The strangeness and wonder of Scriptural inspiration
We know that all of Sacred Scripture is inspired. Indeed, St. Paul reminds Timothy of this very point: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
The problem is that we do not always benefit from inspiration, partly because our hearts are not disposed to listen to what will truly train us in righteousness, and partly because we sometimes find ourselves in the position of the eunuch to whom an angel sent St. Philip. Here, if there ever was one, is a caution about our own spiritual sterility:
So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” [Acts 8:30-31]
Of course, even the Ethiopian eunuch was already receiving inspiration from the Holy Spirit by opening himself with a kind of spiritual thirst to the sacred text. The Church teaches not only that Scripture is inspired by God in its composition, but that it remains a continuing source of inspiration for those who read, as long as they are properly disposed. This goes a long way to explain a very common experience among Christians: We may read a particular passage at one moment in our lives and find a wealth of meaning, insight or consolation in it—and yet when we return to that same passage on another occasion, we may actually wonder why it struck us so deeply. The inspiration of Scripture is such that it can speak particularly to our own needs of the moment.
Still, God knows there are many ways in which we can go wrong. One way to get a handle on the basics of Scriptural interpretation is to read St. Augustine’s seminal work on it, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine) or to listen to James T. Majewski’s outstanding reading of this treasure in Catholic Culture Audiobooks (see the complete listing of the episode links under St. Augustine’s name). Without guidance, the unwary can be led astray.
The judgment of Judges
The prophets, of course, are one thing. Other books are not so obviously spiritual and moral. I think, for example, of the consternation of those who take Scripture’s simplicity for granted when they read the account in Judges 11 of the over-eager Jephthah: He promised that if the LORD would grant him victory in a battle, he would make a sacrificial offering of the first person who greeted him upon his return. This turned out to be his daughter, whom he duly sacrificed. We can take this as a cautionary tale against rash vows, of course, but perhaps the most positive insight is that God can make use at times even of spiritual fools—that is, even of you and me.
Actually, the strangeness of the general goings on in the Book of Judges is noted twice in the text itself. The whole period of the judges in Israel is characterized by a pattern among the Jews of falling away from the LORD only to become subject to their enemies, and then being brought back to the LORD and to greater freedom and independence by some judge who would arise to take things in hand. Thus, after one period of ups and downs which involved considerable stupidity and sin, including the scarcely edifying account of Samson and Delilah, the sacred author seeks to shed some light on such bizarre proceedings: “In those days,” he explains, “there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6).
But right after this there comes the story of the shameful abuse of the “the Levite’s concubine” by the men of the tribe of Benjamin. The other tribes are outraged, and so, first, they band together to destroy the Benjaminites, including all of their women. But before they execute the small group of men still standing, they sense how bad it would be were they to completely exterminate one of the twelve tribes of Israel. Since they had already vowed to the LORD that they would not give any of their women in marriage to the Benjaminites, they decide to wipe out the men, women and children of Jabeshgilead, saving only the virginal maidens, because that region had provided no warriors for the joint action of the tribes against Benjamin. Finally they give these young women to the surviving Benjaminite men so that the tribe of Benjamin might replenish its numbers!
Now what lessons are we to learn from a book like that? There is Divine inspiration here, of course, but we must beware of assuming that everything recounted was the result of God’s active will—as if to say we should go and do likewise. In its historical dimension, of course, this is a concentrated account of the constant rise and fall of the Jews as a direct result of their refusal to consistently remember the Lord. What inspiration it will communicate to each sincere reader at any given moment will remain a mystery of Heart speaking to heart. But as a particular note of common inspiration, we must surely mark the last verse of the book, in which the author repeats himself, apparently with no little disgust:
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. [21:25]
This statement may prompt us to think of King David and his successors, only to find that the history of even the future kings of Israel had its ups and downs. Yet we know this is Scripture, and so inspired. And we also know that the first rule of interpretation is simply this: The sacred text points always to a very different King.
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