Reading the Bible – hermeneutics, location and audience : redivivus

I’m going to be off-line for an indeterminate period, laid up in the Mater Clinic in Dublin undergoing heart surgery (as one does!). So rather than leave the blog dormant, I thought I would trawl through the archives for some posts I like, or which got a particular reaction from my reader!

This one was posted originally on 12 October 2007.


Having studied theology formally for a total of about 5 years I guess I’ve been reasonably well educated in hermeneutics and the tools for good bible study. My bookshelves would even have a book or two of techniques. I’ve tried to understand how texts would have sounded to the original audience, and to make the imaginative jump to contemporary application. All that kinda stuff.

More recently I’ve become interested in how location of reading influences interpretation. What I want to do is understand how the physical location of the PLACE of reading influences our understanding. This came home to me in studies of the prophets in the OT. Read Zech 8:1-8 in a typical suburban home, with two cars in the drive, traffic calming measures in the wide streets outside, adequate street lighting in a reasonably secure community and images like old men and women leaning on walking sticks sitting in the streets watching the children playing (verses 4,5) will have a set of resonances.

Read those same prophetic images in an urban home, without a fenced garden, surrounded by shuttered business premises and boy racers flying up and down the dimly lit streets and a whole new set of resonances emerge. Read them in a packed bar, or a quiet restaurant and potentially something different again.

The WHERE of bible study matters.

Now a third thing. I’ve just finished reading Bob Ekblad’s ‘Reading the Bible with the Damned‘ (what a great title). He argues that the reading community also matters (obvious really). So his chapters move through the scriptures and he rehearses studies with different marginalised groups – reading the Psalms with the dispossessed, reading  Paul with illegals and so on.

Among the most challenging was his chapter ‘Following Jesus, the Good Coyote – reading Paul with undocumented immigrants’. Apparently ‘coyote’ is the term used to describe those operators who illegally smuggle Mexican migrants   across the border into the US. Having paid a fortune to these ‘coyotes’ these migrants are then translated from their place of poverty to the land of promise, where they have no right to be. Do you see where he is going. Jesus is the good coyote who smuggles us from this place of poverty to the place we have no right to be, nor do we merit it.

Ekblad writes:

“Reading Paul with undocumented immigrants, inmates, and ‘criminal aliens’ can clearly bring life to worn-out texts. Reading these Scripture passages in a way that holds onto the radical grace that infuses them requires faith and risk. Though I am fully aware of other texts that emphasise the importance of being subject to governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7) and of walking by the Spirit and not by flesh (Gal 5:16-26) I do not believe that people always need to be presented with the ‘whole picture’. Most people on the society’s margins assume the Scriptures are only about lists of dos and don’ts and calls to compliance. Reading with people whose social standing, family or origin, addictions, criminal history and other factors make compliance with civil laws or scriptural teachings impossible requires a deliberate reading for and acting by grace….Reading Paul with undocumented immigrants and inmates invites us to a radical reorientation away from total allegiance to the state, denominations, and other principalities with their laws and doctrines, towards a 100 percent following after the One crucified outside the camp. Baptism into Christ’s death as a lawbreaker is necessary if one is to effectively serve as a bearer of good news to ..any of today’s undocumented immigrants and outlaws.” (p195-196)

Place and people as critical interpretative tools.

Interesting that, isn’t it?

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