How to Read the Bible: Part V

How to read the Bible Part V: Exegesis and Hermeneutics

 By Jim Vitale

We’ve spent a couple blog posts in this series talking about the Bible and I’m sure by now you’d like me to just get on with it and talk about how to read the Bible more faithfully. There are several different approaches, all of them valid, that I’ll be exploring in the next few blog posts. Today, let’s talk about biblical interpretation: what it is and how to do it well.

I. Interpretation

I’ve heard a few times in my life pastors and preachers say things like “The Bible doesn’t require interpretation. We just have to read it and follow it.” First of all, as we learned earlier, the Bible isn’t simply a handbook on how to live your life. It’s the story of God that, occasionally, includes some pointers on how to live well. And secondly, there is no such thing as “no interpretation.” Every single one of us is interpreting everything all the time.

An example: your friend walks into the room and says, “Well great. This is just great. My mom is coming to visit.” Immediately you start interpreting: you look at body language: is your friend throwing his hands in the air? Does he have two thumbs up? Is he smiling? Is he frowning? You listen for tone: is he being sarcastic? Or does he really mean it? You look at context: what’s happening in your friend’s life that would make his mother’s surprise visit good or bad? We are all interpreting everything around us all the time.

Some things are easy to interpret. For example, this sign:

Some things are hard to interpret. For example, this sign:

It’s the same with the Bible. Some passages are easy to interpret. For example:

“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)

That one is easy to figure out!

Some passages require a lot more interpretive work. For example:

“[Jesus said], ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’” (Luke 13:20-21)

What does that mean exactly? Different people will arrive at different conclusions.

Interpretation is not just important, it is unavoidable. We funnel all of our experiences through our brains in order to make meaning out of them. It’s how God made us (it might even be evidence of the image of God within us). So if we must interpret, let’s interpret well.

There are two keys to good interpretation: exegesis and hermeneutics. Exegesis is the act of getting as close to the original intended meaning of the text as we can. Hermeneutics is applying our exegetical findings to our current context.

Let’s use the parable of the good Samaritan as an example of how to interpret.

II. Exegesis

First, we start by reading the story in Luke 10:29-37. I’ll offer a short summary here: Jesus tells the story of a man who is beaten by robbers and left on the side of the road. Three people pass him by. The first two are religious leaders, the third is a Samaritan. The religious leaders ignore the man, and the Samaritan helps him.

Now, the common interpretation of this text is this: we should help our neighbors when they’re hurt; the religious leaders aren’t very good people but the Samaritan is. This interpretation, while not incorrect, is not the most faithful interpretation. It misses some key details.

So let’s start with exegesis.

You don’t need to have a PhD in New Testament Greek to do good exegesis. You also shouldn’t just rely on what the PhD’s write in their commentaries. You can do your own interpretation! (and then maybe consult a commentary when you’re done to see if you were on the right track).

Exegesis is all about paying close attention to detail and asking good, thorough questions. So start by asking questions: Why is Jesus telling this story? Who is he telling it to? What is a Samaritan, exactly? What is a priest? What is a Levite? Why would these religious leaders pass a wounded person? Is the road from Jericho to Jerusalem dangerous? What are denarii? Why is the Samaritan so generous?

There are lots more questions we could ask: the point is to be thorough. There are no stupid questions. Write them all down. After we ask our questions, then we look at the literary context to help us find some meaning.

To do so, we have to look at where this story is situated within the book. For now, we want to stay within the book we’re in, in this case, Luke. We can venture outside Luke to look for interpretation later, but for now, let’s try to figure out what picture Luke is trying to paint. If we go out into a birds-eye view, we see that Luke’s gospel is divided into several sections. First is the birth narrative, second is Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, third is Jesus’ ministry in Samaria, and fourth is Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is basically on one long journey from the north of Israel (Galilee) to the south (Jerusalem). Here, in chapter 10, Jesus has just entered the region of Samaria (which is where the Samaritans live).

Aha! So Jesus is talking about a group of people who live not far from where Jesus is currently preaching. If we zoom in a little further, we can gain some context for the story Jesus is telling. He doesn’t fire this parable off to just anyone. He’s talking to a lawyer—a lawyer who wants to justify himself. And the lawyer asks: who is my neighbor? That’s the context for Jesus’ parable. That’s the question Jesus is trying to answer. The question isn’t “how do I be a good neighbor”—it’s “who is my neighbor?”

Now that we have literary context, we need some historical context, too. Lawyers in Jesus day were not like lawyers today. Lawyers in our day are experts in the legal system of our secular government. Lawyers in Jesus’ day were experts in the Law of Moses (the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis-Deuteronomy). That is to say, they were expert interpreters of scripture. They were the PhDs of Jesus’ time. This lawyer is an orthodox and committed Jew.

Why is that important to know? Well, Jesus is about to tell a story about two different groups of people: Jews (think the priest and the Levite) and Samaritans.

Jews and Samaritans were distinct people-groups and they hated each other. They both worshipped the same God but Jews believed the true temple belonged atop Mt Zion in Jerusalem while Samaritans believed it should be atop Mt Gerizim in Samaria. Years before Jesus came on the scene, Jews loyal to the temple in Jerusalem actually sacked the temple on Gerizim, destroying it completely.

To the average Jew, Samaritans were outsiders, others, people who had it wrong.

After he tells the parable, Jesus asks the lawyer who was the true neighbor to the injured man. The answer would have caused people in Jesus’ day to gasp. The answer is the Samaritan, the outcast! The outsider! The unclean, unorthodox foreigner! The lawyer is so incensed by the whole thing he can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.” He simply says, “The one who showed [the injured man] mercy.

Using some exegetical interpretation we come to the faithful interpretation: not just that we should help people in need, but that Samaritans are included in the Kingdom of God. It’s a powerful point for a first-century person. But it doesn’t mean much for us today, does it? I mean, how many people do you come in contact with on a regular basis who are from the Samaria region of Palestine? Probably not many.

III. Hermeneutics

And that’s why we need our second tool: hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the act of applying what we’ve learned in to our modern, contemporary context. Samaritans are included in the Kingdom of God does not mean much for us today. But what ideas behind this statement might be relevant to us?

 

Well, it seems like Jesus is trying to expand people’s understanding of who is included in the Kingdom of God. So a good hermeneutical question might be: Who are we excluding from the Kingdom of God? Or who might God want us to include in the Kingdom of God? Or who am I failing to help because I don’t think they belong to my community? This can take us in so many directions. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s led some churches to exclude the LGBTQ+ community from the Kingdom of God. Many churches continue to exclude this community. But maybe this parable invites us to include these communities: LGBTQ+ people are your neighbor. Many Christians wouldn’t think to minister to people of other religions. During a protest in Egypt in 2011, a group of Christians linked hands and surrounded a group of Muslims who were praying in the street. The Christians stood there to protect the Muslims and give them the space to pray. Maybe we should be working to help communities of other religions: Muslims are your neighbor.

This is the work of Hermeneutics: taking what we’ve learned and applying it to our modern context. We want to take our interpretation of the original text and apply it to our own lives. Exegesis and hermeneutics is the careful practice of taking a piece of scripture written for one community a long time ago, carefully examining it to learn what it was saying to that community, and then carefully applying that message, that lesson, that meaning to our own day and age.

While this is not the only way to read the scriptures (as we’ll see later in this series) it is an important way to read the scriptures. This rigorous process of exegesis and hermeneutics opens us up to the movement of the Spirit. Our search for well-founded understanding keeps us from making the passages mean whatever we want them to mean (a not-so-faithful practice called eisegesis) and focuses us on the meanings the Holy Spirit intended. (I say meaningbecause I think it is a mistake to say that any passage of scripture only has one legitimate interpretation: there are always multiple valid, faithful interpretations.) 

So keep doing that interpretive work (after all, it’s what you were made to do) and use these tools to do it faithfully!