Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Biblical Interpreter & Occasional Queasiness

Exegesis (Bible interpretation) is the application of proper hermeneutics to the original text of Scripture for the purpose of declaring its intended meaning. All of the interpretation steps involved are designed to accomplish this goal. However, sometimes when all is done, the interpreter still scratches his or her head wondering why the conclusions arrived at seem less than final. Has all that there is to know about the text been discovered? This leads to the interpretation principle called “exegetical questioning.” If one can discover by questioning the text the particular area of uncertainty, he or she can potentially resolve the queasiness. Exodus 7:19 (New American Standard Bible) illustrates this process.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their reservoirs of water, that they may become blood; and there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’”

This passage seems straightforward, yet there is a vague something lurking in the background. Is this uncertainty related to the syntax? No, each term seems properly related to its context. Word meanings? Yes, and in particular the words translated “reservoirs of water” that appear to repeat what has just been said (tautology?), “their pools.”

A feminine form of the Hebrew word for “reservoir,” spelled מִקְוָה, occurs in the Old Testament only in Isaiah 22:11. It is not used in the Exodus passage. The masculine form of the word appears. Why? Being familiar with Hebrew vocabulary, the exact same spelling exists with another word meaning “hope” or “security,” something that would not have been true with the feminine word. Was this a purposeful word selection or merely a coincidence? To follow through on this further question: Is there any reason why the 1st plague upon the waters of Egypt should be an attack upon the Egyptians’ hope or security? This now becomes a historical question.

C.E. DeVries, writing in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, “Nile,” states:

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the river for Egypt. The Nile touched nearly every facet of Egypt[ian] life and gave to Egypt[ian] culture many of its characteristic features. In ancient times the recognition of dependence on the river led to the deification of the stream under the figure of the god Hapi, represented as a well-fed man with pendulous breasts, bearing offerings of the products of the river.

Would the ruination of the waters of the Nile that fed most other fresh water sources cause the Egyptians to lose their sense of security and hope? Indeed yes! A survey of the numerous commentators shows that the conflict between Moses and Pharoah at heart is a conflict between Yahweh and the gods of Egypt. It would not be overreaching to conclude that Moses used the word מקוה (lit. “confluence [of waters”] and “hope/security”) to indicate both ideas, an Amphibologia (Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, 804), a statement with two meanings both of which are true. This would then be an exceptionally powerful statement occurring as it does at the first plague.

Questions, questions, questions, leading to more questions! This is the nature of biblical interpretation! I am reminded of Sidney Greidanus’ pointed remarks (The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1988, p. 17):

Of course, interpreters understand texts only by asking questions and receiving answers. Asking the right questions is of crucial importance, for asking the wrong questions will undoubtedly result in receiving wrong answers. One of the weighty issues in hermeneutics is, therefore, how to ask the right questions.

Competent biblical interpreters must ever pursue truth, and often this means asking key questions and searching out the answers to those questions.