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How do you read the scriptures?

A few weeks back a good friend of mine made a great challenge to myself and a number of her friends.  The jist of it was this.  What if when we read God’s word and we came to a command we put our bibles down and went out and did it.  Now in an attempt to give her a hard time, myself and another friend sent her a message with some commands from scripture that might not be ones that we should immediately just go out and do.  I gave her a verse from Isaiah 20:2 which is a command of God to Isaiah that he remove his clothes and his sandals and run around naked.  The other gentlemen sent a verse from Deuteronomy that speaks of going outside the camp to relieve oneself and ensure that one uses a spade to cover the excrement afterward.  As I suggested we sent her these verses to rib her just a little and give her a hard time.  She of course was not literally meaning that we should read these verses and just blindly go out and do them.  Her point was to take scripture seriously and not just read it and move on.  It is also the challenge of reading and interpreting scripture well.  How do we read and interpret scripture?  Do we actually take it seriously and do we read it appropriately.

            One of my major concerns over the last few years has been how poorly we read and interpret scripture.  There are many ways that we can run amuck and come to a wrong interpretation and ultimately a poor application of the scriptures.   Today I want to look at just 1 of these things.  Realize that I am assuming that we all have the same starting point.  My starting point is that we have asked for the influence and guidance of Holy Spirit as read.  What then comes next?  It is my argument that the next step will determine whether we stay under His guidance and understanding or not.  This is the place where we are most likely going to hijack the process. 

There are two words English words rooted in Greek that will help explain this.  Now these two words are ‘eisegesis’ and ‘exegesis’ and they are both compound words.  The ‘eis’ means ‘in’ in the first word and the ‘ek’ means ‘out’ in the second.  The ‘gesis’ part comes from a Greek word meaning to ‘interpret’ or ‘explain’.

With this mind the word eisegesis’ means to read into or interpret into.  It is my argument that this word best describes how we interpret scripture most commonly today.  Often we read a scripture through the lens of our 21st century worldview and insert our values and our own definition of words and ideas; thus hijacking the intent and meaning of a text.  This is very poor biblical hermeneutic.  A good example of this (and one not even connected to the interpretation of scripture) is our cultural practice of handshaking.  In the North American culture greeting a person with the shaking of hands is a pretty regular occurrence.  One could do it left handed or right handed and it is not particularly problematic.  Handshaking is not uncommon in the Middle East either and we would notice people doing it.  However if we simply assume that one can use either hand to greet someone in the Middle East we are reading into the situation (in a sense eisegesis).  Extending a left hand in greeting to many individuals (especially those of Muslim background) is offensive at best, as the left hand is commonly understood to be used for personal body hygiene and is considered unclean.  Do you see how this is a problem? One has brought a cultural norm from the North American culture and attempted to interpret handshaking practices in another culture through the North American lens.  This assumption would be disastrous if practically worked out in the Middle East.  The problem of ‘eisegesis’ is amplified when we come to the reading and interpreting of scripture because we are dealing with a different culture that is 2000 years and more removed and gone.  Do you see how this could be a huge issue?  How much have language, technology, society and culture changed in 2000 and more years?  We MUST be far more careful and far less cavalier about interpretation.

So how should we approach the text then?  The approach must be ‘exegesis’ or ‘reading out of the text’.  When reading scripture the best practice is to metaphorically enter the world of the text and let Holy Spirit speak through that lens.  Observational questions need to be answered.  Who was this text written to?  Why was it written?  What was the political, spiritual and social context (amongst many other things) when this was written?  How would the original audience have read this text?  You see the biblical texts were not written to you and I……. Yup I said it.  They were written to peoples long since dead.  This is not a problem… or it shouldn’t be.  We just need to do a little homework to understand how they would have understood what they were reading.  Idioms, images and metaphors must be examined from a different perspective.  What were the common influences of the day?  Surely they influence the understanding of the original audience.  A good example of this is Shakespeare.  I remember from high school and post secondary, hearing the collective groan coming from the class when the prof commanded everyone to pull out the Hamlet or The Merchant of Venice text book.  Nobody liked it because the language was hard and the story was full of ideas and pictures that were not easily understood.  Yay!!!! Old English.  Perhaps you remember though that the textbooks were annotated with footnotes which really helped with interpretation and with what was going on as the notes would explain certain details or idioms that were being used.  Perhaps one of the greatest failings of the school system as far as Shakespeare was concerned was that students were forced to read a 400 year old ‘play’ like a book.  How much context is lost when there is no visual accompanying the soulful sonnets written by Shakespeare?  The most striking to me is the “To be or not to be” of Hamlet.  Today when I think of that sonnet it makes the most sense when I remember seeing an actor holding a long since decayed skull in his hand and questioning the idea of suicide.  I think if I had been able to see that alongside of that first reading I might have understood it the first time.  You see, context is everything.  With scripture this is paramount.  The world of the text sheds light on what is written and what it means, not our 2000 years removed view of things.

So I ask the question: do we treat the scriptures with the respect they deserve?  Do we view it through our own lens and highjack what Holy Spirit would show us and teach us from these ancient texts?  Or do we allow Holy Spirit to speak through its original context to shape and transform our lives?  To highjack Hamlet:  To read into or read out of, that is the question?

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