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Gary Simmons

Prooftexting is only right if it makes the right point. Isn't that right?

Sadly, I am awkward at doing this pre-modern, pre-critical technique though I've come to appreciate its usefulness when others do so (if I agree with it). One of the best I've heard is the story of David and Goliath. Some people think they're David in this story. We're not -- Jesus is. We're Saul and the army. Mind-blowing.

Recently, I did use a figural interpretation. These two paragraphs were something I suggested should be added to churches' statements of faith:

“We believe that sex is a heaven-sent privilege meant for the intimate union of a man and a woman in marriage Gen 2:24). In its intensity and drive, it is parallel to the way God loves His Church (SoS 1:15) and how the Church loves God (SoS 1:16). It is a blessing from God that He allows us to participate in His ongoing act of creation and sustenance of the human race (Gen 1:28). Sex is thus both a procreative and unifying act.

Sexual intercourse is a privilege and not a right; nor is it a need. Coitus is not a necessary part of being fully human. Sexual activity is not restricted because it is dirty or unclean; it is restricted because it is holy and clean, and it is a sin to abuse this privilege and defile what is holy."

The first line of the second paragraph is the core point, and the last lengthy sentence dispels the stereotype that Christians hate sex. Anyway, I felt myself reflexively hesitate in citing Song of Songs in reference to God/Christ and the Church/Synagogue. A silly reflex, perhaps, but overcoming my training is a slow process.

By the way: did you read Benjamin Segal's commentary on Song of Songs yet? I asked you about it before your grand move, and you said you'd bookmark it for later.

Bob MacDonald

John - thanks for the post. I hope to complete a figural interpretation of every psalm during the rest of my lifetime. It is not because I expect to prove anything, but because proof of the configuration of the text has found its home in me, and because the figure of the anointed has become a fixture in my being - life, hope, spirit, and flesh.

These sentences are for Gary - figures don't figure things out. Figures express what has been given and what is and has been known through a mystery I hardly dare name - but it is engaged somehow, and every psalm portrays the engagement and the figure of the elect. Do not fear to approach and enter - as Rashi says of psalm 2 - arm yourself with purity. I translated it as "kiss, aflame yourself pure" - pointing both backwards and forwards in the psalm - a Janus parallel. I link this purification to the prayer of John 17.

I am convinced that any who call on this purity will find themselves drawn after the one who purified himself for our sake. Such a drawing will be worth hanging in a gallery as we came to have faces in the image of the one who draws us.


Hi Gary,

Usually figural interpretation does not raise eyebrows because it takes place in the context of a community that has internalized the rules by which a particular metanarrative makes it clear when it is possible to say, "this is that."

In that sense, it is interesting to identify the implied reader of Obama's speech. At the very least, it is someone who is biblically literate. Is this a reason to teach biblical literature in the public schools, so that citizens can grasp presidential speeches?

Thanks to your encouragement, I took a look at Segal's commentary. It is well-written and well laid out. I continue to prefer the volumes by Fox and Exum. As far as allegorical interpretation of the Song is concerned, for an introduction I highly recommend Reuven Kimelman, "Rabbi Yohanan and Origen on the Song of Songs: A Third-Century Jewish-Christian Disputation," Harvard Theological Review 73 (1980) 567-595.

Much of what you have to say about sexuality seems to be a fair appropriation of the more stringent threads in biblical discourse (culminating in Jesus and Paul). All of which is counter-cultural today, but then, there is not much evidence of sexual wisdom in today's libertarianism.



I wish you well in your ongoing midrash of the Psalms. You situate yourself in a long line of interpreters and you do so with independence of mind and on the basis of a rich fund of experience.

Angela Erisman

As a historical critic, I would certainly have a problem if someone confused typological exegesis with historical-critical exegesis (two exegetical games with two different goals and two different sets of rules). It is surely wrong, by the standard practice of historical criticism, to assert that the author of this passage deliberately created a figure of Gabrielle Giffords (or Mary, for that matter). But that's not to say that typological exegesis doesn't have its place - for situations just like this one, for example. Perhaps the skepticism of a Collins is a response to the not-uncommon effort to promote pre-critical exegesis as an alternative to historical criticism for those who are uncomfortable with the fruits of historical criticism?


Hi Angela,

If the legitimate home of typological exegesis is civil religious discourse, not to mention, I assume, both popular and religious culture, what is the home of historical exegesis?

If this is an either/or, the situation is grim for purely historical exegesis, though the fact that there really isn't such a thing as purely historical or purely typological exegesis (to me it matters, for example, that Giffords - and Mary - are Jewish) should alert us to the fact that the answer is both/and.

I would want to make a case that all exegesis benefits from a knowledge of the historical particulars of the text, the inferable agenda of the text's author(s), and so on.

A few days ago I was asked to teach a religious studies course, a class of 50 students, beginning in two weeks at the UW-Oshkosh. The title of the course: "The Bible and Current Events." I may write you to see how you handled "Job and Popular Culture" at Xavier.

Jeremy Pierce

Actually, I would see this as a sign of Obama's brilliant ability to say nothing while appearing to say something, the empty suit who can be all things to all in order to win all to nothing. I see no content in the speech as to how he's taking this passage. It comes across to me like a bad topical sermon that reads some barely tangential verse at the outset to make it appear biblical. It's not prooftexting, which involves taking the text in a way that it's either not intended or is not appropriate in some other way. But Obama seems to me not to be taking it any particular way. He doesn't refer back to his quotation, and none of the language appears anywhere else in his speech. He never explains what the metaphorical language refers to in this context. He certainly doesn't say the river is Rep. Giffords. I won't run off here at length in your comments, but my fuller analysis is here.


Hi Jeremy,

And the subtext of your take on the speech might be Obama's self-understanding, as he put it in his "Audacity of Hope," in which he described himself as

"a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

End quote.

In this case, however, I don't think it's possible to say that Obama meant to say nothing. It is, I would argue, a plain-sense interpretation of Obama's Psalm 46 quote in context to read it as celebrating Gabbie Giffords as a public servant and a servant of *the city of God* and a trustful prayer that God will help her at the break of day.

Since I posted, I have heard talking heads take it similarly: perhaps we are not completely wrong.

Beyond that, what's needed is an across-the-board analysis of God language and deployment of Scripture in the public square. It is too easy for conversation around these things to get little further than giving one's own a free pass and sticking it to one's political opponents.

To exemplify, I remember how incensed I was with how so many in the media manhandled (I choose the word carefully) Sarah Palin and her references to God and God's plan with respect to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't agree with a lot of Palin's populism but I recognize her as a fellow evangelical. When Charlie Gibson for example so clearly mis-parsed Palin's God language, I lost respect for Gibson, not Palin. Go here:

Okay, but it would do everybody a service if, unlike Gail Collins, we did not make a stink about
the use and misuse of God-language and Scripture except insofar as it provides an opportunity to make a stink about a politician we are at odds with.

In short, Jeremy, the best way to establish bona fides (and I have every reason to believe that you are in good faith) in this context is to (also) pick apart an example or two of the use of Scripture and God-language by someone, if one trends Republican and evangelical, like Huckabee.

That said, I agree with Huck that the speech by Obama was "easily the best speech of his presidency."

Thank you for your many insights and great blogging.

*That might easily be understood to presuppose a commitment to American exceptionalism, something Obama has distanced himself from in the past; but I fully expect he will find ways to affirm it in the future, at least in a Niebuhrian or Chomskyian sort of way.


In case my comment to Jeremy's thread is lost in space, I reproduce it approximately here:

Thanks for the conversation, Jeremy.

It certainly is true that the speech does not expatiate on the identifications and conflations on which it depends, but I don’t think speeches of this sort need to, any more than, say, war propaganda needs to – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” comes to mind. It‘s possible to take an awful lot for granted in discourse of this kind.

I think you’re right that it is not clear how to unpack “the river of God” in context except as a source of life in the city of God, the “she” which, the hope is, will be helped at the break of day. Still, the contextual identification of the “she” of the Psalm with the “she” of the hour, Gabby Giffords, is I think beyond reasonable doubt.

That being the case, the mention of the “river of God” is open to being interpreted as a trope for that which gladdens the entire city, in particular, public servants of the caliber of Giffords (the recipient, even before the tragedy, of plenty of accolades from political friends and opponents alike), and Giffords herself. This is logical within the contextual confines of the speech’s poetics. Gapping is an essential feature of the speech. Explication of the kind you desire would spoil it. It is typical of such discourse to occult identifications (compare again the Battle Hymn of the Republic).

It is not your main point, but I was surprised that you seem to think that a figural interpretation of the Psalm in question is only appropriate if applied to Christians. What about Jews (Giffords is Jewish)? What about anyone who serves the city of God without necessarily being aware of it, thanks to common grace? Augustine, a talented figural interpreter, makes the latter application in his comment on Psalm 137.

Jeremy Pierce

I disagree. I think it's got to be either (1) her or (2) those of a group he takes her to belong to. But I see no reason why we should assume (1) when that seems to rip those pronouns even from the context of just this one verse, which refers to the city of God. The 'she' and 'her' it speaks of must be someone who is a member of that, whatever it is. He certainly doesn't mean that the verse speaks specifically of her, as if she's the fulfillment of a predictive prophecy it makes of this specific event. He's got to be taking her as a member of the city of God, whatever he takes that to be (I'd guess the entirety of humanity if I had to choose something I'd expect him to believe). But I don't see why that would make her the river.

I never said anything about how the interpretation I said I'd find appropriate is the only one. I certainly would accept an interpretation given at the time of the psalm that made no mention of Christians. I didn't know she was Jewish, either. Her name certainly isn't indicative of being Jewish. I'm not sure that supports the interpretation that he's making her out to be the river. I was never claiming that he would have had to be doing that to be offering a legitimate interpretation. I just don't think he's given a clear interpretation at all.

Jeremy Pierce

I'd point out problems in a Huckabee scripture reference if I thought there were any. I haven't heard any presidential speeches using scripture yet, but I'd be happy to in another couple years. What I've heard from him has largely been orthodox in theology and rightly-interpreted when using scripture. But given that he's from the liberal wing of the SBC, I'm sure there would be something I'd disagree with.


I could be wrong, Jeremy, but I wonder whether you are holding figural interpretation to heteronomic standards.

Your frustration reminds me of that of people who get their knickers in a knot over Paul's conclusions in Galatians 3:15-18 based on the singular number of the term "seed." The method of figural interpretation is text-based in the sense that it depends on details in the text, but that is not the same thing as saying that the resultant interpretation is dictated by the text or excludes other and even opposing interpretations.

The figural method is different from that of exegesis that seeks to reconstruct authorial meaning in the narrow sense of the overlap of meaning intended by the human author of the text and God the inspirer of his Word (an approximate description of a subset of pre-modern interpretation of the Bible).

The results of the figural method vary according to the underlying metanarrative that informs it.

True, the metanarrative changes depending on whether one is conservative SBC, liberal SBC, or something else again, for example, a liberal SBC governor of Arkansas, as was Huckabee, with a desire to use the genre of civil religious discourse to build bridges beyond the confines of his particular confession. I wonder if there are Huckabee speeches of that era in which he eulogizes victims of violence or some other tragedy. Huckabee's deployment of Scripture in that context would make an interesting comparison

Angela Erisman

Hi John,

I would agree that it's a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" and that historical-critical exegesis should play a role in any kind of exegesis. I'd frame it this way: When you have a conversation with a friend or a loved one (or a fellow citizen...this has much relevance to the question of public discourse), if your goal is to truly understand what they have to say (which is an important prerequisite to deciding whether or not you agree with it) and respect them on their own terms, you will attend to the details of their statement and the factors that shaped both its form and its content. In other words, historical-critical exegesis is an important foundation for all good interpretation. On this, I suspect we're saying the same thing.

I don't necessarily have a problem with creative interpretations like finding Mary or Gabrielle Giffords in the Bible. In fact, I think this kind of engagement is important to keep the tradition vital. But I feel that our creative engagement needs a tether, lest we start making claims of the text that do violence to its spirit. Many such claims are made in public discourse (e.g., that the gospel has nothing to do with social justice or caring for the least of us...for an important evangelical critique of it, check out The Hole in Our Gospel, written by the founder of WorldVision). Historical criticism can provide such a tether by keeping us in touch with how the scribes and the circumstances in which they worked shaped these text. While they alone don't determine what a text means, they are important considerations in the process of interpretation.

But being a "both/and" doesn't mean we should confuse midrashic (to use the term loosely) exegesis with historical-critical exegesis. Again, I suspect it's this tendency that prompts historical critics to get their panties in a knot about this. Speaking for myself, at least, that's my own objection and cause for empathy with what Collins is saying.

I'd be happy to talk about how I did the Job course if it would be helpful to you.

True Grit 3

I agree that the way he Obama used some of the verses made the speech so meaningful. When he says certain things or refers to the Bible in any way, it grabs your attention because usually most people in politics that give speeches sound like robots, and they all say the same thing. I watched this speech on TV when the actually accident occurred, and I was surprised that he referred to some verse, but yet it was very appropriate, because people’s lives had been taken.

True Grit 1

I remember when this event occurred, I took special time to watch the entire speech on YouTube just to hear what President Obama had to say about such a tragic event. I’ll be honest, I’m not into politics and I’m not that big into watching presidential debates or most important speeches, but I surprised myself and took the time to listen closely to this one. Funny as it may seem, this particular speech made me cry. The speech’s content was absolutely beautiful and so heartfelt. All of the words flowed perfectly, including the words from the Bible. The sad event was awful, and the speech could not have been written any better in my opinion. Of course coming from a Christian background and being in tune with God, I thought it was the perfect amount of faith. Even for those who haven’t found God yet or don’t plan on it, the verses that were chosen remain to be beautiful, emotional and have meaning pertaining to the cause. It isn’t like Obama was in any way forcing religion onto his listeners. All in all, what a breathtaking speech for all of those who had to suffer.

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  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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