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Biblical exegesis is the fancy term for extracting the meaning of Scripture. Throughout the last two millennia, methods of exegesis grew in various directions. The ancient tradition generally involved slowly praying the Scriptures, savoring them in humility and silence, as one would enjoy a cup of quality coffee or tea, savoring every taste, pausing between sips, paying attention to the delightful fragrance, feeling the steam caressing the face each time the cup is lifted to the lips.
This approach to enjoying a cup of coffee or tea imparts a different knowledge than analyzing the drink for it ingredients, temperature and pharmacological effects. That is the counterpart of rational or empirical exegesis, which has gained popularity in the denominations that are more reasonable than mystical, more practical than ritualistic or ascetic, more scientific than artistic.
Grasping the meaning of poetry with the intellect is like squeezing a handful of fine sand. A calm, still, open hand can hold much more sand than a closed, grasping fist. There is a good reason why the biblical books known as "wisdom literature" are written in poetic language. To impart wisdom, write poetically (and that does not mean make your sentences rhyme!) The cadence of a gurgling stream of water flowing over rocks is profound poetry, not to be dissected by the mind. In the Greek language of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he writes that Christians are the "poiema" (poem) of God. So few of us in the West merit that honorable title. To impart knowledge, write analytically and factually, as in a thesis. (However, I would want to read a classic novel before reviewing an analytical thesis of it.)
Write a song to enter the heart of a listener, or make up an intriguing story, as Jesus liked to do. To someone whose intellect is more open and alert than his or her heart and soul, read an encyclopedia or dictionary definition. He or she won't criticize your poetic renditions and believe to have obtained the truth. The Truth however, as Jesus called Himself, cannot be transmitted that way.
So with what kind of exegesis shall we ponder the Scriptures? They are popularly called "The Word of God." When someone tells us, "Spend time in the word," we know what is meant: "Study your Bible."
Yet the Scriptures declare: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). In the book of Hebrews we read, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:1-3a, NIV).
There is only one Word. All the thousands of words in Scripture reflect that One Word. As a kid, I enjoyed focusing sunlight into a small point with a magnifying glass and burning holes into paper or wood. This concentrated light would often start a flame. Interestingly, fire is a metaphor for the power of Holy Spirit. One of the poorest definitions of exegesis I heard was, "Keeping the word in your heart," which really means, "Memorize Scripture in your mind."To explain a bit what I mean, I quote from Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand: "In solitary confinement, we could not pray as before. We were unimaginably hungry; we had been drugged until we acted like idiots. We were as weak as skeletons. The Lord's Prayer was much too long for us -- we could not concentrate enough to say it. My only prayer repeated again and again was, 'Jesus, I love You.'" I once heard Wurmbrand speak. He explained how in his torture and confinement, he forgot all Scripture quotes and memorized prayers from the Psalms. Such memorization, now lost, did not sustain him. But all the words he ever studied and memorized from Scripture were concentrated like a magnifying glass concentrating light into his soul into one point: The words condensed into one Word, and he loved that Word as that Word loved and sustained him. At that time, that is all he needed. He spent lots of time "in the Word" and now is residing forever in the Word's Presence.
There are a couple of books on the market written by former atheist lawyers and investigators who took on the challenge of forensic analysis to prove Christianity is a hoax and ended being converted to the Christian faith. Then we have the ludicrous claims of the "Da Vinci Code". Many theological scholars have written less perverted theses, but, nonetheless nonsense. Handing out Bibles to those who don't want them yet promise (or we hope they will) read them does not seem to be an especially effective evangelical approach. The Bible is both revered and profaned, by those who are well acquainted with its contents. Spiritual exegesis seems to elude even sincerely interested people.
Three notable examples are found in the New Testament. "Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:27). "Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. 'Do you understand what you are reading?' Philip asked. 'How can I,' he said, 'unless someone explains it to me?' So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him" (Acts 8:30-31).
Luke was so emphatic and in awe of the wondrous event of "the word
of God" that "came to John, son of Zechariariah, in the desert" (Luke 3:2b),
that he marked it with exquisite detail: "In the fifteenth year of the
reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontious Pilate was governor of Judea,
Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Itureah and Traconitis,
and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - during the high priesthood of Annas
and Caiaphas" (Luke 3:1-2a). Do we share Luke's exuberance underscored by
his detailed description of when this Word of God came?
The Bible, of course, is not "a" book, but a bibliography (bible) of books. Some of them are historical and documentary records. Most are best regarded as personal letters from God to us. While books can be relegated to literary archeology, letters always communicate personal messages. Letters are to be personally embraced and acted upon, treasured as heart to heart union.
If you do not believe a personal letter is addressed to you, you will discard it. That is why the Scriptures speak so much about belief being a prerequisite to understanding, rather than the opposite.
This suggests several conditions for biblical exegesis that lead to spiritual enlightenment. The first is knowing how to discern the presence of the Word (Logos, the Christ) in "the word." The second is perceiving "the word" as a personal message to each of us, a message that will suit our ability to understand and our need to incorporate it into our daily living, in accordance with our spiritual development. (That's why Paul writes about his frustration with having to continue to provide "milk" instead of "meat" to the early converts.)
If such messages do come from the heart of our Creator, how can they not call out a "cry from the depths" of our hearts? And if they don't, can you rightfully conclude, based on your personal response to the Scriptures, that they are not from the Creator's heart? This suggests a third condition of exegesis, humility. Arrogance in the heart is fatal, the arrogance that dismisses what is Truth because that heart believes it can discern truth on its own human and very limited ability. This is the arrogance of Satan, who deemed he could transcend Truth and be like God. Like Humpty-Dumpty, he took a great fall, and no one in authority could put him back together, though they succeeded, in Satan's case, creating the illusion they did, for which others will fall.
I once thought how blessed Moses was with his face-to-face encounter with God. "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend" (Exodus 33:11). Then I contemplated what Jesus said to His followers, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15).
We now can experience the same privilege of Moses! God speaks to all of us today as a friend! All of humanly conceived and invented mythology regarding gods and goddesses (and I am thinking primarily of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures as I write this) could not produce a more outlandish and wondrous depiction of our Creator as provided in the Judaic-Christian traditions and Scripture. (And let both Jews and Christians keep in mind that, except for the books of Luke and the Acts, all Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is of Jewish origin.)
Biblical study as scholarly science is vital and I, for one, enjoy its discipline. Wisdom, however, teaches me biblical exegesis that leads to conversion, sanctification and growth far transcends scholarly or scientific approaches. The same Spirit who inspired people to write the Scriptures is the same Spirit who inspires the Church (the body of Christ, that is made of individuals) and the individuals themselves.
God spoke to us long before we sought to speak to Him. Thus the cry of the Shema, "Hear, O Israel" (Deuteronomy 6:4). And thus the cry of Christ, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Revelation 3:22).
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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