Over-Interpretation and Redemptive History

In many ways, Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings is a helpful resource.  I’m glad I own it and will keep using it as I work through the Solomon narrative for a sermon series on which I’m working.

However, I’ve run across a few “red flags” that have made me question Leithart’s interpretive methods.  Time and again, his interpretation of different parts of these stories struck me as fanciful and far-fetched.  Here are a few examples of this over-interpretation from Leithart’s comments on the early Solomon stories.

First, concerning Solomon riding on a mule for his coronation (1 Kings 1:44):

“Mules are mixed-breed animals, and this perhaps points to Solomon’s kingdom including Jews and Gentiles.  As mixed-breed animals, further, mules are cherubic, reflecting the composite character of those creatures that draw the chariot of Yahweh (cherubim have four faces: ox, lion, eagle, human; Ezek. 1).  Adonijah attempted to capture the high ground by presenting himself as the “son of Yahweh,” traveling in a glory-chariot, but in the end David designates Solomon as son of Yahweh, riding on a cherubic animal just as his divine father does” (p. 32).

My response: the problem here is that the text neither states nor hints that Adonijah or David had these things in mind.  Further, I’m very hesitant to jump from a mule to a cherubim without clear textual warrant.  It is quite a stretch to view Solomon’s coronation parade as a son of Yahweh riding a cherubic animal.

Next, Leithart comments on David’s speech to Solomon and Solomon’s executions (1 Ki. 2):

“Solomon is a ‘New Joshua,’ who spends the early part of his reign wiping out the ‘Canaanites’ that remain in David’s kingdom, bringing ‘rest’ to the land, and building a sanctuary for Yahweh, recapitulating the sequence of events in Joshua. …Solomon’s execution of Joab is a cleansing sacrifices that saves Solomon from the consequences of Joab’s sins” (p. 36).

My response: The narrator does not commend Solomon for executing the enemies of the throne in 1 Kings 2.  In fact, there are clear textual notes that make the reader seriously wonder if Solomon did the right thing in executing these men (i.e. Joab may have been holding the horns of the altar when he was executed, and Shimei was executed even though he didn’t cross the brook Kidron as he promised not to do).  It’s not for nothing that some commentators say that Solomon was ruthless and callous in these executions.  I simply do not see textual warrant for comparing Solomon to Joshua in this way.  It sounds cool, but it’s not very accurate.

Another comment that makes me wary of Leithart’s interpretive method is the section on the court case of the two prostitutes and the living child (1 Ki. 3).  This is the famous case where Solomon wisely suggests cutting the child in two in order to determine which woman is the child’s true mother.  Here is one thing Leithart says about the story:

“[It] has an eerie resemblance to Passover.  The exchange of sons takes place at night, as does Passover (Exod. 12:29), and as at Passover one male child dies while another is delivered.  This suggests that the false mother is Egypt, a Pharaoh-like woman who smothers her own child and then seeks to toss Israelite children into the Nile.  Endowed with Yahweh’s wisdom, the king comes with a sword to kill, as the angel of Yahweh frees the sons of the Israelites, under threat from Pharaoh. …Through this test, Solomon discerns which woman is the true Israelite, the true daughter of Abraham, who, like Abraham gives up her child in faith to save him.”

My response: This is far too fanciful.  There are no hints in the text that the one prostitute had a Pharaoh-complex, nor is there any indication that Solomon is trying to find out which woman is the true Israelite.  What is more, we have no idea what kind of faith the one woman had; we only knew that she really loved her child (1 Ki. 3:26).  Again, it sounds cool, but it is speculative.

There are many more examples like this in Leithart’s commentary.  I wouldn’t call this a redemptive-historical commentary as some have called it – it is sort of redemptive-historical, but not really.  I hate to use the term allegorical, but that word did come to mind when I was working through these parts of this commentary.  For the record, I’m not saying one should avoid this commentary, but buyer beware of fanciful over-interpretation.  It is helpful in some ways, but I don’t highly recommend it.  Right now, I like these two commentaries better (which I’ll discuss here some other time): 1 & 2 Kings by I. Provan and 1 Kings by J. T. Walsh.

shane lems

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10 comments on “Over-Interpretation and Redemptive History

  1. Nevada says:

    Hi Shane,
    Let me offer a playful pushback (a fraternal “yes but…”). I think I generally agree with your assessment of Leithart’s exegetical tendencies. I have his commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel (“A Son to Me”), and I’ve noticed over the years in following his blog that he does do a great deal of redemptive-historical allegory. (I think this may be the influence of James Jordan on him, but I honestly haven’t read enough of Jordan to know if that is true.)

    In many ways, his method reminds me a bit of Meredith Kline’s later works (i.e., taking one aspect or image in redemptive history and pulling everything else through it — Kline, for example, does this with the Ancient Near Eastern concept of the sacred mountain in “God, Heaven, and Har Magedon.”) There are pro’s and con’s to this kind of exegesis. On the negative side, it can become quite speculative and read all sorts of things into the text’s “gaps.” On the positive side, it is unashamed in being decidedly premodern in its assumptions about textual meaning. At its core such exegesis assumes that the Bible is a divinely interconnected web of textual meaning. Interpretation, then, becomes a continued exercise in intertextuality, tracing the interrelationships between sounds and images.

    The interesting thing to me is that the 16th century reformers actually tended to be much more “allegorical” in their interpretations of biblical texts than many of us in the Reformed tradition are willing to allow. While I was working on my dissertation and writing a section on the Reformation’s hermeneutical shift, I was surprised to find that while the magisterial reformers did “talk” a great deal about the evils of allegories, their talk and practice often didn’t line up. In fact, their actual practice often mirrored the medieval hermeneutical toolkit complete with a four-fold sense of scripture. Of course, I would still argue that there was a decided shift towards more “historical” methods in the 16th century. Nonetheless, this brings some interesting questions to the fore. For example, I wonder sometimes if scholars like Leithart and Kline are actually closer in method to premoderns like Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli than more “standard” exegetes. Saying that is not necessarily an endorsement of their work, but simply a way of raising the question. (Or maybe stirring the pot!)

    In the end, I suppose I have mixed feelings. I appreciate exegetes like Leithart who play the hermeneutical game from a decidedly Augustinian standpoint (Cf., Augustine’s hermeneutic of double love in “On Christian Doctrine”) and are willing to hear multiple resonances within the text so as to always read within “the rule of faith” (See J. Todd Billings’ excellent book “The Word of God for the People of God”). However, there is also a part of me that is simply too much of a post-Enlightenment person to feel comfortable with (what I consider to be) the extremes they can take the method.

    Anyway, it’s food for thought… This is something that I’m continuing to think through. Feel free to offer your own fraternal “pushback.” :-)

    • Thanks for the comments, guys – Nevada, Andrew, and Monty. Appreciate the kind dialogue. Allow me to add some comments.

      First, one thing that frightens me about this method is that there are no limits on it. If Leithart sees cherubic-glory in a mule, what if I counter and say the mule as a mixed breed animal is a sign of weakness and impurity (as in Solomon’s own life)? Or what if I say that Solomon’s threat to use the sword was like Yahweh’s eschatalogical judgment sword that is held back by his common grace and wisdom? I suppose the discussion of eisegesis vs exegesis is also applicable.

      Second, I’m not overly sure this is more premodern than normal. For example, some of Leithart’s word studies are anything but premodern. Also, his odd political/theonomic views are not premodern. So perhaps his sort of allegories resonate with predmodern interpretation, but I’m not sure we can just call him a premodern interpreter.

      Finally, I wouldn’t really call Leithart’s method straight up redemptive historical, nor is it overly Christ centered. There is redemptive history in it, but typically guys like Vos and company are more reserved and explicitly Christ centered. Vos’s work is a bit more nuanced and reserve – and therefore much more helpful in my view.

      Thanks again for the notes! As always, feel free to counter my comments – though I can’t promise I’ll have time to reply in depth.

  2. That’s interesting, Nevada. Thanks for the comments.

    This reminds me of something I read in Brevard Childs’ book – The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture. He was discussing Origen’s approach and allegory and noted the highly variegated nature of “allegory” in the early church (and throughout history, for that matter). Even with Origen, his allegorical intent is still driven by concern for the text and its historical references. (Although I don’t have Childs with me here at the office so I can’t double check what he said.) But he too noted that allegory is sometimes parsed out too narrowly and that certain thrusts in the church fathers can be found even among the Reformers.

    And as for Kline’s work bordering on allegory (or falling into it at times), I noticed that very thing as I was using his book on the Night Visions of Zechariah. It has left me with a great appreciation for his attention to detail, but also a bit more of a critical-eye when reading him.

    I’ll be interested in reading Leithart’s book “Deep Exegesis.” Its been on my wishlist for some time, I just haven’t had the time to delve in so I haven’t bothered to purchase it. I doubt it will go out of print anytime soon. (Knock on wood …)

    I’ve read a little of Jordan’s “Through New Eyes” and Leithart’s “A House for my Name” and see the same kinds of approaches in each. (Leithart even calls his book a simplified version of Jordan’s.) Both are very interesting reads, but both make me step back and ponder whether the text is speaking in its redemptive-historical context and using its own canonical interplay, or whether the interpreter himself the one being playful. Sometimes it is a matter of each.

  3. Monty Ledford says:

    Oh boy, this is a great discussion! I got “Deep Exegesis” for my son for Christmas, largely because I want to read it myself, and I can hardly wait until Christmas day. I would say that it is the realities of redemptive history that sustain our lives, and we look to the Scriptures to relate to us those realities. Thus, literary and linguistic connections, allusions and echoes are not the substance of the promises that we depend upon. Maybe this is a paraphrase of the scholastic principle that the literal meaning of the text is the only one that can actually be employed to establish doctrine.
    But, if the accounts and interpretations of redemptive history are true, then we have to face that God has given us these authorized accounts and interpretations in book form, that the later writers used the earlier books and the terms, figures and ideas of the earlier books, and that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate editor, if we may put it that way, so that teasing out these echoes, etc. will perhaps lead us to insights that are edifying and helpful, if not binding or beyond challenge. I came across something last week that surprised me; I always thought that the idea of Rahab’s red cord as a type of the blood of Christ was a product of my Fundamentalist culture, but then I read in I Clement xii 7 that the scarlet cord “foreshadowed that all who believe and hope on God shall have redemption through the blood of the Lord”. OK, so for 2000 years the revelation of God has been included in a collection of books in which people will read and make interconnections–it is certainly unavoidable where people read books, and if it does not lead astray, we will continue to see it (and practice it?) and should, I suppose, just mark it as the sort of pious meditation and reflection that it is.
    Nevada, I appreciate your comments about the homiletics of the Reformers not matching up to their hermeneutic, if we may put it that way, but I would add that Calvin is perhaps least to be blamed here, if blame it is. Calvin’s sobriety has surprised me. Sometimes he avoids even applications or speculations that, to my mind, the text almost begs us to see.

  4. Nevada says:

    Hi Andrew and Monty,
    Every time I’m in Fort Worth’s downtown Barnes and Noble I pick up “Deep Exegesis” and almost buy it. (But then I usually think about other books I need to read, etc. :-) At any rate, Leithart is an intriguing thinker, and I appreciate his keen eye for (at least what he considers) intertextual allusions, echoes, etc.

    Andrew, I think the real question, hermeneutically speaking, is whether it is actually possible to fully distinguish between the text’s own canonical interplay and the reader’s own contribution to the interpretive process. I’m probably something of a Gadamerian at heart, but I definitively have my postmodern side as well. :-)

    Monty, Yes, I think you are generally right about Calvin. If I’m not mistaken, he got some of this allegorical reluctance from Bucer. Though there is a part of me though that wonders if some of his tendencies in this area have more to do with his legal background. (Someone needs to write a book about the ways in which the various magisterial reformers’ hermeneutical differences reflect their distinct educations in different contexts with different religious orders. Maybe it’s out there, and I’ve just missed it?). However, I would argue (following Muller) that Calvin has much more in common with Medieval ways of reading than later “critical” views. Muller has pointed out that “Luther, Calvin, and their contemporaries did not simply trade allegory for literal interpretation. They strengthened the shift to letter with increased emphasis on textual and philological study, and then proceeded to find various figures and levels of meaning, indicating credenda, agenda, and speranda embedded in the letter itself. This passage from the fourfold exegesis toward an exegesis emphasizing the literal meaning of the text, therefore, marks a continuity–not contrast–between sixteenth-century biblical interpretation and the exegesis of at least the preceding four centuries.” (Richard Muller, “Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: The View from the Middle Ages,” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation, eds., Richard Muller and John Thompson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 12)

    Again, though, I do think you are right about Calvin’s consistency in being less inclined towards vertical, “spiritual” kinds of allegory than towards linear, “historical” typologies (I have to say that since [a small] part of my dissertation’s thesis rests on the idea! :-)

    • Again, interesting comments, Nevada. I’m not studied much in Reformation era exegesis, a weakness I feel regularly, so I can’t weigh in much on the later part of your comment.

      What you said initially is indeed, the real question. It seems clear that there are times when the interplay between texts is quite intentional. Think of themes like the king riding on a donkey, the gathering of the nations to Jerusalem to worship YHWH, the river of life, etc. Of course it is always a matter of more-or-less plausible, seeing Rev 22 as drawing upon Ezekiel 47 seems a very plausible example of innertextuality. The many examples cited by Michael Fishbane as well (Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel) are likewise pretty compelling cases of intentional interplay.

      And yet there are other themes which don’t seem as black and white. What are we to make of those? I think I remember Steve Baugh once saying that in some schemas, Jesus isn’t even allowed to just cross a river without leading a new conquest of the promised land!

      Some of the examples Shane cited above seem pretty fanciful. They might be in the text, but I wouldn’t know how one would begin to prove or disprove that definitively. (Hence my frequent use of the word “seem”!)

      Anyway, some more thoughts … perhaps we can keep this thread going for a while. This is when having John Hobbins stop by is a special treat!

      • Nevada says:

        Hi Andrew,
        I think intertextuality in one sense really is in the eye of the beholder (cf. some of the discussions surrounding Richard Hays’ work about what exactly counts as an intertextual allusion, echo, etc.), and at one level that doesn’t bother me that much. I find myself growing more and more comfortable with multiple levels of textual connotation “found” by the reader. However, at the same time, there do seem to be limits as both you and Shane have pointed out. (Sometimes a river is just a river!)

        In the end, I think it is a matter of wisdom. I’m not convinced that there is any foolproof standard that can solve the problem. Biblical interpretation is an art and thus judging the credibility of a particular intertextual allusion or echo rests with the Spirit-led reader who reads within the community of faith (both past and present). This sort of answer drives some people crazy who want a hard and fast “rule” to determine whether a reading is “right” or “wrong.” (i.e., “If I just use this method, my results are assured.”) However, the reality is that while some readings are definitely better than others (more “fitting” to use a Gadamerian term) some are neither right nor wrong but exist more on a continuum of helpful or unhelpful. In these cases I tend to be fairly lenient in my evaluation.

        Now by the same token I do think it is important to have one “canon” or “rule” for reading: an interpretation must fall within the broader analogy of faith as it is defined in the creeds/confessions of the church. In this, of course, I am following Augustine and the premoderns who reveled in allegory as long as it exalted Christ and fit within the confines of the church’s confessed faith.

        I appreciate this discussion, and look forward to more interaction. For the record, I should probably emphasize that I have found some of Leithart’s motifs/typologies less than helpful (i.e., there are definitely moments when his connections don’t seem “fitting” to me). Much of my aim in the discussion has simply been to highlight the complexity of the problem. Hermeneutics is a dicey business, and the ways that people read the Bible often have as much to do with their own social/ecclesiastical/political locations as they do with their alleged “method” of reading.

  5. [...] been having an interesting discussion over on Shane’s post about Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings. Hermeneutics is a challenging study and the debate about the relationship between historical and [...]

  6. Trent says:

    I don’t know if this has been said but since Leithart is FV (despite his acquittal he is), they have tendencies like James Jordan to bizarrely interpret scripture. This is called interpretative maximalism, where they take the analogy of faith to a whole new level. I found it frequently in David Chilton’s commentary on Revelation and he heavily quoted Jordan a lot.
    Interpretative maximalism is a hallmark of FV apparently.

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