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Mosaic Bookends

INTRODUCTION FROM “MOSES AND THE REVELATION” – AVAILABLE NOW

Taken at face value, the New Testament appears to warn its first readers about coming events which were not only momentous but also imminent. This means that there is a great discrepancy between the sacred texts and the things which modern Christians are actually taught.

C. S. Lewis writes:

The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, “this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.” And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. (From C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night,” 1960, found in The Essential C. S. Lewis.)

Is Lewis correct in this observation? If Jesus and His disciples were wrong then it follows that nothing else in the New Testament can be trusted. This was the very conclusion reached by atheist Bertrand Russell, who, although he granted that many of the teachings of Christ were excellent, regarded such apparent defects as clear evidence that the Scriptures were not inspired but merely the work of men:

For one thing, [Jesus] certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that. He says, for instance, “Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel till the Son of Man be come.” Then he says, “There are some standing here which shall not taste death till the Son of Man comes into His kingdom”; and there are a lot of places where it is quite clear that He believed that His second coming would happen during the lifetime of many then living. That was the belief of His earlier followers, and it was the basis of a good deal of His moral teaching. (From “Why I Am Not A Christian,” a lecture delivered in 1927 to the National Secular Society in London, found in Why I Am Not A Christian And Other Essays, 1957.)

The reason for Lewis’ concern about the Bible’s “most embarrassing verse” and Russell’s logical dismissal of Jesus as the Son of God is our failure to understand what imminent event Jesus was actually talking about. Was it the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple? Was it the persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian? Or does the prophecy describe the entirety of Church history from its earliest days until the end of time?

If we want to understand the book of Revelation, we must remember that it is at the end of the Bible, not the beginning. What most Christians do not realize is that when the New Testament (including Revelation) is read in the light of the books of Moses, many of the inexplicable things that Jesus and the Apostles said suddenly make perfect sense. Not only is the question of Jesus’ trustworthiness answered but the Revelation itself is rescued from the obscurity of the “fringe” of biblical studies and is allowed to shine as one of the most insightful and enlightening books of the Bible.

The Four Hurdles of the Apocalypse

Revelation attracts us because of its mystery, its beauty, and its terror, and also because interpreting it promises access to divine knowledge about future events. But when it comes to its application in everyday life, most pastors are unwilling to venture beyond the letters to the seven churches in their preaching, since these offer some easily identifiable and practical moral advice.

Of course, the entire prophecy was intended to be practical for its first hearers, but such usefulness evades modern interpreters who face four major hurdles:

  1. Readers are not familiar with the rest of the Bible.
  2. If they are familiar with the rest of the Bible, they fail to interpret Revelation in its light.
  3. They are familiar with the Bible, and interpret Revelation in its light, but they do not have a sensitivity to or a working knowledge of the language of biblical symbolism.
  4. Readers are familiar with the Bible, interpret Revelation in the light of that knowledge and understand biblical symbolism, yet they are not familiar with the biblical literary structure, a system of related sequences which often serves as “the label on the tin” and is thus the key to the passage.

The first three stumbling blocks sort the scholars from the novices, but the fourth disqualifies even the modern academic. It puts an entire channel of inspired communication outside of the “bandwidth” of the interpreter, and it is the reason why the best Bible commentators in the world – those who do know the Bible inside out, including its symbols – often do not understand either the purpose of the Revelation or the internal logic which governs both its shape and its contents.

Familiarity

If the reader is not equipped with a deep familiarity with all of Scripture, reading Revelation is like catching only the last five minutes of a movie and attempting to make sense of it. Since the narrative foundations are missing, the details, the dialogue, and the outcomes for the protagonists and antagonists lose much or most of their significance. Context is everything.

Intertextuality

Likewise, if we are not taking note of the repeated themes and following the narrative threads in the Bible, its conclusion – where all loose ends are finally tied up – will not make a lot of sense to us. The Revelation makes some kind of reference to most books in the Bible, and to all of its major events. Attempting to interpret it by referring to contemporary ancient cultures or modern global events is to take the book completely out of its context. The key to the Revelation is the entire Bible and nothing else. All that is required is some visual thinking and some sensitivity to the rhythm of the text, skills which children naturally possess but which have been trained out of us when it comes to reading and understanding Scripture.

Symbolism

But what if you have read the Bible, all of it, possibly more than once, and the book of Revelation still doesn’t make much sense, especially in its particulars? And you and I both know that those particulars are weird. That could be because you are not reading it the right way.

Once we are willing to read the prophecy in the light of the rest of Scripture, we must understand that it employs past biblical characters and events as symbols to describe future ones, just as the Old Testament prophets did. For instance, when Isaiah mentions the battle of Midian, we know that the conflict which he predicts will in some way repeat the events in Judges 7. When he speaks of the wolf lying down with the lamb, he is alluding to the domestic (priestly) and wild (kingly) beasts dwelling at peace in the ark of Noah before a new covenant was made. Identification of the context and the literary structure reveals that the prophet is poetically describing the state of the nations after the Babylonian exile.

To use a modern example, the Bible needs to be read in the same way that viewers watch the movie Shrek and its sequels. To interpret these movies, one must draw upon information that is not contained in the actual narrative. To understand the characters, why they do what they do and say what they say, and especially why they are funny, one must be familiar with some fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and also popular culture – especially other movies – in some detail. For example, viewers who do not know the story of Little Red Riding Hood will not catch the humor or meaning of the scene where Shrek sees a wolf in his bed. The joke goes right over their head. Contrast this with viewers who are “in the know.” They do the interpretive work naturally because the references call upon their previous experience and knowledge.

The Revelation works in exactly the same way. The Bible’s gradual accumulation of objects, people and events as symbolic references means that by the time the reader gets to Revelation, every word is a hyperlink. Everything the prophecy contains is a reference to something found somewhere else in the Bible, and not only do we need to have “seen” all of the Bible’s “movie” so far, we also need to bring all of those particulars with us to this book before we begin to read it. Without ready access to that information we are not going to get any of the clever references or pointed jokes. Even worse, our failure to comprehend the text leads to attempts to interpret it which confuse and confound the intent of the author.

Literary Structure

But there is more. Some of these literary references are contained in the shape of the story. To illustrate, this is like watching the film Ten Things I Hate About You and perceiving that it is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Once the penny drops, the viewer can compare it to the original story by corresponding plot points in the movie with similar scenes in the play. The viewer must ask, “What is the same, and what has been changed, and more importantly, why?” This skill is crucial in understanding the final book of the Bible, which is a work of literary art that employs a method of allusory sequencing that seals the book’s meaning from anyone without the key.

The shape of the book of Revelation is that key, and this shape is found throughout the Bible right from its very beginning. And when the significance of the shape of Revelation and its clever references are pointed out, the book begins to make perfect sense. In fact, once the pattern or sequence is familiar, the reader can almost predict what comes next just as a music lover does when humming or singing along to a favorite tune.

The Beginning and the End

There are many conflicting ideas concerning what this intriguing and terrifying book is about, but the truth is that although it appears to be foreign territory – a hostile landscape filled with animal totems, confounding signs and confronting images including sacrificial virgins clad in pure white, chosen, slain and ascending with a disturbing sexual undercurrent – the Revelation is in fact a denouement, a revelation, of the natural world, like the last act of a whodunit.

To solve the case, we are going to call on the testimony of an expert witness: the prophet Moses. Why Moses? Because he predicted that God would raise up a prophet like himself from among the people (Deuteronomy 18:15), a man to whom God spoke plainly rather than with veiled speech and dark sayings (Exodus 33:11; Numbers 12:8). Moses’ authority as the founder of the nation of Israel necessitated that a case be made for the greater authority of Jesus as its heir to convince Jewish Christians that the Old Covenant in which they trusted was coming to an end (Hebrews 3:1-6).

Thus, the Pentateuch is the frame of reference for every subsequent biblical text. The events, characters and patterns established in the Law are the foundation for the Prophets, and together these two provide the context of the New Testament, including its enigmatic final prophecy. The last book of the Bible cannot be understood without the first books of the Bible:

  • The seed, flesh and skin of Genesis is everywhere in Revelation, employed to describe the bestial nature and spiritual nakedness of rulers whose theft of the covenant promises allows them to masquerade as gods and goddesses. The conspiracy of Adam, Eve and the serpent has become institutionalized as a false prophet, a harlot and a beast. Revelation is Genesis at full throttle.
  • The Exodus is also an important backdrop. The saints are called out of a city referred to as Sodom and Egypt, and plagues are poured out. Idolaters worship an image of a beast and the Ark is opened in heaven. There is a mountain burning with fire, much like Sinai, and thunders and lightnings.
  • The Levitical offerings are referenced repeatedly, and Israel’s festal calendar structures the book.
  • The saints are counted in a “sacrificial census” just as they are in Numbers, and the false prophet Balaam also makes an appearance, the one who caused Israel to become a harlot and serve false gods, like Queen Jezebel.
  • Finally, there are preparations for conquest and warnings to those entering a promised inheritance, just as there are in Deuteronomy.

So, as the culmination and conclusion of a progressive process of revelation throughout history, is this very obviously Jewish prophecy about the past, the present, the future, or all three? Moses will not only help us to understand what is going on in this fascinating book, but also when and why.

Moses and the Revelation is available here.


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