Brown – The Gospel According to John (pt 4)

In Chapter 7 of John, Jesus goes to the Feast of Tabernacles, and once again, Brown’s attention to exegetical detail illuminates the scene.

According to Brown, the Feast of Tabernacles at the time of Jesus was the greatest of the celebrations that Jews held. It was considered a pilgrimage feast, and all able-bodies males were expected to make the trip. (At first, Jesus refuses to go, but later sneaks in and amazes the crowd with his teaching – see pt 3 of this series for the “hidden” messiah John portrays.)

The focus of the celebration was twofold. First, it was a celebration of the Jews as the chosen people of God – of the people alone who had the tabernacle in which God dwelt. Within the celebration itself was much pomp and tradition that was reminiscent of the exodus from Egypt. Second, it was a agricultural feast in which the men of Israel entreated God (who dwelt in the Temple) to bless their land and their crops with bountiful rain so that they might have a good harvest. As the tradition goes, it was thought that when the Messiah came God would cause the very stones of the temple to gush forth water, which would supply the land to overflowing with water for their crops. Then, the excess water would cascade out of Jerusalem in great rivers that would reach the gentile nations. The gentiles, curious as to whence this issue of water came, would follow the rivers back to the Temple, and worship the one true God there.

Keeping in mind the idea behind the Feast of Tabernacles, many things within Chapter 7 make more sense. For instance, when the Jews wonder why the authorities are not arresting or killing Jesus in vs 25-27, they wonder if the authorities have perhaps concluded that Jesus is the messiah. Such speculation is absurd, unless John is “priming the pump” for the reader to remember the Messiah imagery within the feast. Then, when the Jesus states in vs 33-34 that he will go to where no one can find him, the Jews wonder if he will go to the Greeks (i.e., gentiles) and teach them. Again, an image taken from the mythology behind the Feast of Tabernacles.

Then, in vs 37-38, on the greatest day of the Feast, Jesus declares that any who believe in him will have rivers of living water flow within them. Once again, powerful imagery from the Feast being usurped by Jesus to describe himself. And when you remember that in Chapter 2 Jesus called himself the temple – the very  thing from which waters of life are supposed to flow – the imagery becomes overpowering. Jesus is not only the temple, but the messiah, and the God who tabernacled with men who causes rivers of life to flow. And since the Feast of Tabernacles is a pilgrimage feast, all the Jews will journey home to far away lands, tell of their experience with Jesus, and thereby bring others to worship God, too.

Fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles has come, hidden in the person of Jesus.

So, here’s the question I struggle with – was the author of the book of John really crafty enough to weave all this together? Or are we perhaps seeing what we want to see – imagery that isn’t really there? What do you think?

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5 responses to “Brown – The Gospel According to John (pt 4)

  1. Wish I had more time right now to go back over notes I took from a study on this last fall. I can. Later.

    But without delving into it any more deeply, isn’t that the beauty of inspiration? The word inspired, and the reader taught by the Spirit? Did the author have to be all that clever? Was it his job to weave the imagery together? Is it possible that he himself didn’t see it, but was even more, perhaps, entwined in it?

  2. It is entirely possible that the “author” (which may have been multiple people) did not see it, but if we follow the inspiration path too far, we get completely divorced from the text itself, which is dangerous.

    That’s why I like to talk about the author when doing exegesis, and about the Spirit as it speaks to us in community when talking about hermeneutics. The Spirit helps us understand how the text applies to today. The implied author helps us understand what the text meant back then.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t understand how inspiration helps answer whether or not the imagery is intended. How can we ever be sure about the ways in which the Holy Spirit inspired the book of John? Did the Spirit/John intend for us to see the imagery around the Feast of Tabernacles, or are we just seeing what we want to see? How can we tell the difference?

  3. Your middle paragraph there gives good clarification, and I can appreciate the point of not wanting to get away from the text so that we make it mean what it could not have meant in its original context.

    What do you think would be the danger of teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Feast of Tabernacles, if in fact John did not see him as such? Do you think it would ever be the case that the Spirit would inspire John to put all of those pieces together conveniently, even if John did not connect the dots, so that He could easily connect them later for us? Do you think it is possible that John really did make those connections through his experiences with Jesus and the subsequent years of reflection? I’m thinking about how it must have impacted his thoughts as the same feast was celebrated in the years after Jesus was on earth, and how he would have pondered the meaning of the feast in the context of the shift from old covenant to the new.

  4. Tracy:

    You have a way of asking questions that painfully make me write much more than I should in a comment. I’m starting to think you have a sadistic streak.

    There is little danger of assuming either way that the implied author (be it “John” or the HS) intended the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles to be applied to Jesus. I have a hard time seeing how one’s hermeneutic could be wrong based on how one reads this passage.

    But what I’m really trying to get at goes deeper than this scenario in John – how much credit should we give the implied author? (To chase a rabbit, I don’t believe that “inspiration” helps us at all in the exegetical task – what’s on the page is on the page regardless of the inspired status of the text. I call the person who wrote the “implied author” to indicate it may not be the physical person who wrote the book that we are analyzing.)

    I can think of tons of examples where our understanding of the authorial intent (or how crafty the implied author is) affects our hermeneutics greatly. What about baptism in Acts – is it intended to be normative? What about Genesis 1 thru 3 – is it intended to be history or myth? What about Revelation – is it symbolic or literal? What about the temptations of Jesus in Matthew 4 – is that historically accurate, or tweaked imaginatively to prove a point?

    I personally believe that John intended the imagery around the Feast of Tabernacles. As you put it, I think he made those connections through years of Spirit-led reflection. In short, I believe that the implied author of John was neither ignorant, nor stupid, and that he can weave images together at a very subtle level that mean much more than just the words on the page. Given that I believe this, you can probably surmise how I will come to the text of Revelation, or Genesis, or Daniel, or even the temptations of Jesus.

    But I can never be sure. The author of John (if it was John) might have been the dolt that the pharisees thought he was. In that case, I’m totally off my rocker in my interpretations. So, the question is – how smart do we really think John was (whether Spirit-led or not)? How can I ever know whether or not I’m seeing what I want to see? (And even though I didn’t state it, I’m secretly wondering how all this affects our interpretation of the bible.)

    My motivation to ask this comes from (once again) the tradition in which I was raised- you were to read the Bible literally and only literally. There were no images. This, of course, led me to a pretty simplistic view of the intelligence of the biblical authors. I’ve since found they were quite “inspired” in their artistic capacity. Or were they?

  5. Oh no! My secret is out!! 🙂 Actually, rather than a sadistic motivation, I just want my own comments not to seem so obnoxiously long. But on the other hand, I also think that if a conversation is worth having, who cares how much space it takes up?

    This is all so interesting. And you do a great job of highlighting the point that John’s images are subtle–meaning that they could be much more plainly understood by his intended audience than they are to us, making the exegetical task all the more critical to coming to a reasonable hermeneutic.

    And it gets dicey when people dive into “cracking the code”. Whew!

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