“Has God said…?”: Ethics of the Interpretive Tradition

?”Has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?…”

             “God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’ The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die!…” (Gen.3:1-4)

Thus we are told the origin of man’s original exile from God’s Divine Presence. Spawned by the “forked tongue” of the serpent, Eve succumbs to the temptation of eating the forbidden fruit. She then gives the forbidden delicacy to the man.

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In normative Christian theology, this is explained as the act which constitutes the Original Sin, or Fall of Man. In Jewish tradition it is often explained as discovered carnality and the beginning of exile. (Judaism does not teach the doctrine of Original Sin).

Perhaps there is a deeper, more profound way to look at this story of origins than just the introduction of base sexuality or a simple explanation of how humanity fell from “grace”.

The serpent knows the words of God, but the story progresses when he interprets, suggesting his interpretation. Interestingly, Moses does the same in the Torah (as we will see). Can we learn something by comparing Moses to the serpent in the Garden? Yes, I believe we can: a very important aspect of biblical interpretive tradition that, when misunderstood, is at the root of nearly all false teaching and division within the body of Messiah.

It is easy to see how the serpent twists and manipulates God’s words of instruction to Eve. Why is it easy? Because we know that the result of the encounter is disaster. Therefore, we also assume that he is misquoting God’s words. But is he?

Note the question:

        “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?”

This question prompts Eve to respond by clarifying God’s words:

“From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it, or touch it, or you will die.”

The interpretive trap has been set:

      “The serpent said…”You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Eve completes the interpretive circle, through application:

    “When the woman saw that the tree was…desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate…”

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As stated, it is generally assumed that the serpent is misquoting God.

The serpent begins by asking Eve a leading question. He does not ask Eve to tell him what she understood God said. He asks her to clarify God’s actual words. You may ask, “What difference does this make?”  It is critical to see this subtle tactic as the beginning of a divergent interpretation. This is because Eve’s understanding has been orally transmitted to her through Adam, since Adam was created and given this command before Eve was brought to him. (See Gen.2:15-17).

The tactic of the serpent is to bypass the oral tradition of Adam and go to the literal “text”, if you will, and question it. He encourages Eve to question the tradition she has received from Adam, which in turn causes her to doubt the clear mandate she is working with. The serpent, contrary to popular understanding, actually is quite the biblicist, in that he stays very true to a strict, literal reading of the “text”. His question tests Eve’s ability to “proof-text” him in order to test and see if what he is saying is true to God’s revealed word. It would seem that the serpent is quite the Berean (see Acts 17:11).

Upon following the serpent’s tactic of “proof-texting” (so to speak) and having seen that the serpent is quoting God accurately, he has now earned enough trust in Eve’s mind to undermine her confidence in Adam’s understanding of God’s instructions. Eve is unsettled. The serpent makes sense, and further, he seems to be able to both accurately quote what God has said and then proceeds to give a reasonable interpretation of what God meant. Adam, on the other hand (as has been noted by many) is absent from this conversation, or at the least, silent. Perhaps he is not there. Or perhaps he is mesmerized by the rational and sensible deduction of the serpent. It simply works for him. Why resist? Would God truly kill us for eating from this tree? Doesn’t He love us?  This is speculative. At the least, we know that Adam, whether present or not, does not challenge or take issue with the fact that the serpent is in dialog with Eve.

In the end, the serpent succeeds in creating a rift between the man, the woman and their God. Whether this was the real desire of the serpent is left for us to guess. Any number of speculations on the serpent’s motivation could be plausible. Maybe, as in the ancient role of serpents in gardens in the thought and mythology of antiquity, the serpent was doing his job. (See here: The Good and Evil Serpent, Part Two) What matters, in our context, is that fellowship has been broken. Disobedience has brought shame and ultimately exile. However, what is rarely observed is that the serpent has not changed the words of God. He has merely offered an interpretation. He does not tell Eve to eat the fruit. What he does is create doubt in her mind about her husband’s understanding of God’s word, passed on to her orally. Based on this, it would seem logical that the serpent actually appealed to a desire already existent within Eve. So, where is the so-called “innocence” which is supposed to exist before “the Fall”? 

“But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” (Js.1:14)

But this creates another question: If the serpent merely interpreted, and Adam and Eve sinned by letting lust overrule obedience, then why is the serpent “punished” after this encounter? Further, God proclaims a promise that he will be overcome. What is really going on?

“He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come!” (Lk.17:1)

In this setting, the trouble with the serpent is not his handling of the word which, had the results been different, could have been considered a very interesting midrash, by Jewish interpretive standards. The trouble lie in the fruit that has been borne out of his drash, which is disastrous. God’s children are out fellowship and estranged from Him.

So let’s consider Moses.

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It turns out that Moses engaged in his own fair share of interpretive license in his dealing with the words of God.  Let’s look at how.

In the book of Numbers, Moses records clear instructions he received from God at the doorstep of the promised land:

“Then the LORD spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel…” (Num.13:1-2)

Seems rather straightforward. God commands, and Moses does. Why, then, does Moses seem to change the story when recounting this event in Deuteronomy?

“Then all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may search out the land for us, and bring back to us word of the way by which we should go up and the cities which we shall enter. The thing pleased me and I took twelve of your men, one for each tribe.” (Deut.1:22-23)

What is going on here? Why is Moses changing the story? In Numbers, God gave a direct command, yet here in Deuteronomy, Moses takes personal credit for making the decision to send in the twelve spies. Didn’t King Herod die from the smiting of the LORD because he tried to take credit for himself for the glory that belonged to God?

There are a number of things which can be said about this. For one thing, we see an important key to understanding the revealed will of God. (This aspect will be left for a future installment). Another possibility is that Moses is trying to make a specific point about the people’s self-will in the face of God’s revealed will. This is what we will explore. Consider another example:

Now when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge and all the people stand about you from morning until evening?…Moses father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you are doing is not good.” (Ex.18:13-14)

Now, compare this same event recounted in Deuteronomy:

“I spoke to you at that time, saying ‘I am not able to bear the burden of you alone…Choose wise and discerning and experienced men from your tribes, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ You answered me and said, ‘The thing which you have said to do is good.” (Deut.1:9,13-14)

At first reading, it appears that Moses has several problems, all of which would disqualify him as a teacher of God’s people, according to modern standards.

  1. He changes his testimony, or at least incorrectly attributes, the words that God has spoken. (In one case, he attributes the command as from God and later says the people were responsible for the idea. In another, he writes that his father-in-law suggested something that he later attributes to God.)
  2. He takes license to suggest that God has suggested something which appears to have been either his own idea, or the idea of others.
  3. He appears to allow the opinions of others to affect his judgment concerning God’s will.

These are all serious charges. He would likely be branded a false teacher, a heretic, or an unstable leader, in today’s hyper-critical religious culture. Instead, the Jewish tradition refers to him as “Moshe Rabbenu (Moses Our Teacher). God Himself tells us that Moses was the most humble man who has ever walked before Him.

So, the question is apparent: Why is the serpent, who seems at least as faithful to the word of the LORD as Moses, considered a liar and deceiver, while Moses, for his part, earns the title of Moshe Rabbenu?

The answer can be found in a third figure, Balaam.

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More than either Moses or the serpent in the Garden, Balaam is litigious in his loyalty to the exact words of God, not straying either to the left or right, but faithfully conveying only what God has instructed.

“Balaam replied to the servants of Balak, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, either small or great, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.” (Num.22:18)

Balaam, then is a true biblicist, a true adherent to the Lutheran creed of Sola Scriptura. Naturally, as honest theologians, we would (lacking further revealed evidence of Balaam’s character) align ourselves with the testimony of Balaam, when comparing him with Moses and the serpent, both of whom manipulate the words of God through creative interpretation, practicing revisionism and adaptation.

Balaam alone appears impartial and faithful to declare “all the words of the book” regardless of personal gain or loss.

The character of Balaam, who is later killed by the sword, apparently was the source of the plot to seduce the men of Israel with the women of the land, and this fact, revealed later in the story of the Torah, is key component in our analysis.

Neither the serpent or Balaam are aligned with or loyal to God’s people.

In a painful and poignant scene in the Torah, we see this principle in full view:

“Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had married a Cushite woman); and they said, ‘Has the LORD ideed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ And the LORD heard it….(God declares to Aaron and Miriam)…”If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. Not so, with My servant Moses, he is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly…” (Num.12:1-2,6-7)

As pointed out in an excellent essay by Rabbi Avital Hochstein of Mechon Hadar, in her essay “The Book of Devarim: Beginning the Jewish Interpretive Tradition” , this is a key principle in understanding why Moses is considered the greatest prophet in Israel’s history.

“Across the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound the Torah…” (Deut.1:5)

The Rabbi points out several interpretive principles that we learn from Moshe Rabbenu, which we cannot learn from either the serpent or Balaam.

  1. The principle of repetition. The law must be taught repeatedly, and in each case must be made applicable to each new generation and set of circumstance.
  2. Interpretation as an act of productivity. This means that the repetition and instruction in the written word is not enough for a people moving through time. In the Rabbi’s words: “Repetition gives birth to new sounds, new voices, new notions and ideas….those new voices turn themselves to become part of the Torah. (Therefore), learning Torah and repeating it not only strengthens and fortifies what exists but also expands it.”
  3. Listening to the gap between text and interpretation. So much of our scholarship gets lost in the weeds of breaking down the individual components of the words of the Bible, instead of the active relationship between God and His people.

Rabbi Hochstein states the following: “(An) interpreter is not only to…repeat…not only to hear what hasn’t been yet heard, but to also try and answer the questions which the Torah and its previous interpreters have left unanswered.”

It is Moses who initiates the tradition of oral transmission and Oral Torah, as we see here:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Assembly. They (the men of the Great Assembly) said three things: Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for the Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

Moses is able to re-imagine the commandments of God in light of history, not because God’s commands are flexible and fluid, but because God’s people are, and both their understanding and the context of their experience changes over time, in relation to the Law. God’s Torah is given to Israel, not to Moses himself. Moses is among the people, not above them. He mediates, he doesn’t Lord over them. The Torah is living and breathing, and people’s relationship with it is synonymous with God’s relationship with them.

Neither the serpent nor Balaam embody this ethic. Moses, on the other hand can, and does, precisely because he is both loyal to, and identified alongside, them.

 “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin…” (Heb.11:24-25)

There is a rich Oral Tradition in the Jewish faith, reflected in the writings of the Talmud and the many Midrashim on the Bible. Many seek to denigrate this tradition as the “traditions of men”, and as having little value, if not to be avoided altogether as dangerous. Yet, the presence of an oral tradition of interpretation is not an issue, since every tradition of faith expression within both Judaism and Christianity has an oral tradition of how to read the text.

The question is not that, but this: How can we know if a particular tradition is faithful and true, and to be trusted?

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It turns out that the story of Moses has given us an important clue to finding the answer. When faced with an interpretation or tradition, we must determine where the interpretation came from. Is it born out of hatred or distrust towards God’s Chosen people? Or is it from a place of allegiance and identification?

A tradition of interpretation on the text of scripture cannot be considered trustworthy at all if it is born from a place of distrust towards Judaism. Only those who are loyal to Israel, her people, and her land and her tradition, will properly represent God’s heart towards both them and us (if we are not Jewish), and only such a position will ultimately yield good fruit.

Is it not interesting, in light of this, the Master does not tell us to judge a person’s life message by the rigors of their teaching, but by their fruit?

“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?” (Matt.7:16)

Moses teaches us, in this comparison with the serpent and with Balaam, that a proper interpretation is not so much based upon a right exegesis (although this is also important) as much as a proper intent and framework of relationship. If we are in step with God’s people, we will be able to find the correct understanding of the words of God; an understanding which accurately speaks to God’s ongoing, and always-developing relationship with His people.

By contrast, an interpretation which harbors distrust, or animosity towards His people will always bring disaster, even if at first impression it appears sound, logical, and even irrefutable.

It is impossible to apply God’s word apart from a tradition of interpretation. But perhaps more importantly,

it is impossible to form a successful tradition of interpretation apart from a right relationship and perspective towards His people.

Moshe Rabbenu has taught us this, and our Master Yeshua, the Second Moses, has continued this tradition through his followers, even today. Let’s be sure, if we claim to be followers of Yeshua, that we are also aligned with Yeshua’s people, or we may find that we are doing more harm than good in our reading and teaching of the text.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on ““Has God said…?”: Ethics of the Interpretive Tradition

  1. This is an interesting and thought provoking article, brother, but I interpret it differently. 😉

    The serpent put a slight TWIST on what Elohim said. I don’t see where he interpreted what He had said.

    Chava answered in accord with what Adam had told her of the command, I think. It was Adam who ‘interpreted’ or, perhaps, added to what Elohim had said. And the serpent used that against her and, ultimately, us.

    I think that when Adam told Chava about the One Commandment, a short converstaion took place that went something like this:

    Adam: “Elohim said that we can eat from any tree in the entire Gan Eden, except THIS one [he points at the Tree of Knowledge], because in the day we eat it, we shall surely die.”
    Chava: “Adam, What is this DIE?!”
    Adam: “I don’t know, but I don’t like the sound of it. So do me a favor; don’t even TOUCH that tree.”
    Chava: “OK!”

    Liked by 1 person

      • Well, yes, a twist IS a type of an interpretation, and Rav Sha’ul is one of the most twisted authors of any in our scriptures. So much so that Kefa made mention, as even in his own time it was extremely common. Can you imagine how frustrated Paul was with that stuff going on ALL the time?

        Avinu isn’t exactly happy about it either.

        But MOST of the weak or just plain wrong interpretations are arrived at honestly, based on exactly the same thing that got Chava to make her mistake with the serpent [if my speculation has any legs]; She was told something by an authority in her life [like a pastor or a Bible School Professor] and passed on what was said, believing it to be Gospel. The twisting came from elsewhere and was accepted as TRUTH.

        That’s our biggest obstacle when WE teach what scripture SAYS to those who are fully invested in the TWIST. Suddenly we are “Judaizers”, or “fallen from grace”, or trusting to “works-righteousness”, when we are, in fact, just being obedient to the revealed Word of Avinu.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I wouldn’t describe Paul as “twisted”. That seems to have a very negative connotation in our modern understanding. I would say misunderstood, for sure. Context, context, context. But I agree with you that those we share with are often so “twisted up” in bad theology that they struggle to apprehend the obvious message of the Bible.

    Like

  3. Thank you for that thought-provoking read!
    As to the other comment, I read it to say that Sha’ul’s teachings “have been twisted the most”: with which statement I would fully agree.

    Liked by 1 person

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