This is a guest post from Dialogue editorial board member Ethan Yorgason. Ethan is Professor of Geography at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea. He has also taught history and geography at BYU-Hawaii, and was winner of the MHA’s Best First Book Award for Transformation of the Mormon Culture Region.
He was something of a usurper. Though he wasn’t highly born, many people were quickly impressed by his wisdom. But he had detractors as well. Some of them threatened violence. Outside his real homeland he achieved power more quickly than anybody thought possible. His admirers marveled at his ability.
Once he gained the highest governmental power he would ever obtain, he went to work. He immediately instituted a huge tax increase. The people didn’t see any immediate benefit because, in fact, he hoarded the wealth within government. A financial crisis came. People from throughout the land came begging the government to help, just like he had anticipated. He insisted that the people sell off their belongings to the government in order to buy food. Then he went after their land, buying it all for the government (except for the lands of the cronies of the government, who got to keep their wealth and privileges). He instituted a mass redistribution of the population. After that he told the people that their land now belonged to the government. He distributed the means to labor to the people and told them that they would have to pay a substantial tax on everything they produced. And in the end the people honored him and called him their savior.
We all know who this is, don’t we? Joseph of Egypt, of course. Most of us claim attachment to the Abrahamic covenant through him, so of course we know this story. (Just in case you don’t, you might want to review Genesis 41: 29-49 and 47: 13-26 for some of the more political parts.)
BCC’s series at the beginning of the year on getting more out of Sunday school inspired me to read the Sunday School lesson scriptures more carefully than I ever have. I’ve truly been fascinated by what I’m learning. My branch just had the Sunday School lesson that included Joseph’s first tax increase (the rest of the story is in a part of the Old Testament that the lesson manual skips – I wish Old Testament was more than a year long in Sunday School).
As you might have surmised, I’ve also been reading too much about the Tea Parties and Glenn Beck. So one of the things that struck me about the last several chapters of Genesis is how much Joseph resembles (what I consider to be a certain kind of conservative fantasy about) Obama. That’s my overt political jab—feel free to jab back at me. But I’m really more concerned about something else: There are so many stories in the Old Testament that are difficult to interpret. For example, I don’t think either Obama supporters or critics within the church would be excited to claim this framing of Joseph’s story as something instructive for us. Yet I don’t really think the framing does much violence to the text in Genesis.
It may not be wise to bring up all these stories in Sunday School, but they certainly seem fair game for personal scripture study or for a forum like this. So, more than anything, I’d like to ask a question, especially as I’m sitting here in Korea without good access to church or scholarly works on the Old Testament beyond what the Internet provides: What are your interpretive strategies for reading stories in the Old Testament that defy easy interpretation — the ones we sometimes ignore?
It seems we have at least a few interpretive themes commonly used in church settings:
a) The manual or the General Authorities have the definitive interpretation. If those sources say something, then we have our answer, even if it seems like a rather tenuous reading of the text itself (for example, Isaac and Jacob going back to their ancestor’s home area seems much more like their fathers wanting them to marry cousins than establishing the importance of marrying within the covenant – I can explain why I come to this interpretation if you want).
b) The Gospel has always been the same. This is the “Adam and Abraham had the sacrament and baptism” argument. In ancient days, God’s leaders, at least, followed the same gospel we do today, the argument goes. So when something difficult to understand comes up, we start with the premise that God’s prophets understood the gospel as we do today and then try to work toward a satisfying interpretation. Of course this runs into trouble with a story like Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away – what happened to eternal families? In such cases, we sometimes use the next strategy.
c) We can’t judge their actions by our standards because their culture was so different from ours. While this allows us to accommodate many stories with a “Hmm . . . that’s interesting” response, it seems to beg the belief about an unchangeable God.
d) Prophets don’t do bad things. If something seems to put a prophet in a negative light (with no subsequent narrative of redemption or fall), we may often start with the assumption that what seems to be bad actually is not (Jacob finagling to get the birthright from Esau). We then proceed to explain though various means that the hero was actually in the right. Or if that’s not possible, we may assert that there’s not enough information in the story to tell the whole story, assuming that our hero will be vindicated once we know everything.
e) I’m sure some among us take the strategy (especially the earlier in the Old Testament you go) that these are a culture’s founding stories, not history. We should not necessarily expect them to be literally true (the flood and Noah’s ark always work as examples here). Yet aside from running into issues about whether the Old Testament is the word of God, this approach still doesn’t always provide much of a key to interpretation (what are we supposed to learn from the story of Judah laying with his widowed daughter-in-law who was playing the prostitute, then threatening to burn her and saving her only when he finds out that he was the one who lay with her?)
f) Identifying the purpose and audience of the scriptural text. I’ve heard this a bit, and I’d like to hear more. Who was the scripture originally written for, what might have been the objectives of the writer, what might have been the agenda of those who decided to preserve the text? In Genesis, for example, a basic agenda seems to be to explain the origin of places and peoples. With so many stories, the author draws such morals (essentially, “ . . . and this is how this people came to exist and inhabit the land they’re in,” or “ . . . so this is why this place has the name it does.”) But as Latter-day Saints we hardly ever point this out or ask such questions. Of course doing so brings up the questions of who really was the author of Genesis and under what conditions did it come to be authoritative among the Jews. That’s leading to a place many typically don’t want to go . . . critical biblical scholarship.
g) Throwing our hands up, saying we just don’t know what something means (maybe adding that we don’t need to know now), but expressing hope that some day we’ll understand it better.
Each of these tendencies (and I’m sure I’m forgetting others) has positives and negatives. Suffice it to say, we often mix and match rather indiscriminately. Maybe that’s not an entirely bad thing – it’s probably mostly unavoidable, but I welcome your thoughts on whether there might be a more coherent approach. I also welcome your ideas on: any tricky Old Testament stories that you’ve been able to make some sense out of; sources (whether produced by LDS or not) that have helped you make sense of difficult stories.
Thanks in advance.