Ambiguity in Scripture, Part I

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, a German Jew who had fled to Istanbul to avoid the Nazis wrote what I think is one of the foundational books for any literary understanding of the scriptures. His name was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.

If the stories are to be believed, circumstances forced Auerbach to do much of his work by memory, for he did not have access to all of the texts drawn from and cited to in Mimesis. While a fascinating thought, it is largely irrelevant; Auerbach was a genius whatever the strength of his memory.

It is only the first chapter of the book, entitled “Odysseus’ Scar,” that concerns us for the time being. In that chapter, Auerbach argues that there are two major iconic styles of storytelling running through western civilization, at least historically speaking. Like Tolkien, Auerbach was a philologist by training, born at the end of the 19th Century, and with a penchant for looking backward, far backward, rather than at the contemporary.

Two iconic styles of literature in historic western writing. Only two. The first, Auerbach tells us, is the style best exemplified by the works of Homer, in the Iliad and (as the chapter’s title suggests) the Odyssey. By way of example, Auerbach carefully describes the scene in which Odysseus has returned home in disguise after his long journey. He is recognized for his true self by a scar on his leg, and Homer gives us great detail about that scar—how it was got, where it is, etc.—as it plays its pivotal role in the plot.

That is Homer in a nutshell, overflowing with detail, carefully crafting images in our mind’s eye, little left out for us, all with the purpose (Auerbach says) of giving us a profound sense of awe, and therefore pleasure. This is a pagan style, rich in sensory data and concerned with worldly delight.

Homer is to be contrasted with the Biblical style—a Dragnet-style, “Just the facts, ma’am,” and not even all of the facts we want to know. We get the bare bones of the story, just enough information to understand the flow of events, but not enough to become cognizant of all that is going on in the story.

Auerbach’s example of this is one I never forget and often use. You should play along. Think about Abraham and Isaac in Genesis. We know that Isaac is Abraham’s son, that God has commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test of his faith, that Isaac seems to go along willingly. But how old is Isaac? Before you go back to the text to check, I want you to see if you can recall the answer by memory. What does Isaac look like in your memory? How old is he?

Of course, I’m pulling one over on you. Genesis doesn’t tell us Isaac’s age at the time of Abraham’s trial. We tend to think of him as young, perhaps pre-adolescent, seemingly innocent and only wanting to please his father. But that’s not the only possibility.

In the middle ages, theologians largely believed that Isaac was thirty-three when Abraham took him to be sacrificed. An adult! One who might have moved out of his parents’ home! Who might have his own children! My age, in fact.

Does an adult Isaac willingly going along with Abraham seem strange to you? For the medieval theologians, it was strange to think that he was only a boy. Why? Because they believed that Jesus was thirty-three at the time of his crucifixion; they were searching for parallels that showed continuity between the Old Testament and the New.

What Auerbach wants to show us here is that the Bible often, seemingly purposefully, leaves out details from the story, even potentially important ones for the story’s meaning. The literary effect could not be farther from the Homeric one. Where Homer fills in all the details, forcing the reader to step back and spectate in awe, the Bible forces the reader to fill in the blanks, engaging with the story. The reader of scripture must make choices to resolve ambiguities in the text, must interpret, must participate.

It is commonly argued that the gospels are written in both style and substance in such a way as to force the reader to ask and answer the same question as everyone else in the narrative: who do you believe Jesus is? But Auerbach takes this idea even further—the very style of the entire scriptures (though he was more focused perhaps on the Old Testament) does not allow us to stand idly by and watch—we must struggle with the text (and here Jacob wrestling with God comes to mind quite readily) to make it mean something. We must invest ourselves in it and synthesize it with ourselves for the text to come alive. The sparsity of detail naturally pulls us in to do just this, even if you don’t recognize it’s happening.

Point One: Ambiguity forces us to engage; we cannot simply absorb.

For the next post in this series, click here.

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