November 19, 2008

Exegesis? What's that??

Next week will mark the end of this semester's Passage classes. I've had a blast teaching "Bible for the Rest of Us" and "The Hebrew Bible" and I hope those of you who have completed the courses have as well!

One of the things we talk about in all our Passage classes is the importance of faithfully and accurately interpreting the texts of Scripture in their original contexts before determining any modern meaning or application. This often involves some hard work and study...but that's how God designed it!

This process of finding the original intended meaning of a text to its original audience is called exegesis (X-uh-JEE-sis). It means "to draw out", as in to draw out the meaning from the text itself rather than reading our own meaning INTO the text. That process has a fancy name as well: eisegesis (EYE-suh-jee-sis)...and it is to be avoided as much as possible--particularly by those who find themselves in positions of teaching or spiritual authority.

This point was illustrated to me recently by a prayer letter that was sent by a very prominent TV ministry to a member of GS. She gave it to me and asked me to take a look at it.

I did.

I was not encouraged by what I read.

The letter is a call for Christians to pray for the safety of Israel right now because of Russia and Iran's evil intentions. (You can find it online here.)

Fine. No problem. (But why not pray for Russia and Iran's people and their safety as well, while we're at it??)

The petition for prayer wasn't the problem (though it WAS dangerously nationalistic...something thewhole book of Jonah was written to combat!). The problem came when the author attempted to provide "Biblical" support for his political foreign policy position.

Here is an excerpt:

About 2600 years ago, God gave the Prophet Ezekiel a description of an invasion
of Israel after the Jews had been regathered to the Promised Land from all over
the world in the “latter days.”
Ezekiel wrote of an invasion force led by Russia
that would include Iran and “Cush,” which is Sudan
. The other parties described
by Ezekiel that constituted theinvading force
could include some of the Muslim
nations in the former Soviet Caucasus region and possibly Turkey
. According to
Ezekiel 38:12, they would come seeking “plunder and loot.”
What greater plunder
than the oil riches of the Persian Gulf
?Will this unfold all at once? It’s
difficult to say. But what is clear is this: The Israeli strike against Iran
will be the trigger. From then on, dramatic events will follow in quick
succession. It all will conclude when God has rained fire on the islands of the
sea and on the invading force coming against Israel.

Where will the United States be in all of this conflict? According to Ezekiel, the “young lions of Tarshish” will be questioning the Russians about their aggression – questioning, but not acting to stop it. Who are these “young lions of Tarshish?” Tarshish was the region beyond Cadiz in Spain. In antiquity, explorers from Tarshish came to Ireland, then acrossthe ocean to North America, traveling the Mississippi River as far as the present-day site of Davenport, Iowa.I believe the term “young
lions of Tarshish” refers to England and the United States of America. According
to Ezekiel, when the Middle East trouble begins, the young lions of Tarshish will warn Russia and Iran, but refuse to act. We will suffer grave economic damage, but will not engage in military action to stop the conflict. However, we may not be spared nuclear strikes against coastal cities

In conclusion, it is my opinion that we have between 75 and 120 days before the Middle East starts spinning out of control. If there was ever a time for fervent prayer, it is now. Prayer can change the course of history!

Now while I wholeheartedly agree with that last sentence, that is about all I can find there that is Biblically based! First of all, it would be helpful to read the chapter that the author is referring to from Ezekiel. (Rather than posting it all here, you can find it online at various Bible sites such as this one.)

Now, did you notice that not once in the entire chapter do we find any references to Russia, Iran, Sudan, the Soviet Caucasus, or Turkey? Those modern countries have been READ INTO (i.e. eisegeted) the text in order to fit with the author's idea of what should happen. I've highlighted the eisegetical ideas above for clarity's sake.

And putting aside for the moment that the Hebrew text does not say "the young lions of Tarshish", but rather "Sheba and Dedan and the traders of Tarshish with all their young lions", the much bigger eisegetical error is using the fact that some people may have moved from Tarshish, Spain to Ireland and then to parts of America as indicating that Tarshish really means "England and the United States." This is a bogus journey of interpretation indeed!

What about the fact that millions of people have settled in the US and England from places like Iran, Russia, Sudan, and Turkey? Using the very same eisegetical line of thinking the author is using, one could argue that since the US has people from all those countries, it is THE US that is being spoken of as the invading forces in Ezekiel! Surely the author would not agree with this? So why then should this reasoning be used to identify the US as "Tarshish"?

My point is that ALL of this is reading a meaning into the Bible that is simply not there. That is the essence of eisegesis and the complete antithesis of sound Biblical interpretation, exegesis. Such imaginary readings go a long way in instilling fear and xenophobia into readers who may not know better and who may simply trust the author because of his fame as a minister (not to mention driving up donations to ministries such as his who seem to be able to "decode" the current political events)...but they do little in the way of teaching the Bible and creating sharp, discerning, learned students of Scripture--which we are all called to be.

Even well-known and well-intentioned Christians can fall into error...and unfortunately it usually makes it into the media when they do. If you ever feel like one of the pastors or teachers here at GS--especially me!--is falling into eisegetical readings of Scripture, please come to us one-on-one or via email or however you feel comfortable and let us know. I know I am not above making interpretive mistakes, and should I ever fall into error I hope the Body of Christ is there to guide me back into truth. So consider that an open invitation for discussion to anyone reading this! :)

"Much will be required of everyone who has been given much. And even more will be expected of the one who has been entrusted with more." Luke 12:48b


ps: For anyone wanting to learn more about how to avoid eisegesis when reading the Bible, I recommend the following resources wholeheartedly:

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth - Gordon Fee & Doug Stuart (Dr. Stuart was a prof. of mine as well as of my Dad, and is a phenomenal teacher and scholar of the first rank)

Exegetical Fallacies - D.A. Carson

for higher-level study, I recommend Fee's New Testament Exegesis and Stuart's Old Testament Exegesis as well.

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