In which I don’t understand

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’

(Matthew 25:1-12, TNIV)

I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever understood this parable. In my two decades of church attendance and learning from the Bible, no one has ever explained this one to me in a way I’ll actually comprehend. I suspect that’s because the next verse tells us the meaning of it (unlike many of the parables which come with no explanation and so must be taught and explained.)

But Jesus said more than verse 13 alone, and Matthew thought this story worth including. For this reason I think it’s important that we too ensure we can understand the story, both in the way we teach it, and in our Bibles themselves.

I can’t understand this parable not because of the words it uses, but because it describes something that is so culturally foreign to me. I went to two weddings on the weekend and at one of them this passage was read out. But neither of those weddings had the slightest resemblance to this parable, other than that they both had grooms.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. For sure this is something where study bible notes would be very helpful, and this blog is about “better Bibles” and that includes study notes! But there are a lot of times when notes won’t be available; most Bibles aren’t study Bibles after all, and then there are the times when the story will be copied into something like the wedding programme I read on the weekend. So I think the Bible texts themselves need to somehow bridge this huge cultural gap.

I don’t know how to do that. But I can leave you with some of the questions I’ve been wondering:

  • Who are these virgins? And is their sexual history actually important? Should we instead be thinking of their marital state (ie, they are unaccompanied), or their young age? Some translations just say “girls”, but others say “bridesmaids.” Guys, which is it?!
  • What does the groom want with ten virgins? There should only be one virgin on his mind… his wife! If instead they are bridesmaids then why aren’t they with the bride?
  • Why are they waiting outside? What’s their role in the wedding and what obligations do they have? Why do they need to be there (outside) when the groom comes, and why do they need lamps?
  • Finally, what kind of girl would sleep outside in her prettiest wedding outfit??

16 thoughts on “In which I don’t understand

  1. Steve says:

    I remember a preacher explaining this passage some years ago. The wedding custom of that time was for the groom to come and take the bride to his (his parents) house. The exact time he would come was to be a surprise. So the bride had to be ready, and the bridesmaids also. And since this happened at night, part of being ready was having a lamp and oil for it.

    So the five foolish bridesmaids omitted one of the most obvious things to get ready. The analogy for our time would be a bridesmaid who never bothered to go pick up her gown from the bride or the dress shop or wherever.

  2. Paula says:

    We can also note that in the NT, the church is never spoken of in terms of a bridesmaid or “friend of the groom”, but the Bride herself. So whatever the bridesmades/girls represent, it’s not the church, which of course hadn’t been started at this time. The rest of the symbolism would depend upon one’s eschatalogical bent, but for me personally, I’d say the lamp-holders are Jews (the parable is spoken to the Jews after all), and some will be saved during the End Times, while others only recognize their Messiah too late.

  3. Josh says:

    Please excuse my lengthy reply:

    I think the most important thing to remember when studying the parables (and of course, the whole Bible) is that the symbols, characters, imagery and themes frequently overlap and link in with each other – the Parable of the 10 Virgins in particular. Approaching this parable as a single story makes interpretation quite subjective, but compared and referenced across Jesus’ whole ministry and I think it becomes quite clear.

    The primary significance of this parable is to be found in the Christ’s words immediately preceding and following it. Jesus had asked “who then is a faithful and wise steward?” (24v45) before proceeding to demonstrate wisdom in the Parable of the 10 Virgins and faithfulness in the Parable of the Talents.
    Jesus concluded the parable of the virgins with the command to “keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (v13). These two phrases provide the guidance for us to seek out the characteristics of wisdom and watchfulness contained in this parable.

    Although I believe Steve’s comment above is correct – the general meaning of this parable is not dependent on a correct understanding of ancient wedding customs, and the emphasis is wholly on preparedness of the Virgins (or bridesmaids).
    All 10 virgins had lamps, but only 5 carried additional oil, while the foolish 5 did not. The lamps produce Light, and light represents truth, two aspects of which are revealed in scripture. In 2 Cor 4v6 Paul speaks of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” and in John 3v20 it is revealed that “whoever lives by the truth comes into the light”. From this we understand that people are light-bearers as they declare the knowledge of God, and also that Truth is something that is done as well as believed. Men have to shine as lights in the world (Phil 3v14-16, Matt 5v16) and as you’ll be aware this is a fundamental aspect of Christian doctrine – to declare the knowledge of God through our words and to share it with the world around.

    The oil in the parable is the word of God for without it there can be no preparation for Christ. Many may accept the gospel and make it known that they are going out to meet the Lord, but the fail to prepare adequately and take only the lamp, without a supply of oil to keep it burning. The implication I think is clear – believers who are initially enthused by the gospel but fail to progress in the knowledge of God and their spiritual growth. This theme is also taken up in the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13v1-23).

    So the Virgins simply represent believers. When the bridegroom finally comes after a long period of waiting, the foolish cry “Give us your oil” – but character cannot be transferred or given, it is individual and personal. We still have the chance to develop our character now (cp Isa 55v1-3), but when the Christ does returns, or we die waiting, it will be too late to change. We will be judged as we are.

    The cry of “Lord, Lord” (or Sir as you have) and the answer “I know you not” link right back to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount when he said:

    “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
    I think this link indicates that the bridegroom is quite clearly Christ himself. There are many more quotes that strengthen this parallel, however I think I’ve written a bit too much for now.

    Regards,

  4. WoundedEgo says:

    I think I can throw some light on this, without a detailed exposition…

    First of all, you might want to review Edersheim on this:

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.x.vii.html?highlight=st,matt,xxv,1-13,14-30,luke,xix,11-28#highlight

    What I want to point out is that these were the “bride-virgins” or “bride’s maids” and not brides. The vindictiveness in evidence is, as I see it, evidence that it was considered exceedingly rude to be an irresponsible maid. In ancient times, it was apparently considered rude to wait at home for an important guest to arrive, let alone a dignitary, or in this case a groom on his most important day.

    Act 28:15 And from thence, when the brethren heard of us, they came to meet [greet and escort] us as far as Appii forum, and The three taverns: whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage.

    What I find illuminating in knowing this is that it exposes the correct reading of 1 Thess 4, where believers “meet the lord in the air.” The word “meet” there, as here, really signifies “to greet and escort.” They don’t disappear up into the clouds in a “secret rapture” (sans clothing) but rather greet him and accompany him in his conquest of the promised land, where he will be enthroned for 1000 years.

    You might not be as vindictive as the groom in the parable if your best man overslept for driving you to your wedding, but you would be ticked off. Here, the groom’s reaction, presumably because he is royalty, has a solemn sense of ultimate rejection.

  5. Dannii Willis says:

    Hi guys, thanks for your comments. Unfortunately I think you’ve missed the point. The interpretation of the parable is fairly clear from verse 13, and I’m not interested in discussing it. I’m sure there are greater and deeper interpretations of this story, like what Josh has suggested, but they shouldn’t be relevant when deciding how to translate the story.

    What I don’t understand is the story itself. What I want to know is how we can effectively translate the story, without excessive subjectivity, without turning it into a history lesson, without removing all cultural differences, while still having a comprehensible story at the end. Once that is done we’ll all be in a much better position to interpret it.

    As it is now, there is a danger that because we don’t understand first century Jewish cultural weddings we might jump straight to the symbolism, drawing in links from elsewhere in the scriptures, and that might force our understanding of the story, and our interpretation of it, into something it shouldn’t be. No, instead the story must be comprehensible (even in isolation Josh) so that once we understand the story we can understand the reality that it is a metaphor of. Only once that is clear should we look at the symbols and where they’re used elsewhere in the Bible.

  6. iver larsen says:

    Hi, Dannie,

    May I respond to your original questions? They are very good questions.
    1. The girls are young unmarried women, probably friends of the bride. I consider it a mistake to translated the word as “bridesmaids”, and it gives a wrong focus to use “virgins”, although that is the literal meaning. In those days young unmarried girls were virgins. That might go in a footnote as cultural information.
    2. They are friends who are curious to see the bridegroom bring his bride to his father’s homestead as was the custom. (Another bit for a cultural footnote.)
    3. Their only role is to cheer the bride and bridegroom as they approach and then follow the procession to take part in the wedding feast.
    4. Since they are not bridemaids, they may not necessarily wear their prettiest outfit. But they could probably find a stone to sit on and a wall to lean on which would not be dirty. Maybe they brought something to sit on? Some details of these parables are not important. The oil is important, and the Bible has ample evidence for oil referring to the Holy Spirit.
    Most translation do not introduce these parables properly. Obviously, the Kingdom of Heaven is not like 10 young girls/women. Rather, this parable tells us something about what will happen when Jesus will return to establish his Kingdom.

  7. WoundedEgo says:

    There might be some relevant stuff here, I don’t know:

    Day of Wedding.

    Two weddings on one day, especially of brothers or sisters, were avoided, and it was considered unlucky if the father-in-law and the son-in-law had the same name. In Talmudic times virgins were married preferably on Wednesday, and widows on Thursday (later, on Friday afternoon), a custom that still obtains in the East. A wedding in Mayence at the end of the fourteenth century took the following course: Early in the morning the “schulklopfer” invited the whole community to the ceremony. The leaders took the bridegroom, with music and candles, to the court of the synagogue; then the musicians and candle-bearers brought the bride with her friends and an escort of women. At the door of the synagogue the groom took the bride’s hand, while the two were showered with wheat and coins (given afterward to the poor), and Ps. cxlvii. 14, and later Gen. i. 28 (“Be fruitful, and multiply”), were recited as a greeting; after this they sat for a short time, hand in hand, on the bench in front of the synagogue. Then the bride was escorted home, where she put on the festive robe of the married, and under it the shroud (“sargenes”). The groom also modified his festive appearance by drawing the hood (“gugel”) over his head, which he strewed with ashes; even to-day the groom ineastern Europe wears the sargenes. With this sign of mourning for Zion even at the height of human felicity, belonged in Talmudic times another—the breaking of a glass, the pieces of which were gathered up by girls “for luck,” while the “shammas” cried out “Zeh ha-ot” (= “This is the sign”), and all present responded “Mazzal ṭob.” The grief at Zion’s loss appeared likewise in the mournful strains of the wedding-songs in the Talmud, as also in the poems of Judah ha-Levi, who first composed individual “carmina” on the model of Ps. xlv. and the “kallah” songs down to the eighteenth century.

    Read more: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=215&letter=M&search=wedding%20virgins#ixzz0f9Wbq5dk

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    Excellent Dannii! Thank you for this post. However, I might have to change the title of the first post of a series I’m putting together. I did a double take, and my heart went into my stomach, when I saw the title–it is so very close to mine I thought I accidentally posted my posting. LOL.

    If I may underscore Dannii’s one comment: I think we go way overboard by interpreting with assumed symbolism. “The oil means X, the light means Y.” The symbols aren’t there. I come to that conclusion because the framing for that kind of interpretation is all wrong. That’s easy to see as soon as one asks, “Did the original audience (the people standing there) pull together the real referents by reaching into other places of the Bible?” Or did they simply take the details of the story at face value given their cultural assumptions (the pragmatics of the text). There’s nothing in the text that should cause those people to reach into the Bible. They certainly did not reach into as of yet written texts. They could have pulled from the Jewish Bible, but nothing comes to my mind to help in that regard either.

    The point of the story, I think, is quite obvious–be prepared. The parable is a rather developed illustration of that single point. However, Dannii’s point is he doesn’t get the content of the illustration. He gets the point, but not the content. Well, that is understandable! There’s a very large pragmatic level disjunction (dysfunction, perhaps). So, he asks the big (really big, IMO) question of how does the strongly, culturally foreign nature of the text impact how one translates? Good question.

    We learn from Relevance Theory that people will try hard to make sense out of a text they believe has strong relevance to them. If the semantic and pragmatic features of the text are quite unusual and the text is thought to be very, very important, people will go to great lengths to “get the meaning.” As an aside, I think this is what naturally generates the assumption of symbols–people reach for them.

    So, what one needs to do then in translation is to lower the abnormality of certain words in the text. And please notice I did not say to remove the foreignness. I’m trying to make a subtle but important distinction.

    “Virgin” is one such abnormal word in this text. The reader (at least in many Westernized modern cultures) immediately wonders what’s up with the sexual thing. An analytical person in the original audience would not have thought anything more than perhaps, “pure, unmarried women.” Perhaps nothing more than “unmarried.”

    Interestingly, the referent of παρθένος is pretty much irrelevant. The point of using the word παρθένος was to “turn on” the pragmatic elements (ie contextual elements) associated with the wedding banquet. It did this in order that the story would proceed normally (to the original audience). Specifically, the word frames many of the other words in the story. Since that is it’s function, as I said above, the actual referent of παρθένος is not a key semantic element. The word “turns on” (if you will) the framing of the wedding banquet.

    I also wonder whether rearranging some of the text would work out better. And perhaps adding some text that would smooth the modern reader’s acceptance of the foreignness of the custom. For example, something like:

    At that time the kingdom of God will be like ten women intending to usher the groom into his wedding banquet. Half of them are foolish, half of them are wise. As is the custom, they all take oil lamps….

    Obviously, we, in our culture, don’t do that. But, the activity is not weird. Curious, perhaps, but it is not weird. Bringing the phrase wedding banquet forward helps us in our understanding–we now have a contextual “hook” upon which to hang the referents within the text–referents are not framed. And as is the custom adds no meaning, but conditions the modern reader such that he or she doesn’t go down Relevance rabbit trails associated with our modern culture (or theology).

    Perhaps Rich would comment. Unless he disagrees with me, I think he would be much better prepared to discuss the framing versus reference issues which abound in this text.

  9. Mike Sangrey says:

    In the second to last paragraph the phrase –referents are not framed should say, –referents are now framed.

  10. Dan Sindlinger says:

    I offer this rendition from “The Better Life Bible” as food for thought:

    “Jesus then shared a story to illustrate that people should be prepared to help others,

    ‘One evening, ten girls took their lamps along to a wedding reception to provide light for the procession from the groom’s home to the bride’s after the reception. Since they arrived early at the groom’s house, they fell asleep while waiting for him to open the door. When someone announced that he would soon open it, they woke up and checked their lamps. Five of the girls discovered that they hadn’t brought enough oil for their lamps, so they tried to borrow some from the others. But the other five girls were concerned that they might not have enough oil for all of them, so they suggested the others go and buy more oil for themselves. While they were gone, the groom opened the door and welcomed the girls who were prepared to provide light for the procession. When the other girls returned, they were turned away because they weren’t ready when their help was needed.’”

  11. Josh says:

    The Bible is book full of symbols, and the correct interpretation of them is vital to understanding God. Of course interpretation can be taken to the extreme, and that is why the scriptures must be used to cross-reference and compare every suggestion you might make… symbols must be constant. The alternative, as you have suggested, is to study the meaning of the text as related primarily to cultural context. The problem with that is that instead of simply debating interpretations of scripture, you must also debate interpretations of culture. All of a sudden everything becomes totally subjective as it is viewed through the viewpoint of our own cultural background and frequently changing understanding of history.
    I think you have completely illustrated my point by suggesting a better understanding could be attained through the shuffling and arranging of text to suit what you feel is correct. One hand you could use scripture to understand scripture… on the other you can subtly modify scripture to emphasise what you feel is relevant.

  12. Mike Sangrey says:

    Josh,

    As you can probably guess, I would argue exactly the opposite.

    Though please allow me to get something foundational on the table, lest someone assume something that isn’t true. I go on the record by saying no one who visits this blog or contributes to it has a higher view of the sanctity and authority of the Bible than me. There are various views regarding how that works out in the practice of interpretation. And speaking objectively, I might be wrong regarding how I practice it, but I stand by my conviction regarding that wonderful book.

    What I’ve suggested regarding Dannii’s question does not “[a]ll of a sudden [make] everything…totally subjective.” I assume by your use of the term ‘subjective’ you’re referring to “making the text mean whatever the reader wants it to mean.” But couldn’t that subjectivity be true in the case of symbols, too? Isn’t it subjective to say, “the meaning of a symbol from an unrelated text must be applied here to this text?” And I’ll note that there are other texts where the symbolic meaning is not applied–why here and not there? It’s because it “makes sense” here, isn’t it? But that effort of “making sense” of the text by injecting into the text something extra-textual, is at the very heart of subjectivity. We can test this, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Since there’s nothing in this text that authoritatively directs us to that end, I submit that such a “makes sense” method is inherently subjective.

    I prefer that comparing scripture with scripture must be done at the thematic level and not at the word level. Otherwise, one’s subjective understanding will connect the meanings of words because the connection “makes sense” in the context which resides within one’s own mind (ie. subjectivity). But, when texts cohere at the thematic level, then our subjective understanding, if we submit to the book’s authority, is molded to those themes.

    We can test whether we’re injecting into the text something from our own context! That is, whether or not we’re being subjective. Answer these questions:

    1. Would the original audience have understood what Jesus said in this text by using the symbols (or any encyclopedic knowledge) which you (or anyone, for that matter) have suggested?

    2. And, if so, what is the plausible explanation for how they could have done that?

    Answering those questions forces us to move toward objectivity. It’s not us bringing our context to the text, even a context informed by unrelated Biblical texts. We are forced to step outside of our way of looking at things; we’re forced to set aside the things in our context which make sense to us because they are in our context. We’re forced to submit to scripture.

    Keep in mind that the answers to those questions impacts the effectiveness of Jesus as a communicator, too. I’ve always assumed that Jesus was a master communicator and knew his audience well.

    Lastly, please don’t misunderstand my use of the term ‘culture’. Perhaps I should be more precise and refer to the encyclopedic knowledge a person brings to a conversation. That knowledge was there in the original audience and it formed the framework within which they understood the original speaker (Jesus in this case). So, I’m not using the term ‘culture’ in the sense that scripture has one intent in one culture and another, different intent in another culture. Culture isn’t normative; the Bible is.

  13. iver larsen says:

    As Dannii has said, most comments readily go into interpreting the parable. I read Edersheim on this, and he has many interpretations, some of which I would not agree with. Nor would I agree with Dan’s interpretation and retelling of the parable.

    Parables are extended metaphors and therefore what Relevance Theory calls “weak communication”. Because they are illustrations, they are intentionally open to various interpretations, although a parable usually has one major teaching as this one has (v. 13).

    Jesus did not expect his hearers to understand everything about a parable when they heard it. We know about his use of parables from the gospels. The hearers will use what they already know, and in this case, the original hearers would be able to understand the illustration of a wedding procession in its intended Jewish context. They might not properly understand the application unless taught, just like the disciples needed to be taught. Translators today need to bridge the cultural gap somehow – or leave it to pastors to bridge the gap. The original hearers might have Psalm 45 in the background. In this text the “virgins” are indeed bridesmaids (45:14- CEV calls them her young friends), but the scene is different. A king did not collect his bride, who was brought to him accompanied by her bridesmaids. But Jesus is not satisfied with being a passive king on the throne. He went to look for and bring his bride home.
    Another aspect the original hearers might bring to the story is the metaphor of God’s chosen people being his bride or wife. The wife represents the congregation as a whole. The children of the wife in Hoseah represents the individual members of the congregation.
    In this parable the bride is not mentioned, and I think Edersheim is correct in assuming that this is intended to emphasize the individual members of the church (the young girls), not the church as a whole.

    The story teller has some control over what the hearer ought to being to the story. He exercises that control by the words he chose to use. Similarly, the translator has some control over what the reader of the translation brings to the text, but it is only limited control.

    Weak communication is forceful in that it invites the hearer to engage in the interpretation of the parable. But it is also dangerous, because it opens up for many potential interpretations, some of which are surely mistaken and unintended. It is possible to guard against some of these dubious interpretations through notes and sound teaching.

  14. WoundedEgo says:

    >>>…“Jesus then shared a story to illustrate that people should be prepared to help others,…When the other girls returned, they were turned away because they weren’t ready when their help was needed.’”

    Dan, my problem with this interpretation is that it reduces it to an ethical teaching, whereas the gospels are more of a polemic against Jews, and that is lost. Unless you can show how the original Greek is more subdued, the text clearly is intended to show a reason why the five virgins are ultimately and finally rejected, rather than rebuffed for a blooper. The message is not “Oops” but “weeping and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.” That is played down in your reading. The punch line is not that the poor groom has too few lights, but rather that the unprepared are locked out and hated, as well as missing the whole party.

  15. Mike Sangrey says:

    As I was reading down through these comments I realized something else I said could be (likely, would be) easily misunderstood. Given the nature of the misunderstanding, I thought it best to clarify.

    I wrote: Perhaps Rich would comment. Unless he disagrees with me, I think he would be much better prepared to discuss the framing versus reference issues which abound in this text..

    What I meant by that would be better worded as:

    Perhaps Rich would comment. Maybe he disagrees with me, but I think he would be much better prepared to discuss the framing versus reference issues which abound in this text.

  16. Dannii Willis says:

    Thanks all for your comments, especially to Mike!

    I think what you (Mike) said about Relevance theory is exactly correct. I think Dan has unfortunately made that mistake with his Better Life Bible – in the search for relevance he has made morality the main point of this story. Respectfully, I think that is wrong, because the context clearly shows an eschatological emphasis (even if not as fully developed as some of the other commenters have suggested.) I’m sure this is a common mistake, and in most cases hard to avoid. I don’t pretend to know the solution. I guess it involves what Mike suggested, lowering barriers so that in our search for relevant we won’t be misled.

    Josh, for a simple proof that not all Biblical symbols are not constant, see Matthew 13. Here we have two highly symbolic parables, one right after the other. Both involve farming metaphors. In the first the field is a symbol for a person and the seed is the message, but in the second the field is the world and the seeds are the world’s people. Unfortunately scripture can’t always interpret scripture.

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