In one of the many fantasy novels I read when I was young(er), a young wizard and his grandfather together attempt to decipher a prophetic text. Consistently, as they read it, they come across a difficult passage—specifically a difficult word—in the prophecy. The difficulty has a strange effect upon them. They are tempted to brush past it and look for information elsewhere. It seems to resist their attempts to decipher what’s going on. When they begin together to focus on the difficult place they are brought to an argument. Finally, with the help of a magic orb, their eyes are opened to see that the difficult place in the text was actually a lengthy passage, hidden by magic in the space of one word, and warded to prevent improper eyes from gazing upon it.
Although I don’t remember a great deal of what I read, this moment came back to me the other day when I was reading the Bible. Recently I’ve been reading through the New Living Translation, a version of the scriptures I’ve never read before. I chose the NLT, in part, because at this point in my life I’m familiar enough with the Bible that I’m not really interested in a more accurate translation. Instead, I wanted a fresh take, if you will, and I thought that the NLT, with its more interpreted nuance on translation, might give me some new insights into the text. I was rewarded in a few places, but in others I was quite disappointed.
One such place of disappointment was early on in the book of Genesis. There, in Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with God all night long. In the morning, he must face the potential wrath of the brother he had wronged years before, and this is both personally and spiritually a night of reckoning. After a whole night of struggle, Jacob still hasn’t given up, and as a reward for his tenacity God blesses him with a new name: Israel. “For you have struggled with God and with men,” says the being with whom he wrestled, “and have overcome.” What’s the problem? Well, in much of the Genesis text, Jacob from this point forward is referred to as Israel. God has given him a new name, and that new name takes effect on Jacob/Israel’s life. But in the New Living Translation, the editors have made the decision to retain the name “Jacob” throughout the rest of Genesis, footnoting the change. Why would they do this? Well, no doubt the editors were attempting to ease the difficulties for a reader—after all, who can keep track of all the names in the Bible, let alone people with more than one name? The editors presumed (perhaps rightly) that a person picking up the Bible for the first time would struggle between the Jacob/Israel change in the book of Genesis. They may be right about the confusion, but in resolving it they have stepped into error.
The reason this is an error, and a significant one, is because the change in Jacob’s name signifies an important theological and historical moment in the Bible. God is actually saying something by changing his name. You are no longer the cheater ‘Jacob’ who strove for advantage against anyone and anything in life; you are now blessed by God as ‘Israel.’ To change this name back for the sake of readership is an alteration that strips the text of meaning.
The editors of the New Living Translation, in pursuing simplifications of the text for the sake of readability, have given implicit voice to an unfortunately common belief about the scriptures. And that belief is that we approach difficult texts as liabilities. We feel the urge to explain them, or, rather, explain them away. People accuse the bible of inconsistency, or outright error, and we balk. “Why are there four gospels?” they ask. “Why are Jesus’ words different here than they are there?” they accuse. And we in response become confused and concerned.
This is what brought my mind back to that fantasy story I had read so many years before, because we ourselves, like the characters in the fantasy novel, grow frustrated when we read a passage the meaning of which is obscured on our first go-through. We may argue with one another. The meaning may escape us—our eyes may crave simplicity where there is complexity. And against these trends, the fantasy story provides a surprisingly good picture of how the scriptures are composed—not that they have been written to be intentionally obscure, or lead insincere believers and searchers astray, or that we require a kind of magic to explore them rightly—but that it is in the difficult passages that the meaning is truly stored. That far from being liabilities in the text, these places of difficulty are actually the storehouses of divine meaning. The so-called ‘difficult’ texts of scripture are where God has stored many of His most significant thoughts.
Let’s consider for a moment the question of the Four Gospels—why are there four, and why do they disagree at certain points? For example, why does John place Jesus’ crucifixion during the hour of preparation—while the Jews were sacrificing the Passover Lamb—and why do the other three gospels have Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples? We can attempt to explain away the difficulty—we can argue for the likelihood that there was more than one Passover Lamb sacrificed on account of the crowds (entirely possible). We can try to fudge and shift Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem to make sense of the timeline. Or, we can look more intently at what John is doing in his gospel—at who Jesus is in John’s gospel. And with our new attention we can see that John has most likely changed the time of Jesus’ crucifixion to make a theological point. That point? That Jesus is the Passover Lamb. Throughout John’s gospel Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts—Tabernacles, Dedication, Passover. And John arranges the material of Jesus’ life to fit this schema. He’s making a profound point about who Jesus is and what Jesus means for us by linking his crucifixion to the Passover sacrifice.
Has John lied? By no means! He has interpreted. And whenever a biblical author engages in interpretation it is because he is attempting to communicate something of substantial meaning to us. If we de-interpret John’s gospel we are guaranteed to miss his point. Each of the four Gospels, then, are an interpretation of the life of Jesus. They each, through editing and selection, present a unique theological picture of who Jesus is.
Consider, as a second example, Paul’s quotation of Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4. There, beginning at Ephesians 4:7, he says the following, “However, he [God] has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ. That is why the scriptures say, ‘When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives, and gave gifts to his people.'” Then, shortly thereafter, Paul lists the gifts—Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers—all for the edification and strengthening of the Church. The difficulty with this text is that Paul hasn’t quoted the passage from Psalm 68 accurately—in Psalm 68:18 it clearly says that God received gifts from men. But Paul has changed it to given. Why would he do this? Once again we can explain it away—Paul made an error; Paul is careless when quoting the Old Testament; Paul feels the freedom to change the Old Testament in order to make his points. But by opting for any of these we will miss the true intention of Paul’s quotation. Paul has, we see again, interpreted the text, and we must attend to the interpretation if we’re going to understand him.
Read Psalm 68 and you will see that this is a Psalm about God’s victory, specifically about God bringing into unity the people of the world—both the rebellious and the godly. A key moment in the Psalm is the people ascending, after God has ascended in victory, to offer their gifts to God. What becomes clear, then, as we gaze intently at the book of Ephesians, is that Paul sees in the Church of Jesus Christ the fulfillment of Psalm 68. God is victorious in Christ, and has unified the people of the world in subjection to Christ. And here is where his change of the text gets interesting, because the people of God have received gifts from God for the edification of the Church. And Paul knows, as do we all, that all gifts, objectively speaking, come from God alone. But when we read Paul’s quotation, and as our minds go back to Psalm 68, then the force of Paul’s rhetorical implication is pressed upon us: these gifts are not for us to keep, but ones that we are meant to return to God. The gifts God has given us for the edification of the Church are gifts meant to be returned to God in service. Paul’s change of the Psalm 68 text is not a difficulty to be explained away, but an interpretation of the text through which we can discover a storehouse of meaning.
It’s worth taking a moment to say that every New Testament quotation of an Old Testament text is such a storehouse of meaning. These are passages so often dismissed as difficulties when in fact they are treasure houses of biblical interpretation.
How do we learn to read this way? I would like to suggest three basic principles for the reading of the Scriptures:
1. When confronted with a difficult text, we must give it our sustained attention. Resist the urge to skip over it, or dismiss it, or explain it away. Consider it carefully and prayerfully. Look at the passages around it and the overarching messages of the book you are reading. There is usually a larger framework at work which can make sense of the text at hand.
2. We must read the Scriptures canonically. And that means, firstly, that our primary resource for interpreting scripture must be scripture itself. The book contains most of the answers about what is going on in the book. Secondly, a canonical reading of the bible will necessitate a belief in the inherent edification and worth of the scriptures. These are words written for our benefit, to instruct and not confuse us. If there are difficult places, they are probably there for a reason.
3. We must keep in mind that difficulty is an invitation to know God better. When Paul says that “we see as in a glass darkly”—that the picture is muddled from our gaze—he doesn’t mean we should give up looking. Rather, he is framing obscurity in its ultimate reality; that is, as an invitation to a clearer vision of God. The difficult places in scripture always invite us to explore God more.
Confronted thus with a difficulty in the bible, the editors of the NLT chose (on this occasion and in a few others as well) to edit the difficulty. They came upon a difficult word, and rather than allowing the reader to discover the meaning embedded in the difficulty, they have removed the difficulty entirely. Their choice has robbed the reader of an opportunity to experience and know God more.
This temptation toward simplification is not new—in the early church a man named Marcion, who was frustrated with the ‘discrepancies’ of the gospels, sought to harmonize them into one book. Notably, he also took issue with the Hebrew scriptures and sought to exorcize them from the text entirely. His goal was to create a Bible that was ‘free from error.’ He was also, notably, condemned as a heretic.
Yet the enduring truth of the matter is that against all these urges to avoid, or explain away, the text, we must strive instead to reaffirm it. We must resist, like Marcion, the urge to choose some parts of the Bible over others, and skip over the places with which we are uncomfortable. And, of course, it is not that ‘explanation’ is in itself wrong, but that we must avoid all forms of explanation that void the text of its inherent meaning. We must face our difficulties head on—and this is the only way, in the end, that we will come to experience the depth of insight that God has in store for us.
(NB: the NLT is not a bad translation overall, so please don’t read this as a dismissal of that translation. I plan to review it as a translation in the near future.)