Good exegesis involves observing what the authors actually said. The task of analyzing Scripture involves a great deal of complexity. First, one has to determine where the passage begins and ends.
Scribes copied the original manuscripts with neither spaces between words nor punctuation marks, so this can be tricky:
Since verse divisions occasionally occur in unlikely places, some scholars joke that Stephanus prepared his numbering system while riding his horse, determining where a each one ended by where his pen hit the page (e.g. Eph 1:3–6).
Next, scholars create a preliminary translation from the Hebrew or Greek text. After examining grammatical issues and performing word studies on important or confusing terms, they incorporate previously unidentified nuances into the translation.
As in English, one word often carries a range of meanings. For example, the word “school” can refer to an institution of learning, a group of fish, or a form of reprimand.
Identifying the structure of the entire passage can provide additional enlightenment. This is especially true when studying poetry.
While we should generally interpret the Bible literally, one must keep the type of literature in mind. For example, historical narratives, psalms, proverbs, and prophecy have varied means and purposes in conveying the heart and mind of God to us.
Biblical writers operated on a continuum between historical reporting (Ezra 1:7–11) and imaginative poetry (Song 4:11–15). Skilled interpreters determine where a passage falls on that scale to avoid misconstruing the author’s intended meaning.
In other words, deriving a verbatim meaning from a passage which the author did not intend his readers to take literally is not a literal interpretation.
What is Hermeneutics and Why is It Critical for the Study of Redemptive History?
Hermeneutics consists of the art of knowing how to properly interpret and apply Scripture in light of what our exegesis has uncovered.
Due to an abundance of archaeological discoveries in the past century and the availability of scholarly resources at our fingertips, this task has become much simpler in recent years.
We seek to answer this question: “How would the original recipients of this passage have understood it?”
We do this by learning the historical context and the prevailing culture of that time and then translating the meaning of the author into our time and place. This prevents us from coming to Scripture with the intent of forcing it to fit into our preconceived notions.
In order to illustrate this importance of understanding the cultural context when reading Scripture, I performed a simple test using social media.
I asked my friends, “If I told you that I saw a news report about a young man who swam in a pond at night, what would you surmise from that?”
These are some of the answers: “It’s of no significance.” “I’d want to know why he did that.” “Everything is calmer and more relaxing at night.” “He is allergic to the sun.” Several people attributed his behavior to skinny-dipping.
After twenty years of living in Florida, my immediate reaction to hearing of a night swim is “Oh no!” One of the responses from a state resident was on-target: “In Florida that means being attacked by an alligator.”
Another local inhabitant noted that the man must have been drunk. Based upon what I have seen, those who swim at night are invariably reported as intoxicated, under the influence of illegal drugs, or fleeing from the police.
People who live here know not to swim where the water isn’t crystal clear, as alligators abound and are hard to see.
We can also make the opposite error of inserting our cultural expectations into Scripture.
A few days after arriving at college, one of my daughters—who does not recall living anywhere but Florida—panicked when she observed her fellow students swimming in a campus pond. She was about to yell at them to get out of the water when she suddenly realized that alligators don’t live in New England.
Thankfully, we now have ancient resources available to us to help us avoid these twin errors.
The verses in Gen 6:1–2 provide an excellent example. They contain numerous parallels to other documents from the Ancient Near East. As a result, the original audience understood much of the ambiguity we encounter.
“Scripture interprets Scripture” describes another extremely important principle which we shall employ in these studies. The writings of Peter do not contradict those of Paul.
Therefore, we seek to discover how individual passages fit within the Bible as a complete entity.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Go to Hebrew Poetry
Thanks to my daughter for her permission to share this anecdote.
Douglas K. Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 4th Ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), xv.
Frederick J. Long, Kairos: A Beginning Greek Grammar (Mishikawa, IN: Bethel College, 2004), 19.
Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 4th Ed., xv-xvi.
William N. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 191.
Randall C. Zachman, “Gathering Meaning from the Context: Calvin’s Exegetical Method,” JR 82, no. 1: (January 1, 2002):2
Walton, Genesis, 294.
Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 2nd Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 347.