I came across the hilarious fact that Dorothy Parker, the poet and screen writer, named her parakeet Onan because he was always spilling his seed. This joke, based on the KJV of Genesis 38:9, would go right over the heads of not only the biblically illiterate, but people who read Genesis in contemporary translations. It is a reminder that once there were generations of people whose education steeped them in biblical language.
In the Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls VanderKam and Flint have a long discussion about the kind of biblical interpretation practiced by the teachers and scribes of Qumran. One thing we can say about them is that everything they wrote was steeped in biblical language. Another thing we can say is that being steeped in biblical language doesn’t necessarily make their interpretations right.
It seems that one of the titles of the Teacher of Righteousness was Interpreter of the Law. This task of interpretation was passed on to his successors. The members of the Qumran sect saw themselves as receiving a new word from God. However, this new word did not replace scripture. It was a divinely guided new interpretation of scripture.
For instance, a feature of Qumran teaching was that members of the sect had to separate themselves from sinners. As a Christian this interests me, because it is background for the objection that arose against Jesus for eating with sinners.
This Pharisees (the word means separated ones) had a version of this. But the people of Qumran, by living way out in the desert, implemented it more literally. Also, they interpreted sinners to be people who did not follow the “hidden laws” which only the Dead Sea Sect knew.
A major aspect of this kind of interpretation was that God had revealed to them the correct calendar and the correct festivals.
It was a problem for them, as it is for many today, that different scriptures say different things. For instance, Numbers 29:32-39 extends the Festival of Booths into an eighth day, while Deuteronomy 16:14-15 only speaks of a seven day festival. At Qumran this was seen as an opportunity for finding a hidden law by combining the two texts.
Other problems they solved in a historical way. Even though it is clear to me from reading Genesis that Reuben’s affair with his father’s concubine was seen as wrong, the Essenes seem to have felt that a patriarch’s actions had to be justified. So they pointed out that the relevant law had not been given yet. So Reuben was still worthy as the father of a tribe even though he deceived Jacob and slept with his aunt. How has he supposed to know that this was wrong?
Very prominent at Qumran was the rewriting of Bible stories to add meaning. This is what 1 Enoch and Jubilees do. It is not didactic interpretation but interpretation by story-telling and expansion.
If Qumran scribes reinterpreted Genesis to vindicate Reuben, they had even more of a task with Levi, the father of the priesthood. In Genesis Jacob is very angry with Levi for taking vengeance on Shechem. But in Jubilees Levi gets high praise for his violence. It saved Israel from intermarrying with the people of Shechem.
One of the main motives for the retelling of Genesis and Exodus is to vindicate the solar calendar used at Qumran. So Jubilees is very specific about the Flood:
on that day Noah went out from the ark, at the end of an exact year, three hundred and sixty four days, on a Sunday (Jubilees fragment 1 2,2-3).
Another important aspect of biblical interpretation at Qumran is the way their scribes interpreted the prophets as speaking about current events. If war with Rome was looming, the prophets had already predicted this. VanderKam and Flint point to two principals behind this assumption.
First, “prophetic proclamation has as its content the end”. And second “the present is the end time”.
You see these same two assumptions play out in scores of books in the prophecy sections of our Christian book stores all these millennia later..