal needs today. … If we seek to liken the scriptures to our own circumstances, ‘that it might be for our profit and learning’ (1 Nephi 19:23), a loving Father in heaven can use them to bless us in highly individual ways.”

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5 Responses to The Malleable Nature of Scripture is Scriptural

  1. Troth Everyman on December 5, 2010 at 7:42 AM

    Nice point about individualizing and applying scripture. This post has my mind wandering this morning.

    You equate individualizing scripture with wresting scripture. But if wresting is scripturally sanctioned why do we have conflicting scripture on the topic? For instance there are scriptures which tell us not to “add to or take away” and not to “wrest them (scripture) to your destruction”. On the flip side we are also told to “liken them unto ourselves”. Perhaps “wresting” and “likening” are two separate concepts? If so, how would you define them differently? and how would you know when you were likening and when you were wresting?

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  2. Bored in Vernal on December 5, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    Good catch, TE, this post is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but you’ve hit on exactly what bothers me a bit about likening. Where, exactly, do we draw the line between adapting scripture to our personal needs and wresting it out of all recognition? I realized, as I learned about pesharim and some of the application of OT prophecy in the NT that we can go pretty far in bending scripture around to suit our needs. Perhaps we enter the danger zone when we use scripture to justify evil intention, rather than to learn or expand our minds?

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  3. Latter-day Guy on December 5, 2010 at 1:30 PM

    Fascinating stuff, BiV. However, I think it’s still important to do whatever we can to discover the meaning of the text to “them, there, then,” before trying to tease out (or construct) a meaning for “us, here, now.” I imagine without some kind of grounding in the text itself, it is too easy to fabricate personal interpretations of doubtful worth.

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  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 5, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    That is exactly what I meant, though, by stating that all scripture is proof text.

    I really feel that scripture is malleable and exists to allow God to communicate to us, rather than freezing a meaning in place.

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  5. Badger on December 5, 2010 at 4:11 PM

    It’s a little frustrating to me to see a bare assertion that Isaiah 44:28 dates was written 150 years before Cyrus. There are excellent reasons to think otherwise. The institutional church and probably most individual Mormons are nevertheless prevented from accepting that conclusion because of the extensive “Deutero-Isaiah” quotations in the Book of Mormon, attributed to records in already existence by 600BC.

    Still, a later date for the portion of Isaiah starting at chapter 40 is not, as is sometimes alleged, purely the result of worldly prejudice against the very idea of prophetic predictions. I think this non-LDS Christian view is somewhat relevant here:

    It accepts later authorship for Isaiah 40-on, and from it makes argues that Book of Isaiah itself embodies an application of prophetic statements from one era to another. I think it also shows how the text itself suggests later authorship, if not looked at only through a peephole a few verses wide.

    For better or worse, ideas of this kind do not appear in current lesson manuals. This particular instance is probably especially unwelcome because of the Book of Mormon issue. Even so, the way the Cyrus passages are characterized seems anti-educational, and I don’t care for it.

    This LDS apologetic link on Isaiah may be of interest as a point of reference:

    This is not a purely LDS point of view. It is also held by many non-LDS Christians, minus the Book of Mormon aspect. Just between us, I have a little difficulty understanding their degree of zeal in rejecting multiple authorship without the Book of Mormon, but it is clearly very important to them.

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