Wresting the Scriptures

Our canonical texts are stridently negative about the practice of “wresting the scriptures.” Wresting the scriptures is said to lead to our own destruction (2 Peter 3:16, Alma 13:20), to lead us far astray (Alma 41:1), and to produce contention (D&C 10:63). What, exactly, is this dangerous thing, this sower of chaos, this “wresting” of the scriptures?

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the most common meaning of the verb “to wrest” during the production of the King James Version of the Bible — the almost certain source for English phrases regarding wresting the scriptures, whether found in the Bible or in distinctively Mormon texts. It is:

To strain or overstrain the meaning or bearing of (a writing, passage, word, etc.); to deflect or turn from the true or proper signification; to twist, pervert.

In other words, the scriptures, ancient and modern, warn vociferously against the practice of misinterpreting scriptures, of reading sacred texts in ways that violate original intentions. Of course, to a substantial extent, wresting the scriptures in this sense is inevitable. We don’t have any direct access to the subjective intentions of the men who composed our various texts of scripture. We can try to recover original meanings, but we inevitably bring a lot of ourselves and our modern concerns to bear on the text.

On the other hand, even if we can’t absolutely avoid wresting the scriptures, it remains terribly frustrating when we see someone perpetrate or perpetuate an obvious misinterpretation of a text. Let me offer one irritating example that emerged from my preparations for a Sunday School lesson yesterday.

The Gospel Doctrine manual for the Old Testament includes a lesson on chapters 16, 23, 29, and 31 of Jeremiah. Like most of the book of Jeremiah, these chapters contain extensive warnings (threats?) of divine displeasure and destruction against the people of Israel. Quite understandably, the Sunday School manual focuses on the moments in which the text raises other, less ominous themes.

One section in the lesson focuses on Jeremiah 16:16, which reads:

Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

Let me offer two different possible literary contexts for this verse. The first connects it with the previous two verses. Thus, we read:

Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;but, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their eland that I gave unto their fathers. Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

Here, the fishers and hunters of verse 16 seem to be analogues of Jesus’s New Testament “fishers of men.” Connecting verse 16 with verses 14 and 15 suggests that the fishers and hunters are the Lord’s agents for regathering scattered Israel. This is the interpretation that the Sunday School manual adopts, citing a 1971 general conference talk by LeGrand Richards as authority. In that talk, Elder Richards elaborates:

Jeremiah saw the day when it should no longer be said:

“The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

“But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them…” (Jer. 16:14-15.)

Just contemplate that statement for a few moments. Think how the Jews and the Christians all through these past centuries have praised the Lord for his great hand of deliverance under the hands of Moses when he led Israel out of captivity, and yet here comes Jeremiah with this word of the holy prophet, telling us that in the latter days they shall no more remember that, but how God has gathered scattered Israel from the lands whither he had driven them.

And Jeremiah saw the day when the Lord would do this very thing, when he would call for many fishers and many hunters, “and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.” (Jer. 16:16.) Where do you find those fishers and hunters that we read about in this great prophecy of Jeremiah? They are these 14,000 missionaries of this church, and those who have preceded them from the time that the Prophet Joseph Smith received the truth and sent the messengers out to share it with the world. Thus have they gone out, fishing and hunting, and gathering them from the hills and the mountains, and the holes in the rocks. I think that is more literal than some of us think!

When I was president of the Southern States Mission, I remember going to a conference down in west Florida. It seemed to me as if we traveled a hundred miles and never saw a house, and when we arrived at one of those little chapels, there it was filled with 250 people, and I said, “If you didn’t come out of the holes in the rocks, I don’t know where you came from. The Lord may know, but I don’t!” Well, that was literal, and we see that being fulfilled right before our very eyes.

All very nice. This interpretation of the Jeremiah text salvages the vivid imagery regarding fishers and hunters for modern religious usage. It creates thematic and rhetorical connection between the New Testament teachings of Jesus and the very Old Testament writings of Jeremiah. It places modern missionary efforts in historical conjunction with ancient Israel. Unfortunately, this reading is an instance of wresting the scriptures.

Consider Jeremiah 16:16 in conjunction with verses 17-21, rather than verses 14 and 15:

Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks. For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes. And first I will recompense their iniquity and their sin double; because they have defiled my land, they have filled mine inheritance with the carcases of their detestable and abominable things. O LORD, my strength, and my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction, the Gentiles shall come unto thee from the ends of the earth, and shall say, Surely our fathers have inherited lies, vanity, and things wherein there is no profit. Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods? Therefore, behold, I will this once cause them to know, I will cause them to know mine hand and my might; and they shall know that my name is The LORD.

Here, the fishers and hunters of the text are God’s agents for the punishment, destruction, and — yes — scattering of Israel. So, depending on whether we place verse 16 in the context of previous or of subsequent verses, the meaning of the imagery flips completely.

Why am I confident that reading verse 16 in context of verses 14 and 15 is a misinterpretation, while reading 16 together with 17-21 reflects the intentions of the text? It all has to do with paragraphing. Look for the paragraph marks (¶) in Chapter 16 of Jeremiah. It turns out that verses 14 and 15 form a paragraph by themselves, while verse 16 is grouped in a paragraph with the next five verses. Reading verse 16 without reference to 17-21 is thus a clear violation of the integrity of the text.

In fact, verses 14 and 15 are so out of character in context of the rest of the chapter that, according to my Oxford Study Bible, some scholars believe them to have been a later editorial insertion. Regardless of our stance on that issue, it seems clear that the fishers and hunters here are God’s tools of destruction, not of missionary work. Richards’ reading only makes sense if we disregard the structure of the text.

Richards’ wresting of Jeremiah’s text was probably inadvertent. Many people read the Bible without paying any attention to paragraphing or other signs of literary structure, instead treating every verse as a separable unit of text. Yet the fact that the Sunday School manual, which has input from some Mormon religious scholars as well as a range of other church personnel, perpetuates, and indeed relies on, this misreading is a more serious instance of wresting the scriptures because it cannot be as inadvertent as a single man’s mistake.

Will this wresting of the scriptures lead us far astray, destroy us as a people, and unleash contention? Perhaps not — but the strong concerns that led our sacred authors to use such vivid rhetoric should perhaps not be disregarded altogether. How do we, as members, respond to the scriptural mandate to redress such scriptural distortions without unleashing contention — one of the evils we fear in the first place — through our own actions?

Comments

  1. We had a similar discussion in our GD class. The reality is that many of the lessons throughout the OT course of study have similar interpretational bents (i.e., projected onto the restoration). That said, I think that retrospective or anachronistic interpretations or simple misreadings can be quite important.

  2. It is a bit like Nephi’s deliberate misreading of Isaiah’s motif of God’s hand/arm being stretched out still. Sometimes prophets take sacred writings in isolation, reinterpreting them in order to prove a new point. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but it gets my goat when non-prophets do it.

  3. Yeah! That business with the humters and fishers is one of my favorites! I found another one in an explanatory footnote in Isaiah while teaching yesterday, too. Beware the footnotes and the chapter headings!

    I think that folks like LR simply followed the interpretive tools bequeathed them by the authors of the Restoration. Someday I’d like to follow the traces of their work and figure out where their approach came from.

  4. HP, I actually don’t mind that much when, for example, poets, songwriters, or filmmakers appropriate scriptural language or images for their own purposes. Which is kind of like what you see Nephi as doing. What bugs me is when people (church leaders or not) claim that the reinterpretation is in fact the original message — as the Gospel Doctrine manual does in this instance.

    Mogget, ah, but wasn’t there a conference talk in the last two years that used the footnotes and chapter headings as an example of continuing revelation?

    I agree that an intellectual history of church leaders’ readings of the scriptures would be really worthwhile.

  5. RT,
    I should clarify that my irritation is primarily with people who present themselves as religious authorities (including, to a small degree, myself). While I believe that prophets and apostles have the right to authoritatively reinterpret scripture, I don’t extend that right to my home-teacher.

    Also, I don’t think that conference talk disproves Mogget’s point. Rather it confirms it.

  6. example of continuing revelation

    Yes, I think that sort of thing pops up every so often. And I ignore it. I’m a bible dork, you know, and even the English translation isn’t scripture!

    To be more serious, though, it seems unwise to me to push the issue of the marginalia (whatever) as “revelation.” In cases where the error is egregious, it casts a pall over the whole idea of “continuing revelation.” In cases where it’s correct, the imprimatur is uneccesary.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Wow, that is a pretty egregious misreading. I could tell just from the main verse, before you even got to the two possible contexts, that this was not a “fishers of men” missionary notion but rather an agents of destruction notion. It takes a real tin ear to read it the other way.

  8. HP, I of course would agree that prophets and apostles have the right to teach new doctrine, or even to change existing doctrine. But does that imply a license to claim that prior statements actually mean something other than what they originally meant, what their author wrote them to say? This is different from appropriating vibrant language for new theological purposes; it’s wresting the scriptures in the sense of distorting prior meanings. The texts on “wresting” that I quoted above don’t provide exceptions for anybody, regardless of institutional position.

    On Mogget’s comment, I wasn’t actually trying to disprove her point. Instead, I intended to agree by way of a rueful, sarcastic aside. Apologies if my intentions didn’t translate into my text. But don’t wrest my words!!!!!!!!

    Mogget, just for the sake of completeness, here’s the talk I mentioned above. In it, Boyd K. Packer uses the scriptural marginalia as an example of continuing revelation in the church, claiming inspiration for their contents and the process of their construction.

    I agree that this kind of argument is unhelpful, for essentially the same reasons you suggest.

  9. Cool post, and I agree with most of it. But to get closer to the “original” meaning of the text, we should take out the paragraph and verse markers entirely. Except for some of the Psalms, which are marked with notations for breaks (selah), the paragraph distinctions throughout much of the Bible were added centuries later. The earliest mss didn’t even have chapter designations, let alone grafs.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    In the KJV, the chapter symbols just stop somewhere in Acts. No one is quite sure why.

    Anyway, Jana is of course right that chapter divisions are as much a modern imposition on the text as English translation itself.

  11. Jana, interesting point. This really goes to the question of which text we see as sacred. Mormon theology basically operates at the level of the KJV text; that’s what our other scriptures are interlaced with. So there’s an argument to be made that the English text is exactly what we build from. But if we reject the divisions in the English text and retreat to pure words, v. 16 still feels like a more natural fit with 17-21 — as Kevin Barney notes.

  12. “In other words, the scriptures, ancient and modern, warn vociferously against the practice of misinterpreting scriptures, of reading sacred texts in ways that violate original intentions.”

    OK, philosophical pendandic point coming.

    I’m not sure I’d call that the “original intents.” What would intent mean in such a context? We can’t say God’s intents since presumably it is a joint effort and God seems quite willing to allow some error in scripture if it still achieves some point. (Say geocentric astronomy as in many interpretations of Abr 3)

    Further God seems quite willing to allow a quite different hermeneutic that finds new meaning in scripture so long as it is done by the spirit.

    “Original intent” simply seems problematic for Mormons given how Joseph treated scripture.

  13. Clark, then we must conclude that “wresting the scriptures” is a meaningless phrase, and we’re left wondering why three of its four occurrences in our sacred texts came from Joseph’s dictation.

  14. I’ve wondered if the idea of “likening the scriptures unto ourselves” is not an explicit invitation to wrest the scriptures. Those two things don’t seem to be easily reconciled.

  15. Jer. 16:16 is one of the poster-boy examples of scripture being ripped from context.

    The General Authority largely responsible for the content of the chapter headings and Bible Dictionary is on public record as to their revelational or inerrant status.

    As for the “Joseph Smith Translation items, the chapter headings, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, footnotes, the Gazeteer, and the maps. None of these are perfect; they do not of themselves determine doctrine; there have been and undoubtedly now are mistakes in them. Cross-references, for instance, do not establish and never were intended to prove that parallel passages so much as pertain to the same subject. They are aids and helps only.” Elder McConkie, Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, 289-90.

  16. Ben, thanks for the McConkie quote. It would, perhaps, have been nice if someone had forwarded that to Elder Packer before he gave his 2005 conference talk.

  17. Perhaps. Perhaps not. Since we don’t believe in inerrant scripture, one could very well claim the aids were inspired or scripture in spite of their errors.

    I wouldn’t do so, and I don’t think Elder Packer was wise to do so, but I’m not sure they’re mutually exclusive.

  18. Proof’s in the pudding. If the footnotes, chapter headings, or JS comments provide a superior reading, there we go. If not, we keep looking.

  19. wrest=misprision=genius?

  20. Ben, “aids and helps only” does, however, sound pretty hard to reconcile with Mormon ideas of scripture.

    Mogget, I think you’re right — but what’s our standard for a “superior reading”?

  21. I think you all are wrestng Elder Packer’s words.

  22. Oh, great. And I had such a sweet image of the fishers hauling in converts in South America with nets and the hunters scouring the rocks and caves of Germany for the rare convert as per a comment made in Gospel Doctrine class last week…

  23. Um, yes…superior readings.

    If I had to summarize it, I’d say this: a superior reading takes account of all the pertinent features of the text, co-text, and wider context. It’s no science, but there are ways to discriminate.

    It’s kinda like what I’m doing over here at FPR with the Adulterous Woman. I’m adding the narrative-critical features of the passage to a pre-existing dialogue on the matter. It should help discriminate among some reading possibilities.

  24. g.wesley=mysterious=James Bond

    Matt W., that may well be the case. As I said in the post, we all do that all the time. On the other hand, there’s no canonical injunction against wresting conference talks…

    What do you think he meant?

    C. Jones, sorry to spoil an image. Keep the image, if you like — just don’t attribute it to Jeremiah!

    Mogget, I think that’s what I’d look for in reading any text. So my sense of superiority probably coincides with yours. Comments in this thread suggest that others have alternate definitions, revolving perhaps around theological creativity or productivity or perhaps around the institutional credentials of the interpreter. The problem, as always, is that we can’t reach consensus on what the best available reading for a scriptural passage is when we have competing ideas about what makes for a good reading. I think the passages about wresting text I’ve quoted above ought to inform this debate — but, once again, I am confronted by people who disagree with me.

    I love your posts on the Adulterous Woman and recommend that everybody read them immediately.

  25. “Clark, then we must conclude that “wresting the scriptures” is a meaningless phrase, and we’re left wondering why three of its four occurrences in our sacred texts came from Joseph’s dictation.”

    How does that follow? It seems it changes what it means to wrest. i.e. that scriptures only have real meaning in terms of the spirit.

  26. So wresting the scriptures is reading them against the Spirit? If we read the scriptures, with the Spirit, differently than the writer intended them, has wresting occurred or not? In the sense of the word common at the time the KJV was produced, it surely has. However, perhaps there is a Mormon sense in which it has not.

    It would seem, in this hypothetical, that the writer of the scriptural text who meant something different than what the Spirit would teach may not have been inspired? Or that the text may have applied only to its time period and should be discarded in favor of new revelation because times have changed? Or some other account might be offered for why the text as written is no longer of value. But then the question arises why we should pay attention to the scriptures at all? Surely it would be better to go directly to the preferred source — modern interpreters — rather than admixing that source with now-inapplicable texts from prior eras.

    The point, of course, is that either the text matters as written or it does not. If it does matter, then misinterpreting it should be a source of concern; if it’s merely a collection of raw materials for modern discourse, then we can misinterpret at will but it seems that the relevance of the text may become open to debate.

  27. RT:

    Ok, I’ll bite. I’d take it as Boyd K. Packer saying the General Authorities received Revelation to undergo the project of updating the scriptures, not as every single detail in the project being handed to them by revelation, as it is common knowledge that the updates in the scriptures were compiled by multiple committees, with even undergrads at BYU contributing at the time. (My Parents In Law were there.)

    And it was a glorious project and the scriptures are excellent. They aren’t perfect, but they are excellent and head and shoulders above where they were prior.

    I can believe this project was called forth as part of the Will of God. Boyd K. Packer was much closer to the decision makers than I, so why not.

  28. Matt, on the other hand, Packer did say, after describing a process in which experts, rank-and-file members, and a computer program produced cross-references and notes, “The spirit of inspiration brooded over the work.” Because Mormons don’t make a clear distinction between inspiration and revelation, this might be a claim of revelation for the whole project.

    But, more importantly, the intricate detail that Packer provides regarding the process of producing the notes, index, and topical guide would be irrelevant if the claim were merely that the decision to begin the project was by revelation. After all, the entire talk is structured as an answer to this hypothetical question:

    “I would have willingly endured persecution and trials if I might have lived in the early years of the Church when there was such a flow of revelation published as scripture. Why is that not happening now?”

    Reading Packer’s claim that the spirit of inspiration brooded over the entire process of creating the marginalia makes the description of the revision procedure responsive to this guiding question. If, on the other hand, the only revelation was to do the process in the first place, then the rest of the story is irrelevant. Elder Packer doesn’t usually go that far off the narrative rails in his talks; it’s generally best to read his sermons as if they were deliberately composed to make a point — because they almost always are. These considerations argue in favor of seeing his claim of inspiration for the process of generating scriptural study aids as intentional.

  29. JNS spricht die Wahrheit.

  30. I agree (I think) with Clark. Wresting the scriptures is to read them differently than the Spirit intended– not than the purported author intended. If you check the definition at the top, nothing in it revolves around authorial intent. To wrest means:

    “To strain or overstrain the meaning or bearing of (a writing, passage, word, etc.); to deflect or turn from the true or proper signification; to twist, pervert.”

    The “true or proper signification” surely is the one that God gives it, not the one the earthly author gives it. And God is not limited to one signification for all time and places. Of course, this does make it harder to objectively say that someone else is wresting the scriptures. So I guess we might be forced in many cases to leave that to those with revelation. Not that it isn’t interesting to hear from the bible scholars, just that they are not going to be authoritative in the same way.

  31. JNS: Hmmm. Well, I just opened up “On Zion’s Hill” and It’s not exactly my favorite talk, but I still don’t see where it is some how implied that the words within these helps are somehow equal to the actual striptures themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bible Dictionary and the Topical Guide, but I don’t see Elder Packer claiming it is revelation from God, but that it came into being by revelation from God. Yes he says Inspiration brooded over the work, but then he says what the inspiration brought forth right after that: A system of organization for Footnotes, original manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, and the ability to publish new sections of the D&C including the perfectly timed 2nd official declaration. And as to the question this is answering. I think he answered it in the next paragraph where he says Joseph laid the foundation. He does then go on to say there is still revelation, as sighted above, and there still is revelation.

  32. I think the reason why verse 16 in english translations is placed in a new paragraph is that the opening sentence signals a new oracle: “Behold I am sending many Fishers,” says the the LORD.

    Thus even though the paragraph mark is a byproduct of the translation, there is good reason to believe that a new oracle has started.

  33. Specifically regarding the Bible Dictionary, its heading suggests using another one, and one of the committee members flatly says its source was scholarship, not revelation.

    The new Bible dictionary is not intended as a revealed treatment or official version of doctrinal, historical, cultural, chronological, and other matters found in the Bible.” – Robert J. Matthews (who was on the scripture comittee), “Using the New Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition,” Ensign, June 1982, 48

    “Many of the items have been drawn from the best available scholarship of the world and are subject to reevaluation based on new research and discoveries or on new revelation. The topics have been carefully selected and are treated briefly. If an elaborate discussion is desired, the student should consult a more exhaustive dictionary.

    In that light, I point out that Elder Richard Hinckley quoted from the Anchor Bible Dictionary in last conference.

  34. This poster-boy example dates back to the early days of the LDS Church.

    W.W. Phelps suggested that the time of the fulfillment of Jeremiah 16:14-16 was near (“Preach the Word,” The Evening and the Morning Star, May 1833).

    A few years later, Oliver Cowdery included a reading of Jeremiah 16:16 in the context of his account of Moroni’s visits to Joseph Smith. It’s a bit unclear whether Cowdery was attributing the reading to Moroni or was offering his own scriptural readings to illustrate the major themes of Moroni’s message, e.g., restoration, gathering, etc. (I would guess the latter). (Cowdery noted that “I have thought best to give a farther detail of the heavenly message, and if I do not give it in the precise words, shall strictly confine myself to the facts in substance” and “I have now given you a rehearsal of what was communicated to our brother….I may have missed in arrangement in some instances, but the principle is preserved, and you will be able to bring forward abundance of corroborating scripture upon the subject of the gospel and of the gathering. You are aware of the fact, that to give a minute rehearsal of a lengthy interview with a heavenly messenger, is very difficult, unless one is assisted immediately with the gift of inspiration.”)

    In any case, Cowdery wrote: “And thus shall Israel come: not a dark corner of the earth shall remain unexplored, nor an island of the seas be left without being visited; for as the Lord has removed them into all corners of the earth, he will cause his mercy to be as abundantly manifested in their gathering as his wrath in their dispersion, until they are gathered according to the covenant. He will, as he said by the prophet, send for many fishers and they shall fish them; and after send for many hunters, who shall hunt them; not as their enemies have to afflict, but with glad tidings of great joy, with a message of peace, and a call for their return” (Messenger and Advocate, April 1835).

  35. Are the two interpretations–agents of destruction vs. missionaries–mutually exclusive? Passages like Isa 6:9-10, where Isaiah is told to preach the word to hasten their destruction, make me wonder….

    Very interesting post and comments, thanks.

  36. Joe Spencer says:

    I come late, like Robert, but with some very specific feelings about this issue.

    Clark is perfectly right here. Alma draws a distinction between temporal knowing and spiritual knowing in Alma 36:4, and in 37:43 when he uses the terms again he seems quite clear on the fact that “spiritual” means something like “typological” where “temporal” means something like “causal” or even “scientific.” (One should note that Alma himself discusses wresting the scriptures during the same discussion with his sons in 41:1.) Post-modern approaches to the scriptures tend to ignore difficulties like the present one because they understand the possibility of reading several hermeneutic possibilities in a single text.

    “Wrest” and “wrestle” are closely related words, both having a sort of twisting behind them. When one wrests something, however, one twists it without allowing it to exert a force in return. But when one wrestles, both are twisting together. We are to wrestle with, not wrest, the scriptures. In other words, if we simply twist words to accomplish a purpose of our own–proof texting, perhaps–we are wresting the scriptures. To wrestle with them is to allow them to fight back, to suggest to us as much as we suggest to them, to have a conversation, etc. Cf. Gadamer and Ricoeur.

    In fact, a wonderful book for thinking about this question is Andre LaCoque and Paul Ricoeur, _Thinking the Bible_. The former provides an article of strict textual exegesis, and then the latter discusses hermeneutical possibilities in the text. They tackle the texts that are constantly pointed to as “misrepresentations” of the OT by Christians. Very fascinating discussion.

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