(Mis)reading Scripture

book-of-mormon-and-bibleA seemingly evergreen issue in the bloggernacle: what do we do about prooftexting? On the one hand, it allows us to apply scripture to ourselves. On the other, it suggests that scripture, as written, is not up to the task of explicating the gospel and, instead, must be stretched and tortured to tell us what we need to know.[fn1]

An example: at church last year, discussion briefly turned to what we do when traditional Mormon readings of scripture turn out to be significant misreadings.[fn2] It came up in the context of God commanding Ezekiel to combine the stick of Joseph with the stick of Judah. The Gospel Doctrine manual explains that the stick of Judah is the Bible and the stick of Joseph is the Book of Mormon. 

This interpretation has a long and distinguished pedigree in Mormonism. The first mention I can find of it by an apostle was by Orson Pratt in 1855.[fn3] And this intepretation has been name-checked in General Conference as recently as 2013 by Elder Nelson.

If you’re not familiar with the identification of the Book of Mormon with Ezekiel’s “stick of Joseph” and the Bible with his “stick of Judah,” Pres. Packer explained the Mormon interpretation in General Conference; after reading the relevant passages from Ezekiel, he said:

The sticks, of course, are records or books. In ancient Israel records were written upon tablets of wood or scrolls rolled upon sticks. The record of Judah and the record of Ephraim, according to the prophecy, were to become one in our hands. . . .

The stick or record of Judah—the Old Testament and the New Testament—and the stick or record of Ephraim—the Book of Mormon, which is another testament of Jesus Christ—are now woven together in such a way that as you pore over one you are drawn to the other; as you learn from one you are enlightened by the other. They are indeed one in our hands. Ezekiel’s prophecy now stands fulfilled.

The problem? Our interpretation—expounded by apostles, no less!—may well be wrong in its historical context. In the notes, my Jewish Study Bible says, “On the use of a stick or staff to represent a tribe, see Num. 17.1-26.

Of course, even if our cherished interpretation is wrong, it’s not immediately clear why this is a problem. Misreading scripture has a long and storied history, tracing its roots back at least to Jesus’ use of scripture in the New Testament.

In his Pedagogy of the Bible, Dale Martin diplomatically explains that “when Jesus does intepret Scripture in the Gospels, he exercises what from a modern point of view is quite a bit of freedom.” Asked about divorce, for example, Jesus “pass[es] over a clear text that allowed divorce and remarriage, and instead interpret[s] a text that says nothing explicit about divorce at all, and he then reads it as a prohibition of divorce and remarriage” (47-48). Dr. Martin goes on to describe various premodern interpretations of scripture, interpretations which could best be described today as prooftexting, but which, he explains, provided interesting and valuable meaning.

On the other hand, there are real dangers to distancing our interpretation from the text itself. And for that, a story from my mission:

My companion and I ran into a teenage boy one day; he seemed eager to talk, but he had to get somewhere. So we left him a Book of Mormon and made an appointment to see him the next day.

When we showed up the next day, he didn’t seem thrilled to see us. Almost instantly, in fact, he pulled out his Book of Mormon. It was dogeared to Alma 30, and he’d marked verses 13-16.

Angrily, he asked us to explain why the Book of Mormon derided Christ and argued against his eventual Atonement. We tried to convince him to read verse 12, tried to contextualize the fact that this passage was a foil to Nephite belief, rather than an expression of it. But the boy would have none of it; the acontextual reading he’d been given was the reading—these four verses laid out the religious philosophy of the Book of Mormon, and of Mormonism itself.

Eventually we left, frustrated, either that he was so stubborn or that we couldn’t communicate what was obvious to us, or (given that we were probably 20 or 21 at the time) a little of both.

That teenager’s misreading of scripture is clearly an extreme example. But where we cling to an explanation we’ve heard before without really investigating the text and context of the scriptures, I’m afraid we do the same kind of thing, even absent the extremes.

I’m not going to end this with any kind of conclusion. I don’t know what to do with this. I try to be charitable of prooftexts, keeping in mind various premodern interpretive strategies, including those of the Savior himself.

At the same time, he is the Savior. I’m not; I’m pretty sure that Jesus has more latitude in misreading scripture than I do—that his misreading may be scriptural, where mine is just misreading. For me, I try to be careful about reading scripture just to arrive at my personally-held beliefs; I try to let scripture shock and surprise and confuse and teach me.

[fn1] Not that I’m signalling my personal preferences, of course.

[fn2] Yes, I realize it’s March of New Testament year already. And it’s not like I’ve been reliving this moment in my mind since December. This post builds on the skeleton of a post I started back then, though, and then, in the course of the holiday season, I never finished. I’m sure I could find Mormon-specific prooftexting in the New Testament, too, but it’s easier to use an example I’ve already spent some time on.

[fn3] It may show up even earlier; D&C 27:5 refers to the Book of Mormon as the “record of the stick of Ephraim,” which, I think, is actually a better match than calling the Book of Mormon the “stick of Ephraim,” But Pratt’s reference is the first that shows up in Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks if you search for stick of Judah.


  1. FarSide says:

    Nice article, Sam. Two thoughts:

    1. I question one of your assumptions: that Christ was misreading certain passages from the Old Testament in order to make a point or win an argument. That the passages in question are, in fact, twisted/proof-texted is quite clear. That it was Christ who did that, rather than the compilers of the New Testament, is less clear.

    2. Our leaders and instruction manuals could avoid the problems and embarrassment that arises from misconstruing scripture if they were to qualify their scriptural interpretations by acknowledging that the passage in question may have multiple meanings or that it simply provides a parallel to our present circumstances. This, of course, requires a measure of humility and—dare I say it—some self-doubt, attributes that seemingly are in short supply in a faith that prides itself on the ability to provide definitive answers to so many complex questions.

  2. I would say taking liberties with a text’s original meaning is perfectly acceptable, so long as we’re being fully honest about what we’re doing.

  3. FarSide, I completely agree with both of your points. I’m going to stick with Jesus said, though, both because it’s less unwieldy than, “The writers of the Gospel said that Jesus said …”

    As for your second point, that would be great. Acknowledging that there isn’t One True Way to interpret scripture (although there may well be ways to misinterpret it) would go a long way toward deepening the engagement we have to have with it.

  4. Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the NT writers simply followed the interpretive standards of their time, which were almost entirely non-contextual. None of his opponents ever say “hey, you’re taking that out of context!”
    Peter Enns has a lengthy section on this (it’s a big problem for Evangelicals) in his Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which I keep pushing on my LDS co-religionists because it’s so awesome.
    The real problem comes when we confuse recontextualized application (Nephi’s “likening”) to original-context “intent”; I use scare quotes because that’s also an issue. Even if we can pin down very good original context, on what basis can we claim that God didn’t intend some secondary meaning the prophet didn’t himself understand?
    I don’t think Church manuals are quite to that point, as they tend not to acknowledge the non-primacy of several of these traditional interpretations.

  5. Jason K. says:

    When I teach GD, I usually sidestep our favorite proof-text readings by saying something like: “I know we usually read this passage as being about X, but what else can we do with it?” The problem with the manuals isn’t so much that they’re wrong (except when they are), but that they’re boring. How are we supposed to get spiritual uplift out of rehashing the same old familiar readings? So I “cover” the manual’s approach in about 15 seconds and move on. With the Ezekiel 37 two-sticks stuff, I set it up as a vision of reunification and restoration that had to be read against the longstanding bad blood between the northern and southern kingdoms, which I then applied to the political polarization that characterizes our current environment. We then had a discussion about how we could work together toward the restoration that Ezekiel envisioned.

  6. I am grateful for this and have recently experienced it myself, in a personal and painful way. The context is Isaiah 9 (also see 2 Nephi 19), where the prophet claims that “his hand is stretched out still.” I have long, long read this as a plea to the covenant people to turn to God, who remains anxious for their devotion, who “stretche[s] out . . . his hand . . . still” to claim and bless His people. That may be true, but in the context of the given chapters, his hand is stretched out in anger, not longing or beckoning.

    The scripture has–erroneously–bolstered my faith for years. I have used it to express my testimony, both spoken and publicly written. And I like to think of myself as a careful reader! When I recently realized my error, I was embarrassed, chagrined, and most of all sorry to have to give up my interpretation. I persist in believing in a Christ who reaches out for me and longs for my devotion. But other scriptures now, like John 4 and the story of the woman at the well, strengthen my belief.

  7. The tendency to prooftext bothers me especially when the common interpretation isn’t really what a passage says at all, and it seems to that all one has to do is, well, read it to know better.

    Two examples:

    DC 1:38 is commonly used to teach that what the prophet says is what God says. But that’s not what it teaches at all. What it declares is that if God accomplishes something, it doesn’t matter whether He does it directly or through his prophets. To use this verse to teach some sort of prophetic infallibility is way out of context. That’s not the point of the verse.

    Alma 39:5 is used to teach that all sexual sins — not just those mentioned in the account but all sexual sin — are almost as serious as murder. But in context, it seems to be that the most serious sins aren’t necessarily sexual, but those that lead to spiritual death for others. And it even makes sense that causing spiritual death would be the sin next to causing physical death.

  8. The problem has arisen in the combination of good old-fashioned sermonizing, in which prooftexting is perfectly valid and has been since the earliest times (as has been noted by most of the commenters above in pointing to how interpretive standards especially in ancient times were non-contextual and that Jesus, the Evangelists, Paul, Nephi, Mormon and Moroni all “liken” scripture unto themselves by intentionally prooftexting in this way), with the Mormon cultural deference to ideas, opinions, and teachings of General Authorities.

    The result is what we have so often seen: an early General Authority (or a General Authority today), in a passionate sermon on some particular topic, and in the old-fashioned tradition of powerful sermonizing, prooftexted some particular passage that seemed meaningful and useful at that time to make a particular point in the particular sermon and we, as a people, then latched on to it, because it was uttered by a General Authority, and turn it into a normative statement about what that passage actually and objectively means for all time, ignoring both the passage’s own context and the context in which the General Authority prooftexted it, and disallowing that individual to have the luxury of a particular use for a particular sermon, without necessarily intending to set that reading as the official meaning.

  9. Some good comments here. I’d like to recommend people look at CS Lewis’s “Reflections on the Psalms” for another look at scriptural appropriation and reinterpretation.

    Here’s what gets me:

    When Paul pulls a text from the OT out in a “creative” fashion, he comes from a background where he has been immersed in the scriptures continually and could not have failed to be aware of not only the most direct meanings but also the various meanings drawn from or attributed to the scripture by generations of scribes and commentators. We tend to forget about the “oral Torah” and the rest of the interpretive environment of first century Judaism. His Jewish hearers may not have been raised at the feet of Gamaliel but they were part of that environment.

    Though early latter-day saints had neither rabbinical traditions nor as direct a connection to biblical cultures and contexts, their interpretive environment shared some similarities. People in early America prized their Bibles. They brought analogies to obscure stories from the Old Testament into their everyday conversations all the time. They were used to hearing new meanings as well being drawn from scripture by a wide array of energetic and creative preachers, many of whom had a stronger command of rhetoric and how to build a case than one can readily find these days.

    In those environments, it’s easier to see how tapping into shared scriptural language in this fashion could be an inspired way to communicate truth.

    But for many in the church today, a few prooftexted verses are the *only* way they know of *entire books* of scripture. I’m not sure I have a beef with the idea that one can draw BoM-related ideas from Ezek. 37. I’m bothered by the fact that we do that without addressing the more direct and contextually based meanings of the text. More than that, I’m terrified by the fact that we do things like that in a way that allows that “creative interpretation” to be the *only thing* most Church members can actually remember relating to Ezekiel, and that we’ve on the whole become complacent about reaching a deeper understanding.

  10. Dan, that was a perfect encapsulation of the problem. I completely agree.

  11. The scriptures should be used as a living text; at one time they mean one thing to one people, and another time something else to other people. In Ezekiel’s time, the likely interpretation of the two “sticks” (actually the Hebrew translates more closely to piece of wood) would have been the Northern and Southern Kingdoms which were often referred to as Ephraim (or Israel) and Judah respectively. A contemporary of Ezekiel might be looking forward to a time of unity between all the tribes of Israel. Years later this scripture might serve to comfort Jews in diaspora hoping for a country of their own (see vs. 21). Conveniently this also has meaning to the modern Mormon (as mentioned above.) The scriptures have personal meaning and community meaning. But also as stated above, and by other comments, to lock any scripture into one meaning takes the life out of it. There are indeed other meanings to every scriptural story. Even the most obvious stories have hidden meaning.

  12. Dan, thank you for your comment. Our shallow understanding of scriptures within the LDS worship is to be lamented and we don’t seem to be improving in that regard. While it is great to dive into the scriptures personally, it is often quite helpful to have others offer their insight as well, and to do so in a discussion format (as opposed to simply reading a book by James Faulconer or NT Wright).

    Scripture study groups are frowned upon by the institutional church, so what are we to do?

  13. LDS_Aussie says:

    Interesting post Sam. Thank you for that.

    (self promotion alert…) I recently posted a discussion (http://www.wheatandtares.org/15864/why-am-i-obedient-to-insert-commandment-here/) around the reasons why we are obedient to certain gospel principles. I started with a discussion around D&C 130, that went something like this and I believe it is relevant to this discussion:

    I have often heard at Church people quote the following scripture:

    20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

    21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated (D&C 130).

    The subsequent discussion often takes on the following logic:

    1. There are laws in heaven
    2. Blessings are associated with those laws
    3. Obedience to the law releases the blessing

    My own opinion is that this logic is flawed and is not what the scripture says. I would suggest the logic should go something like this:

    1. There are laws in heaven
    2. Blessings are associated with those laws
    3. If you receive a blessing (and you may not), it will be because you were obedient.

    It is a small difference; however it produces a far different perspective on WHY we do things. The key to me is the phrase, “and when we obtain a blessing from God”. If the first logic was right the scripture might say, “And when we are obedient, we obtain a blessing from God”

  14. Am I right in supposing that your first reference to a proof text refers to Matthew 5:32 concerning divorce and fornication? To me this is one of the most mysterious scriptures of all, and it is repeated in 3 Nephi 12:32. Certainly we do not apply that to our marriage principles – maybe the Catholics do. Maybe it has been discussed before on the bloggernacle and I missed it. I remember teaching a Gospel Principles class where we were reading the Sermon on the Mount and ran into this passage. I had to improvise and say that there must be some other explanation because we do things differently today. There were a couple of divorced and remarried sisters in the class who seemed relieved by my effort. I remember from other Sunday School classes in the past where it was read along the other verses in the Sermon. They just ran over it and kept on going. No discussion.