Sunday, August 22, 2010

Nehemiah 2-3 The Importance of Good Exegesis and Hermeneutics

So, in Nehemiah 2:9, Nehemiah finally sets out on his journey to Jerusalem.  Take a minute to read the passage in question so you know what I’m talking about.  Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Nehemiah had courage.  Since he could have been executed just for looking sad in the presence of the king, it took him courage to not only allow himself to express what he was feeling, but also to then ask the king for help. 

2. Nehemiah did more than plan.  He executed the plan.  I have so many half-finished knitting projects, that it’s not even funny!  However, I know the importance of finishing a plan so that you can be known as a trustworthy person (besides how nice it is to have a dining room that is completely finished!).  Nehemiah was continuing to rely on God’s provisions, but he knew that he also had his own responsibilities to get up and do the work.

3. Nehemiah spent three days in Jerusalem before he even started looking at the walls.  If that had been me, I would have been out scouting the project and getting people excited right at the beginning.  But, Nehemiah had the patience that he needed.  Apparently (Broadman commentary), there were lots of social niceties that needed to be done that could have taken three days.

4. Nehemiah scouted the walls in secret.  I’m still not completely sure why he did this.  The commentaries I have read suggested that this allowed him to assess what needed to be done without drawing a lot of attention to himself.  Then, when he presented his plans to the rest of the Jews, he would know what he was talking about.

5. The rest of the Jews were enthusiastic about helping with the work.  It was, after all, their city.  Not only were they embarrassed by the walls, but having a city without walls was dangerous.  They just needed a leader – someone who had charisma to lead and the influence of the political hierarchy so they could get permission to rebuild.

6. When there was opposition to the plan, Nehemiah seemed to kind of blow them off and say, “Hey, you don’t have any claim to Jerusalem, so stay out of our way.”  But, I’m pretty sure this opposition is going to get worse before it  gets better – stay tuned!

So, why my comment in the title exegesis and hermeneutics?  First, a few definitions.  Exegesis is the task of discovering the original meaning of a text – what did the author mean to say?  Hermeneutics means to find the contemporary meaning of a text – what can we learn from it?  According to Fee and Stuart (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p.26), “A text cannot mean what it never meant. (emphasis in the original).  Or to put that in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken.”  That’s just the basics.  I read a great book on hermeneutics a couple of years ago that really opened my eyes to understanding the Bible (Scripture as Communication by Brown – it’s a textbook used at Bethel for their hermeneutics class).

Why am I bringing this up?  The Sonlight Core 200 package includes a book by Ray Stedman called Adventuring Through the Bible.  We weren’t planning on using this book this year anyway, because Rosie Girl is going to use the Fee and Stuart books along with just reading the scripture itself.  But, I used it as a background reference on this study of Nehemiah.  Apparently, the book is designed to be both academic and devotional.  My problem is that Stedman goes through all the gates listed in the second chapter of Nehemiah as Nehemiah walks around the city and gives a contemporary application of each gate on our lives.  I agree with everything he said, just not in the context where he said it.  The original meaning of these gates is just to describe what was going on in Nehemiah’s circle around the city.  As an example, he tells us that the fish gate reminds us of Jesus’ command that we are to be “fishers of men”.  This could not have been the meaning to the original author, though.  To the Jews of that time, the fish gate was probably just the gate that the fishermen used most often.

Even though I don’t think Stedman falls into error here, I do think that it’s sloppy hermeneutics.  There’s plenty to learn from Nehemiah without trying to impose modern application to ancient architecture.  What do you think?  Is this just my pet peeve?  Am I off the wall here?


P.S If you are going to do real Bible study, both Fee and Stuart books are excellent – How to Read the Bible for All It’s  Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book.  They aren’t hard reads but are incredibly helpful when trying to understand the Bible, which is applicable to our lives today, but was written in a completely different time and culture.


Luke said...

Good point, and that is certainly one of the more complex issues surrounding devotions vs. study of Scripture.

I can't say how on or off "the wall" you are, but I will freely admit that Sunday School Bible studies and curriculum drive me up the wall with their consistently lacking study of Scripture.

...just one potential counterpoint that came to mind while reading: Often in Scripture the author of a book will look back on an ancient text and draw out contemporary meaning. This seems to be done frequently in reference to Christ. Often when I go back and read a passage the New Testament quotes and referring to Christ, I find the language to only loosely fit. A recent example was when I read Isaiah 11. Sounds like Christ... except the parts that don't sound anything like His earthly ministry. So... is it (also?) about Christ's return?

Just a thought.


Catherine said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Luke. One of the things that I'm really enjoying lately is learning about how to really study the Bible. What I learned when I was younger did not include near enough paying attention to the early context in which the text was written. It's really rather fascinating.