Monday, September 29, 2008

Homotextuality v. Intertextuality

I've written before about what I call 'homotextuality,' that approach to the Bible that virtually ignores the uniqueness of each of the biblical books and treats the Scriptures as if all of them are saying the same thing. That approach ignores the historical context of each book, preferring to act as though time and situation are irrelevant to understanding the meaning of the text. That is a difficult approach to accept for a collection of text that were written (after centuries of an oral tradition) over a thousand year span. And yet, that is precisely the kind of biblical interpretation that Left Behind Theology requires. So, the probability that Daniel was written during a national crisis, and that Mark was written during the destruction of Jerusalem become meaningless, because homotextuality insists that neither of them is addressing the disaster at hand; they are both talking about a foreboding event of the future, which we now know was at least 2,000 away.

There is a better way of understanding the Scriptures, which does not have to sacrifice the historical context or uniqueness of each of the biblical texts, but still allows that they are connected in some key and intentional ways. Rather than homotexuality, I suggest that we follow a process of intertextuality, for understanding the uniqueness and interrelations of biblical texts.

To understand what I mean by intertextuality, let's look at the use of 'bread' in the Scriptures. Obviously bread is a staple of the diet of the communities throughout the Bible, from Abraham's and Sarah's hospitality tent to Paul and his house churches. It would not be unusual, then, for 'bread' to mean both the specific grain-based food that one eats with meals as well as a term that refers generally to eating a meal, such as "breaking bread together." So, here's a thumbnail sketch of how 'bread' shows up through the Scriptures:

Bread is a sign of hospitality for Abraham and Sarah when they have guests; Grain is the thing that Joseph stores up for Pharaoh over seven years of plenty, which he sells and makes Pharaoh extremely wealthy during the seven years of famine; grain is what drives Joseph's brothers to Egypt, eventually settling the Israelites there (move ahead 400 years); the Israelites make unleavened bread to prepare for their hurried journey out of Egypt- the unleavened bread of Passover now is a symbol of their hurried departure; the Israelites begin to starve in their wanderings and God provides 'manna', which is called "bread from heaven"; the laws in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make consistent reference to grain/bread (along with grapes/wine and oil) as a sign of God's blessing when they reach the Promised Land; the laws also make consistent reference to the People of Israel's need to provide grain/bread to the widows, orphans, and aliens (non-land owners) among them, remembering that they once were a people who were enslaved and God remembered them; the Psalms make reference to the "bread from heaven" as a test of faithfulness and to bread more generally as a sign of God's abundance; the prophets make reference to bread/harvesting grain and the lack of bread/harvesting grain as signs of God blessing or punishment; the gospels have numerous references to bread, but all of them tell the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (and the 4,000) using language that seems intentionally to refer to the story of manna; John tells of Jesus calling himself the bread of life; Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul tell the story of the Last Supper; and so on.

Phew! That was a sprint through many years, simply noting some of the highlights of how 'bread' is used throughout the scriptures as both a literal and a symbolic reference. It is no wonder that, when Jesus sat down to that last supper with his disciples, he was able to take literal bread and say something non-literal (this is my body) about it. They were all well-steeped in a tradition that saw bread as bread and as more than bread at the same time.

Intertextuality is a way of reading the Scriptures where a reference to bread in a later text might carry references to bread in an earlier text (leaving open the possibility that sometimes "a loaf of bread is just a loaf of bread"). So, for example, when Amos decries the corrupt people who want the Sabbath to be over so they can buy and sell and exploit again, he also accuses them of "selling the sweepings of the wheat." That doesn't sound so bad, until you remember the laws in Leviticus where the fallen wheat was not to be swept up for sale, but left for the poor. As long as people left the fallen wheat for the poor, they were remembering that once they were landless slaves and God provided for them. When they are selling the sweepings of the wheat, they are forgetting the liberation from Egypt, the manna in the wilderness, and God's provision for them. The later reference in Amos depends on the earlier reference in Leviticus for the full impact of its meaning.

Homotextuality works almost in the opposite direction. I have a study Bible where the writer comments on the 'manna' story as an anticipation of Jesus, saying "Christ is the fulfillment of this type." So, what looks like bread for a starving people, a sign of God's abundant provision beyond their own ability to provide for themselves- is actually a prophetic reference to Jesus. I think this process of homotextuality is simply wrong.

Intertextuality reads the Gospels as reaching back and taking the bread references of earlier texts and giving them new meaning. And that is where we'll pick it up tomorrow as we look at some key texts in Left Behind Theology.

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