Reading the Bible…Outside the Bible

‘Secondly, the source subject in a metaphor is not in itself used as a straight substitution for the target subject; rather, there are certain features about the source subject that are selected and applied to influence the way the target subject is to be perceived.’

Lydia Gore-Jones, “Animals, Humans, Angels and God: Animal Symbolism in the Historiography of the ‘Animal Apocalypse’ of 1 Enoch,” JSP 24.4 (2015): 274.

I have been rereading Lydia Gore-Jones’ article on the construction of metaphor in the Animal Apocalypse of 1 Enoch 85-90. For those of you who don’t know, the Animal Apocalypse is a retelling of the history of Israel from creation until the eschaton; the latter event the author presents as occurring during the life of Judas Maccabeus. What makes this work particularly special, however, is that history is told using animals to represent historical figures: those who fit within the author’s understanding of ‘true’/’correct’ Judaism are portrayed as ritually clean animals, and those who do not fit this paradigm are portrayed as ritually unclean animals. It’s really interesting stuff, and if you haven’t read it, might I suggest that you stop reading this blog post (or maybe finish it quickly) and then go and read 1 Enoch?

Anyways, Gore-Jones makes an offhand remark in her article that the Animal Apocalypse, despite using metaphor to represent the figures in its history, can be interpreted with relative ease since it bases much of its history on the biblical account (269). Thus, anyone who has read Genesis 6 will know when the watchers are being referenced, while if you’re familiar with the stories of Moses it will be relatively straightforward to know when the author is retelling the exodus.

While this is probably true for biblical scholars (who are, no doubt, the target audience of Gore-Jones’ article), I doubt that this is true for the majority of the Christian population. I suspect that if I went to my local church (you can pick your favourite denomination), handed someone in the pews a copy of the Animal Apocalypse, and asked them to pick out which Bible characters are being referenced at any given point, I would be treated to blank stares. This applies, of course, to me as well. This past spring, when I wrote a paper on 1 Enoch, I had to look up most of the references therein, so I can hardly claim to be exempt from this criticism.

Of course, people can debate with me as to the extent of biblical literacy in Christian churches. I freely admit that it will depend on the local congregation and the congregants. But, from my own observations in various Christian settings, I would say that most believers would have a hard time identifying a particular bull as a representation of Noah.

Far more interesting is the question of whether things ought to be this way: To what extent should Christians know the stories found in their Bibles? To what extent should Christians be aware of the vast interpretive traditions lying within and outside of their faith?

Surely, one might say, it is only necessary to know the important parts of the Bible. John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:8-9 will do.

Another might argue that the essence of the Christian faith isn’t the memorization of names and events, but rather internalizing the basic soteriological narrative found in the gospels. Who cares how one interprets Genesis 6? The point of the Bible is the incarnation of Jesus Christ; you’re merely splitting hairs over historical (or narrative, or exegetical, or whatever) questions.

These are caricatures, I know. But in my own experience, Christians too readily fit them. When’s the last time you heard a sermon on the ‘sons of God’ (Gen 6:2)? In reading 1 Enoch, you find an entire interpretive tradition emerging around this subject. This should at least caution us against relegating such (admittedly obscure) passages to some kind of ‘sub-canon’.

Christians have faith in a triune God, whom we believe to be living and active in the Old Testament as well as the New. This means that one cannot deliberately truncate the Bible into a few snapshots without doing violence to one’s understanding of who God is and what he does. This also means that Christians have a responsibility to know their Bible – all of it, and not just the parts that they like or the parts that are easy to understand. And this begins with a basic knowledge of events and figures, without which one cannot possibly hope to be able to internalize the underlying message contained in these narratives.

As the title of this post suggests, reading the Bible outside the Bible might be a place to start. The article with which I began this piece notes that the metaphors employed by the author of the Animal Apocalypse operate as part of a system, which is conditioned by the paradigms established in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, Gore-Jones is suggesting that the construction of the metaphor involves a selective projection of certain features and characteristics onto each character in the narrative (274). But, without a deep knowledge of the underlying source material, how could one possibly hope to know which features and characteristics were being projected and which were not?

In other words, knowledge of the Hebrew Bible enabled the author of this text to interpret it and apply its narratives in a unique way to the particular circumstances that second century BCE Jews faced. But, the construction and interpretation of this message required a knowledge of the Hebrew Bible’s contents. Without such knowledge, the author could not have crafted his message, nor could the reader have understood it.

Christians should appreciate this aspect of communication, especially when they look to the New Testament. The authors therein repeatedly reference the Old Testament and, in Jude 14-16, even make a reference to 1 Enoch itself. The New Testament presupposes a knowledge of the Old. Thus, I would suggest that those churches that ignore the Old Testament (and I would like to think that it is not intentional but rather stems from a desire to be ‘seeker-sensitive’ or to make their messages easier to comprehend) are unable to fully connect with the Bible’s message. Of course, those new to the faith will have a less extensive knowledge, but I would argue that Christian maturity is directly tied to an increasing immersion in the entirety of the biblical account. Churches and pastors need to enable and support this process. Reading a text like the Animal Apocalypse reveals that many Christians such as myself need to study their scriptures. It also shows the interpretive disconnect that can result when we fail in this regard.


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