Friday, November 6, 2015

Tillman: "Justice Jackson’s Biblical Metaphor in Youngstown"

From Seth Barrett Tillman writing at The New Reform Club here. A taste:
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring):

Just what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.

Id. at 634 (emphasis added).[1]

As usual, Justice Jackson’s writing is beautiful and engaging. But is his metaphor apt and sensible?

First, Pharoah’s dreams were only enigmatic to Pharoah’s courtiers; Joseph—if we take the text at face value—knew precisely what the dreams meant. Thus, the dreams were not inherently “enigmatic”. Rather, they were only enigmatic to some people. Second, whether Pharoah had dreams (to use the plural) was the core issue being contested. Joseph’s position was that Pharoah only had a “single” dream, not dreams. [Genesis 41:25.] In both these ways, Jackson was wilfully rejecting the plain meaning of the text.

Furthermore, Jackson’s point of view is odd. It was Joseph’s position which (at the time) was adopted by Pharoah’s courtiers: his court. [Genesis 41:37.] In other words, not only is Jackson rejecting plain meaning, Jackson is wilfully choosing to restate the story—not through Joseph’s eyes—but through Pharoah’s courtier’s eyes prior to the time they consented to adopt Joseph’s interpretation. Only in this limited way can Jackson make his biblical metaphor work.

Welcome to modernity.
Yes, this -- "modernity" -- is part of the Whig-Enlightenment history that can revise the biblical narrative to "fit" proper outcomes, like the revisionist notion that the Hebrews had a "republic." (When in actuality, they did not; the idea of a "republic" originated in the Greco-Roman tradition and was eventually adopted into the Judeo-Christian one, with an interesting revisionist tale that sold the idea.)

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