明白聖經6─文體 (下集) Literary Forms, Part 2 史普羅 R.C. Sproul (Ligonier Ministries)


In our last session together, we looked at
some of the problems that come up in biblical interpretation that are related to various
forms of language and literary structure that we find in the Bible, and I wasn’t able to
complete all of the ones that I think we need to be aware of there, and so we’ll take some
time today to continue further on that before we move into some other important principles
of biblical interpretation. So we’ll do that after we open with prayer. Again, our Father
and our God, we know that we would wander in darkness and grope in blindness were it
not for the illumination of the truth that comes to us through Thy Word. Make us so skilled,
so capable, so responsible in dealing with that Word that the full measure of Your light
may shine in our lives. For we ask it in Jesus’ name and for His sake and for His honor. Amen. A particular literary form that is troublesome
at times is a form that we find frequently with close association with Hebrew poetry
as well as with other types of national poetry, and I’m thinking of the use of the concept
of personification — personification. We have it in our own literary patterns of poetry,
and personification is, as the word suggests, the use of personal forms of description for
impersonal objects, attributing human characteristics to inanimate things, for example, not in the
sense of animated cartoons, but in a poetic sense. I think, for example, how the psalms
of David are literally filled with an abundant use of personification, and in his exuberance
of the joy of celebrating the victory of God, he might say, “On that day, the hills will
clap their hands and they will dance, and the trees will sing,” and so on. Now are we really expecting to see the hills
or the mountains springing arms and then standing there clapping their hands, or seeing the
mountains growing feet and then doing an Irish jig around the countryside? Obviously not;
this is poetic license; this is the use of personification, in using personal characteristics
and qualities for impersonal objects. But as with these other forms of figurative use
of language, for example, that I’ve mentioned, most of the time when we see them in the Scripture,
it’s clear that that’s what they are. But there are always those few occasions where
some of the passages are excruciatingly difficult to isolate and identify in terms of their
literary form. Think of the controversy, for example, that
centers on two stories or two dimensions of the Old Testament that touch on the broader
question of personification. I think, for example, of the narrative account in the Old
Testament of Balaam’s ass, where in that story, we are told that Balaam is riding along on
his donkey and he’s on a very close confined quarters of a narrow mountain pass, and suddenly,
the angel of the Lord stands in front of the donkey, and the angel stands there with a
sword and he bars the passage of the ass. Now the donkey can see the angel, but Balaam,
who’s riding on the back of the donkey, cannot see the angel, and he’s just assuming that
the donkey’s refusal to move ahead is just part of the obstreperous stubborn nature of
the beast, and he starts to rebuke the jackass, and he said, “Get going, jackass. Why aren’t
you moving?” And he’s whipping it and prodding it, and the thing is not going to move; it’d
rather fall off the cliff than have to deal with that angel. And finally, you know, the
jackass turns around and says to his master, “Why are you whipping me? Can’t you see what’s
happening?” And the reader is astonished to see that the donkey speaks. Now how in the world are we supposed to interpret
that narrative? Well there are different ways to approach it; some say this is an example
of simple personification. The problem with that, however, is that the account of Balam’s
ass does not take place in the broader structure or the literary form of poetry. It takes place
in a passage that is marked by all of the normal characteristics of what we call historical
narrative, with a certain soberness to it. It’s not in rhythm; it’s not in lyrical form
of poetry. So we would not expect personification here. On the other hand, we are not accustomed
to expecting animals speaking. Now some say that they dismiss it as just sheer myth, as
sheer poppycock, because it creates a supernatural manifestation, and they dismiss the significance
of the text of the jackass speaking because they say this is a violation of nature — jackasses
can’t talk, and therefore, this must be some kind of primitive mistake. Now here again, we see an example of one’s
view of miracle or anti-supernatural bias violating the text, and I remind you that
before you make decisions of whether or not the text is believable, whether or not it’s
speaking the truth or not, we can’t determine that on preconceived notions of philosophy.
The first step is, what is it actually saying? What is it trying to assert? If a man comes
down the street and says to me, “My jackass can talk,” I may not be disposed to believing
that he’s speaking the truth, but first, before I can convict him of error, I have to understand
if he’s really speaking to me as trying to communicate a matter of fact. Now I just might
add in passing that I don’t know what the big deal is about a jackass speaking. We see
that everyday. That wouldn’t even require a miracle. We have another category of literature where
you will find stories that are written that have some of the characteristics of historical
narrative and that are written in some cases in a style of prose, but they end up with
animals speaking and doing human things. We think of Aesop’s fables, for example, and
that that is itself a literary form that is used to teach a moral lesson, and therefore,
some commentators have come to the story of Balaam’s ass and they say, well what we have
here is an example of the fable in the Bible, not an example of untruth, but that the purpose
of the text is to communicate a moral lesson by attributing human characteristics to a
beast such as Balaam’s ass. Now that is a more credible question, I think, of literary
identification than to just dismiss it because it appears to be miraculous or supernatural.
But I would still demur even with those who prefer fable over myth or over just simple
primitive poppycock because again, I think if we look closely at that at the context
of the writing, it is prose; it lacks the normal characteristics of fable, save for
that one, namely, of an animal talking. The rest of the structure suggests very strongly
that the author is actually trying to convey to us that on a day in history, God empowered
a beast of burden, a common jackass, to open his mouse — mouth — and speak. But we’ll
leave that question to your further investigation. What I want to just point out here is how
sometimes it’s not always quite so clear. If that’s not enough to bewilder us, let’s
take an even more controversial dimension of Scripture where we have human characteristics
associated with animals. In the very earliest chapters of the Old Testament, going back
to creation itself, back to the account of the fall in the third chapter of the book
of Genesis, one of the most important narratives of all the Scripture because it gives us the
biblical and theological explanation for the fall of man, for the reality of sin, for the
reality of death in this world, for the very need for redemption in the first place, I
mean, it’s crucial to the Christian faith and theology that we understand properly the
biblical idea of creation and fall. But right there in the middle of the whole question
of the fall of man, we run into this testy problem. At what point? Everything’s going
along very nicely until this serpent, who is described as more subtle than any of the
beasts of the field, comes into the garden and it starts to talk to Adam and Eve and
carry on a conversation with them. And so we scratch our head and say wait a minute.
Snakes don’t speak — any serpents that we know; I mean, parrots can talk, mina birds
can talk, we can train certain other animals to mimic human sounds, and so on. Maybe it’s
even possible someday for porpoises or dolphins to speak, but as far as we know, serpents,
snakes, don’t have the capacity to converse in human patterns of speech. You say, well
this isn’t really the serpent talking; it’s the devil talking through him. Maybe that’s
the way to do it, but that raises all kinds of questions, and some have jumped on this
particular dimension of biblical literature to claim that the very beginning of biblical
literature is unhistorical, and in fact, legendary or mythological, and say that we cannot really
believe in historical Adam or a historical fall because of the presence of such anti-historical
elements within it. Now again, we have the same problem here that
we’ve had in other places already. We have to ask the question, is the Bible claiming
a supernatural event happened here in real time, in real space, in real geographical
setting and that the problem that we’re confronting with those who are skeptical about it is basically
a problem of unbelief — they just don’t believe in God? They don’t believe in a supernatural
Creator who has the capacity to bring miracles to pass? That’s one set of problems if we
have it. Or is it possible that a conservative, a person who believes in the supernatural,
who believes in the miracles, he doesn’t flinch at virgin birth, he doesn’t flinch at turning
water into wine, he doesn’t flinch at the possibility that God could come down and have
jackasses speaking or that the devil could speak through a snake? They have no problems
with the supernatural character, but it’s possible then that it has been the case that
very sober, erudite conservative scholars have looked at that passage, and they scratch
their head and they say, “But we’re not sure this is what the Bible means to teach. We’re
not sure that the Bible is even trying to suggest that this is history.” Why not? Well before I answer that question, let me
further illustrate the dilemma in the Netherlands not too many years ago. There was a burning,
raging controversy over whether or not the first three chapters of the Old Testament
were to be taken as history, and those who denied it were under serious scrutiny as to
whether or not they were just anti-God or anti-truth, or whether or not there was legitimate
reasons for it, and Karl Barth happened to be visiting the Netherlands at that time,
and he was speaking to a large group of people; and when he was finished speaking, he said,
“Are there any questions?” And somebody raised a question about Genesis three, and they said,
“Dr. Barth, sprechen se schlange” — did the snake speak? That’s right, he wanted Karl
Barth, the eminent Swiss theologian, to settle this controversy for him once and for all.
He said, “Dr. Barth, tell us please, did that snake in Genesis speak?” Remember Barth’s
reply? It was famous; Barth smiled in his grandfatherly way and looked at the questioner,
and he answered the question with a question. He said, “Vas sprechen di schlange” — what
did the snake say? It was a very clever and adroit dodging of the issue, a very diplomatic
answer by Karl Barth, and what the point that Barth was making is he is trying to tell these
people, hey look, it doesn’t matter whether or not the snake spoke. The real question
is the content of the conversation. That’s what the Bible’s concerned about. But I would have differed with Barth at that
point. I would say, “Wait a minute, Dr. Barth. With all due respect, I agree that the real,
you know, concern ought to be what was the conversation about — that’s vitally important
— but right now we have a crisis here in the church, a crisis of whether or not the
Bible that we come to for our instruction of the things of God is a book that can be
trusted when it teaches matters of history. Can we believe it when it says that in history
Jesus Christ rose from the dead? I’m trusting my life for that. I’m trusting my eternal
life for that, and I want to know whether this book is to be trusted when it speaks
on historical matters. And we can’t just duck it and say it doesn’t matter, because at the
center of our controversy is the question of the historical reliability of this crucially
important passage in the third chapter of Genesis. And so we’d like to know, did the
snake speak?” I think that’s what I would say to Barth. I — but on the other hand,
to jump on the other side and to defend Barth here for a second, a point also that Barth
was saying is that it is possible for a person to believe in the absolute infallibility of
sacred Scripture and still not be persuaded that that account in Genesis three is historical
because of the literary problems of analysis that are involved there. It’s not as easy
to define as many people think. Now again, I’m not backing off my original
assertion. I said there’s only one right answer to that: either the author of Genesis is trying
to say this is what happened in real history or he wasn’t; we can’t play games with that.
I don’t want to do that, but I’m saying we have to be careful to analyze the literature.
But you see, the problem we have with those earlier chapters with Genesis, which I personally,
you know, let the cat out of the bag — it’s really not difficult to peer in the bag and
see, I’m sure — I personally believe they are historical. I’m convinced that there was
a historical Adam, that there was a historical Eve, there was a historical garden, there
was a historical snake, and there was a historical fall. I believe that, and I think it’s very
important, and I believe it for a host of reasons, but at the same time, I have to be
patient and recognize that there are literary problems to be wrestled with here in this
text. For example, part of the text of Genesis has elements of literary form that are clearly
consistent with what we normally find in the prose of historical narrative — there are
mention of real cities, real — I mean real rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, and
there is a spatial and temporal setting for the Garden of Eden. There are other factors
that are involved there that I’ll consider in a moment, that call attention to the normal
characteristics of historical prose, but at the same time, that garden that is given a
historical setting, a geographical location, is told of having a tree in it that was called
the Tree of Life and a tree in it that was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and
Evil. Now I’ve seen apple trees, I’ve seen pear trees, I’ve seen walnut trees, I’ve seen
weeping willow trees, but I’ve never seen the Tree of Life; and when I see the Tree
of Life mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, where do I find it? I find it in the book
of Revelation, which is filled with a high degree of symbolic images. And the concept,
Tree of Life, sounds very much like a symbol, and what the setting for the symbol is in
the context of historical prose, and that makes it difficult, you see, when we have
elements that are normally found in one kind of literature mixed together with elements
that are normally found in other kind of — and there’s a very real sense in which the very
opening chapters of Genesis is unique in terms of the combination of styles of literature
that we find there, and it’s caused no small amount of consternation for biblical interpreters. All right, so again, I remind you, personification
is easily recognized when hills are clapping their hands; it’s more difficult when we see
it in the case of Balaam’s ass, it’s more — and again, the question of the speaking
serpent. History, fable, poetic personification, these are different forms that we need to
be able to identify as closely as possible, or at least to understand that problems that
are associated with them, lest we jump at each other’s throats when we differ in our
interpretation. Now in the time that I have left today, I
want to just give a brief description of what are the normal characteristics of historical
narrative, because it’s the historical dimension of sacred Scripture that is under so much
attack today, and it’s the historical dimension of our faith that is at the center of the
controversy. There are people today who say, “We don’t even care whether there was a historical
Jesus, you can have Christianity without a historical Christ — that our faith is not
tied to history.” You can’t find that in the New Testament; the New Testament marries history
and redemption. I’ve heard theologians say that the Bible is not normal history; the
Bible’s redemptive history. Therefore it doesn’t matter whether it’s historically correct or
historically accurate. Let me remind you that yes, the Bible is redemptive history; it’s
not just giving us the history of the western world like some other secular historian. Here
is the history of redemption. It is redemptive history. It’s a particular kind of history,
but I also have to remind you that even though it’s redemptive history, it is also redemptive
“history,” and the Jew put his life on the line for the historical reality of His faith.
We believe in the God who was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We believe in the God who
brought us up out of the land of bondage, out of Egypt, out of a real historical place
and gave us a real historical Exodus and gave us a real historical redemption, because I
am a real historical person, and I want and I need real historical redemption. Don’t play
around with spiritualizations of it; the Jew has no time for that in the ancient world.
The New Testament is introduced by the appearance of Christ in the center of history, in the
fullness of time. In the context of real history, our Savior came, our Savior died, our Savior
rose, and our Savior will come again. And so the historical centrality of redemption
is really, dear friends, a nonnegotiable of Christianity, and if we play around with it,
we’re playing around with the very essence of what the Christian faith is all about.
That’s why it’s very important for us to be able to recognize the normal characteristics
of historical narrative lest we do violence to that historical foundation upon which our
faith is established. Some of the most basic of all characteristics
of historical narrative that we ought to be able to recognize when we see them are as
follows — I’ll give you a simple list. First of all, where the passage gives us a setting
of a time and/or of a real historical place. Think of the announcement of the nativity
of Jesus Luke tells us: a day — you know, “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that
all the world would be enrolled, and these things took place in the days when Quirinius
was governor of Syria.” Now in that little narrative talking about the coming birth of
Jesus, you have a reference to Caesar Augustus, whom we know was a real historical person.
There really was a Roman empire. There really was a Quirinius. There really was a Syria.
That is to say that the Gospel comes to us citing real life temporal situations, facts
of location and of time. That is a characteristic of historical narrative. Second of all, historical narrative is usually
conveyed by means of a prose style. I know that real events from history can be passed
on from generation to generation in other forms; in fact, the Bible does it whenever
a great victory takes place in the Old Testament. For example, the key moments of the victory
are celebrated in the song and the song rehearses it, just like “The Battle of New Orleans”
is a popular song in country-western music, and we can learn something about the battle
of New Orleans by singing the song, but there the song commemorates the events with poetic
and lyrical forms; but normally, historical narrative comes in a prose form. Another tip-off to real history is the presence
of genealogies, those lists and catalogs of generations: so-and-so begat so-and-so begat
so-and-so that begat so-and-so. Those were part of the legal documentation of the records
that were used in the census bureaus and in the local courts of Israel, and so genealogies
are not usually found in poetry. They’re found in historical narratives. Another example is that there is no obvious
moral point to the text. Now why do I insert that characteristic in it? Well you see, the
thing that makes it difficult is that fiction imitates life, and we have such things as
historical novels, epic poems, or we have in the New Testament, Jesus. One of Jesus’
favorite techniques was the use of the parable, and sometimes He’ll tell a parable as if it
were a true historical event. The purpose of the parable, however, is not to communicate
historical events, but the purpose of the parable is to illustrate a spiritual truth
or a moral point — “A man went down to Jericho.” There was a real Jericho, there was a real
Jerusalem, “and a Levite,” there really were Levites, “and a priest,” there really was
a priest. You take the parable of the Good Samaritan and it is replete with illusions
to real historical events and types of persons. So it is possible for something to sound very
much like history and not be history; it borrows elements from historical narrative, but is
not pure historical narrative. But usually that is done for a moral point or for a spiritual
lesson, and that is readily apparent in the parables. So unless such a moral conclusion
is drawn in the narrative, I think it would be illegitimate to just dismiss it as parable
or legend for no good reason. I would say the burden of proof to differentiate
when the rest of these characteristics are present would be on those who are arguing
that it is not historical narrative. That’s one of the reasons why I believe in the historicity
of the first three chapters of Genesis. Yes, there are these elements, these strange elements
of symbol present there, but you have real rivers, you have real genealogies, you have
the corroborative evidence of the rest of the New Testament writers, no less, the New
Testament and Old Testament referring to Adam and so on as a real historical person, and
so I would say the cumulative evidence would call us to treat those chapters as historical.
But let me remind you that our faith is tied to history, and it’s important that we be
able to recognize historical narrative when we see it — references to real time, to real
space, to real personages, to genealogies, in prosaic style. Those are the tip-offs for
historical narrative. We’ll continue this in our next session together.

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