46: Tim Mackie - Riddles in the Bible (Part 1)
Dr. Timothy Mackie (The Bible Project) talks with Tim and Nate about the often missed literary designs in the Bible. What kind of patterns and repetitions do we often overlook? And what does it mean that the Bible contains riddles and texts with multiple meanings?
This is Part 1 of the conversation. Listen to Part 2 here.
Nate: Welcome to Almost Heretical. We are back, we’ve been away for like a month now, it’s crazy!
Tim Ritter: Yeah, some busy family circumstances, personal life, we do have those as well. And then the gathering in Portland a couple weekends ago.
Nate: Yeah, that was pretty cool. It was just fun to see some of you that listen, and hear your stories. I know that there’s people that have had crazy experiences all over, all across the gamut, whether it’s an experience in a church, or theology changing and getting kicked out of their family and all this kind of stuff, but to actually see the faces and hear the stories was pretty overwhelming and made me want to keep going with this show even more, so that was pretty cool.
Tim R.: And now we’re back Thanksgiving weekend with an interview that we’ve been looking forward to for a while now with a really great Bible scholar and also a friend of ours and fellow Oregon resident, Dr. Tim Mackie. So Tim now works full time with the Bible Project, which, if you haven’t checked it out, go to thebibleproject.com. Their mainstay is essentially producing animated videos on books of the Bible, themes in the Bible, skills and approaches to reading the Bible; but really it’s just a great all around collection of resources. Tim was a professor, he was a pastor for a little while, and he’s basically moved to full-time working with this crowdfunded nonprofit. Basically he’s got the dream job, just doing nerdy Bible stuff full time. So if you want some extra resources, I’ve learned probably more from Tim than any other scholar out there, and I can vouch personally that he’s a really great dude who’s been willing to process messy parts of Christianity and ugliness in the church and my own story and all that, so happy to have him on the show.
Nate: One little piece to note here, he did do this call from a log cabin with a bunch of relatives in Washington, so you might hear some kids run in and out as well.
Tim R.: Oh, and one last thing, Tim’s a pretty nerdy dude and loves talking about this stuff. I mean, so nerdy that I think Star Wars comes up two or three times in the conversation. But as part of that, we had a lot of fun talking, and so we got a pretty long conversation in, so this is going to be just the first of two parts. So next week, tune back in and we’ll part 2 of our conversation with Tim Mackie.
Nate: Here’s part 1.
Tim Mackie: It is recording.
Tim Ritter: Okay, I guess I’ll just try to get a ball rolling and see how it goes. Tim, you’re a Bible dude, Bible nerd, professional Bible nerd. We’ve started a miniseries in the last couple months, How the Bible Works, asking questions about the mechanics of these texts, how to understand it, how to approach it, all that. You’ve been doing some fun research, especially the last couple years, and some of the language you’ve used is, “design patterns,” or actually a phrase of yours that I’ve kind of stolen is the idea that when you really look closely into the Bible, especially the Old Testament, you see that there are signs of intelligent design.
Tim Mackie: [laughing] Yeah, not at all to be confused with the other conversation that uses that term. You know, that term has a lot of baggage for people in different communities, but it’s a helpful analogy.
Tim R: Fair. But just to help us jump in, give us a snapshot. What do you mean, what is this phrase, “design patterns,” and what have you been exploring?
Tim Mackie: Well, my interest in more academic biblical studies came after a couple years, where I’d been taking classes on the Bible as literature in college, but once I got exposed to the Dead Sea Scrolls and began to read around, all the floodlights that those texts shed on the scribal origins and the processes by which the biblical texts came into existence, that launched me into a whole next level of how these texts came into existence, period. And so I got really interested in manuscript histories, early translations of the Bible, and formation of the canons, these collections of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. And then I really nerded out on that for a lot of years, and then I came back around to my early interests in the literary poetics and the communication strategies that these Hebrew authors employed and how their mindset for thinking and reading and communicating was totally different from how we as moderns read and think. And so, happily, those two interests have kind of come together in the last few years for me in a project I’m working with a group of friends. We’ve kind of formed an informal research group on how these biblical texts communicate, which is wedded to how they came into existence. This is all theoretical, let me just start with a concrete example. We often, in religious communities that grew up around the Bible, there are unspoken storylines about how these texts came into existence that tend to not ever get talked about very explicitly, but they really inform what you’re looking for when you pick up the Bible and try to read it. Whether it’s that they’re golden tablets fallen from heaven, and humans had little or no agency involved, that’s a common view for some; for others it would be the opposite, that it’s merely, and this would be on the skeptics’ end, that it’s just primitive Israelite shepherd literature, or oral folktales, or that kind of thing. And so, in the middle, however, is what—and this is in the last hundred years, we just have so much great information and comparative and even Israelite data from archaeology about how texts were produced in the ancient world, how oral histories would have been passed on and the processes by which the biblical texts were formed. We just have so much to work with now that even scholars didn’t have 150 years ago to inform. And it’s very different. It’s not golden tablets from heaven, but it’s also not primitive shepherd literature. We’re dealing with highly intelligent, educated, brilliant, ancient literary artists and biblical theologians who want to communicate the most profound truths about the kind of world that we’re living in and human nature and the mystery of who God is and His purposes in the world. So for me, all my interests are coming together in theology, history, and literary poetics of literature, so there you go, I don’t know if that’s helpful or that’s too big, but that’s kind of my 30,000 foot view of the projects I’ve been working on.
Tim R: Right, so give us a deeper dive then into this most recent project, the kind of complexity, the kind of literary ingenious that you’ve been looking for and starting to see is all over the place.
Tim Mackie: Yeah, maybe a couple metaphors might help. The biblical authors didn’t sit down and write from scratch most of this literature. Let’s just talk about the Hebrew Bible for a while, so what Christians call the Old Testament. The way texts were produced in the ancient world, this is tradition literature, this is a people’s spiritual heritage, but also their cultural heritage, and so tradition literature is literature that comes into existence through many generations, each generation inherits and also adapts and shapes and honors and studies what came before it and also passes it on. What the biblical authors are doing most of the time is arranging and adapting preexisting stories and poems that have come down to them from previous generations, and so one metaphor that I’ve come to use is the Old Testament isn’t—you know you go into a nursery, like an urban plant nursery in the city? It’ll be like a parking lot that they’ve converted into a nursery or something like that, and it’s a bunch of potted plants, and they’re all scooted in together, so the small trees are over here, and the rhododendrons are over there. They’re all discrete objects in the nursery, and that’s sometimes how we think about the books in the Bible, that they’re these independent entities. The reality is that the Hebrew Bible, especially, is much more like going out to Colorado and being in the middle of an Aspen forest. An Aspen forest, I just learned this because I went hiking outside of Aspen a number years ago, Aspen groves are these massive, single organisms. There’s a single living root system underneath that binds all of them together, and so any tree you’re looking at just happens to be a younger or older expression of the core root system. And that’s exactly how the Hebrew Bible works. You have some of the oldest growth, but those oldest growths have themselves spawned and are deeply connected to newer growths that are built from the same type of cell structures as the older ones. So I found that is a really helpful metaphor. I didn’t make that up, a Hebrew Bible scholar named Timothy Stone made that up, but I find that very helpful, because if you ever noticed, there’s a lot of repeated phrases and patterned type of stories and language happening as you read throughout the Old Testament. Whether it’s stories about husbands and wives that deceive each other, or family members, or a guy who marries too many wives, and then everybody hates each other and destroys each other in the stories. There’s lots of—I mean, I guess I’ll ask you guys. Have you ever noticed in reading the Bible, there’s just lots of patterns of language like this? I’ll just ask it as a real question. Has this been anything that ever strikes you?
Nate: I guess that’s my question. We talk, and Tim, our Tim, has been talking about how, you know, he’ll say, “Look at this verse here, it’s the same kind of theme as what you saw back in Genesis here,” and I’m like, cool, I think I see that, but how do I know those are actually connected, how do I know that those go together and it’s not just an accident, so that would be one of my questions. The other is how far back, I want to know, it’s a written tradition for a while, but I’m guessing at some point it was all oral, right? And so, was it that they would tell these stories and then eventually it got written down, and how do we know all this? I have so many questions!
Tim Mackie: Well, the Hebrew Bible comes from a people group who is representing their understanding of their history, their family’s history and experience in the world, and particularly the claim as you move through the story, is that this history, the literary representation of their family history, is a window into a divine will and purpose that work in the world in and through their history. That’s the claim. You can accept that or not accept it, but that is the claim. And so what we’re asking about is how did the literature come into existence that represents that history? But then also, what’s the mode of communication? How does it actually communicate and make claims and arguments and communicate to a reader. Really, it starts in the first three pages of Genesis, both teaching you some real core claims that this text is going to make about the world, but also the way it communicates is teaching you how to read the book that’s sitting in front of you. Genesis 1-3 is in many ways a tutorial in how to read the rest of the Old Testament, and the main vehicle for it is patterns of repetition. Most anybody could walk away from page one of the Bible and be like, “Oh, there was a pattern of seven days that I just encountered.” It’s through verbal repetition. “And God said,” always begins each of the seven days, and there was evening and morning, day one, day two, day three. There’s almost always a pronouncement of good. There’s just lots of repetition jumping off the page. And so what Genesis 1 is also teaching you to do is how to read a text like this. So then you begin to compare. This is what your mind is doing all the time. This is neuroscience, which, I’m not a neuroscientist, but they can tell you, you’re coming out of the womb, and your brain, is at a subconscious level, hyper-tracking with repeated experiences and varied experiences, similarities and differences. So the shape that’s in front of me all the time and that has moving things and says sounds to me, I begin to track, “It’s there all day every day!” The repetition is what trains you. But then another, a furry one comes in with sharp teeth, that’s maybe your family dog, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s different, I don’t like that one! It slobbers on me!” It’s similarity and difference. It’s real basic communication, and that’s exactly what Genesis 1 is doing, it’s through repetition, and so even the different days of the seven days of Genesis are repeating language from previous days, but also introducing new language. On every day there’s a pronouncement of something good, but then if you pay attention to that, you notice on day 2, there isn’t anything good. On day 3, it seems aware of the absence of day 2, so it gives you two goods on day 3 to make up for the good that wasn’t there on day 2. It’s all about repetition, and these authors are trying to teach you by repeating things that came before but with slight variations that that’s how they’re going to be communicating to you. So in a microcosm, what Genesis 1 is doing continues throughout the whole rest of the Hebrew scriptures. It’s through patterns of repetition that this story is going to make its claims. And it does raise an interesting question in terms of what you were saying, Nate, about how did these texts come into existence. It’s all through comparative anthropology that people do research on cultures that preserve their histories orally, and there’s lots of comparative research from within the last century about cultures that begin to write down their oral traditions and what those processes are like. What we have in the Hebrew Bible is the end result of about a thousand-plus year long process of this. But what we can see is that a book like Genesis has been crafted so that every single word and story there in the early parts are giving you the vocabulary that’s going to develop throughout the whole rest of the Hebrew Bible. I mean, the whole thing is unified like a quilt. So as Genesis 1-3 teaches you to read, it also is preparing with the skills and vocabulary that you need to make it through the whole rest of the Hebrew Bible. That’s what I mean, our concept of how the texts came into existence and how the texts communicate are actually two parts of the same question. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Tim R: I track with you, Tim, but I go back to your question of do we notice the patterns? And I can honestly say, I was studying the Bible really earnestly, really intently for a lot of years before I thought the patterns meant anything other than coincidental repetitions. And I know what you’re saying about Genesis 1-3 as a kind of intro and typological thing, but for a lot of years of church history, people have not seen Genesis 1-3 as that. Genesis 1 doesn’t say, “This is a template for how to read the rest of the Bible.” It says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Nate: Oh, that’d be so nice.
Tim R: So there are a lot of years of people fighting over how to interpret these words, and I don’t think, for most of us, that this is written as a kind of figural key through which you’ll be able to interpret and understand the rest of these texts, that didn’t cross most of our minds ever, right? For a lot of people it doesn’t even make sense now.
Tim Mackie: Well, yeah totally, at least not in the modern era. But that’s because we’re inheriting baggage from the last 500 and 200 years of all kinds of stuff that is setting us up poorly to encounter the Bible on its own terms.
Nate: What are those, real quick? When you say that?
Tim Mackie: Oh! For example, through the period of the Reformation, there’s a whole shift happening in terms of the birth of the science of history, and many scholars have traced this. I was introduced to this through a Hebrew Bible professor named John Sailhamer. He could trace from the Reformation onto the present where the meaning of the biblical text shifted from being what the words are communicating to the meaning of the historical events to which they point. Now starting with the Reformation, you can just watch it happen. The meaning of the text becomes subordinate to what we can dig up in archaeology or what we can reconstruct from ancient history, and then that becomes the meaning of the text, as opposed to the text being a literary representation, a verbal representation that is giving an interpretation of a historical event. Those are two really different things. Actually, here’s an illustration that Sailhamer would use. There’s a painting of, oh I forget! It was a French painter. Rene Magritte! I forget the name of the movement he was a part of. He had this painting, it was a hyperrealist painting of a pipe. It looks like a pipe, an actual pipe that he painted. And then it says underneath it in French, “This is not a pipe.” It’s a philosophical mind puzzle. But the point is that it’s not a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe. The painting of a pipe is not the same thing as a pipe; it’s a visual re-presentation of a pipe. It’s not in 3D; you can’t turn it over, you can’t put tobacco in it. It’s an illustration to say, this is an artist’s interpretation of something that really happened, but we should never mistake the representation for the real thing, so our modern obsession with the historicity of the Bible. I think there are important questions to ask about how these literary texts relates to the events they claim to portray, but we should never confuse those as to the meaning of the text, and what it means to hear the theological claims of these texts. To do that, I need not a shovel and a pickaxe and a plane ticket to the ancient Near East, what I need is a heightened set of reading and literary skills to know how to read an ancient text. So that’s small, and it might even seem to some people like you’re splitting hairs, but it’s a world of difference in terms of what you’re looking for when you pick up the Bible.
Tim Mackie: Here’s what we could do: I could maybe walk through some examples, and I think everything we just talked about will become a little more clear.
Nate: Yeah, let’s do that.
Tim R: Yeah, give us some of your favorite examples, and then I’m going to throw one at you.
Tim Mackie: Okay, great. Okay, so again this is from the first page of the Bible, and I remember noticing this even as I was reading the Bible for the first time in my early twenties and really trying to make sense of it. So one of the most key repeated words on page one of the Bible is the word good. So you have the seven part design of the cosmos in Genesis 1, and seven different times there are pronouncements that what God is making is good. Forget all the debates, let’s just agree that Genesis 1 begins with uncreated darkness and waste and it ends with a garden. Right? I think everybody from all positions about Genesis 1 can agree on that. And the process from the garden is from darkness and chaos and no life to a process of increasing goodness. “And it was good.” God separates the waters from the waters, it was good; there was light, there was good; sun, moon and stars, good; creatures, good. And then the culminating good is on the seventh day, it’s not just good, it’s an increased good. “God saw all that He had made.” It was very good. So you walk away from page one and go, “Ah, okay, ‘good’ is very important.” Good is something God provides; good is something God creates but also gives to others, He gives it to the creatures and gives it to the humans. God is the one with the knowledge of good and the power to create good. Genesis 2: God is the first one to notice something is not good. It’s of a human alone; a human alone can’t fulfill the purpose for which He appointed the humans, which is to rule the world as His partners. And so God, in a fascinating story, brings one human, has one human out of two. So now you have one humanity made up of two humans, and that’s good. Then the next thing where the word good appears, is God gives to the humans this choice about whether they’re going to live in His good world as His corulers, or there’s this chance they have to know and to seize knowing good and the opposite of good and take it for themselves. That’s the next time the word good appears. All of a sudden, you have all this string in the story, you have the string of the word good, that puts together a really profound storyline for you. God is the provider of good; humans wake up in a world of good; when something isn’t good, God wants to bring about good; but then also, every human has a choice themselves about whether they’re going to trust God’s provision and knowledge of good, or am I going to take and know and define good and not good on my own terms. That’s a really profound set of claims to make about human nature and the human condition, and it’s all happening through the hyperlinking of these stories about good. So we’ll just do one more step. Of course, that story goes poorly. There’s a snake that really knows how to take advantage of a situation full of opportunity, and the snake gets the humans to doubt God’s goodness and generosity. Ooh, this is a good example of repetition! The snake quotes a line that God said in the previous chapter, but he changes one word. So in the previous chapter, God said, “Eat from any tree of the garden, just not this one.” And then this creature speaks to the humans and says, “Did God say, ‘Don’t eat from any trees of the garden?’” It’s just one little word, right, he changes it from a gift into a question that gets them to become suspicious about God’s purposes. And then of course that seems to plant a seed for the humans, because then they’re like, “Oh, there is that one, and I want it.” So it’s all about humans before a decision about good and what they’re going to do in response to what an animal is saying to them. And we know how that famous story goes. Okay, the companion story right next to it is about, that man and the woman, it’s about their kids, the next generation. It’s the famous story of Cain and Abel. And in this story, God also does something puzzling. In the garden of Eden, what’s up with the tree, why not? I kind of understand about good, but what’s up with that tree? It’s puzzling, right? God doesn’t say, “Don’t eat from the tree, and here’s why.” It’s left a mystery for the reader and for the characters, they just have to trust. In the same way, in the next generation, God does something that isn’t explained. He accepts one son’s offering but not another son’s offering. It’s a famous puzzle in the story of Cain and Abel, the why. But then the whole story is about how the humans are going to respond to something that God has said or done that doesn’t make sense to them. So you’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” A very similar kind of story; totally different circumstances, but those stories are actually similar in terms of that theme, aren’t they? And then what’s interesting is that Cain gets really angry about how God favors his brother, and what God says to him is the next repetition of the word good in the story. God says, “Why are you angry? If you do good, you will be lifted up.” If you do good, there will be exaltation. And then He says, “But listen, sin is crouching at the door, and it’s desire is for you, but you can rule it.” Almost every line in there is a little vocabulary copy and paste from the previous two chapters. Sin crouching like an animal. Have I encountered any other crafty animals that are there with the humans at the moment they need to make the key moral choice? Oh, yeah, that was the snake in the previous story. Now it’s the abstract concept of sin, but sin is crouching like an animal, trying to get you. It’s desire is for you. We don’t have time to go down this rabbit hole, but that’s a copy and paste from something in Genesis chapter 3 about some kind of, what seems to be an inverted or antagonistic desire, but sin wants you the same way that there’s going to be this relational conflict between the man and the woman in chapter 3. But you can rule over it. That’s what God said the humans were to do over creation on page 1. And now of course, Cain doesn’t do good. He murders his brother. So that’s a good example, and I know I’m talking for a long time, so I’ll stop in a second. Genesis 3-4 are two stories put next to each other, and it’s actually through thematic pairing and then key vocabulary copy-and-pasting between the two stories that gets you to compare the two stories. All of a sudden you have to go for a long walk and just think about, “How is the garden temptation similar to Cain and Abel’s story? How is it different?” And then what you see is this portrait developing in the story of the human condition and then of humans as these deceived but also rather selfish creatures who even unwittingly or sometimes purposefully spread death and create relational chaos in the world that creates violence and bloodshed. And all we’re doing is tracking with keywords here. So what the Hebrew Bible authors do is, what happens between Genesis 3 and Genesis 4 with repeated words just keeps happening. It just keeps cycling on itself. So you’ll be in a story about Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 16. And it’s a story about how two people, a man and a woman Abraham and Sarah, God said they’re going to have a kid. “But we can’t have any kids!” But they see this Egyptian slave that they have, and they take her and do what is good in their eyes to her. And it’s all this language in that story from the Genesis 3 temptation story. And there’s thematic parallels: it’s a husband and a wife, and they don’t trust God. And they do what’s good in their own eyes, and it results in oppression all sorts of terrible things happen. And so this is just how it works, man, every single story as you go through the Bible is a set of networked patterns on earlier stories, almost always going back to Genesis 1-11. It’s as if Genesis 1-11 is like a playbook. It’s giving you a template for what humans are and what humans do, and then the rest of the Hebrew Bible is just playing out the playbook in hundreds of different little variations. So there it is in a nutshell. I know I just talked for a long time. But tell me, are you hearing that, and I’d love to hear your questions or thoughts.
Nate: Yeah, I guess I come back to the question of do we know that because they’re similar, because those themes that you saw in Genesis 1-11, and then seeing that again in Genesis 16, because it’s similar, you know that that’s what they’re doing?
Tim Mackie: Yeah, correct.
Nate: How are we sure that that’s happening? Just because they are similar?
Tim Mackie: Oh, man. Yeah, I just told you a few. If I were to show you the chart of all the similar vocabulary between Genesis 3 and Genesis 4, it’s mind-blowing. You just look at it and know that it’s clearly intentional. Actually, here’s a good analogy. Are you a Star Wars fan? Ish?
Nate: Yeah, I’ve seen them a few times.
Tim Mackie: Okay, there you go. So if you’ve seen the old trilogy and then you’re watching the new trilogy unfold, you probably noticed along with lots of people that there’s very intentional repetitions happening. To speak of the obvious: the Death Star. [laughing] Right? The big Death Star is like the big terrible threat to be avoided in both the first trilogy and the first movie of the new trilogy. And the destruction of the Death Star scenes are very similar, right? It all focuses on one going into a trench and having to shoot the torpedo into a very small little—that kind of thing. So when we encounter this in other forms of communication, we don’t even think about it. It’s just, that’s how it works. And the whole point is that you compare the two Death Star battle scenes, their similarities, their differences, and the meditation on the similarities and differences begins to form and help you understand these new characters, like how Poe Dameron is different from Luke Skywalker, but also how he’s similar. And then that becomes a vehicle of the movie’s message, the thematic claims. So it’s no different. It’s a very basic form of communication, repetition and then variation. The Hebrew Bible is just using this tool. It’s the primary medium of it. So yeah, if I could show you the chart between Genesis 3 and 4, if I could show you the chart of that story of Abraham and Sarah, with Genesis 3, you could see it in the verbal texture of these stories. And often these hyperlinked, another metaphor I use is hyperlinking, like on a webpage, often it seems as if the biblical authors will intentionally phrase something in an odd way in a later story in a later story intentionally, to make you go, “Oh, that’s a good one.” Oh, here’s a good example! Later in the story, there’s a story about Abram. He goes to a Philistine town named Gerar, it’s in Genesis 20, and he thinks they’re going to kill him because his wife is “beautiful of sight,” which is exactly what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is called. And he’s afraid that they’re going to take her and then kill him. And in Genesis 3, it’s all about how the tree is beautiful of sight, and they take from the tree, and so on. But then Abram, Abraham actually plays the role of the snake in that story, because he’s the deceiver. He’s the one lying in order to preserve his own life. And then God actually comes to the king in a dream, and there’s all kinds of other things going on. But at the end of the story, the king gets really angry that Abraham lied to him and God’s the one who tells on Abraham, and then the king says, “Get out of here, I’ll command that no one touches you!” He says, “I give a command that no one touches you!” Do you remember what the woman said in Genesis 3? “God commanded us, saying, ‘Don’t touch the tree!’” And then the king gives a command saying, “Don’t touch Abraham and his wife.” And then the king gives Abraham and Sarah this money to pay off her psychological damages, and then what he says about the money is, “This will be as a covering for the eyes.” It’s just a very odd phrase in Hebrew and in English. The money covers your eyes? It’s so weird, but if you think about it, it’s exactly an inversion of the Genesis 3 story, which is they took from the thing that was beautiful, and it was opening their eyes. The thing that was taken that opened their eyes in Genesis 3 is being bounced off of in Genesis, where it was all about a deceiver, Abraham, and a woman who is beautiful of sight and was taken and who’s given back, and to undo the deception, we need to cover the eyes instead of have them open. So that’s a good example where these authors are very clever, they’re very creative in how they’re hyperlinking and recalling stories, but if I could show you Genesis 20 and the list of vocabulary that matches Genesis 3, it’s just right there again, just like the two Death Star stories in the two Star Wars narratives. So yes, I’ve been living in this paradigm for a couple years, but it happens enough that it’s like you get trained to read the stories this way, and each story that comes along later, you’re looking for clues now. Once you see one key word, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a key word in Genesis 3, the eyes, people being blind, or seeing or not seeing.” And then it trains you to look for other key words as you go through.
Tim R: So I know you know this, Tim. I’ve seen your charts, so I know what you’re talking about because I’ve taken some seminars with you.
Tim Mackie: [laughing] Yes, I know, it’s kind of like a bogey to talk about the charts.
Tim R: But the fact is, we don’t see the charts, right? And I know you know this, but it’s because you’ve invested decades of your life into learning Hebrew and becoming fluent in these texts and this kind of literature. Most of us aren’t doing that, so we’re at a handicap. And we don’t need to dwell on that for too long, other than that I think it’s worthwhile acknowledging that’s real. It’s a real thing.
Tim Mackie: Yeah, it is real. And one thought on that. I actually remember noticing repeated vocabulary. Actually, I was taught in my first class, which happened to coincide with the first year or two of me reading the Bible period, I was taught to look for repetition, and I was taught that hyper-literal translations are really hard to read before going to bed at night or on the bus, but they’re great for doing study because the biblical authors are all about strategic vocabulary use. So you can track a lot of this in English. Not all of it, but you can actually track quite a lot of it, which I did in my early years of reading the Bible. And then second, for me this is a paradigm shift that I’m still undergoing, is that I’m not sure the authors envisioned a universal, worldwide audience for this literature. For them, this is the Jewish interpretation of their history, and it’s for themselves. It’s for themselves to read and reflect and for the next generation. And so the fact that God, on a traditional view of inspiration, if you want to entertain that view, it would force you to reckon with the fact that God chose as the vehicle to his communication with people the literature and literary conventions of one particular people group, and I think that’s just built into the Jewish and Christian that God reveals Himself at all to people. It makes it inconvenient to people who don’t know Hebrew, which is most of humans for most of human history, but you’ve just got to wrap your mind around that fact, I guess. I feel like I’m wrapping my mind around it most days when I wake up. So yeah, what do you think about that?
Tim R: Well, let me ask you an intentionally obnoxious question. For all those of us, thousands of years later without Hebrew and without being a part of this tradition literature community, who are coming to this thing as a book that’s been given sacred significance, what does it mean to read the Cain and Abel story literally? Or have you moved away from that notion, or what’s a better way of even thinking about how to approach a story like the Cain and Abel story, or Genesis 16, or Genesis 20, any of those examples?
Tim Mackie: Well the word literal is so fraught with complexities and baggage and emotions in our moment. I think any time the word literal versus metaphorical comes up, you just have to say, “Try your best to define what you mean by that. I can’t answer your question without knowing what you mean by the word literal.” And I find as I press students, when I’m in classroom settings, to do that, is people have wildly different definitions of what they think even a literal reading of the Bible even represents. What I mean when I use the word literal, is I’m looking for the literary meaning. In other words, whenever somebody sits down to craft a piece of written communication, they use literary conventions and words and paragraphs and repetition or whatever that culture uses, but usually when I write something down, I mean something by it, and I mean the person who reads it to read it and understand hopefully, basically, what I’m saying. So that’s what I mean by the literal meaning, is the meaning that the author wants me to grasp as I read this text. And again, this is back to, “This is not a pipe,” that painting. In the modern era, meaning has become synonymous with understanding its historical referent. If I understand the event to which it refers, that’s its meaning. But of course an event doesn’t have meaning! I don’t know the meaning of what brushing my teeth meant this morning. I don’t know the meaning of why I’m at my in-laws for Thanksgiving. But maybe in five years, I’ll begin to see that this weekend played a key role in something that happened in this thing and the things that followed from it, and then I can craft a story about the meaning of the weekend. But if I crafted that narrative, that wouldn’t be the same thing as what actually happened here. I don’t know the meaning of any of this. So I think the literal meaning that is going to be most helpful to modern readers is learning to understand what an author meant by giving a literary representation of their history.
Nate: Is it true that potentially people at that time weren’t as concerned with the historical accuracy of what they were writing, as well? Potentially we’re just more consumed with knowing the actual facts and order events? What does that trigger in you?
Tim Mackie: If you think about it, tradition literature and foundation stories of a people or a culture, these are stories that matter deeply to these people because they’re identity-forming stories. “This is our story. We’re the exodus people.” The exodus story made a deep impact on the identity and practices of the Israelite people over the course of millennia and still today for those who chose to live by those rituals. So I think the way these literary texts refer to history is often by a different set of conventions than how we think of a literary text representing history. It’s a different culture, totally different culture. For me, my hang up is with the word “accuracy,” because that itself just speaks of a cultural value that we have. Here, this is very interesting to think about. Is the meaning of an event captive to how accurately you portray it? I often use the example of how my wife and I met and dated and got married over the course of about two years, and when we’re meeting people, they’ll be like, “Oh, how’d you guys meet and get married?” We’ve been married eighteen years, so we’ve told it so many times, we have a long version, a medium version, and a short version, and we kind of know the cues of who says what at what part. What we’ve actually done is condensed many events down into a shorter number of events. I know, we’ve talked about it before, we’ve merged multiple days at the beach into one day at the beach in our retelling. So is it inaccurate? Well, it’s not video camera footage. But in another sense, it’s very accurate, I lived it! What it is, is it’s a faithful representation of that season of my life and the way that we tell is trying to help people understand the meaning that we can now see in these events and how they work together. So accuracy is part of the equation, but it’s not the only value driving how we form that narrative. I think something analogous is going on with the biblical authors. All kinds of stuff. Chronology is not of utmost value. They’re constantly rearranging events and putting them… and they don’t even hide it. The book of Ezekiel has a real clear chronological scheme, and there are just some sections that have been so clearly relocated to a different section of the book. And it’s not trying to hide because their value isn’t to give you video camera footage. So there you go. It’s hard for moderns to wrap their heads around a different culture’s way of representing their history, but I think we have to learn how to read these texts sympathetically, on their own terms, or else I think we’re destined to misread them.
Tim R: Okay, so on authorial intent and meaning: let me see if I can kick the ball forward with an example of my own. This year, Tim, I got to take a seminar on Genesis with you, which is half on Genesis, half you playing out these kind of designs and patterns and exploring how everything is interwoven and the different connections. And we had a little back and forth on the very strange story in Genesis 9. There’s the flood, the ark, things come to a kind of conclusion, they get off the boat, and there’s this strange event with Noah and his family members. We had done a podcast episode early on when we started the show, sort of drawing on Mike Heiser’s stuff and some of the articles out there connecting. So it’s the sin of Ham, and I had done some research and seen for the first time, there’s this whole section of Leviticus that seems like it’s implanting a decoder ring that is basically translating the phrase, “Your mother’s nakedness is your father’s nakedness.” So there’s basically this thing, you read the story, in most of my upbringing, we interpreted Genesis 9 as this story of Noah getting drunk and doing what’s typically assumed to be some sort of homosexual, incestual act. So it was Noah’s fault and Noah did something wrong. And then I started to get into this other realm of research that says it’s this phrase is a reference to Noah’s wife, and in the theme of beings seizing power, all the way back from Genesis 3 to the sons of God in Genesis 6, there’s this consistent theme, and Ham potentially raped his own mother to take over the family line. So I basically, we had this back and forth. Which is it? Is it Noah’s son does something to Noah and Noah’s wife? Or is this Noah does something? And you actually reached the conclusion that it’s both.
Tim Mackie: Yeah, I actually believe that more firmly now than when we had that conversation. So I’m happy to talk more about it.
Tim R: Right, so that brought up this, to me, fascinating idea, that there would be double entendre written into narrative in biblical texts where a story is saying, “This happened.” And it’s actually trying to get us to take that story, sit down this morning and think, “Oh, that story said this happened, Noah’s son Ham did something really awful.” And then connect that with other stories in Genesis. But then later this evening, have a beer, come back to the same story and read it and say, “Oh, this entirely different thing happened, and that then fits in with this other sort of themes and patterns going through there.” Walk us through this and what the heck that does with what we do with the meaning of a text and the ways we’ve been trained to go to a text, find that meaning, figure out what the singular meaning is, and then move forward.
Nate: Wait, but I’m really curious. Can you also talk about how both of those things can be true in that specific story?
Tim Mackie: Yep, totally, happy to. This is a frontier for me, I’m still working it out. In another two years, I might have another way to put it. I will certainly have another way of putting this. So we have a category, almost all cultures have ways of talking ironically, sarcastically, where we mean multiple things by using one set of words. So irony and sarcasm is a great one because it’s actually the tone of voice and the greater context that makes something clear. So I’m being a jerk to my wife, and she’s like, “Hey could you go get the last bag of groceries from the car?” And I’m like, “I’d love to.” Obviously, there’s double meaning. I’m saying I would love to, but what my words actually communicate are the opposite of that. I will, but I’m not happy because I just sprained my ankle or something, I don’t know. So this isn’t magic language; this is normal mode of communication, but it is a clever mode of communication. So there are other ways we can do double meaning on purpose with words that are capable of multiple meanings. Some great ones in English like “read” [present tense] or “read” [past tense].
I read the book [present]; I read the book [past]. R-E-A-D, and then R-E-D, for the color red. So you could, I can’t think of it right now, but you could create a paragraph that’s all about read [present], read [past], and red, working in all these cool little ways. It could turn out that the book is actually red that you were reading, that you used to have read. You could do this. So all languages have homonyms that work like this. You take that principle and then you start employing it with narrative patterns, and I think it’s the same exact principle. So the sin of Ham, and what it means for him to look upon the nakedness of his father, is such a great example. So that whole scene, Noah getting off the boat and planting a vineyard, that’s a new Adam and Eve scene, and God commissions him to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land. It’s exactly what happened in Genesis 1. So that itself is a good example of narrative patterning. Noah is like a new Adam, and he gets off, he plants a vineyard, and in the vineyard, some great sin is committed because of the fruit of the vineyard. You’re like, “Oh, no, it’s Genesis 3 all over again, except even more weird.” So he gets drunk and he exposes himself in the tent, and then Ham looks upon the nakedness of his father. If you’re just reading, that could mean many thing. It’s also where Noah wakes up and he knew what his son had done to him. So the narrative is worded in this highly suggestive way, but it leaves you without the core information you need to actually make sense of what happened. And I’m now convinced that it is exactly on purpose, and there are many narratives like this in the Hebrew Bible.
You have to fit this into how the Bible works. There are narratives that are actually crafted super-dense with intentional gaps and ambiguities, and they’re riddles. What they are is they’re narrative riddles. And Proverbs chapter 1 actually tells you that one of the things that you’ll learn from reading the book of Proverbs is how to interpret riddles. Proverbs 1 tells you that being a skilled reader of the Hebrew Bible involves knowing how to understand riddles. So something happened sexually with Ham in relation to his father. So if you have in your mind same-sex intercourse, a form of rape, and drunkenness, so you get that and you go on through the story, you’re going to hit multiple stories that are going to be designed off of that story and hint back to it, and kind of help illuminate what happened earlier. For example, you have in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there’s the famous story, the moment where the men of the city want to break into Lot’s house and gang rape the angels. It’s human and angel, which itself is a commentary linking back to the sons of God and the daughters of men from Genesis 6. But then after that story, after they escape Sodom and Gomorrah, you have that really, it’s one of the most cringing stories in the Hebrew Bible, where Lot has sex with his daughters in a cave.
So think about this, so here you have two daughters who are worried that their seed will not live. That’s what they say, “Our seed will not live.” And so they get their dad drunk in a cave two nights in a row and the children sleep with their father because of wine in a cave to keep the seed alive. Almost all of that, that whole story with Lot and his daughters, all the vocabulary in there, is keyed off of stuff from the flood story and the Noah story. So that’s an example where it confirms the interpretation, or at least one way of thinking about Noah and his son, that it was Ham raping his father. Both really terrible things. But then you go forward in the story even more and you get to the book of Leviticus. And there you read in Leviticus 18, the beginning paragraph is like, “Don’t live like the Canaanites. You know the Canaanites that live in the land? They live in all these ways, they have customs and habits, and don’t do any of those things.” Because don’t forget, in Genesis 9, the narrator interrupts you two times in the story to tell you, “Oh, yes, Ham! He’s the father of the Canaanites.” And then he just keeps the story going and you’re like, “What was that for? Why do I need to know that Ham’s the father of the Canaanites?” I get to Leviticus, and it says, “Hey, don’t be like the Canaanites, because here’s how they live!” And then there’s this whole list of rules about sex in Israelite culture, and specifically who you’re not supposed to have sex with, and one of them is, “Don’t make visible the nakedness of your father, that’s your mom!” So there, the nakedness of your father is very clearly about a son sleeping with his mom, or at least the wife of his father, which is all about inheritance and status-grabbing. And you’re like, “Oh, so maybe Ham was sleeping with Noah’s wife in order to become the leader of the family.”
You would get to the book of Samuel and you would find that reading confirmed, too, when Absalom sleeps with the wives of David, his father, as his proclamation to make himself king. And all those stories are designed back on that story. So I think the Ham and Noah story is intentionally opening up both possibilities. Both are equally screwed up, and both are themselves just iterations of the garden temptation back in Genesis 3. Do you see what I’m saying? The Noah story with Ham in the vineyard is itself a mirror, a design patterned story from the garden, and then it’s capable of two meanings, and both of those meanings are played upon in the design patterns of the story as you go throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. I think it’s just creative literature. They can make a story do more theologically than if it just had one meaning, so it seem to have been intentionally crafted to be open-ended so that it could activate in multiple ways later on in the story. I’m so sorry I’m not concise.
Nate: No, this is great!
Tim Mackie: [laughing] I wish I could be more concise! But this isn’t like magical double meaning. We do this all the time. We mean multiple things by what we say, and that’s a part of clever, riddle-like communication, and the book of Proverbs tells you explicitly, that’s exactly the kind of communication that the Hebrew Bible is.
Nate: Okay, that was part 1 of our conversation with Tim Mackie. Come back next time to hear part 2! We’ll see you next time.
Tim Ritter: Peace.