Posts Tagged ‘hermenutics’

Singularly Collective

“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the–if he–if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not–that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement…” – Then President Bill Clinton’s testimony before the Starr Commission, 1998

In Galatians 3:16 Paul seems to pull a linguistic fast one almost Clinton-ian in magnitude in order to make his point. The Hebrew word zera is translated by the Greek word sperma which is translated into English as either “seed” or “offspring”. These words are “collective nouns” which means that though they are in the singular form, they actually refer to many. “Seed” can be singular as in “I swallowed an apple seed” or it can be collective as in “I believe we got enough seed for next year’s planting” or it can be plural as in “I got a bunch of blackberry seeds stuck in my teeth.” And that goes for zera and sperma in their respective languages also. So how do you know if the word is singular or collective? The only way to tell the difference between singular and collective is by the context. Plural is obvious.

So here’s what Paul says:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)

There are a handful of places Paul may be quoting from in Genesis, God told Abraham this often. Something else God says to Abraham about his offspring is really important.

And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)

This is very important for two reasons. First, Paul has already cited this verse as proof that we’re justified by faith, not works. Second, the context is abundantly clear that “offspring” is collective and not singular. So no matter how you slice it, Paul is clearly aware of the plurality of Abraham’s offspring.

So what do you think? Is Paul pulling some funny business with words in order to make his point? I don’t believe he is. Though the point seems strained here, Paul is really just following God’s lead. Consider this:

The LORD God said to the serpent…
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14)

Did you see what God did there? He started by talking about “offspring” which sounded like warfare between Eve’s children and Satan’s. But then God switched to a singular pronoun “he”. So we understand it to be a singular person because the context made it clear. Or did it? Consider Romans 16:20 “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” The “your” there is plural, as in ya’ll or you’uns. What it shows is that this is a more complex issue than at first blush. When it comes to these covenant promises, there is a way in which the “seed” is singular and in which it is collective.

So it appears that Paul picked up on the thread of the promised seed, which is Jesus, and he just read Abraham that way. He didn’t quote Genesis 15:5-6, which clearly is talking about a collective seed but rather any of the other places where God makes a promise to Abraham and to his seed and Paul’s explanation is that God’s promise is to Jesus through Abraham. I’ll come back to how the collective can be true at the same time the singular is in a moment.

I think the singular interpretation that Paul uses in 3:16 actually helps in verses 19 & 20, which are a bit confusing:

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

Tim Keller in his brief commentary/study guide, Galatians For You said, “The rest of verse 19 and verse 20 are extremely cryptic…No one is sure what Paul means or how this fits into the argument” but Keller then reassures us that it wasn’t crucial to the rest of Paul’s point. And really, he’s right. I can’t be really certain that the way I’m reading this is best and the rest of Paul’s case is so clear that we’re okay if we leave this cloudy. But I think Paul’s handling of collective nouns earlier in chapter 3 gives us some trajectory to think along when we get here.

The law was given to Moses by the instrumentality of angels. I don’t know what they actually did, maybe they were the ones holding the stone tablets as God used his finger to engrave them with the Ten Commandments. But the angels were there when God gave the law to his intermediary, Moses. God spoke to Israel and they freaked out, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exod. 20:19) But the promise didn’t have an intermediary, God spoke it directly to Abraham. But, according to Galatians 3:16, the promise was to Jesus so wasn’t Abraham the intermediary in that case? Nope, since God is one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there was no intermediary when the Father spoke the promise to the Son. Abraham was not an intermediary, he was simply a witness.

So what about the collective nature of the word “offspring”? That is, of course, true also. And, not surprisingly, Paul answers that for us in Galatians chapter 3 as well. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” The promise is to Abraham’s Seed, Jesus, and we’re heirs to the promise as we’re in Christ. So the promise is made to singular Seed and collective seed since Jesus is bringing in the gentiles to the promise as well.

Context Context Context

Often new Christians are introduced to certain “narrow” types of Bible study (memorization, Bible study guides, etc) without having any idea of what the Bible as a whole is all about. This causes several problems. First, someone could “study” the Bible for years in this fashion without ever really learning. Secondly, this ignorance is seldom dealt with because it is hidden behind an impressive array of Bible quotes. When a Christian quotes a passage out of Hosea from memory, it rarely occurs to others to wonder if he has ever read Hosea. If he hasn’t (as is frequently the case), he cannot know the context of the passage he quotes. This is because he learned it off a little white card and the card has no context. – Doug Wilson, As Somebody Somewhere Said…, Blog and Mablog

I remember when a friend first recommended that I memorize scripture, this was my very response. What about the context? I don’t recall the answer but I think the impression was that I was over reacting. Later I bought the white, pre-printed Navigator Bible verse memory cards and gave it a shot. I don’t think I did well. I do better at memorizing when there is context; I remember stories better than standalone sentences.

Here’s an example of the issue. Psalm 46:10 says “Be still and know that I am God.” Well, the first part of that verse does anyway. Who wrote that Psalm? Who is being address in that command? The context could make that a wonderful blessing or a large threat depending on who it is said to. The note from the Geneva Bible says “He warns them who persecute the Church to cease their cruelty: for also they will feel that God is too strong for them against whom they fight.” If that’s right, and I think it is, then is this really the promise you mean to claim? Isn’t more of a warning about how God will defend his people? That may be comforting for his people but it is at a cost to the nations.

To be sure, there is a place for the imprecatory psalms to be prayed by the saints, but I don’t think that is how most saints think of this one when they put the stickers on their cars or the vinyl on their walls. That isn’t to say that the intention isn’t true, we are called to rest in God in other places in scripture. Wouldn’t it be better to remember those instead?

Heisman Hermeneutics are Bad

Now some might object that they don’t want to accept the possibility that the Bible teaches that the earth is a flat disk, resting on the back of a turtle. Well, it doesn’t teach that, but if the ancient world did think that, and the Scriptures used turtle terminology straight across without missing a beat, you would have two choices. You could ditch the faith, or you could go with the turtles. What you shouldn’t do is get a couple of graduate degrees from a formerly evangelical seminary, in which process you were trained to run evasively through sitz im leben metaphors like you were a Heisman trophy contender, stiff arm out. – Doug Wilson, Hell and Hellenism, Blog and Mablog

How to Understand a Parable

1. Don’t treat parables like allegory.

An allegory is most often completely filled with symbolic meaning. Every detail means something that can be traced to the overriding principle that is being illuminated. Parables usually have one basic, central meaning. Trying to oversymbolize them can have the effect of tearing them apart. A person doesn’t understand the beauty of a flower by disassembling it. Like a blossom, a parable is best understood by seeing it in its simple and profound entirety.

2. The Rule of Three.

Like all good storytelling, parables usually follow the Rule of Three. Do you remember the stories you heard as a child—such as “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Three Bears”? Both of these stories are filled with more “threes”: three wolves, three beds, three bowls of porridge. Jesus did this often in the telling of the parables. And is it any wonder that many parables deliver three important truths or that most sermons rest on three important points?

3. The Rule of Two.

Parable characters often follow the Rule of Two. There were usually two people who experienced tension between righteousness and sin, good and evil. When you look for these two elements you will find an important part of the development of the parable.

4. Code words and phrases.

Jesus’ parables used certain phrases and code words that communicated in subtly powerful ways to His audiences. For instance, “How much more” is used to build a bridge from temporal things to spiritual realities. “He who has ears to hear” calls people to critically important issues of spiritual life and death. “Verily, verily, I say to you,” means that Jesus is speaking with earnest intensity; don’t miss it. Look for these phrases and understand where they’re leading you.
Excerpt from What’s in the Bible?, R. C. Sproul (2011, Thomas Nelson).