Literal and Meaning

“But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.” (Matt 23:5)

Wikipedia: Tefillin, (Hebrew: תפילין), also called phylacteries, are two black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with biblical verses. The arm-tefillin, or shel yad, is worn on the upper arm, while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. They serve as a “sign” and “remembrance” that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. According to Jewish Law, they should be worn during weekday morning prayer services.

The sources provided for tefillin in the Torah are from vague verses. The following verse from the shema states:

“And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes” (Deut 6:8)

Here is an example of an idea that we can discuss that is taken to some literal form – yet I think contains ‘deeper meaning’ also – the phylacteries concept.

Nowhere in scripture is the idea of phylacteries seen as a bad thing – it is a ‘just is’ thing. For me, the idea seems simple – they are to be in 2 places – your hands and on your head. If I stick to the literal – I am doing an act of rememberance – which is in and of it self a nice thing. If I think upon it deeper, could it be the idea is pointing to remembering the teachings of God in our minds (to memorize) and in our hands (to do them)?

After hearing about how literal the bible is – I am not sure just sticking to the literal will provide all the meaning we need for some action. I am thinking even the literal action of wearing the phylacteries is a sign of something more deep than just some outward symbol. Maybe in that action we pay homage to Torah – the teachings – to both be studious and to ‘live by them’.

Just doing the action can become a routine – and eventually mean nothing without more to it than just a ‘literal meaning’. This is the school of thought I am coming from on ideas we bounce around the net about teachings in the gospels (and this one is from the Tanakh) – even literal has to have more to it than ‘just do and prove your trust in God’.

Paul relates something (and I am paraphrasing here) that makes sense concerning growth in faith – ‘when I was a child I ate as a child, but now that I am an adult I eat like an adult’. Literal ideas might be the start of one’s faith journey – but to not flesh those out in the long haul will leave an adult eating/thinking like a child. That’s all I am saying.

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13 thoughts on “Literal and Meaning

  1. Hi society
    Good observations on the problem with literalism. The Bible is meant to teach us how to think, but we learn progressively – we rise out of our own darkness progressively. Its very common for a new believer to grab onto the literal interpretations that originally made it clear to them what they had to do to be saved. But the Bible is there to help us grow in our relationship with God, not just to adorn our sleeves and jewelry.

    Here is Jesus quoting from Isaiah in Matthew 15.

    You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
    ” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
    They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

    Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ ”

    I think we’ve talked about it before but one of the literal interpretations that snares a lot of people is the literal 6-day creation narrative in Genesis. When that came up in my bible study, one of the other leaders fumed that he had no patience for any other interpretation. When he found that the study group leadership didn’t read it exactly that way, but gave various interpretations in the notes, he soon left the group.

    The key I think to the Matthew 23:5 verse is [in bold] “for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments”. This is much like our religiosity today. But our goal should not be heightened religiosity but relationship. Good post.

  2. Society,

    I believe in a “literal” interpretation of the bible. But, unfortunately there is more than one meaning. I take the word “literal” in the classic sense that the bible is a piece of literature. A “literal” interpretation takes into account the various forms of literature – law, poetry, historical narrative, wisdom, prophesy, personal letters, metaphor, etc. Included in this view is the idea that we need to take each passage in the context it was given. We all speak in parables, allegory and metaphor from time to time and expect that others will understand the true meaning, yet certain people or groups of people somehow don’t see this concept with God and what He has to say. I think what you’re dealing with is what I usually call “literalism.” It’s too bad there isn’t another word to deal with the multiple meanings. Sometimes God uses an allegory to explain something, but we are simpletons who cling to the analogy instead of the reality. Dumb us.

  3. Always those awful Pharisees…..Andrew, you wonder why I concluded what I concluded? I think I have grounds.

    Notice what Jesus does not say. He does NOT have an issue with them WEARING tallisim and tefillin, but with HOW they are wearing them. There are limits to the sizes of our tefillin boxes, and tzitzit are of fixed lengths, for good reason. Since Jesus didn’t condemn people for wearing ritual items, why now would anyway say these verses from Deuteronomy should be taken metaphorically?

    Who gets to decide what is law, poetry, historical narrative, wisdom, prophesy, personal letters, and metaphor? It always comes down to interpretation.

    Jim says the six day creation isn’t to be taken literally, yet he takes the words that about a man lying with another man being an abomination literally.

    Catholics take ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’ literally yet most other denomination do not. They also take the church being built on Peter to be literal, while others do not. Who’s to say they’re wrong? Literal and metaphor are usually in the eyes of the beholder and often based on what a person does or doesn’t do.

    None of you wear tallisim or tefillin, so you claim the verses are merely metaphor. I DO wear them, however, and have a very different view. See Tefillin tab on my blog if you are interested in a view that doesn’t dismiss this beautiful mitzvah as merely an adorning of the body.

    As far as man’s traditions….There are very few straight forward instructions in either Tanakh or the NT on living religious lives, most of which no one follows anymore. Pretty much everything everyone does is man’s traditions.

  4. “None of you wear tallisim or tefillin, so you claim the verses are merely metaphor. I DO wear them, however” (Yael)

    That’s why I write with respect – I do not wear the phykacteries but they are part of Jewish tradition and I R-E-S-P-E-C-T that.

    But Yael, I have to be honest, the wearing of them are for mere remembernace – and like I said – that can be a ‘good thing”. – but tradition for some makes faith a religion – endangering even the great they want to represent. And I am one of those that draws a line – like a good concubine (lol) – we all must take a stand for a faith on what is just.

  5. It doesn’t bother me in the least to claim I follow a religion. I have no clue why religion got stuck in the trash bin with Pharisees…

    Perhaps I am getting to something here. A light is going off as I type as to why I find so much of what is written by the ’emergent’ movement so offensive. You equate the two, don’t you? And that is your whole basis for validity, that you are the modern day Jesus’ fighting against the modern day ‘Pharisees’, churches and their religious leaders.

    I told Andrew there isn’t a day goes by if I come by to read from this blog or from the blogs linked to it that I don’t find slams on the Pharisees either in top posts or in the immediate comments. I had not encountered this before when blogging with Christians, they just took issue with our beliefs on various topics without any of the near constant Pharisee refrain. But, now it makes sense. The Pharisees to you don’t represent Jews, now even the Pharisees been taken from us. To you they’re your leaders representing all that is bad in your world and you’re taking them on, just like Jesus did in his day.

    Am I right here? I think so. It all makes sense when viewed this way. You need a model to fight against and you’ve pulled up the old tried and beleaguered Pharisee. He gets a new role now, the people who came along to replace him have now become him and get to experience what it’s like to be stereotyped and maligned. Perhaps a lesson to be drawn from this is what goes around, comes around?

    I have no doubt you respect Judaism, Jason, we have talked many times. But, Jason, I have to be honest, 🙂 , you’ve never been a Jew wearing tefillin so how can you understand anything about what it means to don them six days a week, week after week, year after year? You can see no value in such devotion to a mitzvah because you see such repetition as promoting ‘religion’. Go read the posts I put in that tab and tell me what you find troubling in my donning tefillin, tell me how this act leads to whatever it is you so want to guard against.

    You mention memorizing as a meaning for ‘binding them on your head’. Of what value is memorization, an act, by the way, which usually requires much repetition and also seems to result in much repetition?

    People read the Bible over and over, day after day, reading the same words many times throughout their lives. Of what value is that? And how did this tradition come about? Torah only says to read Torah every seven years in the hearing of all the people. There is no mention of reading it privately every day. Isn’t this more meaningless repetition?

    Justice is great, but Torah teaches us that we are not to automatically defer to the weaker presenter in a court case. Justice is not served by automatically believing the powerless person over the powerful. From what I’m seeing, there is no justice being served by rallying for those in need if at the same time broad stereotyping of churches and church leadership is going on. Just as the stereotyping of the Pharisees offends me to the core, so too does using this same title and stereotype for someone else. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end and it’s not pleasant. The false image of the Pharisees needs to be laid to rest, not given new life in the form of another group.

  6. Hi Yael,
    Please understand that by “Pharisee” in relation to the historical Jesus, I am considering the Pharisees of AD 30-33. You are right to remind us that Pharisees of other eras aren’t to be lumped with the Pharisees of that time (or at least the majority). I had given you the example that a “Samaritan” nowadays is someone who helps a stranger when it was an odd choice for Jesus to choose as a hero in His day. So the caption on the evening news, “So-and-so the ‘samaritan’ helped so-and-so” is rather funny considering they were not known for their kindness -indeed they get it from a “parable”. Even though it is a false image of Pharisees today, regarding the Pharisees whom Jesus dealt with, it was obviously NOT a false image. They sent the most innocent man to his death. It’s a simple matter of context. And, for goodness’ sake, when I rattled off a list of “modern-day Pharisees” of the kind that condemned Jesus I listed Christian leaders like Pat Robertson and Jery Falwell (although Abe Foxman of the ADL is a good candidate from the Jewish side).

    Jim says the six day creation isn’t to be taken literally, yet he takes the words that about a man lying with another man being an abomination literally.

    My reasons for not reading the six-day creation literally is G-d’s fault. Read Job 38:1-4 and tell me how I’m supposed to read the creation narrative. The prohibition of men sleeping with men is far more pellucid and is not lifted or questioned anywhere else in Scripture, other than the blanket warning against judging others.

    You are right to point out that Jesus is not prohibiting anyone from wearing religious reminders. He’s drawing the line showing us that we aren’t to use this as a measuring stick in relation to others.

  7. “that you are the modern day Jesus’ fighting against the modern day ‘Pharisees’, churches and their religious leaders” (Yael)

    I would say that is fairly accurate on some level – I think a lot of us are speaking out against the type of hypocrisy we see within the various Christian denominations…and I am not actually in the Emergent movement but I have to say I admire some of their thoughts.

    “Perhaps a lesson to be drawn from this is what goes around, comes around?” (Yael)

    True…this seems to be a problem in faith systems world-wide actually – this religiousness of a few speaking for the many – and I think for some that’s what bothers them. Also religion should be freeing and I think a lot are finding this is not always so within religious confines and institutions – and thus the questions/debates over various religious topics.

    “you’ve never been a Jew wearing tefillin so how can you understand anything about what it means to don them six days a week, week after week, year after year?” (Yael)

    True – I have admitted that quite plainly – I don’t truly understand. That’s why I don’t knock the actual ritual itself or anything associated with it – I am merely pointing to the depth behind the idea also – which I think we agree exists behind the action.

    “tell me how this act leads to whatever it is you so want to guard against.” (Yael)

    It doesn’t actually – I am stating an example about how religious acts have depth – but I know that some (including myself) have seen religious symbolism lose something – usually when it is not explained quite well (ex: baptism within Christian denominations). I have very little problem with the actual religious actions people want to do – why should I? They are the one’s doing them and enjoying them.

    “Of what value is memorization, an act, by the way, which usually requires much repetition and also seems to result in much repetition?” (Yael)

    But I would not seperate memorizing something with actually doing it also (which symbolism I think is in the 2 boxes worn) – like saying I believe something and then showing I do via my actions. I see symbolism in the teffelin – and at that – great symbolism and meaning. Memorization alone is quite useless and means nothing to me – its making those words part of your daily existence that I see in the teffelin.

    “Isn’t this more meaningless repetition?” (Yael)

    I would agree – what’s the use of the mass reading if it results in nothing? Couldn’t agree more – but reading has to equal meaning if its to be valued.

    “From what I’m seeing, there is no justice being served by rallying for those in need if at the same time broad stereotyping of churches and church leadership is going on.” (Yael)

    Hmmm…I think the stereotypes don’t exist as stereotypes if they are actual examples of church leadership and the problems that do exist. I merely point out the obvious in many blogs and I use examples that are accurate mainly about the actual organization and problems inherent within – where religion tries to defend God via some definition and system at the expense of people (sometimes). Now that is about the gist of the writing I do – since I think it is fair to raise questions about certian ideas that exist in churches – maybe they are due for a re-write or re-emphasis. I think as a Christian person I would be foolish not to say something – if not for myself only – but for the general direction of the faith I love. To me – that’s not really a bad thing.

    Note: I have not used Pharisee as a term of incredulity in this whole blog.

  8. Jim Jordan,

    Perhaps you can enlighten us as to the difference between the Pharisees of 30-33 CE, and the Pharisees of other eras? Why not give us some resource material as to these differences?

    Oh, and the Sanhedrin of that time was controlled by the Sadducees. So how you claim the Pharisees sent Jesus to his death escapes me.

    Do you even know how many differing Jewish factions were in place during the First Century? Or what the disparities are between them? Or did you get your information from the New Testament and look no further?

  9. From verse 2 [three verses prior], Jesus says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.

    Jesus was addressing the Pharisees who were the highest best example of Jews. They were part of the Sanhedrin. Your questions are thus irrelevant, Dagoods. It is the line between relevance and irrelevance that has escaped you. I do not have to be an expert of first century Judaism to now what Jesus is saying in Matthew 23:5. Happy New Year.

  10. What the—?

    Jim Jordan, It was YOU that said the Pharisees of 30-33 CE weren’t to be lumped with other Pharisees. I am wondering why. It was YOU that said the Pharisees sent Jesus to his death. I was curious how that was supported in light of the history of that time.

    Apparently I was to presume what you were saying is irrelevant and that you lack the credentials to make such a claim. Is that what you are saying?

    It seems to me you are one amongst millions of Christians who think they are “experts” when it comes to Pharisees, what they thought and what they did in First Century Judea, simply upon your reading of Matthew and Mark. (You may not realize the more favorable position Luke provides in Luke/Acts, nor the Gospel of John more commonly referring to the “Jews.”)

    I don’t expect you to be an expert, Jim Jordan. I expect you to support what you say, or acknowledge you don’t have support and it is pure speculation.

  11. The subject regards what Jesus meant in Matthew 23:5. Jason already gave the necessary details to understand the meaning. I said that Jesus is not criticizing Pharisees of the present time, which should be obvious. The Pharisees would have been the most likely group to recognize and defend Him. Instead they did the opposite.

    I was curious how that was supported in light of the history of that time.

    I am curious too. But the post reads “Literal and Meaning”. If you want to post on historical claims and not on biblical interpretation, then post something on your site and I’ll talk about that.

  12. In all honesty, according to Acts – Pharisees were part of that original group of disciples of Christ – which again is Luke writing. Just thought I’d throw that in there.

  13. Pharisees were part of that original group of disciples of Christ

    True, society. I’m aware of those favorable mentions. There were all kinds of Pharisees, including those that Jesus was referring to, the ones who lorded it over others. When I wrote Instead they did the opposite I was referring to those who opposed Jesus. Obviously it wasn’t as well-inferred as I thought.

    The message here is that we must examine our own hearts to guard against the temptation of self-righteousness.

    “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.”

    Dagoods, my support comes from the text itself. You wrote I was curious how that was supported in light of the history of that time. I’m aware there is a controversy over whether the claims of the NT regarding the Sanhedrin Trial of Jesus could possibly have happened the way it was described. It seems that this is what you are referring to when you said what I put in bold. Isn’t that another topic? Is that relevant to the meaning of the warning in Matthew 23:5? I don’t see how it could be.

    I think an examination of the details of the trial compared to contemporary accounts of how those trials were conducted is a great subject for debate between believers and skeptics. It is also a different debate, as is the trashing of the Pharisees throughout history. Jesus was only referring to the Pharisees who were acting in that specific way.

    I don’t mean to be dismissive or heavy-handed, Dagoods, it’s just off-topic IMO. Happy New Year. I’m off to a party. Looking forward to more great debates in ’08.

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