Michael S. Heiser
There’s no shortage of advice on how to interpret the Bible. One maxim advises, “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” I’ve heard it quoted when it comes to biblical prophecy—encouraging people to interpret literally, at face value. Although that sounds like good advice, some New Testament writers didn’t get the memo.
One of the most well-known examples of a nonliteral reading appears in Acts 15 when the apostle James quotes Amos 9:11–12:
‘In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
that they may possess the remnant of Edom (‘edom) and all the nations who are called by my name,’ declares the LORD who does this.
After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind (‘adam) may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by
my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.
In the Amos prophecy, God promises to one day “raise up the booth of David and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it.” Hearing the language of repair and rebuilding, we might think of a physical structure. “Booth” (sukkah, סכה) is a word used for tents at the Feast of Booths (Lev 23:34). Reading literally, we might think that the tabernacle, still used in David’s day and brought into the temple after it was built by Solomon, might be the focus of the prophecy.
Many interpret Amos 9 this way, believing the passage describes the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in the end times. The “possession” of Edom and the nations who are destined to call the LORD their God would seem to fit that context.
But Luke, the writer of Acts, doesn’t interpret the passage that way. He doesn’t take it “plainly” or literally. In Acts 15, he describes the fledgling church gathering in Jerusalem to hear that Paul and Barnabas had taken the gospel to Gentiles (non-Jewish people), who had embraced it. Peter and James came to their defense. To prove the momentous event had been prophesied in the Old Testament, James quotes Amos 9:11–12. James (and the writer, Luke) understood the language of building and repairing to refer to a person—the resurrected Jesus, the son of David. They also don’t refer to “the remnant of Edom” but instead “the remnant of mankind.”
James and Luke used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Hebrew version of the prophecy had “Edom” (spelled ‘edom), but the Septuagint reads “mankind” (spelled ’adam in Hebrew). The words share the same consonants but are otherwise entirely different.
The switch to “mankind” fits the occasion of this meeting as well as the ministry of Paul and Barnabas. The Gentiles—all the nations of mankind, not just Israel—are now accepting the gospel. But that is not how the passage read in Hebrew. The interpretation by James and Luke is not a literal one, but an abstract or “spiritual” one, based on a different reading from a translation.
Did James and Luke misread the Bible, then? Not necessarily. The “remnant of Edom” could be considered an abstract reference to “non-elect” people: Remember that the Edomites were descendants of Esau (Gen 36:1), who surrendered his birthright (Gen 25). Therefore, the nonliteral translation of “mankind” in the Septuagint version of Amos 9:11 is within the realm of accurate meaning.
Comparing these passages illustrates important lessons: Interpreting biblical prophecy cannot be distilled to a simple maxim, and not everything can be taken literally. The New Testament shows us otherwise.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).