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Doing hermeneutics

All reading of the Bible involves interpretation, whether we know it or not

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

All of us are more sophisticated hermeneuticians than we know, and I can prove it.

We read Proverbs 31:16, and without even going to seminary none of us thinks it means all wives have to be in the real estate business. We read, "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord" (Jeremiah 17:7), and every woman I know feels confident applying the statement to her gender-because we see elsewhere in the Bible that God considers man to be male and female, and because we see biblical evidence that God wants relationship with women, too.

That's Hermeneutics 101, of course, but it shows already that all reading of the Bible (all reading, period) involves interpretation, and that we all do it all the time. Therefore let us begin by repenting of criticizing people who do Bible hermeneutics for a living, as if they're bringing an alien and illicit task to the Bible, while you and I are just "believing" it.

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My sister-in-law once told me that when the "Bible-in-a-year" plan brings her back round to Leviticus she always asks God to show her just one thing in each chapter, and I now follow the same rule. It's amazing to me that for all the Old Testament's difficulties (see 2 Peter 3:16), Old Testament people figured out with a high degree of certainty that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6). I never would have noticed that obscure little passage in Micah, would you?

One thing that gives me confidence as a homemaker-hermeneutician is noticing that Jesus wants to be understandable and wants us to take Him at His word. He gave detailed instructions to two disciples to go into a certain village, find a colt there, untie it, and say such and such to anyone who objects. We are told that "those who were sent went away and found it just as He had told them" (Luke 19:32). They didn't get bogged down trying to decipher whether by "village" Jesus meant heaven and by "colt" He meant angels.

That doesn't mean the Bible doesn't use figures of speech and even outsized symbols (see Revelation). But you and I do the same thing. And you would be exasperated just like Jesus was if your little attempts at poetic expression were constantly met with stylistic tone-deafness, as when He referred to the Pharisees' teaching as "yeast" (Matthew 16:5-12). Or when He said, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep" (John 11:11-12). Please.

The books of Kings and Chronicles cover the same material-the lives of the Judean monarchs. But in Kings they come off looking bad while in Chronicles they come off looking good. Is that a problem for you? It was for me until I remembered all the funeral eulogies I've sat through. I have learned from both experiences that there's no such thing as historiography without a point of view. History can be selective and still true.

Scripture is different from every other book you will ever read in that it tells you itself how it wants to be read. It gives the rules, not we. So we need to pay close attention to how it behaves, and to be teachable rather than forcing the Bible into our Procrustean beds. Scripture is its own operator's manual.

The main hermeneutical rule is this: Do not think you will ever, by some expertise in ancient grammar or history, "master" Scripture. God decides whom He lets in on His secrets. And He plays favorites-children (Matthew 11:25); the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8; Psalm 18:26); the repentant (Proverbs 1:23); His servants (Revelation 1:1); the obedient (John 14:21). A few scholars will be left out in the cold.

A final word: Every few years you will run into someone who has conclusively disproved the Bible. Experts like this will come and go. Be careful what you consider to be evidence; their "evidences" are minefields of unquestioned assumptions. Sure, other Near Eastern nations had their own flood stories. So what! That's because the flood really happened. Why wouldn't every culture have preserved a dim recollection of it?

"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isaiah 40:8).

If you have a question or comment for Andrée Seu, send it to aseu@worldmag.com.

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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