Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Genesis 30: A Postpropositional Attempt Part I

The fertility war of Israel’s founding women is a preacher’s nightmare. Not even NT writers, for all their fantastically imaginative exegesis, will touch it (outside acknowledging that it really happened, Mt 1:2; Ac 7:8). But that makes this story the perfect postpropositionalist attempt. After all, the more time-bound the details of the story are the more broad the timeless principle must be to bridge the historic, societal, cultural, economic, scientific, linguistic gap between “them” and “us”.

Traditionally the timeless truth of this text might be, ‘God is sovereign over all things’ (or moralistically Jacob’s treatment of Leah or the sisters’ treatment of each other). Without demonizing propositionalism, several things are troubling about this interpretation. First, what becomes important is the timeless principle and not the narrative fluff – Genesis 30 is a verbose, round about way of saying what I’ve been able to say in six words. Second and similarly, it has the adverse affect of flattening the text and sucking the wonder out of it. Third, as comments in the previous blog have pointed out, it is not entirely clear what single, “juicy” timeless principle lurks behind the story. And fourth, it treats doctrine like an object suspended in air for which we can all slip out of our pesky cultural skin to examine it from no particular vantage point. If a timeless principle is preached in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a meaningful sound? To say, ‘God is sovereign over all things’ in a vacuum is to say nothing at all.

For the sake of brevity but hopefully not simplicity I suggest at least a three step process to embody the text. First, in narratives like this one the story is the message. We are not being invited to harvest it but indwell it. Flannery O’Connor says it well about her own writing when people ask for the story’s main point: “And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction”. Genesis 30 taps into a running theme of the whole book of a God who has created the world and then engages in its affairs, here down to the minutia of sperm and egg. What does life on the ground in Paddan-aram look, sound, feel, and think like with such a God? – an exercise Vanhoozer calls “not mastery [of the text] so much as apprenticeship”.

The through-line of the divine drama conceived in a series of building promises to humanity will not allow us to reduce this work to personally embodying the story alone. It is not a snippet of daily life in the Ancient Near East that proves helpful but a building block in a very carefully crafted redemption. Thoughtfully opening and closing wombs creates a genealogy the Gospel writers found worth celebrating and ties God’s sovereignty in creation and our lives to a very specific end.

The second step requires the hard work of faithful imagination. The reality of the world of Genesis 30 looks different in the Ancient Near East than it does in modern America. How do we as children of this God take our cues from His Word and learn to live, love, and pray in our world? The third step challenges the notion that much understanding has happened up until this point. It is not an application of understanding then doing but understanding by doing. It is, as my pastor pointed out, the circularity of Paul’s prayer for the Colossians: filled with spiritual wisdom to walk in a worthy manner to gain more spiritual wisdom. At the end of the eschatological day it’s not our talk of blueprints but our house that faces the floods.

* I am indebted to Wright, Doriani, and Vanhoozer for prompting me in this direction.


Kenny said...

Great writing David! To me it makes so much sence to think of this story in this way and really to think of the Bible in this way. Out of curiosity, why is this mindset so rare? Why do we as humans have the desire to boil these great stories down?

david said...

I really don't want to demonize propositionalism because godly men have made meaningful use of the text through it and I am certainly guilty of it. There are several reasons I do it: ignorant of a better way, arrogantly in wanting to master the story and speak confidently about it, pragmatically to fit the needs of the sermon or the audience. Sitting down to write Part II which actually exegete's Genesis 30 instead of talking about exegeting it has been a real challenge. I am all ears for someone to put this into practice on a specific text. How do you do it?

Paul-David Young said...

I affirm everything you said David... I guess the question remains what do you do with narrative of scripture?