When God’s words need interpreting

by John Wijngaards , Mission Today, Spring 1993

A CARPENTER who had come to repair a window turned out to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Soon we were involved in a fierce argument. I admired his readiness to talk about his beliefs and his familiarity with Scripture. But I found it hard to swallow the interpretations of Scripture.

“There are only a limited number of true servants of Jehovah”, he told me. “In fact, on the last day only 144,000 will carry his seal.” He was quoting Revelation 7:4 which states: “I heard how many were sealed: a hundred and forty-four thousand, out of all the tribes of Israel.”

I tried to explain that this was a symbolical number, not to be taken at its face value. But he was adamant. Scripture was inspired by God, he said. God knew what he was talking about. A figure is a figure, a word a word.

This approach is found among Christians of all churches. Jesus is said to have “eaten nothing” for forty days and forty nights (Luke 4:2). It must be literally true, they say. Otherwise the Gospel teaches falsehood.

It is true that we have to read Scripture according to its “literal” sense, but this is not the “literalist” sense. There is a vast difference between the two.

As Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council taught, the literal sense of a text is the meaning which the author had in mind when using a particular expression.

Let us look at an example. When Jesus called Herod a fox (Luke 13:32), he did not declare him to be a furry, brown animal that steals chickens at night. He meant to say that Herod was a sneaky, cunning and unreliable individual.

When Luke says that Jesus ate nothing for forty days (Luke 4:1-13), we should remember two things. “Forty” is a symbolic number referring to Israel’s stay in the desert for forty years. See also the use of forty in texts such as Judges (Judges 3:11; 5:31; 8:28, etc.).

To “eat nothing” referred to a very strict fast, not to a total abstention from food. In other words, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed and fasted for a long time.

But how do we know the intention of the author? you might ask. Is it not more natural for us to accept the meaning of the words as they stand? How do we distinguish what is “literal” from what is “literalist”?

The answer lies in the nature of each language. We cannot know the exact meaning of an expression by looking up its words in a dictionary. We have to study the way in which the expression is used in everyday language.

Just listen to the things we say. “In biology class Sally dropped a bombshell today. ‘Do you like sex?’, she asked Mrs Hinton. All the girls had a fit and the teacher wiped the floor with her.” Is all this about bombs, epileptic fits and a substitute mop?

Missionaries know the need of interpretation only too well from their own experience. The Telugus of Andhra Pradesh, the Indian province in which I worked, will not easily say no to a good friend.

They have other subtle ways that save your face but that are equally effective. If you ask a farmer: “Could you lend me your cart and oxen to carry stones from the quarry?”, he may well reply: “Certainly. But give me time to think about it”.

That is his way of saying no.

When God, in his infinite goodness, decided to communicate with us, he began to speak through human prophets and inspired writers. These people were no robots, they were human like us. They had to search for words as we do. They had to express God’s ideas in their own ways of thinking and speaking.

Even Jesus himself, although he was God, purposely limited himself to our human level and adopted simple human ways of communication.

Do not think that fundamentalists or literalists do more justice to Scripture. Restricting the number of God’s elected servants to 144,000 has immediate implications on how we look on the billions of God’s other children who populate our planet.

Fundamentalists tend to interpret the Gospel in a purely spiritual way, ignoring its compelling social and political message. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) certainly applies to how I treat beggars who sit on my door step.

But in Jesus’s intention it applies to much more, for Jesus’s parables are deliberately open-ended. Who cannot see in our own day the parallel with the way the prosperous West often treats developing nations?

Does God’s word here not have consequences for the terms we impose on the Third World in trade and whether we offer aid?

To read Scripture we do not need to be scholars. What we need is a lot of common sense. Occasionally however, we need a word of advice from someone who knows the language and the ways of expression. What matters in the end is that we understand what the inspired author wanted to say.