Audio of this post (remember this is from the class!)
Here is a little test—read the following sentence out loud to yourself:
a woman without her man is nothing
Now, how did you punctuate that sentence as you read it? Like this?
A woman without her man is nothing.
Or like this:
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Do you see the difference? (warning: English grammar lesson to follow)
In the first example the subject of the sentence is ‘woman’ and the predicate would be ‘is nothing’. Another way of saying this sentence would be: A woman is nothing without her man.
In the second example, the subject of the sentence is ‘man’, indicating that it is the man who is nothing without the help of a woman.
How you read this sentence depends on one of two things:
1. Your own hermeneutic—what presuppositions you make about the world
2. Your assumptions about my hermeneutic—what presuppositions you think I make about the world.
Our hermeneutic is our set of presuppositions about the world, our “world-view” you might say. It is how we put together and order the otherwise disordered scenes of life in order to make sense out of what we see. In the example above, some of us might see the world as dominated by men and thus any statement made, we automatically assume has a bias toward men and against women. This could be true whether we are male or female (though how we feel about that might be different based on our gender). Some of us might think that women rule, or that as a woman, I might think women rule. That might lead you to the second way of reading.
Or you might have no clue and simply be waiting for more information. If so—good for you! The more information you can learn about a text, and about the context in which the text was produced, the better you are able to make an educated guess at the hermeneutic of those for whom the text was written. Learning about the hermeneutic of a particular era in the church’s history might help you understand why a text has been read in a particularly way. Understanding your own set of assumptions and presuppositions—your own hermeneutic—will lead you to understand your own reading.
We cannot know how the original writer intended a text to be read without knowing the hermeneutic of that writer, though we can make some guesses. However, in interpreting the text—in doing our exegesis—we can and do know certain things about the text. In the above example, we know what each of the words mean, as long as we know English. We know that in some way it concerns the relationship between men and women. If we are able to learn the perspective of the author, then we might be able to make those guesses, but we also have to know the context: Is the author quoting someone else? Is the author expressing his/her point of view or that of a particular character? Is the author speaking “tongue-in-cheek” as it were? By reading other texts written by the same person, we might gain some of that perspective that we seek. By reading the text in which this snippet is placed, we might find out if it is in a play about male-female relationships, a hate-filled speech written by a man seeking to deny women the right to vote, or a dissertation about how words are used!
People of radically different hermeneutics can use the same techniques of exegesis and come out with different understanding. After learning more about where this snippet of text comes from, you might learn that it does in fact come from a speech by a man seeking to deny women the right to vote. If you agree with that stance, and you believe the speaker to be a fount of wisdom, then you might interpret the statement as a pearl of wisdom and quote it as justification for some point that you want to make. If you think that the speaker was an old-fashioned and out-moded thinker and that the world has thankfully moved on, you might interpret it as a bit of foolishness. My point here is not to argue about the relative merits of men and women, but to get you to see that point of view makes a difference in interpretation.
I hope I haven’t lost you by now! I also hope you are getting a sense of the complexities that we have in reading the biblical text—well, really in reading any text. Most of the time we just do all of this automatically, and that works fine for us. But if we really want to study a text, especially an ancient text, and get the most out of it, then we have to take these things into consideration. Really, we don’t even need to think about all this every time we read the bible; sometimes we can just read devotionally and let God speak to us. But other times, we need to struggle with the text and see if God is speaking in a different way.