Over-doing “Likening the scriptures unto us”

In the current Biblical ArchaeologyReview magazine (Jan/Feb 2012), Amy-Jill Levine discusses “The Many Faces of the Good Samaritan – Most Wrong”.

She tells of sermons she’s heard regarding the Good Samaritan over the years and how some have likened the story in very strange ways.  Some view the robbers that hurt the traveler as “freedom fighters.”   Some have taught that the parable teaches the importance of providing “free medical services to foreign nationals.”

One that many LDS try teaching is that the Levite and priest walk past the injured because they do not want to be unclean.  However, the Torah and Mishnah teach the importance of helping others, and even the high priest should “attend a neglected corpse.”

She explains that the focus is on a common Jewish hero story, where first comes a Levite and priest.  But the true hero is the common Israelite, who comes to the rescue after the first two.  The surprise comes, when instead of telling of the hero Israelite, Jesus brings in the Samaritan, who is an enemy of the Jews (see Luke 9:54, John 4:9).  Here we have an enemy treat the injured, and being the hero of the story.

How often do we over-do Nephi’s teaching to “liken the scriptures unto us”, and in so doing take the teaching into an entirely different direction?  In my lifetime, I’ve heard people explain that Jesus was a communist, or libertarian.  Many members read the stories in the Book of Mormon and believe that all kings are evil, that the Nephites under judges were libertarians, etc.  For decades, many taught that entrance into the Telestial or Terrestrial kingdom was akin to hell, even though D&C 76 tells us otherwise.  Others have tried to interpret the scriptures to explain the curse of Cain, justifying either slavery and Jim Crow laws, or at treat many as second class citizens.

How do we get the members of the Church to lessen up on the “likening unto us”, and seeking more the real intent behind the scriptures?

BAR Article from Amy-Jill Levine

8 thoughts on “Over-doing “Likening the scriptures unto us”

  1. That’s a great question. I think the whole scriptural “looking beyond the mark” gets into this as well. Yet we are supposed to liken the scriptures to ourselves. I think the best solution is to try and teach the context of the scriptures as best we can. Of course often we don’t know the context – especially with the Book of Mormon. And even where we do know more about the context we still have a lot of ignorance. But learning the scriptures not just in terms of application or “proof texting” and really seeking to understand them as texts is just extremely helpful. And it opens up new ways to liken them to ourselves as well.

  2. Great question. It’s tough to answer your question because we simply do not have a culture in the Church of calling people out when we think they are wrong (which is what makes the bloggernacle so useful, I think). Otherwise, a simple “Dude, you’re stretching” would suffice.

  3. I see your concerns Rame, and I think that it might be important to ask ourselves about historical context from time to time. But my personal philosophy towards the scriptures is that they are first and foremost tools, not teachings or histories. They are keys towards accessing the divine, and sometimes that access comes even with non-historical understandings. I really like the Joseph Smith Translation, not because I think it clarifies original intent, but because it clarifies where Joseph Smith disagreed with the original authors, and where he invites us to read the scriptures in different ways. It gets me into the mind of a prophet as he reads the scriptures, in a creative, spiritual, but sometimes non-historical frame of mind.

    If we are too careful to hold up the scriptures to modern standards of proof texting, we are forgetting that the original authors themselves did not write or recount their stories by our modern standards either. The only standard was the prophetic rapture of the spirit, which transcends the fussy details and dusty facts of history.

    I believe the scriptures should be read creatively. Part of that reading would include going to the original Greek or Hebrew, where the layers of meaning and opportunities for interpretation are so much more rich than the KJV.

  4. P.S. I wrote on a similar topic a while ago, but I like the different angle you take. My post was titled Making the Gospel truer than it really is.

    Nate: I agree with your point about the scriptures being tools, not histories. Where I think there must be constraint—as with any tool, right?—is when using them as a community (e.g., at Church). It’s fine with me if someone wants to personally meditate 1 Nephi 3:7 to yield insight into obedience, charity, Levirate marriage, soup recipes, or even particle physics, but there should be some realization that that isn’t going to translate well to others; i.e., one’s personal exotic reading of the scriptures is unlikely to make a connection with anyone else.

  5. I think we’ve got to stop trying to “liken” to justify our politics or whatever we’re trying to justify. Jesus wasn’t a libertarian or communist…he was the Savior, and that’s where the focus should be. I think people try to “liken” as a means to justify so as to make themselves feel better and their position right. We all want to be right, some of us want to be right all the time.

  6. I don’t know about you, but I think being a child of God and not growing up to have the same potential and receive of the same fulness that my Father has, would be an awefully terrible thing. In a kind of an interesting cross between damn and dam, I look at damnation as exactly that — being thwarted from progressing where we need to. And it would be an aweful state indeed as it was a self-created barrier to eternal progression. So, while some people would be happy living forever in a place where there is no sickness and everything is provided for, from the standpoint of the one who calls himself Eternal, to see that potential and progress thwarted (“dammed”) truly is a sad thing.

    Sorry for the tangent, it’s what I do.

  7. Chris, it is a good tangent. And I personally think that the door is not closed on the concept of progression between kingdoms. Given all that God does to provide for a maximum salvation, it doesn’t seem like he would place us in a kingdom for “eternity” or forever because of 70 years of choices. Instead, I think progression may be possible, but it is dammed by our own efforts towards that progression. I do not think we stop progressing, but some may take many eternities to arrive at exaltation.

    Geoff, perhaps a newspaper article entitled: “Yes Virginia, Santa is a communist”?

    Joyce, I totally agree. All of us, Mormon or other Christian, seek to justify ourselves, our sins, our beliefs, and mingle them with scripture. This, I believe, is where we need to focus on becoming gospel scholars and seek more inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Gospel scholarship will help us understand original intent of the scriptures. The Holy Spirit will help us to correctly liken the scriptures unto us.

    Nate, I agree that the scriptures are tools to access the divine. That said, I think we too often get ourselves into a rut or a “squirrel” moment, where we use the scriptures in ways that lead us away from the divine. Spiritual or theological twinkies do not help us, yet they are like wildfire in the Church. Saints use the scriptures to focus on the signs of the times, but do not recognize the more important things. Like you, I seek after the divine. In my New Testament lesson blogging on Revelation, I focused on the ascension and temple themes, and ignored the usual stuff most focus on.

    Clark, I agree it is a “looking beyond the mark.” Still, I don’t see a problem with us having a personal interpretation of scripture, as long as it remains personal. I find we lose focus on the most important things, as we look for mysteries that are not true mysteries.

    Book of Revelation speculation is one example of this. In following the speculation, we lose sight of the important. Nephi taught me how to read the book of Revelation from his Vision of the Tree of Life. It is an ascension and temple text, as is the Book of Mormon. Too many members think that the speculative things are the mysteries. They aren’t. The true mysteries are the mysteries of godliness, or the divine.

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