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?