Hermeneutics on Stack Exchange

The question came up on Stack Exchange’s Bible Hermeneutics forum: Naphtali touching the border of Juda?

Normally, when my answers get criticism, I man-up and improve my skills. But, in this case, I think that high-rep users, including two moderators, disliked my answer because they disagreed with my respect for the Bible. I hope otherwise, but it otherwise doesn’t look hopeful.

In studying the Bible, we come across passages that are difficult to explain. In Bible school and in good sermons, Bible teachers and students take the time to learn from those passages that we don’t know everything, but the Bible is still trustworthy. That’s part of the message, lesson, application, and value of those passages. That’s the hermeneutical-exegetical message many solid Bible teachers preach from them.

…but that’s apparently not allowed on Stack Exchange.

Whatever the motive—defining “on-topic” in their new way or using “off-topic” as a guise to press their disagreement with my answer—it was very much on topic in traditional Bible teaching. So, rather than bothering Stack Exchange with the answer they didn’t want, I relocated that answer and put it here.

So, here it is…

The question was about Joshua 19:34, that Judah does not border on the Jordan, but the Bible talks as if it does. It seems like a contradiction or is difficult to understand. What does it mean? Here is what I had to say:

PLEASE don’t “approve this as the right answer”. But, I want to contribute an important part of hermeneutics.

Review: Authenticity-proven-by-ambiguity

To the people of Joshua’s time, they knew what they were talking about. They should write accordingly, not as if writing to us 3,500 years later. So, this passage goes into my library of references that prove the authentic nature of the Bible. It was obviously written by an ancient people because they make the assumptions of an ancient people.

Ambiguities like this occur in the text all the time. It doesn’t prove that the text was invented or made up. Actually, it proves that the text was realistic because history rarely makes perfect sense to those who weren’t there to witness it themselves.

That stated, I still want to understand as much as I can. When I run across things like this, I often run to consult:

  • figures of speech
  • substitute meaning (Sometimes Judah and Ephraim and Jacob all refer to the twelve tribes.)
  • possible error in that copy of the text (not the original, all we have are copies; AKA ‘lower criticism’)
  • historical/archeological evidence

Discrepancy doesn’t make me give up; it makes me keep digging. And, that is ultimately the point of any Bible study.

Application to the Question here

I will keep this passage in mind when studying other passages that include territories north of the Sea of Galilee. I will come back to this passage and keep it ready for cross-references, as a tool to understand other Bible passages.

Important: The border of Naphtali is not in question, only the meaning of “Judah” at the Jordan. So, we know what we need to know about the thing we need to know about: Naphtali.

Honestly, I like Mac’s answer above (https://hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/41086/27581), mainly that reference to “Judah” could mean that there was a shared border of “Judah” or “Israel”—that it meant “to the national boundary of Israel”. The commentary’s answer also seems attractive, that an offshoot of Judah had a satellite territory across the Jordan from Naphtali. The “shared border” was my initial thought on the text, even without reading Mac’s answer.

But, as much as I like those answers, the meaning is not cut and dry. I have to keep this one as an “open case, not yet closed”. I have a “likely” answer or two, not finality.

I take away three ideas:

  1. I’ve learned the description manners and culture of Joshua’s time. This is how the Bible will likely describe borders here and elsewhere—either the edge of the national boundary or that an adopted territory may be presumed and described this way. So, I’ll expect and recognize more talk like this in the future: vague, presumptive, maybe ‘Judah = Israel’, don’t expect much detail beyond the main object being described (Naphtali).
  2. Stay on topic. Naphtali is the topic, the object being described. I shouldn’t expect a passage about Naphtali’s border to describe all of its surroundings. The border is the Jordan, period. It’s good practice and self-discipline to remember to stay on topic. The purpose of this passage has indeed been achieved without question. Whatever “Judah” is at the Jordan is interesting, but technically non sequitur.
  3. What a wonderful passage to revisit to challenge myself! …

It’s one thing to talk about the Socratic virtue of “remembering that we don’t know what we don’t know” in hermeneutics. Having a passage, like this, where we must actually employ that hermeneutic and have “I don’t yet know” as part of the interpretation is a good habit.

So, the main takeaway for me is that this passage shapes and guides my own hermeneutics. Joshua is writing about national and tribal boundaries; I’m learning intellectual humility. That fits with II Timothy 3:16, that all Scripture is useful.

I see it as a passage that augments and sharpens my overall ability to study other Bible passages. So, I will revisit this passage many times, just for this purpose of reading something that I know I don’t fully understand. This will humble me and re-open my mind to other passages that I think I understand—because I might not understand those other passages fully. (In fact, no human can fully understand anything, including that we can’t fully understand anything, so we always need that reminder.)

It is difficult, and all the more mature, to include vagueness as part of a conclusion.

We tend to want simple and absolute answers that don’t force us to think. Passages that force us to think keep us on our toes and sharpen our minds.

In my opinion—and we have different opinions in hermeneutics, respectfully—this is why people who try to discredit the Bible at the drop of a hat will have difficulty understanding other passages. We can’t understand something we don’t respect and this passage forces us to choose which rout we will take in that regard. I recognize and respect that others will disagree; I hope we all can be reasonable and forthcoming in such a gentlemen’s disagreement.

I will ponder passages just like this, including this, just for the benefit of expanding my mind because the Bible student must grow and improve in order to reach upward to understand this book that is greater than our minds. Without this approach, one cannot understand the Bible because it is beyond us.