You can imagine the situation. You find a note on the ground from someone to someone else. There are reference you do not understand, phrases that pass beyond your understanding. It could be a threatening letter. It could be a love letter. You are trying your best to understand the situation in which this letter is being written using the words that you are reading.
Or perhaps this one: you are walking by your sibling or partner or friend in the middle of watching a show or film that you’ve never seen. You watch for a moment, picking up on the context from objects or things unfolding on the screen. It’s a Western or a space opera. There are interpretative clues given, and you are using these to understand the action that is happening, to understand the world of the film.
In reading Scripture, we do the same thing. In fact, we interpret everything. There is no text (book, film, artwork) that is given to us unmediated. There is always a messenger or messengers. But we can use the clues and resources of history or literature or other subjects to understand the context of the artwork or text being created. And we can discover meaning. In reading the Bible, we do the same thing: through study and careful reading, we put together the meaning(s) of the text. We try our best to understand the context, to understand the world in which the human authors lived, and we try to understanding how their words fit into the larger Word of God. And to quote a great hermeneutician and philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Scripture is the word of God, and that means that it has an absolute priority over the doctrine of those who interpret it…Interpretation should never overlook this. Even as the scholarly interpretation of the theologian, it must never forget that Scripture is the divine proclamation of salvation.”
The study of interpretation is called hermeneutics, from the name of the messenger of the Greek gods, Hermes. And theologians have always been concerned with hermeneutics, with how to interpret Scripture. Indeed, every Christian is in some ways concerned with hermeneutics, as they read or study Scripture. Even having a “literal” reading of Scripture is an act of interpretation. This post is the first in a series about interpreting the Old Testament, and the questions and concerns we may have when approaching books like Genesis or Numbers or Amos or Daniel. I will be largely following the work of Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in their book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. But I will also be bringing insight into the discussions from Gadamer and from others who have thought long and hard about interpretation and Scripture.