Seeing New Things in Old Texts: More Tips for Exegetical Inquiry
- How do I do good exegesis if I don’t know Hebrew or Greek? (Part 1)
- The Best Translation to use for (Public) Exegesis
- Exegetical Inquiry: The Question is more important than the Answer
- Seeing New Things in Old Texts: More Tips for Exegetical Inquiry
- Let the Text Question You: Exegesis is Application
In the previous post I argued that one of the most important skills you can develop as an exegete is asking good questions of the text. Give yourself the challenge of coming up with as many questions as you can regarding a paragraph or so of Scripture. It’s actually pretty difficult! It requires practice and skill, just like anything else in life. How do you cultivate exegetical inquisitiveness? What are some ways to ask more questions of the text?
Switch your angle of vision
The first time you read a text you will naturally sympathize with certain characters, or resonate with a particular train of thought. Some phrases will just hit you, and others will not. After multiple readings, we can get “stuck in a rut;” we grow content with our prior understanding of the text and are unable to see things anew. One way to see the text differently is to see it from a different angle. Deliberately switch your reading posture (both figuratively and possibly literally). In photography there’s a technique called forced perspective, where the photographer intentionally manipulates the natural viewing angle in order to bring out some emphasis or feature that wouldn’t normally be noticed. That’s what you’re going for here; you want to deliberately read “against” your natural perspective in order to bring new light on the text.
There are a couple of ways to do this.
- One of the easiest, especially in narrative texts, is to make a different character in the text the main character. Reader’s have a tendency to naturally sympathize with particular character types and to see the events through that character’s eyes (because we are most like that character).1 Take the story of “The Prodigal Son.” Of course, even in that way of describing the story we have “picked” a character. The story is about the son that leaves. And when we read the text through that lens the main point is the way in which the father freely and joyfully receives his son back into the family. By contrast, Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God switches our perspective: it’s not the son who is irresponsible, it is the father. The lavish prodigality of God in his mercy and grace is a kind of scandal–certainly the older brother was scandalized! This change of perspective does not invalidate the “old” meaning of the text, but it opens up new interpretive possibilities. The text “sings” again. What if the main character is the older brother? How about a neighbor watching all of this go down? All of the characters in the text are men; what might mom say? How about the sisters? And remember the goal is just to ask questions at this point; you don’t need all the answers. You’re aiming for curiosity, wonder, and awe–that “new naïveté” that we talked about last time.
- This is less straightforward when it comes to non-narrative texts like the Psalms or Proverbs of Paul’s epistles, but you can get creative here as well. How would the “Judiaizers” that Paul opposes in Galatians (notice, by the way, that Paul never calls them that–he describes them as “troublers” who “desire to be under Torah”) have read his words? What if James or Peter got ahold of the letter? Or consider Hebrews. The majority report in some circles still claims that this letter was written to Jews tempted to return to temple sacrifices. Let’s assume that’s true (I don’t think it is, but that’s another post). How might a Gentile at the time of writing appropriate it? There’s often a narrative “behind” the letter or proverb or instruction, a presumed story and history that occasions the writing. Change your perspective of view in the story behind the discourse.
- Another way to do this is to re-imagine yourself. This is related to the above, but this reading strategy is more about forcing myself into someone-else’s shoes as a reader. In the above I’m shifting the angle of the text; what if it was in orbit around a different character or idea? By contrast, here I am the one changing. What if I had a different story? A different set of challenges? How, for example, might a story about a loving father who embraces their wayward son impact someone who grew up without a father? Or what about someone whose father was perpetually withholding or never pleased with his children? Or, Galatians again: the issue is circumcision. How might that issue impact female believers differently? Does Paul’s letter not apply to women. If it does, then how and why? What does “life under the law” look like for women, and how does the freedom we all now have in Christ change ones experience? By the way: it absolutely does, according to Paul, since “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (3:28).2 Step into someone else’s shoes and think through their questions. What things in the text would challenge them? What might they be able to appreciate better than you can? What would their questions be?
- Related to this, and I can’t say this enough: read with other people, especially first-timers and those outside your comfort zone. I remember when one of my kids came over to me in tears: “dad, I can’t believe you said I should read this book of the Bible! It’s inappropriate for me.” She was reading John’s gospel. What text do you think she was in? John 6: “you must eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:53). I intuitively read that text as expressing a spiritual truth, not a literal one. But she didn’t take it that way. And you know what, neither did Jesus’ original audience! Her reading was closer to the original than mine. Jesus’ claim there is supposed to be shocking and uncomfortable, but I had never responded to it that way. “It’s just a metaphor.” But kids can help you inquire anew about the text. Read with the community of faith.
Read Outside Your Tradition
On that note, it’s worth saying that we can also read outside of our particular faith communities. A lot of people read the Bible. Some of them share my beliefs, but not my background and experiences. I should be reading how sisters and brothers in China or Indonesia or Scotland are reading and appropriating the Bible; how do they apply Scripture to their own contexts and cultures? What do they hear from these texts?
There are also a lot of commentators on Scripture that don’t believe what I believe. Some are Christians and our differences are minor. Others hate the God of the Bible. Still others deem themselves more neutral and are just reading the Bible for its literary or historical value. Can I benefit from engaging such conversation partners? Absolutely. I have been tremendously helped by scholars and readers from a wide range of traditions: Roman Catholic, baptistic, metthodist, feminist and liberationist commentators who have brought to my attention features of the text I had never noticed. Do you know how many people Jesus fed at “The Feeding of the Five Thousand?” Such a familiar passage, and such an obvious answer. 5000 right? That’s what I thought until last week, but it’s wrong. Read it again.
Read things Other than the Bible
Finally, read things that are not the Bible, or about the Bible. Read more broadly. Poetry, fiction, history, scientific literature–all of these will help you be a better reader of Scripture. Why? You’ll notice that all of the recommendations so far require you to have a pretty cultivated ability to think “as if.” You’re shifting your perspective, trying to change the way your brain naturally works. God actually gave us a tool for that. It’s called “the imagination.” What if horses were silver white and had a magical horn on their heads? Suddenly I’m projecting a new world onto the screen of my brain. That’s what the imagination does; it engages the “what if” part of our brains that causes us to see differently.
Wide reading (and watching, and listening, and conversing) exercises that muscle in our brain. The beauty of story is that they enable us to experience things we have never experienced. Through the telling of the story, appropriated by the imagination, I’m actually having an experience that I would not otherwise have. It’s not the same, to be sure, but it’s still real. We get to live in someone else’s world for a bit, and then we come back into our own, and we are a bit different now. Stories, whether true or not, change us and enable us to see the world differently.
Those who read widely and eclectically are able to read the Bible with new eyes more readily. They’ve exercised their imagination.
That’s probably enough for now, but we’re not done yet. Keep an eye out for a future post on reading the Bible in order to investigate our hearts.
- This book is a wonderful exploration of that idea.
- That’s not to suggest an answer to the question, about which there is of course much debate, but to argue that there is in fact a trajectory to explore here, and one which Paul anticipates.