Imaginative Interpretation with the Church Patriarchs

I’m consistently shocked by the way ancient interpreters read Scripture.  They draw some pretty wacky conclusions sometimes.  Not bad conclusions, mind you.  They’re great Christian advice most of the time!  But the way they reach those conclusions feels totally removed from our modern ways of Bible reading.  For example, Venerable Bede (a big name scholar born in 673 who actually helped popularize the term “AD” for measuring years) wrote this about that awkward passage in Song of Songs, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1).

For if goats and the hair or skins of goats always signified the foulness of sinners and never the humility of penitents, that animal would by no means have been reckoned among the clean [animals], nor would it have been said in praise of the bride: “Your hair is like a flock of goats.”

Bede, On the Tabernacle 2.3

I’ve only heard that particular passage get brought up for two reasons: to point out that standards of beauty vary from one culture to another, or to laugh about how Song of Songs has some language that is not romantic by today’s standards (har har).  I don’t know that Bede has done anything that seems all that legitimate by modern exegetical standards, but tying the goat to an attitude of penance actually adds a dimension of spiritual edification to this passage. Is he right? I don’t know. But is it kinda cool? Yeah.

To stick to the theme of Song of Songs, here’s a bit that Origen of Alexandria (a super-influential early Christian theologian born in 183) interpreted the line “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” (Song 1:1) as follows:

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth”—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save us.

Origen’s Commentary on Song of Songs, 1:1

What?  How did he get to that point?  He jumped from a statement that almost entirely registers as a straightforward statement of passion to a longing prophecy about the incarnation of Christ!  It’s utterly baffling!  I don’t know if I could get away with making a claim like that from the pulpit… but isn’t it a little more edifying his way?  Sure, it’s creative and maybe even wrong, but it’s intriguing.

Even the great Augustine, the church patriarch of church patriarchs, the theologian of theologians, has his fair share of wacky interpretations.  Here’s one about Genesis 2 (which is apparently one of his many interpretations on Genesis, because he really liked that book).  To give you some background, he’s already stated that the Genesis story uses Adam to represent higher reasoning (the soul’s deep wisdom), Eve to represent lower reason (the ability to make rational decisions and manage Earthly resources appropriately), and the snake to represent appetite.  Now he moves on to his grand conclusion:

Now with that evident couple of the two human beings who were first created, the serpent did not eat from the forbidden tree, but only incited to eat, and the woman did not eat alone but gave some to her husband and they ate together, although she alone spoke to the serpent and she alone was led astray by it. So too… even in one man, the carnal (or if I may so put it the sensual) motion of the soul which is channeled into the senses of the body and which is common to us and the beasts, is shut off from the reasoning of wisdom. With bodily sensation, after all, bodily things are sensed; but eternal, unchangeable, and spiritual things are understood with the reasoning of wisdom. But the appetite is very close to the reasoning of knowledge, seeing that it is the function of this knowledge to reason about the bodily things that are perceived by bodily sensation.

Augustine, The Trinity, Trans Edmund Hill, Kindle Loc 9213

What a bizarre, psychological exploration of human nature, wrapped up in a Bible story!  It reminds me of Freud or William Blake’s prophesies!  In his hands, Genesis isn’t just a story about two people long ago; it’s about every person in every era, and the psychological resources that are so easily corrupted by appetite. And it’s history and a million other things. It speaks and it speaks and it has so much to offer.

I have no problem with the  “plain sense” reading of Scripture (the assumption that most of the Bible can be read in a relatively straightforward fashion and be interpreted with a good bit of common sense).  Yes, I know there is no self-interpreting book and that a knowledge of the Christian tradition is necessary to interpret well, but I do think that a story can have a meaning and the meaning is often not far from what was written on the page.  Nonetheless, Auggie, Origen, and Bede are doing some really creative, cool stuff with their Bible readings, and I can’t help but stop with a mix of awe and confusion and say, “Woah.”  Sure, maybe they’re just wrong, but maybe there’s more to Scripture than we see.  Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open.