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Month 9:2, Week 1:1 (Rishon/Pesach), Year:Day 5939:239 AM
2Exodus 2/40, 4th Sh'mittah - Year 49/50
Global Judgment - Day #T-60
Gregorian Calendar Friday 13 November 2015
Thoughts on Bible Exegesis


    Yesterday and a few days before that I was sharing with you something of the KJV-Only controversy as this is one of those topics that generates a lot of smoke but precious little light. Another huge area of controversy concerns the identity of Israel and Israelites today. Yesterday I nudged another golden calf, that of Zionism. I am not going to get into that again today as I have already written comprehensively about it but what I do think we absolutely have to do now is properly examine the whole question of hermeneutics without which we'll never get sound sanswers to issues of this kind. So today I thought I would throw a few thoughts here and there to get you thinking...

    Frustration in Exegesis

    Hermeneutics is the discipline of scriptural exegesis or interpretation. At some time or another you will either have become frustrated because someone interprets a scripture or set of scriptures differently from yourself or simply because you just can't figure out the meaning for yourself, no matter how hard you try. One good thing the Protestant Resformation did was to encourage everyone to be their own Scrupture students and not to rely on a priest to interpret everything for you because of some presumed - but never proven - 'divine unction' or revelation. In olden times Bibles were chained to pulpits and the Christian couldn't get near one to read for himself.

    Is Private Interpretation Good Enough?

    I do, of course, totally agree with the Protestant impulse to private Scripture study. But at the same time I would like to sound a word of warning - not all the Bible can be privately interpreted:

      "No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy (set-apart) men of Elohim (God) spoke as they were moved by the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit)" (2 Peter 1:20-21, NKJV).

    Supernaturally Delivered Prophecy

    This particular passage is often misinterpreted to mean that Scripture can only be accurately interpreted by means of the supernatural revelation of the Ruach (Spirit) though the context is specifically to prophecy. Even then this is a little oversimplistic - how many people do you honestly know who sat down to read a particular passage who got an infallibly accurate revelatory interpretation, without possibility of error? In actual fact, Peter does not tell us the mechanism of inspired interpretation by the reader of Scripture - his testimony is that prophecy was given supernaturally and infallibly. What these men committed to writing is inspired and reliable.

    'God Told Me'

    Let me ask you another question: how many believers do you know who told you "God told me this" in respect of the meaning of a passage of Scripture and in consequence refused to entertain anything more about its meaning? I have met people who have made such claims who have said mutually exclusive and contrary things. Both can't be right.

    The Experience of Teachers

    There is a reason that Yahweh calls Torah-teachers in the Messianic Assemblies. We need their expertise and experience. You'll find examples of interpreters throughout the Bible. Joseph and Daniel were famous dream-interpreters because Yahweh gifted them for the task. There are those who know how to interpret the weather, likewise based on considerable experience, and those who can interpret the signs of the times (Mt.16:2-3)...and there are those who can't. Doctors know how to interpret symptoms of a largte number of illnesses, most of us don't (which is why we come to all kinds of off-the-ark diagnoses and occasionally get into a panic). There are interpreters of foreign languages ('tongues') and there are those who interpret the heart. That's why Yahweh called zeqenim or elders in congregations in the early Messianic Community and its why we still need them today. That is why Paul reminded believers:

      "He Himself gave some to be apostles, some nevi'im (prophets), some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the qodeshim (saints, set-apart ones) for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Messiah till we all come to the unity of emunah (the faith) and of the knowledge of the Son of Elohim (God), to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah" (Eph.4:11-13, NKJV).

    Unity of Faith Still Eludes the Body

    Only the deceived would claim that all believers have attained a unity of the emunah. It's so obvious that we have not, even within a single denomination or even within a single congregation in a denomination, that it takes a massive deception on the part of the one claiming it that unity and perfection have been arrived at. It's a mortality-long process, meaning it never ends. It means that experienced leaders will always be needed and that they too will always be growing in wisdom so long as they maintain a place of humility in their hearts to enable them to confess their continuing lack.

    Limitless Heights and Depths

    It is, I contend, a grave mistake to read a Scripture and to claim a total revelation and understanding of it that precludes the need for further enlightenment. True, we can get further along the road with some scriptures than others, but the point is we will never be able to fully plummet the depths, or fully ascend the heights, of the revelation of Elohim (God) of which scriptures, singly and collectively, ever point us to. Can anyone claim to full understand one of the shortest passages in the Bible, "Elohim (God) is ahavah (love)" (1 Jn.4:8,16), even with the Hebrew clarifiers added? Who can put up their hands and tell me, without blushing for the shame of being untruthful, that they "comprehend with all the qodeshim (saints, set-apart ones) what is the width and length and depth and height - to know [fully] the ahavah (love) of Messiah which passes knowledge" (Eph.3:18-19, NKJV)? Indeed, are two people's experiences of this ahavah (love) the same? Are we not all touched uniquely?

    Ranges of Meaning

    What about the biblical expression, "the ahavah (love) of Elohim (God)" which appears a dozen times in Scripture? This is not an easy phrase to interpret - does it refer to human love for Elohim (God) or does it refer to Elohim's (God's) love for us? Or both? The way you interpret this phrase in, for example, the first letter of John, will be determined how you interpret the epistle as a whole too. Indeed, this simple - yet not so simple - phrase of Scripture has a range of possible meanings which only context can establish.

    A House

    Let me give you one more example. The Hebrew word bayit - house - means different things depending on the context. There is a difference between the 'house of David', which can refer to either his living family or the whole dynasty (past, present and future) and Zaccheus inviting Yah'shua (Jesus) to his 'house' for a meal. Here the house is cleaerly a building.

    John of the Baptist Church

    I mention two simple examples (there are thousands) to illustrate how careful we have to be of what I call the 'pop theology' which Christians and Messianics often bandy about as 'informed', 'authoritative' or 'true'. My induction into hermeneutics started many years ago when a woman insisted that John the Baptist belonged to the Baptist Church because it 'says so' 14 times in the New Testament - he was, after all, she reasoned, a 'Baptist'. She used these as prooftexts that the Baptist Church was, as is, the true one we should all join.

    Israel, Jews; Jerusalem and Zion

    We can laugh at such silliness yet similar mistakes are made all the time. How many people to you know today who believe that because a modern country is called 'Israel' that that must be the same 'Israel' in the Bible? Or that that those who call themselves 'Jews' are the same people, two thousand years or more down the line, the same as those who are called 'Jews' in our English translations of the New Testament? Or that the 'Jerusalem' of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) is the same as the 'Jerusalem' that is the modern-day capital of the modern Israeli State? How many people believe that the 'Zion' of Scripture is in some way directly related to the modern political system known as 'Zionism' today? Can we legitimately say that the Babylonia of the Tanakh is modern-day Iraq, or that ancient Persia is modern Iran, or ancient Egypt modern Egypt? In most instances these lands are inhabited today by completely different peoples to the ancient inhabitants. Certainly there are some prophetic, symbolic links but today's national and racial species are very different to the ancient ones. Today's Macedeonians are very different from the Macedonians whom Paul knew in his journeys. There have been so many movements of people over the millennia that everything has fundamentally changed.

    So how are we to know whether, for example, the modern-day Kingdom of Jordan with capital Amman and inhabited by Hashemite and Palestinian Arabs, has anything to do with ancient Ammon and the old Ammonite inhabitants? How do prophecies about nations, long ago exterminated, have anything to do with modern nations with oftentimes totally different peoples living in them yet using the same - or similar - name as those ancients? Today's Egyptians are largely Arabs - there weren't many, if any, Arabs in the ancient land of Egypt.

    Should We Pray for Jerusalem Today?

    It should by now be obvious that a knowledge of history is going to get us a long way in our quest for understanding when it comes to exegesis. Let's return to Jerusalem. Psalm 122:8 tells us to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem". The trouble is, the Jerusalem that David lived in, and penned this psalm about, is long gone. It was burned and sacked by the Babylonians. Seven decades later some of the Babylonian exiles returned to it and started rebuilding it. By the time Yah'shua (Jesus) comes onto the scene it has greatly expanded. Clearly, because the New Testament tells us, prophecies concerning Jerusalem from ancient times were being fulfilled in His time and immediately afterward. However, once the Jerusalem-connected messianic prophecies are fulfilled, and even arguably before, the status of the city is clearly revealed to the apostle Paul who said explains New Covenant believers' relationship to it:

      "For these are the two covenants (old and new): the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar-- for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children - but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Gal.4:24-26, NKJV).

    The Old Jerusalem is Dead and Gone

    The earthly Jerusalem now has no significance to born-again Christians and Messianics. It's name is Hagar, the City of Bondage. Believers' eyes are to be upon the Jerusalem above, or New Jerusalem, which will one day descend out of heaven, onto the Promised Land Real Estate, and replace that old City of Hagar which today is the capital of the 'Israeli Republic'. Should we therefore be responding to Psalm 122:8? Obviously not, because the context has changed - completely. It is no longer the 'City of David', Yahweh no longer dwells in the temple there, because both city and temple were utterly destroyed. The old physical Jerusalem is extinct. The Romans levelled it to the ground following the end of the Jewish Revolt and built an entirely new pagan city on the top of it called Aelia Capitolina. Since then the city has been considerably modified by Saladin and by the Arabs and Turks and now the modern Jewish inhabitants. Today's Jerusalem is neither physically nor spiritually the city that David called people to pray for.

    The Importance of Historical Knowledge

    That is not to say that Yahweh might not call someone to pray for the modern City of Jerusalem with its Jewish and Arab inhabitants just as He called me to pray for the City of Damascus some months ago. Modern Jerusalem is a city like any other city in the world with people needing salvation and safety. But can we fulfil Psalm 122:8 any longer? Clearly not. But without some historical background you might be forgiven for thinking that you still should. Rather, the Scripture is a reminder of what Israelites once did when Yahweh dwelled there, and even in times of its apostacy so long as a Davidic monarch resided there.

    Origins of Bible Hermeneutics: The 'Branch'

    Hermeneutics - or biblical interpretation - began with the Bible itself as it evolved and was added to. Later texts interpreted and appropriated earlier ones, as, for example, in the Book of Jeremiah. I am sure you are all familiar with his prophecy about "the branch" (Jer.23:1-6), a legitimate ruler in David's line whose just rule will contrast with the wicked rule of the Judahite rulers of the time, which Jeremiah indicts and threatens with severe punishment. Ten chapters on the oracle is expanded but this time in the context of the permanence of David's House (Dynasty) and the Levitical priesthood, even beyond the Babylonian Exile. Zechariah, in the post-exilic period, then prophetically interpret's Jeremiah's "branch" oracles messianically, revealing another dimension to them, to announce the coming of a royal figure (Zech.3:8) who will share leadership with the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) (Zech.6:12-13).

    The Prophets Validate One Another

    Lending urgency to Zechariah's expectations is an allusion (Zech.1:12; cp.7:5) to Jeremiah's prophecy that Judah's punishment would last 70 years (Jer.25:11-12; 29:10), a number that Zechariah interprets quite literally. In thus interpreting Jeremiah's prophecy, Zechariah understood his own visions and oracles (Zech.1-6) as marking the end of Judah's punishment and the beginning of its future. This is an example of Biblical exegesis within the Bible itself so that you get an idea as to how revelation works. Zechariah's revelation, moreover, established and validated the revelation of Jeremiah, and indeed parts of Isaiah, which elaborate, authorise and bring into sharper focus his vision of the future. Indeed, Jeremiah himself cites an earlier navi (prophet), Micah (3:12), as precedent in a legal discussion. This process of interpretation not only contributed to the growth of the Tanakh (Old Testament) and its eventual status as a definitive collection of authoritative written material but is part of the revelatory process itself, as revelation is built up layer upon layer, showing that Scripture is essentially open canon, but in such a way as to disallow those fraudulent writings (like the Books of Enoch and Jasher, which were later Pharisaic pseudepigraphic expansions) that had little or no legitimate part in the unfolding of Yahweh's revelation.

    A Bid to Understand the Text

    Properly understood, hermeneutics or exegesis is an investigation of the many dimensions or textures of a particular text in order to achieve a credible and coherent understanding of the text on its own terms and in its own context. Things only start getting complicated when we apply scriptures existentially, that is to say, going to the text and hoping that its context may speak to us in our different-yet-similar context. The psalms of David are a good example of that and even though his situation was radically different from our own, he faces - and deals with - those same human frailties that beset us 3,000 years down the line and shows us the solutions. But not all Scripture is good for that - obviously. Paul's deep theological treatises, which even Peter struggled to grapple with, are a very different kind of Scripture for the most part.

    The Art of Asking Questions

    Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics, exegesis) is the process of asking questions of a text, questions that are often provoked by the text itself. In short, what we're asking is, "What's going on here?" and then to flesh the question out to give it greater form and substance. To borrow the thought of Michael J. Gorman, "exegetes must learn to love to ask questions" [1]. To engage in exegesis is to ask historical questions of the text, of the kind we were asking earlier. Such questions would include: "What situation seems to have been the occasion for the writing of the text?" "What kind of literature is this text and what are its literary aims?" "What great theological question or issue does this text engage, and what claims on its readers does it make?" Exegesis also means asking tough questions like: "Why does this text seem to contradict that one?" And in asking such questions comes the responsibility not to fear discovering something new or puzzlement over something apparently unsolvable.

    The On-Going Conversation

    Exegesis isn't something you do in a day or a week. It's an ongoing conversation with readers both living and death, more learned and less learned, absent and present. It's a prayer conversation with Yahweh too, obviously. One thing I have learned over the years is that the isolated reader is not the ideal biblical exegete which is why I consult with lots of people. Someone sitting alone with his KJV and hoping that he will make equivalent progress is living a major delusion. Which is not to say that fantastic insights can't, and don't, happen when you are alone with your Elohim (God) and your Bible, because they absolutely do and should. What I am saying is that there is both a personal and a coprotate approach to hermeneutics, and that the two provide balance.

    The Biblical languages

    Bad translations can keep us in theological bondage for years and so can zero knowledge of the receptor tongues of Scripture. You don't have to be fluent in classical Hebrew, Aramaic and koiné Greek to interpret Scripture but at some point you will find knowing some people that do speak them immensely helpful and satisfying.

    Castration: An Example of Bad Translation

    For years I was troubled by some passages in the New Testament which seemed to promote not only the supremacy of celibacy over marriage but also the benefits of castration contrary to what is known about the Hebrew abhorrance of such things. I could find no resolution to such contradiction and craziness until I discovered translations of the Aramaic texts of the New Testament and could see how the Greek translator faced the dilemma of choosing between two possible meanings of the same Aramaic word. You can see the dilemma this creates for those who are tied down to just one translation like the KJV-Onlyers in:

      "But He said to them, 'All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are {eunuchs or faithful ones/believers} who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are {eunuchs or faithful ones/believers} who were made {eunuchs or faithful ones/believers} by men, and there are {eunuchs or faithful ones/believers} who have made themselves {eunuchs or faithful ones/believers} for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it" (Mt.19:11-12, NKJV).

    A Hard One to Resolve

    You can easily understand the dilemma of the Greek translator. One Aramaic word can either mean eunuchs or faithful ones/believers. The context is marriage, viz., "'And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.' His talmidim (disciples) said to Him, 'If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry'" (Matt 19:8-10, NKJV) but okaying castration would be to violate Torah which forbids it (Dt.23:1), which would have made Yah'shua (Jesus) a sinner and therefore not a spotless sacrifice for men's sins. The Greek translator weighed in favour of the marriage context, not understanding that Yah'shua (Jesus) is deliberately playing with words. Indeed, He is using a device commonly found in the Gospel of John of dealing with a question by answering a completely different one - the one you ought to have asked.

    An Analogy to Being a Eunuch

    Following Him - becoming a faithful follower or talmid (disciple) - is then, in certain respects, like being a eunuch because as Yah'shua's (Jesus') bondslave you voluntarily relinquish the freedom to do as you otherwise might have done along with unbelievers. Some are born with that disposition to full consecration (like John the Baptist), there are those forced by circumstances (like Peter being taken to a place of execution that he did not want to go to) and some make the conscious decision all on their own. "He who is able to accept it, let him accept it" is a translation of the Aramaic by the Greek translator to make his decision to use the "eunuch" alternative make sense. The Aramaic rather says: "Let him comprehend (understand) who is able to comprehend (understand)" (v.12b, AENT) [2] this curious response of Yah'shua (Jesus).

    Ropes and Camels

    The earlier Aramaic and Syriac New Testaments resolve other oddities in the Greek texts (a problem for Greek-Onlyers). Whereas for the Aramaic-speakers it is "easier for a large rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom" (Mt.19:24; Mk.10:25; Lk.18:25), the Greek translator believed it was "easier for a camel" to do so, faced as he was the the Aramaic word that can mean either "large rope" or "camel". And so the error of a Greek translator has become fastened in a common saying of the English language, let alone hundreds of Bible translations.

    Simon Was Not a Leper

    Identifying Simon as a "leper" when he was a "jar maker" or "jar merchant" (Mt.26:6; Mk.14:3, HRV) or "potter" (AENT) is another error of the Greek translator caused this time not by a single word having two possible meaning but two different words which appear the same in the unpointed text. Of course, lepers were forced to live in leper colonies, for obvious reasons, so a leper would have been forbidden from living in Bethany.

    Poetry, Literalism and Percy Collet

    Now I could cite many more examples but these are sufficient to illustrate the importance of careful exegesis. Large chunks of the Tanakh (Old Testament) are poetry which, when interpreted literally, can get amateur exegetes into difficult waters. I always cite the example of the late Percy Collet, a Pentecostal minister, who claimed he went into heaven, spending many days there. When he started to describe 'God' as literally having "feathers" (Ps.91:4) I knew that either he was under the influence of a deceiving spirit or that he had made the whole account up since the scriptural language was unmistakably poetic. I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and assumed that he had been deceived by a charismatic spirit. I was proved right when he died for he had prophesied, under the same 'spirit' that took him to 'heaven', that he would not die until Christ returned. And Christ still hasn't returned. Collet had huge exposure on the internet (I have his huge collection of tapes recounting his heavenly journeys) but he is now such an embarassment to the millions who promoted him in the Pentecostal movement that for a while it was hard to find any of his materials on the internet at all. Today they are back up again and you can listen to them on Youtube.

    The Elements of Biblical Poetry

    Before you start interpreting Biblical poetry (like the Song of Solomon - though that is probably better viewed as a Play, and is so rendered in the New English Bible), be aware of what it is and how it should be used. Leland Ryken [3] points out five features of biblical poetry that the exegete needs to know:

    • 1. Genre and Implied Situation - the type of literature the text is, and the life situation implied by the text;
    • 2. Intellectual Core - the topic and theme (slant) of the text;
    • 3. Structure and Unity - the arrangement of the text;
    • 4. Literary texture - the details of the text; and
    • 5. Artistry - the beauty of the text.

    Types of Biblical Literature

    We must never forget that the Bible is literature and contains many different literary genres: proverbs, sayings, chronicles, complaints (laments, psalms), oracles, apocalypses, parables, songs, epistles and many others. What's important to realise is that these forms accurately correspond to the literary forms current to the authors' surroundings and time.

    Form of the Ten Commandments and New Testament Letters

    For example, the Ten Commandments are cast in the form of suzerainty treaties that ancient Near Eastern kings imposed on their subjects. New Testament epistles show many affinities to the structure of Greek and Roman letters of the same era. Many modern translations, especially parphrases, attempt not just to translate the original words and concepts into English, but also the styles to resemble those of our own. This makes for easier reading but unfortunately some of the original sense can be lost in the process. Irrespective of whether you hold to the original or modern forms, translating an ancient language like Hebrew into a modern one like English typically results in the loss of puns and the like since English does not obviously rhyme in the same was as Hebrew. And there is no way to convey this without some sort of footnote explaining it.

    The Advantage of Annotated Bibles

    This is why I strongly recommend obtaining annotated Bibles with lots of footnotes explaining alternative readings and giving commentaries on the linguistics. I have little or no respect for the bravado of people like some KJV-Onlyers who refuse such helps and will not alight their eyes on a commentary under any circumstances because they feel that this in some way detracts from the inspired nature of the text. Given their obsession with a 17th century literary form which is now dead (except in Shakespeare), which they somehow believe to be word-perfect five centuries later, I find this very strange indeed. If it is inspiration that their main appeal is to - the existentialist approach with its fluid, subjective boundaries - then revelation needs to be consistent, which it often is not. Furthermore, the only reason there were no footnotes or commentaries in the KJV was because King James didn't want any - the ones in the revered Geneva Bible which the KJV replaced had plenty of them and they overturned many of his doctrinal claims to the divine right of kings and to the form of worship in the Church of England that he sponsored. The KJV-Only bias against footnotes turns out rather to be slavish devotion to the biases of a dead monarch.

    Recommended Annotated Bibles

    There is no one annotated Bible I can exclusively recommend. One very good one, which I am enjoying, is the conservative ESV Study Bible (Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois: 2008) which I balance out with the more liberal New Interpreter's Study Bible (Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennesee: 2003). Balanced against these Greek-Only New Testament versions, it is important to have a couple of good Hebraic ones too though at this stage these tend to be one-man works (following the rule of exegetical conversation mentioned above, I always feel a team is better). Two I like are Roth's Aramaic English New Testament (Netzari Press: 2012) and Stern's Jewish New Testament Commantary (JNT Publications, Clarksville, Maryland: 1995) [4], but I am still on the look-out for more messianic ones. I believe Trimm's Hebraic Roots Version may soon be annotated or at least have a commentary.

    Learning From Others

    It's important we nake our own annotations too containing the valuable information we have learned. There's always a ton to learn and never, it would seem, enough time to do it, even for a full-time minister. But that's where the footwork of others becomes invaluable and why Yahweh has ordained assemblies (congregations) in which to learn from the expertise of others. And though the Internet provides resources that would be envy of Bible teachers and theologians 50 years and more ago, we still need the one-to-one, face-to-face interaction with teachers, elders and pastors. Which is not, of course, to say we should be limited to learning only from our own ministers - there is a glorious field of opportunity out there in the electronic global village.

    Conclusion: Become a Good Exegete

    Exegesis is ultimately our own personal responsibility. Though husbands and fathers have a divine commission to teach their wives and children, necessitating that they work hard to be good instructors, everyone is responsible for their own labours. Husbands and fathers also neeed instructors The Bible, properly divided and understood, is our primary tool of witness along with the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). So get studying and sharpen your tools of witness!


    [1] Michael J. Gorman, Elements of Biblical Exegesis: A Basic Guide for Students and Ministers (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts: 2001), p.9
    [2] For some reason the HRV, which opts for "faithful ones/believers", reverts to "whoever can acceot, let him accept" . Just as bizzarely, the AENT chooses "eunuchs". One of the problems with Aramaic MSS is that some of them later adjusted their readings in order to harmonise with the more plentiful Greek translations! This gives you some idea of the problems facing translators
    [3] Lelan Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Baker, Grand Rapids: 1992), pp.207-211
    [4] Not an annotated Bible, but a mine of useful information in spite of Messianic Jewish biases

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