John 8:31-32

Jesus said to the people who believed in him, You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hermeneutics and Exegesis

This post is dedicated to my Wednesday night small group where we've been having many fun discussions about Bible interpretation and multi-syllabic words lately! So, for those of you who know who you are, the subtitle of this is post is Herman's Whose-Its and Extra Cheez-Its.

Let's start off with some plain old definitions:

  1. Critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, esp. of the Bible.1
  2. The process of interpretation where you are trying to find the original meaning of the verse.2
  1. The theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text.1
  2. The branch of theology that deals with the principles of Biblical exegesis.1
So what we're going to be talking about is how to interpret the Bible to learn the truths that God has for us! My goal is to make this easy to understand. If something is not clear, please ask questions!

Basics of Bible Interpretation3

  1. Scripture is to interpret Scripture
  2. Interpret Scripture according to its literal sense
    1. Use the rules of grammar, speech, syntax, and context
    2. Identify literary forms of the passage and style
      1. Historic narrative
      2. Teaching narrative
      3. Poetic style
      4. Hyperbole
      5. Personification
      6. Metaphor
      7. Parallelism
  3. Determine the original meaning of the text
    1. Investigate the historical background
    2. Apply knowledge of the setting and situation of the event or book
    3. Use grammar and syntax appropriate to the original language i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek
  4. Interpret the implicit (implied) by the explicit (fully and clearly expressed or demonstrated)
  5. Beware of the problem of phenomenological language (explaining miraculous or infinite things so we can try to understand them with our human and finite minds and experiences) in historical narrative – much of the language of Scripture
    1. The language that describes things as they appear to the naked eye – the external appearance as seen by humans
    2. An example of this would be “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” Ecclesiastics 1:5.  Historicallyy this verse was interpreted to mean that the sun revolved around the earth.  There are more than 50 verses that use the phrases like “the sun rises” and “the going down of the sun”.  That is what it LOOKS like from our vantage point on earth and we use this language today, but we know that this is not a correct interpretation.  It was this specific topic that got Galileo into so much trouble with the church in the 1600s.5
  6. Carefully determine the meaning of words
    1. Word etymology – original meaning, roots, derivations
    2. Customary usage at the time of writing
    3. Words with multiple meanings – need the context
  7. Remember Scripture communicates to all peoples – the original audience and to people today
  8. Normally there is one interpretation and many applications
Here is a small example that uses Scripture to interpret Scripture, taken from

Bible Text
“Jotham was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. . . . He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Uzziah had done, but unlike him he did not enter the temple of the LORD.” 2 Chronicles 27:1-2
Incorrect Interpretation

King Jotham was a good king, just like his father Uzziah had been, except for one thing: he didn’t go to the temple. Just because King Uzziah went to the temple every week didn’t mean that his son would continue the practice.4 We can then extrapolate that the author is implying a fault on the part of Jotham for not being as faithful as his father was.

Correct Interpretation

First, we must read complete the passage and, to fully understand the context, read the histories of both Uzziah and Jotham (2 Chronicles 26-27; 2 Kings 15:1-6, 32-38). In this observation, we discovers that King Uzziah was a good king who nevertheless disobeyed the Lord when he went to the temple and offered incense on the altar—something only a priest had the right to do (2 Chronicles 26:16-20). Uzziah’s pride and his contamination of the temple resulted in his having “leprosy until the day he died” (2 Chronicles 26:21).

Needing to know why Uzziah spent the rest of his life in isolation, the interpreter studies Leviticus 13:46 and does some research on leprosy. Then he compares the use of illness as a punishment in other passages, such as 2 Kings 5:27; 2 Chronicles 16:12; and 21:12-15.

By this time, we understand something important: when the passage says Jotham “did not enter the temple of the LORD,” it means he did not did not repeat his father’s mistake. Uzziah had proudly usurped the priest’s office; Jotham was more obedient.5

Now you may be noticing that it is more work to get a correct interpretation. A surface reading of an isolated verse or passage can be taken to mean just about anything a person could imagine about it. But, as we are seeking the Truth of the Scripture we should be willing to put in the effort to find the real intended meaning of the Word. Only then can we confidently apply it to our lives.

Since we will be looking at a number of Old Testament passages soon, we will also take a look at some important facts about Hebrew.

The Biblical Hebrew Language3

  • Ancient Biblical Hebrew had no vowels
  • Consists of 8,674 words including all proper nouns used in the Old Testament - compare to a Collegiate English Dictionary which will contain more than 200,000 words
  • Because of the limited number some Hebrew words have more than one literal meaning
  • The word meaning must be obtained from the context.  
  • If there is no consistent way of determining the meaning from the immediate context then other parts of Scripture or even external sources need to be studied.

Examples of Hebrew Words3

Heaven [shamayim] has two broad categories of meaning:
  1. The abode of God
  2. The physical heavens which has two categories
    1. The atmosphere above the earth
    2. The location of the sun, moon, and stars
Heaven [shamayim] Used in Scripture
Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven [shamayim], and bless Your people Israel and the land which You have given us, just as You swore to our fathers, “a land flowing with milk and honey”. Deuteronomy 26:15
And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven [shamayim]; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; Genesis 26:4
For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven [shamayim], And do not return there, But water the earth, And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower, And bread to the eater, Isaiah 55:10
Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven [shamayim] , and said: "By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son – blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven [shamayim] and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. Genesis 22:15-17
So Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, "If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven [shamayim] and consume you and your fifty men." And fire came down from heaven [shamayim] and consumed him and his fifty. 2 Kings 1:10
(Note:  sometimes it is very difficult to know what is the correct meaning)

Another example:
[‘erets] translated earth or land has six different meanings:
  1. All the land, water and the supporting foundation which is planet earth
  2. Soil
  3. The territory or land possessed by an individual, family, tribe, or nation
  4. The territories of all peoples and nations
  5. A city state
  6. The underworld or the grave
For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, But water the earth [‘erets], And make it bring forth and bud, That it may give seed to the sower, And bread to the eater, Isaiah 55:10
Since the day that I brought My people out of the land [‘erets] of Egypt, I have chosen no city from any tribe of Israel in which to build a house, that My name might be there, nor did I choose any man to be a ruler over My people Israel. 2 Chronicles 6:5
Moreover You gave them kingdoms and nations, And divided them into districts. So they took possession of the land [‘erets] of Sihon, The land [‘erets] of the king of Heshbon, And the land [‘erets] of Og king of Bashan. Nehemiah 9:22
And the earth [‘erets] brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. Genesis 1:12
that all the peoples of the earth [‘erets] may know the hand of the LORD, that it is mighty, that you may fear the LORD your God forever." Joshua 4:24
You, who have shown me great and severe troubles, Shall revive me again, And bring me up again from the depths of the earth [‘erets]. Psalms 71:20
I hope this discussion has given you some new things to consider when you read the Bible. We will be applying them in detail as we start looking at some specific Old Testament passages. As always, please feel free to comment.


  3. Excerpted by Tom from “Knowing Scripture” by R.C. Sproul
  4. Galileo Galilei

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