Exegesis – genres – Hermeneutics

This is taken from BIBLE STUDY METHODS By Timothy P. Jenney

Most of the work in understanding a Bible passage is in the first step, exegesis. Once we understand what it meant to the original audience, we are 80% of the way toward understanding what it means to us. The remaining 20%, as well as additional tips on interpreting unusual genres in the Bible, can be found in the course Hermeneutics.


To exegete:


(1)   Read the text carefully.


(2)   Ask the right questions of the text.


What is the history behind this text? Who is the author, his audience and their culture?


What is the literary content of the text?


The word for the type of literature content is genres. This approach is to explore the customs, religions, cities and countries, clothing, songs and history. Together, these things form a people’s culture.


Historical context varies from book to book and is related to each book’s time, culture and occasion. That’s where a Bible Dictionary comes in handy.  We have to learn whom it was written to, and what was going on around these people at that ancient time in history. The customs and culture are very important.


(3)   We have to be careful to understand the content or original meaning of each word in Scripture. (i.e. what it means in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.)


Then the second task of interpretation is Hermeneutics. This should always be the second step. It means to seek the contemporary relevance or application of ancient texts. The reason for this second task, rather than the first, is that the only proper control for modern application is original content of the biblical text.



Common Mistakes in Bible Study.


(1) Take everything literally.


Not only is this incorrect, it’s impossible. No one takes everything in the Bible literally.


Example: Luke 13:31-32: At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Go and tell that FOX…..”


This passage says that Jesus called Herod a “fox.” What did Jesus mean? A literal interpretation would mean that Herod was “a red, bushy-tailed animal.” This is not the likely interpretation of Herod who was a human king. Perhaps he meant instead that Herod was “an unusually appealing sensual female” – a “fox,” but Herod referred to elsewhere as a man. In fact, this is probably a metaphor, a figure of speech. Jesus was saying that Herod was “as sly and intelligent as a fox.”


The real goal of interpretation is not to take everything literally. It is to take literally what God meant literally and to take figuratively what God meant figuratively. The only guide we have to this is what each passage meant to its original audience.


(2) Assume You Know What It Means


A second common mistake in interpretation is assuming we know what the text means. Many people only study a scripture when it contains something that is obviously unfamiliar: a name, a place or a word. Yet at least some scriptures that seem obvious and easy to apply are regularly misinterpreted.


Example: Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world…..


In times past we were forbidden to go to movies, the fair, carnivals and for us at one time, even the public library because it was of the world. This scripture was used to support this. This scripture is still consistently misinterpreted.


The word translated world in the passage above is the Greek aionos. It means “age,” not “world.” Paul had just finished describing the two things that caused Israel to miss the Messiah: pride and self-righteousness. He is telling the Church that they must not become like Israel, filled with pride and self-righteousness.  In fact, being conformed to Paul’s age meant to be proud and self- righteous, not whether a Christian went to the movies.


In addition, notice what the passage says the opposite of being conformed to the world is. It is to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. This does not challenge a Christian to “do” anything differently, but to “think” differently. You can clearly see this by reading the entire passage in its literary context. Notice that all of it deals with attitude, not actions, with sins, which afflict the church rather than the world:


Romans 12:1-4 - Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.  [2] Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.  [3] For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.  [4] Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 


If the meaning of this Scripture is so clear, why do well meaning people continue to misunderstand and misuse it? Because it is so familiar they assume they know what it means and never stop to check. In other words, we can be mistaken about a scripture and never realize it. The only solution to this common problem is to always make exegesis the first step of our Bible reading. It should not just be something we do when we “realize” we do not understand.


(3) Never Apply It To Oneself


In some ways, the third common problem is the opposite of both of the previous two. The previous problems have something in common: they are mistakes in interpretation which result from someone being so concerned about the application that they do not exegete properly. Then they wind up confused about God’s will for their lives.


When this happens often enough, some people will stop applying Scripture to their lives entirely. They may even learn to exegete correctly, but it is never to see what God says to them. It is a sermon for the church, or a paper for a professor or devotional, etc… This is not objectivity, but a disinterested intellectualization, which profits no one and harms many. The products of such studies are dry and lifeless because there is no passion in the, no heart.


The correct techniques of exegesis you learn must never replace the action of the Holy Spirit upon your life, nor the power of God’s word to change you. Correct technique is an asset to the work of the Spirit, not a substitute for it. As you begin to work intensively with God’s Word, He will begin to work intensively with you.






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