This is part II of a post begun a week and a half ago in response to a devotional lecture given by Terry Ball, dean of the BYU college of religious education. That discussion centered on what I argued to be the problematic connection Ball makes between the pre-existence, Isaiah 28, and mortality. This post focuses on the scriptural aspects of his argument.
Ball begins by discussing a “grand experiment” undertaken by CES when he began his career as a seminary teacher, which “emphasized teaching each book of scripture sequentially, from beginning to end,” and was designed to “help students better know and love the scriptures.” Now, decades later, Ball conducts at the beginning of his talk a little exercise in order to assess the fruits of this experiment: He has the students in the Marriott Center audience finish the scriptures he begins. “I will go________,” “This is my work and _________,” etc., to show that this experiment worked. When the hundreds (thousands?) of voices are generally able to quote back to him these (“Scripture Mastery”) verses, he reflects, “Isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it wonderful to be part of a people that know and love the scriptures.”
Ball then goes on to take up the theme of his talk, (secular) learning and (gospel) knowledge. He argues that with 1) faith in true things, 2) obedience, and 3) an observant mind, one can reap blessings from higher education. In discussing point number 3, Ball attempts to show how his learning has informed his faith by presenting an interpretation of the end of Isaiah 28 that draws on his BYU training in Botany.
This passage is a parable of a farmer, who knows when to plow, when and where to plant, and which techniques to use in harvesting different types of produce. Ball says, “I believe Isaiah wants us to liken the farmer to our Heavenly Father, and the seeds to ourselves,” and goes on to say that this is evidence that Heavenly Father has put each of us in different parts of the earth according to our premortal agency and nobility so that we could “maximize his harvest of redeemed souls.” In the last post I argued that this is highly problematic from a theological standpoint; in this one, I will argue that it is highly problematic from a textual standpoint.
First of all, in the verses he quotes (28:23-29), there is absolutely no hint that we’re talking about the foundation of the world here. There is no indication of pre-existence or anything that could be construed as such.* Second, it is clear that the farmer is not God. In verse 26, for example, God is teaching the farmer, and in verse 29 the Lord of Hosts is dictating the harvest to the farmer.
Some may say that this is splitting hairs, because the farmer is an agent of God, and divine investiture of authority allows us to equate the two. Fair enough. The real difficulties for Ball’s interpretation, however, come because he has dislocated the parable from its setting in the rest of Isaiah 28. This chapter is clearly not related to any pre-existence. It is an oracle of judgment and destruction given to Ephraim (Samaria) and to Judah (Jerusalem). Ephraim will be “hurled with force to the ground” and “trampled underfoot,” and the remnant (Judah), who have made a “covenant with death,” will smitten by hail and flood: “Your pact with Sheol shall not endure / When the sweeping flood passes through / You shall be its victims.” These oracles conclude with a threat: “For the Lord will arise / as on the hill of Perazim, / he will rouse himself / as in the vale of Gibeon, / to do his work– / strange is his work! / … / Therefore refrain from mockery / lest your bonds be tightened. / For I have a decree of destruction / from my Lord God of Hosts / against all the land.”** And the parable immediately follows.
In such a context, the parable appears to be more about the abilities of God to mete out destruction differently to different groups. He causes the farmer to plow, then to plant, allow to grow, and then teaches the farmer exactly how to harvest different types of seeds. Some are threshed, some are beaten with rods. In the context of chapter 28, then, I think this parable plays on the plowing and harvesting as metaphors of violence and destruction. It appears to underscore the different treatments Ephraim and Judah will receive in their own due times.
Some might raise the objection to this, that I myself have at times raised, that context doesn’t matter. The text has no meaning outside of its readers. We can’t look for original intent. So I can’t accuse Ball of anything because his interpretation is as valid as the next. Well, not so fast. Not all interpretations carry equal weight, especially when Ball began his exegesis with “I believe Isaiah wants us to…”. In this mode, at the very least, his interpretation is deeply flawed.
However, even removing his opener does not salvage the interpretation. Not all interpretations are created equal. As Paul Ricoeur says,
If it is true that there is always more than one way of construing a text, it is not true that all interpretations are equal. … The text is a limited field of possible constructions. The logic of validation allows us to move between the two limits of dogmatism and skepticism. It is always possible to argue for or against an interpretation, to confront interpretations, to arbitrate between them, and to seek for an agreement, even if this agreement remains beyond our reach. [From Text to Action (trans. K. Blamey and J.B. Thompson; Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991), 160.]
In any case, leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure exactly how his botanical training really changes or affects the understanding of this passage and therefore how illustrative an example it is for his paper, Ball’s is not a good example of scripture mastery. Or maybe it’s a perfect example of Scripture Mastery, as it it known in the Church. As his opening “quiz” showed, Latter-day Saints are proficient at wrenching scripture from its context in order to prooftext or to reinforce some moral or ethical message. We are not alone in this, of course, but we are gravely mistaken when we think that this constitutes mastery, or scriptural knowledge, as Ball calls it.
Ball’s type of interpretation is an imposing obstacle to real scripture mastery. Most of my trouble reading the scriptures growing up, besides the highly problematic King James Version, came from trying to read the interpretations my church leaders, seminary teachers, and BYU religion instructors taught me back into the scriptures. Try, for example, extending the Christ=Immanuel equation beyond verse 14 in Isaiah 7 (try even just v. 15). This is not scripture mastery, and, in my opinion, leads almost inevitably to gross confusion and deep frustration with the scriptures.
Then again, Religious Education is self-admittedly not geared toward helping students to know the scriptures in the sense of being able to deal with them responsibly as texts. The departments of Church History and Doctrine and Ancient Scripture are, at least from the administration’s perspective, about proper homiletics, or how to get the scriptures to mean something that will help students to behave properly. In this latter sense, Dean Ball has provided a fitting example.
* Not surprising, given that very little in the Hebrew Bible can be construed as informing a pre-existence.
** All translations from the New Jewish Publication Society Version.