Peter J Leithart Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, Baylor 2009
Chapter 2: Texts are Events
This chapter gives an effective but surprisingly mundane defence of typological reading. That is, the practice of interpreting earlier texts in the light of later ones. Leithart begins his chapter pulling no punches, pointing out that Matt 2:15 reads Hosea 11:1 and 1 Cor 10:14 reads Exodus 17 in ways that are to modern minds “unconscionable” and “[mess] with the intended, literal meanings of texts” (35). First he shows how the readings of the NT authors could have been following hints given in the OT itself (37-39), showing how subtle details in the OT text could legitimate apparently anachronistic NT readings.
Then he makes an unexpected move and asks “Can we defend typology as a mode of reading in general, not merely as a mode of reading Scripture?” (39) This becomes the focus of the rest of the chapter. He begins with the illustration that historical events gain fresh meanings in light of later events, because at the time of the event the full significance of what has happened could not be appreciated by the participants and witnesses of the event. It is the historian’s role to give an account of events, not just as they happened, but also of their significance in light of later events. A plain literal description of events would just be a chronicle, not a history.
He then applies this same principle to texts which, “say new things as they come into relationship with subsequent texts and events.” (44) This is an inevitable condition of being a reader, different from the author. Yet even the same author can come back to a text she wrote at a different time and situation and find the words speak to her with new meaning (which of course in no way voids the original meaning they had for her). For (my own) example, a song about loneliness written as a dumped teenager might find new poignancy when confronting the death of a parent. The same words take on new meaning in the new situation (51). This is also a function of narrative. Many detective novels work by presenting the reader with apparently trivial information that only becomes meaningful once the story’s climax is reached and the murderer revealed. Then the reader can “read backwards” to understand the full significance of events and details that had little or no meaning for the reader when the story was read forwards (66-68). His Biblical example of this is the narrative of John 9 where later events modify our perception of earlier, in this case a discussion of sin and blindness, becomes a healing story, which becomes a Sabbath controversy with the spiritually blind Pharisees (60-63).
He concludes, “The apostles teach us to recognize that ‘how it turned out’ exposes dimensions of the original event or text that may not have been apparent, and perhaps were not even there, until it turned out as it did.” (74) That is, when the apostles learn that Jesus is the climax of the Biblical story the texts and events of the OT gain new significance, new meanings and do so that is in “in principle” nothing special, but just the “ordinary” way that events and texts work (74).
Again this chapter has put Leithart's incredible bibliography on display, with a wide range of different sources, academic and literary, on display, and an almost whiplash-inducing ability to bring examples from unexpected places and take the discussion in different directions. His discussion of the relationship between Darwin and Nazism, e.g., (68-71) is worthy of another blog post, but for me didn’t helpfully contribute to this chapters thesis. Leithart takes you on a winding road, and I wonder how many readers might get put off by that, but he is certainly taking us on a journey, and I’m excited to see where the next chapter will take us.