Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 3

One of the more interesting aspects of Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation is when Martin takes up the issue of how the biblical writers interpret Scripture. Specifically, Martin closely examines the way Paul interprets and uses Scripture.

Let's take a look, as Martin does, at Paul's use of Scripture in Galatians 4.

Paul is writing to gentile Christians and has a big point to make. It is this: Righteousness does not come from Torah observance ("The Law"), it comes through the faith in/of Jesus Christ.

So, how does Paul use Scripture to make this point?

Well, interestingly, he doesn't start with Scripture. Paul's first real appeal to Scripture in the book comes late, in 3.6 ("Just as Abraham believed God..."). Before 3.6 Paul leads with appeals to experience, logic, personal testimony, and emotion. Even in Chapter 3, before the appeal to Scripture in verse 6, Paul leads off with an appeal to experience:

Galatians 3.1-5
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. Would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

As Martin comments (p. 152, italics in original), "...Paul begins invoking Scripture only after appealing to several other kinds of arguments and 'sources' of knowledge including his own and the Galatians' experiences." (I would also note that this very same pattern is also seen in Acts 15: Experience leads and Scripture comes later. From that point, Scripture and experience are harmonized: See Acts 15.15).

After his first appeal to Scripture in 3.6, which is worthy of analysis in its own right, Paul makes a second appeal in Chapter 4:

Galatians 4.21-31
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.

These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:

"Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labor pains;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband."

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

In this passage Paul uses Scripture--the story of Hagar and Sarah--to craft an analogy about law/slavery and promise/freedom. For our purposes we will focus less on the point of Paul's analogy and more on how Paul uses Scripture to make that point.

First, Paul explicitly states that Scripture is speaking to us figuratively and allegorically. As Martin points out (p. 153) Paul isn't saying his method is allegorical but that Scripture is speaking in allegory, a much deeper claim. At this point we might revisit the issue of authorial intention from the last post. That is, it is doubtful that Paul cares about the authorial intentions of the Genesis writer because it is doubtful that the Genesis writer knew at the time that he was writing an allegory about the Jews and the Gentiles and their relationship to Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, we are immediately taken aback by Paul's method of reading.

And Paul's reading grows more curious. He starts obviously enough: Sarah represents promise/freedom and Hagar represents law/salvery. But then, in an unusual move, he states that Hagar, the historical mother of the non-Jews, is actually representative of the Jews. Conversely, Sarah, the historical mother of the Jews, is actually the mother of the non-Jews.

Again, there is no way the Genesis writer had this meaning in mind. Further, no one until Paul would have even considered reading the story in this way. The women just don't match up with who they are supposed to match up with.

It gets more strange. Paul goes on to say that Hagar is Mount Sinai. Again, where does he get this? To quote from the note in my study bible: "The equation of Hagar with Mount Sinai has no basis in the Genesis story."

Although I'm quibbling, we do see what Paul is trying to do: He's trying to get the symbol of slavery--Hagar--aligned with the Law/Sinai, Jerusalem, and the Jews. This frees Sarah up, as the mother of promise, to align with the Gentiles and a Jerusalem from "above."

In the end, Paul's analogy is well taken. But what is shocking, even disturbing by some accounts, is his use of Scripture.

The question Martin asks us, and I think it is a legitimate one, is this: Is Paul's use of Scripture a model for us? Can we use Scripture the way Paul did?

Martin thinks we can and he cites Richard Hays' analysis from Hays' book Echos of Scripture in Early Paul. From Echos:

"Paul's readings of Scripture are not constrained by a historical scrupulousness about the original meaning of the text...True interpretation depends neither on historical inquiry nor on erudite literary analysis but on attentiveness to the promptings of the Spirit, who reveals the gospel through Scripture in surprising ways. In such interpretations, there is an element of playfulness, but the freedom of intertextual play is grounded in a secure sense of the continuity of God's grace..."

So, another round of discussion questions to carry over from the last post:

1.) Should this creative element of "playfulness" in reading Scripture be allowed and encouraged?

2.) Should Paul's use of Scripture be taken as a model for church? If so, what would this look like? If not, why not?

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20 thoughts on “Sex and the Single Savior: On Reading the Biblical Text, Part 3”

  1. "playfulness" is great and we should definitely encourage it. It is certainly "a" model for the church, though not the only. Here are some thoughts:

    We have nothing to fear.

    If we trust the Holy Spirit and the community of discernment, bad readings will be seen for being bad readings and ignored. Good readings will be fruitful and stick around.

    Good "playful" readings will tend to come from people, like Paul, who are formed in Scripture and so their thoughts are shaped by it.

  2. I guess it's like art or music. You can't improvise until you know your basics. Maybe that is another metaphor: Improvisation. Riffing off the text.

    And that brings me back to a recurring hunch of mine: It all boils down to aesthetics.

    That is, was we hear these riffs, like listening to any musician, we come away with an aesthetic judgment of quality. Perhaps that is the role of the reading community, to provide an overall decision about the "beauty" of the reading.

  3. I agree with the idea of encouraging playfulness with scripture, but I think its unfair to pit that against an historical-critical method of reading scripture.

    First, I've gained a lot of insight from reading scripture BOTH ways, and I don't see any compelling reason to give up either. Surely Martin is not suggesting that Paul made his remarks in ignorance of the actual, original historical context and theological intent, is he?

    Second, and - Richard - you may be trying to say this in your comment - achieving a certain level of competence in a more historical-critical reading can actually help our "playful" readings to be more vibrant and fresh.

  4. Playfulness is suggested by post-modern literary approaches.

    In an apparently closed system of meaning like language, playfulness can expose the cracks in that system - in the interstices between blocks of meaning; the slippage between signifier and signified - and thus question the system's validity. This is the deconstructive post-modern project. Any yet we should not forget the (relatively!) constructive possibilities that come through this approach. Through such cracks in the system there is a chance for some rays of uncreated light to peek through: a kind of theophany, Mt Tabor-style.

    Thus playing becomes a totally serious activity of the first importance, which any dedicated sports fan could tell you already.


  5. I also think Rick made a good point in the comments to the last post. Christians may want to study more closely Jewish readings of Scripture. I've been intrigued by the midrashic approaches and what they bring to the table. But I have yet to see any Christian applications of that style or use of the Jewish midrash in Christian theology.

  6. I should also note that I missed in this post another interesting point that Martin makes. After setting out his allegory, Paul appeals to the experience of of the gentiles (specifically their experience as being persecuted by the Judaizers) to validate his allegory.

    That is, the experience of the church makes Paul's reading work, aligning the gentiles with Sarah. More concretely, the experience of being persecuted allowed the church to read themselves into the role of persecuted persons in the bible.

    If used widely, this would be an eye-opening way of reading the bible.

  7. Richard,

    Finally, the conceptual jazzman comes out: "I guess it's like art or music. ...Riffing off the text."

    But I guess I'd add that no one has stressed the importance of competence and talent--not everyone should be encouraged to play jazz or write novels, and certainly not everyone should be encouraged to riff off the text of Scripture...

    Anyone recall Festus' remark about Paul, as he spoke to King Agrippa in Acts 26? "Too much learning is driving you insane!" And how about Agrippa to Paul: "Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?" (This instance of Paul trying to convert the King while he is on trial I find as amusing as Socrates asking to be feted in the town hall as his "punishment" in The Apology.) I think Paul is a prime example of James' conclusion in The Varieties: that a person's overbeliefs are the most important and interesting things about her or him. So here's my take on whether we should encourage a playful use of Scripture (and whether Paul should be taken as a model for church): Does the person making playful use of scripture have something important and interesting to add?

    BTW: Isn't that pretty much the way it already is--those who have the most important and interesting things to say generally get listened to? Hang in there, Richard, I have faith in the process!


  8. Keith DeRose had an interesting post a while back on how scripture and reason (and a variety of other senses) should operate.

    Worth taking a look at:

  9. "Should this creative element of "playfulness" in reading Scripture be allowed and encouraged?"

    Well absolutely NOT!

    Obviously, Paul didn't come up with this metaphor out of his head ... *God* told him that this was what the story of Sarah and Hagar really meant. And we are clearly not as inspired by the holy spirit as Paul was -- healed anyone lately? -- so we can't say the same sorts of things.

    So there!

  10. Matthew does make an interesting point on who should be allowed to use this playfulness. I think his point is one that a lot of evangelicals (and individuals from other more conservative traditions) would have, that playfulness is reserved for those in intimate communion, and perhaps only those from scripture. Similarly, a point raised earlier is that the 'right' to playfulness (or the right to riff) comes with a certain historical-critical methodological ability, a point I would imagine that would be made by a lot of more liberal denominations. Both perspectives are looking for a foundation to garner plausible interpretations, even if those are interpretations generated through playfulness.

  11. Later in Martin's book (and I'll also post about this) the issue of a "discerning community" will come into play. That is, a reading of text will need to be critiqued and sifted by the community.

    But I agree with Martin that this communal move, a very popular move nowadays, is lacking something. Communities can endorse evil readings of the Bible. So community is not a cure. Martin argues that love is really the only way to assess a reading, it is really the only hermeneutic we can use: Does the reading promote or inhibit love? That's the best we can do in his opinion. And I'm prone to agree with him.

    Here is a way the two--community and love--might be fused: There are two communities that affirm the reading of Scripture: The faith community and the community of all humanity.

    This is, I think, the vision of liberal theology, the mediation between, via reciprocal rounds of prophecy and critique, the faith community who lives out their reading of Scripture and the World who must suffer the effects of that reading.

  12. "Here is a way the two--community and love--might be fused: There are two communities that affirm the reading of Scripture: The faith community and the community of all humanity."

    I was going to make another obnoxious foundationalist comment, like "how can we be loving people if we don't tell them they're going to hell because they're gay?" ... but I just like that description too much to derail it.

    In this model, a faith community critiques its own readings, but it also remains open to criticism from the outside world. The faith community answers questions of "plausibility" regarding whether a reading corresponds to their shared understanding of what the language of the text means (and other complicated twists of worldview), but the larger human community is also allowed to point out that a particular reading ... well ... hurts people, and might not be what a good God intended.

    Sounds helpful. I like it. You should do an entire post on just that idea.

  13. ...but the larger human community is also allowed to point out that a particular reading ... well ... hurts people.

    Yeah, that's the idea. The issue for the church, then, is to take that hurt seriously. I think if you are Christian, really Christian, then if you hurt somebody that should give you serious pause.

  14. Richard,
    Thanks for noticing my comment. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

    “...but the larger human community is also allowed to point out that a particular reading ... well ... hurts people.”

    Speaking of nuts, I was reminded when I read this of a heated debate that I had with an evangelical family member about politics. I could not convince him that Jesus would not torture or start a war or further enrich the wealthy to the detriment of the poor. You know the whole Republican play book. It was like speaking to a brick wall. He repeatedly told me that he prayed for guidance as to where to direct his charitable giving and who to vote for yet I pointed out numerous scriptures that indicated he may be supporting the wrong team. He told me I was a liberal and he said it as if he were using a swear word.

    My point or question is this. There are many Christians who are prayerfully choosing to do what Christ never would have condoned. They seem to have a scriptural basis for their behavior. I see no reason that alternative interpretations should not be encouraged so we can avert the damaging behaviors of those that hurt others. If a supposedly God inspired text which is prayerfully used can cause harm by traditional interpretations then what harm can occur when those with a conscience motivated by love try their hand at reading more moral intent into the scriptures. I, for one, as part of the "larger human community" would encourage some moral and sane readings.
    Did I find another nut or is this just nuts?

    Rick T.

  15. It seems that something crucial has been forgotten in these comments, and perhaps in Martin's book, though I'd have to read it to know: Paul believed that the Christ events had changed everything religiously and theologically--he was interpreting Scripture not "playfully," but earnestly in light of events that had changed the entire revelatory landscape, at least in his opinion.

    Should his use of Scripture be used as a model for the church, then? Of course, every time the revelatory landscape has been turned on its head a use of Scripture just like Paul's is exactly what is called for. Less than that, however, means playing with something about which Paul was amazingly earnest.

    Now have I missed something, or has this "little" point been missed?


  16. BTW: Though my point has not been explicitly dealt with above, it seems that the discussion modulated away from a question of whether Paul's radical departure from traditional interpretations of Scripture should be emulated to what can serve as a guide to interpreting Scripture with a good conscience: "The faith community and the community of all humanity" comment on Scripture "via reciprocal rounds of prophecy and critique."

    Good point, but is some of this an inevitable tension between the spirit and the letter of the law? In other words, is interpretation once again smiling at our attempts to "get it right?"

    Perhaps Kant was right, the only absolute good is a good will--but for the unfortunate reason that all our attempts to do good are flawed. Thought I'd cheer you all up...


  17. That's a good point, there is nothing "playful" about what Paul is doing. He's serious.

    To see if any resuscitation was possible I looked up the definition of "play." One entry was this: "scope or opportunity for action." As in some working material having some "play" in it to be manipulated or used for a certain function. That definition of "play" might be the one we need here. That is, our reading of the text must always give the Spirit "scope or opportunity for action." In my faith tradition, it was the exact opposite. There was no play in our reading. We used the bible to box the Spirit in.

  18. My dad asked me (Tracy) to post part of the lyrics to Stairway To Heaven.

    When she gets there she knows

    if the stores are all closed

    with a word she can get what she came for

    ... and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

    There's a sign on the wall

    but she wants to be sure

    'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings

    In a tree by the brook

    there's a songbird who sings

    sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

    (Words by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant)

    I'm working on some songs for a band.

    I think this blog is interesting

    Carl Witham

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