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Gettin’ Evangelical with 1 Samuel

by Stephen Hebert on Thursday - 1 February 2007

in Biblical Studies, Old Testament

Over the past few days, I’ve been looking at 1 Samuel, and I am continually intrigued by what my latest situation does for my reading of some of these texts.

The Harvard Interpretive Thought Process

So, I’d like to just comment on 1 Samuel 5 (ESV). The story is simple and straightforward. But let me give an example of how the Harvard side of my brain looks at it:

Dagon? Who is Dagon? Oh, okay. Dagon is an ancient Mesopotamian god. But wait a minute…He doesn’t show up in any sort of hard evidence (aka “rock”) as a Philistine god. Hrm….what to do?

It’s obvious to see my hangup here. While it is certainly interesting that Dagon is a Mesopotamian god, a god associated with royalty, and is not really attested by the Philistines, it is a faithless reading.

Over the past few years, I’ve been increasingly concerned with a scientific and faithless reading of Scripture. Is it possible to meld these lessons with a more faith-based approach? Is it possible to look at the text and divine from it some sort of history, while still having an ultimate faith in it? Prof. Laura Nasrallah is fond of telling her students things like: “Paul is not writing to you.” But, this is really a central facet of evangelical biblical interpretation, isn’t it? An evangelical seeks to say that the Bible is applicable today because it is God’s Word, and, as such, it is relevant to all people at all times. Therefore, Paul is writing to me. The same is true of other biblical authors.

To deny this possibility is to deny a valid mode of interpretation. The Academy considers its methods proper and accurate. As scholars shift from the rhetorical criticism model popular in the 20th century, they are finding fruits within post-modern (po-mo for short) methods. In the post-modern age of relativism, it is surprising that an “open-minded” approach precludes any kind of confessional faith in the text as a valid point of view.

Readers and Texts: Post-Modern Evangelical (???)

In interpreting any text there is a reader and a text. Many forms of po-mo interpretation, as much as they generally annoy me, allow for the reader to be an active agent in the construction of the text. Though there is a page with letters, it is all nonsense until the reader analyzes and synthesizes those letters into words into phrases into sentences into paragraphs into ideas. The slippery slope, of course, is that it is possible to run away with this and say that all interpretations are valid. This is the reason that, generally speaking, I’m not a fan of a po-mo stance. However, I see nothing invalid in claiming that the books of the Bible, so far as they are repositories of story and knowledge meant to be passed down, should not be understood as having been, in some sense, written to me.

Therefore, in my evangelical half, I tend to look at 1 Samuel 5, and think something like this:

What is God teaching me? His power is so great that even a powerful foreign god like Dagon cannot help but bow prostrate before Him. His majesty is such that know “god” crafted by human hands (for God is certainly not made by human hands), or crafted by human minds, can resist Him. He is the one God. The Almighty. The Creator of Heaven and Earth.

Clearly, these two readings are totally different and opposed. The evangelical reading leaves little room for doubt in the historicity of the text. In fact, within this reading, historicity plays a remarkably minor role. Did the statue of Dagon actually fall when the ark of the covenant was placed in the house of Dagon? That’s what the book says. How do we apply a truth value to it in the absence of any other evidence? The Christian assumption is that all Scripture is “God-breathed and useful for teaching.” So, let’s go with it. The questions that follow are obvious: (a) What does this mean for the story? and (b) What does this mean for me?

Allowing myself to return to this mode of reading, as I noted above, has given me a certain freedom. History can act like chains on faith. I’m not saying we should do away with it. Anyone who knows me knows that I believe the opposite. I have found my reading of the Bible enriched by my understanding of the history behind it. However, at the moment that the Scriptures became canonized—linked inexorably—room is made for a valid interpretation of one book in light of the other. Notice that in my evangelical reading, 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV) plays a key role. I am reading 1 Samuel 5 in light of the fact that it has something to say to me. It has some instruction to give to me.

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