Monday, December 13, 2010

Seers and Readers

From today's daily Mass reading:

The utterance of Balaam, son of Beor,
the utterance of the man whose eye is true,
The utterance of one who hears what God says,
and knows what the Most High knows,
Of one who sees what the Almighty sees,
enraptured, and with eyes unveiled.
I see him, though not now;
I behold him, though not near:
A star shall advance from Jacob,
and a staff shall rise from Israel.

                     --Numbers 24:15-17

This beautiful prophecy  of the Advent of the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, comes from the story of the seer Balaam, son of Beor, which is told in chapters 22-24 of the Book of Numbers.   

(The Book of Numbers takes its name from a census of the Israelite tribes that takes up a large, but less-than-exciting portion of that book.  Bronze Age literature has lots of boring-to-us-modern-readers catalogs like this.  The Old Testament has censuses, catalogs of priestly implements used in the Temple worship or in the service of the Ark of the Covenant, and all those genealogies of who begat whom.  Similarly, Homer bores modern readers of the Iliad with catalogs of all the Greek ships at the siege of Troy, who was on them, and what awesome military equipment they had.  This stuff was less boring to its original readers, who were proud descendants of those ancient Israelite or Greek warriors, and enjoyed tracing their family tree, or reading about the cool heirloom weapons that great-great-grandad smote his enemies with.  Speaking of smiting, those punctilious descriptions of Temple worship were probably of very great interest indeed to the Levite priests, who wanted to do their sacred job without so offending the Lord that He smote them....)

The quote that opens this entry has a pretty different sense when read in its literal, historical context.  The story of Balaam begins as the Israelites, after their Exodus from slavery in Egypt, were mowing down any tribesmen who got in their way on their journey to the Promised Land.  Balak, the pagan king of Moab (one of the territories through which the Israelites were about to pass) intended to stop the Israelites in their tracks.  King Balak sends for the seer Balaam:  the king wants to hire Balaam to do some prophesying about how the Moabites are going to clean the Israelites' clock, and also to put a curse on the Israelites.

While Balaam is on his way to Balak, an angel shows up to inform Balaam that he'd better only prophesy from the visions the Lord is about to give him, and not just make stuff up to please King Balak .  At first, only the donkey Balaam is riding perceives the angel.  The donkey starts freaking out.  This annoys Balaam, who starts whaling on the donkey. This has given English-speaking middle school children some of their favorite Bible verses, since there's quite a bit of stage business in which Balaam "beats his ass with a stick," the unimpressed, animal-friendly angel suddenly manifests to Balaam and asks him why he's beating his ass with a stick, etc.  
In fact, in what may be history's first Shrek prequel, God even empowers the aggrieved, long-suffering donkey to talk, so she can self-righteously ask her ungrateful master what's up with all the whaling.  

Anyway, Balaam (and his sore ass) eventually get to King Balak.  Here, Balaam runs into some trouble.  Balaam, seer that he is, is getting all sorts of mystical info about what's going to happen.  Unfortunately for King Balak, what's going to happen is that the Israelites are going to wipe the floor with the Moabites.  Again and again, King Balak asks Balaam to prophesy the glorious truth of his coming victory over the Israelites, and yet Balaam just can't (and to his credit, won't) go there--because the Israelites are going to win.  King Balak eventually gives up.  In a pretty classy move for an ancient king, Balak doesn't even behead Balaam or anything.  

So the verses in today's reading were not--initially--about the Advent promise of the birth of Jesus Christ.  They were about the Israelites smiting the Moabites.  So is the Church distorting Scripture here?  Nope.  The Bible is complicated.  Like poetry, there's lots of ways to read it.  

In fact, there are traditionally four ways to read a passage of Scripture. Two are relevant to us here:  The literal sense of the prophecy in Numbers is about the Israelites mowing down the Moabites.  The allegorical sense, the sense in which it can be read to refer to Christ, is as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah.  It's in the allegorical sense that this is a lovely Advent reading.

That's pretty much the end of this post, unless you want to geek out on hermeneutics with me.  In that case, keep reading:

The Catechism, §§ 115-118, teaches us about the traditional four senses in which Christians exegetes are to read Scripture:

The senses of Scripture
115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."
117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.
1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.
2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".
3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.

The four senses of reading have always been the practice of the Church.  It's entirely consistent for an atheist not to want to read Scripture in all four of these ways, but not for any Christian who respects the Vincentian Canon as the rule of faith, which just about all Christian denominations that have thought about it at all claim to do.  The Canon is:

"The famous threefold test of Catholic orthodoxy expressed by St. Vincent of Lérins (400-50) in his two memoranda (Comonitoria): "Care must especially be had that that be held which was believed everywhere [ubique], always [semper], and by all [ab omnibus]." By this triple norm of diffusion, endurance, and universality, a Christian can distinguish religious truth from error."
So the four senses complicated.  But the Vincentian Canon tells us that they're the right way to read the Bible.  But since it is so complicated, it's nice to have an ancient Church with an authoritative teaching Magisterium to keep its eye on these things, rather than depending on your local pastor with a degree from Bob's College of Bible--or on me!--to interpret things.  Theology is a complicated subject, like physics:  professional expertise is actually pretty important.

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