If we take seriously the historical parameters of a passage, can it speak to us outside of that specific situation?
One of the advantages of an approach that pares away the historical particulars of a passage to get an abstract, “timeless” truth is that it’s very easy to drop that truth into virtually any situation. If the point of the story of David and Goliath is “you’ll win all your battles, no matter how difficult, if you trust God,” then you can easily apply that truth to a wide variety of circumstances across time and individuals. The actual experience of Israel in her battles would suggest that this truth needs to be at least a little conditional, but you see what I mean.
By peeling away the historical specifics of a passage to get to an abstraction, we now have fodder for both sermons and personal Bible reading. And self-help books. And greeting cards. It’s easy.
Take, for instance, Jeremiah 29:11:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)
If we take this from the moorings of its particular historical situation, the text as a basic principle can easily be used to give comfort and optimism in all kinds of situations, ranging from high school graduation to a first job to buying a new house to planting a new church or even trying to decide on the right brand of peanut butter. No matter who we are or what our situation is, God has plans for our welfare to give us a hopeful future.
A good question is, though, is there any good reason to assume this is what God intends for us to take away from this text? Is this the reason it was included in the canon? Did the faithful community receive this writing for this purpose – a repository for abstract truths with no particular referent?
If we look to the historical situation surrounding the text, this is a word from God to the exiles in Babylon. Prophets are claiming to speak in YHWH’s name that their deliverance will come right away, and Jeremiah is out to correct this notion. The deliverance will not come right away, but it will come. Therefore, the exiles should make the best of their current situation and persevere in faithfulness, carrying with them the hope that their deliverance will come, because God has plans for Israel – plans for her welfare and a good future, and not her exile, assimilation, or destruction.
When we read Jeremiah 29:11 in its context, this begins to rock our boat a little, because clearly this text was meant for a particular group of people at a particular time, and by rights has no immediate relevance to anyone who isn’t an Israeli captive of Babylon in the time of Jeremiah’s words (or the following seventy years).
So, on the one hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is just window dressing. The actual meaning of the text has nothing to do with its original author or audience, transcends all historical particulars, and can be used for any situation that might in any sense fall under the umbrella of the abstract truth.
On the other hand, we have a way of looking at the text where the historical setting is like a concrete wall around the meaning. Anyone who isn’t an Israelite captive of Babylon at that time is not the intended recipient of the text, and the text would have no meaning for anyone outside of that group.
Are these our only options?
I think we can get some direction from the New Testament use of the Old Testament.
It should be noted that, when talking to Gentiles, Paul and the Apostles (great band name) do not really appeal to the Old Testament. They talk about things like unknown gods and what has been made clear in nature and truths expressed in pagan poetry – things with which the Gentiles have a point of reference. It’s not that they never mention the Old Testament to Gentiles; it’s just that by far and away their use of the Old Testament is for specifically Jewish groups or letters to groups that have both Jew and Gentile in them.
Part of that may be explained by the simple fact that the Gentiles wouldn’t know the Old Testament, but I would guess a larger portion of that is explained by the fact that the Gentiles have no relationship to the Old Testament. The Torah is not their covenant. The kingdom was not their kingdom. The temple was not their temple. The exile was not their exile. In a very real sense, the Old Testament does not apply to them in any kind of direct way. Yet, the apostles will announce the good news of the kingdom and Jesus to them, and they come to believe and receive the Holy Spirit.
The reason I point this out is that it may very well be that we assume all biblical texts have to be relevant to us, but maybe that assumption is wrong. Maybe it’s ok to say that a lot of that text just isn’t directly pertinent to our present circumstances, and it doesn’t have to be.
I don’t think we need to resign ourselves to that, but I do think we need to be ok with it. The assumption that a text has something to say to us is just that – an assumption. We need to let the Bible tell us what it has to say and to whom and not dictate that to the Bible in advance.
But when the New Testament does use the Old Testament, it does give us some windows into how a text might speak to other communities past its own boundaries.
Take, for instance, Matthew’s use of Jeremiah 31:15.
I’m not going to repeat everything I said when I talked about that passage, but the upshot is that Jeremiah 31 (continuing the train of thought in Jeremiah 29, in fact) is about the destiny of the Babylonian exiles. Ramah was the city where Israelite captives were processed and shipped off to Babylon. The prophet uses the image of weeping in Ramah for having to witness the loss of Israel’s sons, but her weeping will come to an end when the Lord brings an end to the exile and brings the children back.
Matthew uses this passage to talk about Herod killing Israelite children in an attempt to preemptively murder the newborn King of the Jews.
From a strict historical boundary, this use does not make a lot of sense. Ramah is not Bethlehem. The Israelites in the exile were not being murdered. And so on.
But it doesn’t work well from an abstract truth perspective, either. Matthew does not take Jeremiah 31:15 as, “Whenever you are sad about something, God will help you,” and that’s why it applies to the story of Jesus’ birth.
The reason Matthew can use Jeremiah with a straight face is because he sees Israel in captivity, and Herod’s predations are a rather dramatic and literal removing of Israel’s sons by those in power. This is a tragedy for Israel. There is weeping. But it is the weeping before the promised hope. This is the tragedy that comes before deliverance. Matthew sees an end to captivity that Jesus will bring, and so, for him, Jeremiah’s prophecy about Ramah is an ideal descriptor. In fact, he is counting on his readers’ knowledge of the Ramah passage to get his meaning across. He is importing the meaning of the Ramah prophecy and using it to explain Israel’s present circumstances in his writing.
Or take for example Jesus beginning to quote Psalm 22 from the cross (also in Matthew’s gospel). If Psalm 22 could only possibly be about David’s experience as a beleaguered king of Israel, then this would not make sense. David did not die on a cross, for instance.
However, the abstract truth tack doesn’t work well, either. Jesus didn’t look at Psalm 22 and go, “Here’s a Psalm about feeling like God has left you. We all feel that way, sometimes. Well, that’s how I feel now, so I think I’ll quote it.” And in that vein, I should add that Psalm 22 is not a prophecy of the crucifixion, either. It’s not like Jesus is mentally thumbing through the Old Testament scriptures he hasn’t fulfilled yet and came up with Psalm 22.
Psalm 22 is about Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is surrounded by enemies who seek his destruction. He is thoroughly distraught over this. But he remembers how God delivered him in the past, so he will remain faithful. Because of this, God will save him, and future generations will proclaim it, and God will have dominion over all nations. Even the dead will serve Him and generations yet unborn into the future.
It is this meaning that Jesus brings forward into his own circumstances. He is Israel’s king who, despite his faithfulness, is distraught and surrounded by enemies. It is he who is in dire straits. But he remembers the faithfulness of God and will remain steadfast hoping in the help of the Lord. God will save him, and countless future generations will proclaim it. God will rule the nations. Even the dead will rise up.
Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 is not independent of its historical meaning – it thoroughly depends on its historical meaning. Once you understand what Psalm 22 means for David and Israel, then you are in a prime position to understand what it has to say in Jesus’ circumstances.
This is where I’m at so far on the issue of how biblical texts can speak into circumstances beyond their own. If we can get our arms around what the text is communicating in its home environment, we can take that meaning and transpose it for circumstances beyond the original. But that activity is grounded in the original meaning, not an abstraction.
So, Jeremiah 29:11? Perhaps I might send that to a group of Chinese Christians in prison for having an underground church. Perhaps I might remind them that their forefathers, too, were in captivity, and it looked hopeless, and they wanted with all their hearts to be released immediately. But God made a way for them to be cared for in the present because of His plans for their future. Not every Israelite saw that day, but that day came, nonetheless, and that hope was meant to sustain them in their captivity.
But as liberating as high school graduation might feel, I’m not sure I’m on solid ground applying Jeremiah to it.