Speaking In Code

A friend commenting on Endless Genealogies on my personal Facebook account brought up the theory that the names in the Biblical genealogies have meaning beyond their function as names (this is true of almost all names) and that reading through the translated meanings produces interesting messages, and asked what I thought about it. (An example using the line from Adam to Noah can be found here).

On the one hand, it’s fascinating and, if true, very cool. On the other hand, I don’t know of a single respected mainstream Bible scholar who seems to take it seriously.

I’m personally more than a bit sceptical. Here is a fascinating idea, yet it is, by its very nature, a “secret code” kind of approach to interpreting the Bible, and that immediately puts me on guard.

The main criticism you find seems to be that at least some of the name derivations are a bit contrived or nonstandard. I’m wary of big, all-encompassing interpretive grids (this is my underlying problem with most standard Dispensationalist eschatology) for the very reason that you always seem to end up twisting the plain meaning of the text to match what your framework says it ought to be.

I’m also extremely wary of the whole “secret code” approach to the Bible. The first principle of hermeneutics is that if the plain sense of the text makes common sense, seek no other sense.

The idea that there are “secret codes” and “hidden wisdom” in the text of Scripture is a very cultic one, and specifically Gnostic. The Gnostics were a collection of secretive Christian heretics from the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD. They combined early Christian teaching with a mindset gleaned from the ancient mystery cults of Diana and Mithras. Their whole idea was that there were secret codes in the Bible that unlocked hidden knowledge, and it was through access to this knowledge that one was saved, not by the grace of God expressed in Jesus the Messiah (hence their being labeled as heretics). Because of this way of reading Scripture, a Bible text might “really” be saying something completely at odds with its plain meaning.

Needless to say, the Gnostics developed some pretty screwy doctrines, among them the material world was evil and that the Creator of this material world was a corrupt lower being and not the true and highest God. According to Gnostic understanding, it was the serpent in the Garden who was a representative of this God and stood opposed to the evil Creator. Thus, the whole basis of the Gospel is stood on its head and the serpent’s lie that enslaved us all becomes the truth that will set us free.

Now, I’m not saying that either this idea nor those who spread it are going that far. If you view it as an interesting piece of speculative interpretation in addition to the normal reading of the text, then fine. But my worry is that starting to read this sort of hidden meaning in Scriptural texts will kind of set up your mind to expect hidden meanings, and that’s a dangerous place to be in. Sooner or later when you start down that road you come to a place where you don’t even see the plain meaning of the Scripture because your mind is so weaned onto your interpretive grid that it completely governs what you see.

As an example, there’s a hypothetical story of a scientific expedition that went to make a comprehensive survey of all life in the oceans. To accomplish this, they trawled the ocean at all possible depths with a net, the holes of which measured exactly one inch by one inch. After sorting and analysing all the various creatures they caught, they published among their conclusions that No creature smaller than one inch by one inch lives in the ocean.

Your grid determines what you see.

By contrast, the goal of proper Bible interpretation is as much as possible to let the Scripture speak for itself. We study the culture of the times in order to try and move beyond the preconceptions of our own culture. We study the use of the Greek words in other sources than Scripture, to make sure that our understanding of the particular words and phrases is as accurate as possible. We try to let the Bible inform our theology rather than bending the Word of God to conform to our ideas. Because ultimately, even the theology of man is a construct.

This idea of secret Bible codes and hidden meanings seems disturbingly at odds with all that, even when the resulting interpretations look really cool and interesting, like here. It’s not the results that bother me, so much as the process by which you get there.

I confess to finding this genealogical protevangelion fascinating, but I’m more than a little nervous about the whole approach that produced it.

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3 thoughts on “Speaking In Code

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