Biblical interpretation, or exegesis, empowers belief. But it can also destroy it.
The interpretation of biblical texts—determining their meaning according to linguistic content and cultural / historical context—is exegesis. Yet it allows us better to understand biblical truth claims and the Bible’s various stories (and overarching Story) by giving content to these truth claims and specifying the nature and character of their protagonist: God.
In other words, exegesis helps us know what the Bible is claiming and, literally, who God is. And this insight is crucial in deciding how we respond to the Bible and its God.
Before delving into the two passages from last post we must consider not only exegesis but what precedes it: our orientation towards texts in general.
At heart, biblical interpretation (or exegesis) is attuning ourselves to the unique nature of the text: letting the text “be itself”. It is neither seeking to impose our views and understandings on it nor abandoning all we know and understand, and accepting it unquestioningly. (We are not attempting to be ‘neutrally’ disposed towards the text, as if this were even possible).
Rather it is first “listening” to the text through a posture of respect, openness, consideration—the very stance that I hope others would take towards my writing or speech! Quite literally, I am advocating treating the text according the golden rule: loving it like another person, as I love myself.
So the co-centrality of love and truth resurfaces, for it is by putting love in conjunction with truth that we most genuinely offer the text ‘a hearing’.
In my last post, then, I referred to two biblical texts that are easily misinterpreted. This can be due to assumptions that a) culture in biblical times is similar enough to our own that no translation between them is needed, or b) the linguistic translation of the Bible (e.g., from Greek to English) yields unambiguous results, and so c) readers can understand a Bible verse by its own content alone, without overly considering the surrounding verses, or the chapter or book that contains it. These are false assumptions.
For example, the role of honor and shame in 1st century Palestine is key to reading Matthew 5:39 properly, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (NRSV). In that culture honor was like good credit: it offered privileges and possibilities unavailable to those of lesser esteem. So a slap to the right cheek—a back-handed slap, designed to humiliate and reduce someone’s honour—was a big deal.
So rather than advocating pacifism in the face of abusive treatment, the verse contains the implicit cultural understanding that unwarranted incidents like this would prompt a community response. Thus it calls for the wronged individual to allow the community to intervene as the best way for right relationships to be restored between the two parties.<<quote>>
Similarly, in Romans 8:28, “all things work together for good for those who love God” (NRSV), Paul’s tightly woven argument throughout Romans, the linguistic complexity of the verse, and the context of the surrounding chapter are key to proper exegesis.
As one exegete argues, the New English Bible’s translation makes better sense of the Greek. This translation likewise coheres (and is not dissonant) with the surrounding context in Romans 8, which concerns the Holy Spirit. It is also consistent with the tightly argued nature of Romans generally (where we would not expect random excurses). Thus the NEB reads: “in everything, as we know, [the Holy Spirit] co-operates for good with those who love God.” <<quote>>
At issue is whether God makes use of, or even needs, evil to bring good: the greater good argument. Such a God has more in common with Buddhist or Hindu perspectives, and Christians who hold this view typically believe that everything is “God’s will.” But have they forgotten how Jesus taught us to pray: “…Your will be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven”?
Clearly, things down here don’t always happen as God wills. But that’s for another post.