Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. (Psalm 119:105)
This week I continue writing about how to incorporate Scripture into your life by describing the discipline of study.
As I wrote in my third post about Scripture, Moses instructed the Israelites to study God’s words to them throughout their lives. As we study the Bible we discover that God’s reality is quite foreign to our own and his love is far beyond anything we’ve ever experienced. We then begin to realize that a lot of what the world holds dear is not worth much or, is even harmful to our spiritual well-being. Continued study of the Bible teaches us how to conform ourselves to the ways of God instead of to the ways of the world around us.
It is important to note that studyingScripture is not the same as reading it. When we read Scripture we are seeking to become familiar with what it says. And, although we may stop momentarily as we read, to ponder Scripture devotionally, the overall intent is to keep moving through the Bible so that it all becomes as familiar to us as our own face, or the face of someone we love. However, when we study, we stop and focus our attention on a specific book, section or chapter in order to analyze it, bit by bit, so that we come to understand what it means.
For instance, if you should read the story of Martha and Mary, in the gospel according to Luke, you will discover what takes place. However, in order to understand the implications of Martha’s and Mary’s actions, and what they mean for Christians today, you will need to research the customs and practices of the time and refer to a word study dictionary in order to understand the meaning behind Greek phrases and words translated into English, such as “distracted” and “portion”. Then, the implications of “opening” one’s home to guests in first century Palestine and of “sitting at the feet” of a rabbi or teacher will be more apparent. (For a full explanation of these terms, see my posts, Martha and Mary – parts one and two.)
Exegesis (pronounced ekk-suh-gee-sis) is a Greek word, which literally means, “to lead out of” and is used to describe a study of the Bible which proceeds from what it actually says, rather than from what we think it says. When doing exegesis our preconceived notions must be set aside. Eisegesis (eye-suh-gee-sis) is the term used for reading into Scripture our own ideas so that we can allow ourselves to conclude it means what we want it to mean. Eisegesis literally means “to lead into”. This is not the way to proceed.
Sometimes the meaning of Scripture is readily apparent, but often enough it is not. Therefore, time spent doing exegesis – respectful exploration and analysis – is necessary in order to reach an understanding of what a particular passage of Scripture means.
If you are not currently participating in a Bible study or doing one on your own, look for one. If there isn’t one in your church or anywhere nearby, led by someone trained to teach the Bible, ask your pastor to start a Bible study. Another option is to use a prepared curriculum, such as one of Beth Moore’s Bible studies, with DVDs and a workbook. N. T. Wright’s For Everyone Bible study guides are also an excellent resource. Use them on your own or get a group of friends to join you.
If you are really ambitious and want to spend time doing exegesis on your own, without a prepared curriculum guide, begin with a few basic tools. Find a good annotated or study Bible, such as The Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible, one which offers an introduction to both testaments and each book of the Bible. Look for one that also has notes at the bottom of each page, including further information about specific verses, as well as a concordance in the back which lists commonly used biblical terms and where and how often they occur. I also recommend using a Bible that has a key down the middle (or on the side) of each page, listing related verses.
When studying a book, section or chapter of the Bible, begin by reading it through a number of times to get a sense of what is going on. Then make note of its placement – where it is in relation to the rest of the Bible, chapter or story: what comes right before and after and in what way it is alike and different from surrounding material. Notice also the characters and what occurs. Consult a Bible dictionary to find out more about the history, customs, and geography of the setting in which the action takes place.
A word study dictionary, one for the Old Testament (Hebrew) and New Testament (Greek) is also a helpful resource if you want to consult the meaning behind words translated into English from the language in which they were originally written. Also, consult several English translations of the Bible, such as the King James, ESV and Jerusalem Bible to see how Christians representing different denominations or schools of thought translate a particular verse or phrase.
After you’ve made your own observations, consult a reliable Bible commentary. Also read what respected theologians over the past two millennia have had to say about the book or passage you are studying, and not just those scholars or teachers who are currently living. You can find most of these resources on-line or in your local library.
Whether on our own or in a group, exegesis – study of the Bible – is essential at every point in our lives, so that we understand what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) and what it has to say to each situation in which we find ourselves in life. In Germany, during the last century, a small group of German pastors banded together to resist Hitler’s take-over of the German churches. Bible study was the weapon with which they fought back. They turned to the Bible for strength and courage and to remind themselves, and those in their care, of the One to whom they owed their allegiance.
Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century, was one of those pastors. When the German government decided to deport him by train to his native Switzerland, because of his outspoken resistance to their policies, his students and parishioners met him at the station. As the train was pulling away, they called out to him, asking for parting words of advice. Barth’s response to their urgent question had a timeless quality to it. Leaning out of the window nearest his seat he shouted, “Exegesis! Exegesis!” Barth knew that studying the Bible was the one thing that made sense in a world gone mad.
The Bible is our moral compass and when we commit to exegesis we are not likely to forget what the One to whom we belong requires of us.
Next week: Using Scripture in prayer.