“On Canonical Reading, Context, and Collective Biblical Consciousness”

Words have no meaning without context. You can read the words “once” and “upon” and “a” and “time” separately, and they could mean an infinite number of things. However, string them together and all of the sudden by appearing side by side they communicate a specific meaning: “Once upon a time…” Perhaps the first time the phrase, “Once upon a time…” appeared, listeners were intrigued. The next time a storyteller evoked, “Once upon a time…” listeners were less surprised when the story that followed involved fairies, witches, and magic. The third, fourth, and every time after that, the stock phrase was firmly set in their collective memory. Now “Once upon a time…” has appeared in the context of fairytales so frequently that when used to open a narrative it immediately creates a space in our minds where we have certain expectations–usually involving princes, damsels in distress, dragons, and the like.

The Old Testament is as much about narrating salvation history as it is about creating recognizable motifs, narrative cycles, and literary structures in the collective memory of God’s people. As the central figure of salvation history, Jesus Christ is an infinitely faceted character. He cannot waltz onto the stage of history until there is actually a stage to waltz onto. The Bible–through its stories, commands, literary devices, and motifs–becomes that stage. The words of the Scripture form essential motifs and literary elements that create a space to recognize Jesus Christ–as King, Messiah, Shepherd, Passover Lamb, the I Am, etc. Without this context, God’s people cannot comprehend who Jesus is.

For instance, take the meeting at the well. Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and it just so happens that he discovers Rebekah at a well. Then, when Jacob goes to Paddan-Aram, he meets Rachel at a well. In Exodus, Moses meets his wife Zipporah at a well. The “meeting at a well” motif creates a context for John 4, where Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at a well.

Now, are these meetings at wells types of one another? Is the story of Abraham’s servant and Rebekah a type of Jesus’s meeting of the woman at the well? I think this is why speaking about typology as if it is the only way to connect Jesus’s life with the Old Testament is unhelpful. What is happening in the “meeting at the well” narratives, among other things, is creating space in the consciousness of God’s people where Jesus’s meeting with the woman at the well can have deep theological meaning. It is creating a literary and historical context where God’s people can say Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well is like Jacob’s meeting with Rachel.

In the book of Genesis, Moses is intentionally creating ruts in our collective consciousness. Over and over again, he tells the stories of the patriarchs as though he is laying layer upon layer. Read the book of Genesis enough times in a row, and the rest of the Bible will begin to take on so much more significance. Why? Genesis creates literary space–i.e., context. And meaning requires context.

Perhaps this is why there is confusion about the nature of allegorical interpretation. Allegory is not so much about ignoring the immediate context of a narrative as it is about recognizing its greater canonical context. Each passage of Scripture is received by a people necessarily shaped by the context created by the motifs of God’s Word.

We are not speaking about some nebulous “whatever strikes me” hermeneutic. We are talking about a people specifically shaped by continuous rumination on the word of our God. The more the mind continuously meditates on the tropes, motifs, and narratives of the Bible, the thicker the context of every passage of Scripture becomes.

The individual stories of the Bible are like the words “once” and “upon” and “a” and “time” when they are kept apart. However, when they are threaded together into books and those books are bound as one codex, all of the sudden stories that were bizarre and meaningless apart from one another create a contextual space where the Christ of Scripture has room to emerge, to act, and to save in a meaningful way.

We do not understand Christ’s atoning death without a context that includes the levitical priesthood. We have no concept of salvation through judgment without the stories of Noah’s flood and the Exodus through the Red Sea. Jesus cannot be the Shepherd King without a narrative context that includes the life of David.

I’m not arguing against typology. What I am arguing is that the OT is not merely a place to look for typology. The Old Testament is creating a context where metaphors and similes become possible. It is impossible to say, “Jesus is…” or “Jesus is like…” if you have no source material to draw from. Linguists sometimes use the terminology target and source. Clearly Christ is the great target of Scripture. However, without a biblical context full of motifs, narratives, and tropes there is no source from which to characterize Jesus Christ, the target.

This figural approach is why I don’t like to draw such a hard and fast line between allegory and typology. Aren’t they simply two different ways of drawing from the source to hit the target? Good allegorical interpretation does not seek to erase a narrative in its immediate context. Rather, it treasures the narrative for the context it creates for Christ.

TwoTowersIf I say the two towers of Judges 9 are the two eternal destinations of mankind–either to be burned or saved by the woman’s stone that crushes the skull of the enemy–I’m not transgressing the author’s original intentions. I’m recognizing how this story draws from and contributes to the material of the literary consciousness of God’s people. Abimelech and the Two Towers creates the opportunity for us to see what the plan of salvation is like. If I say that Abimelech is like Jesus when he cuts down wood, puts it on his shoulder, and says, “What you see me do, go and do likewise,” I’m not ignoring the historical significance of the story. I’m recognizing that Jesus speaks the words, “Take up your cross and follow me,” into a context that is shaped by the narratives of salvation history–a context that includes Judges 9.

I understand that this essay is a bit more frenetic–perhaps way more frenetic–than my typical fodder. In many ways, I think this is because hermeneutics is more of an art than we want to admit. We like to pretend that Biblical interpretation is like a math formula or chemistry equation where if we input the right ingredients, we get the correct result. God’s Word will never be exhaustively systematized. And praise God, neither will our Savior Jesus Christ.