It has been several weeks since I posted in this series, but in the last piece I wrote about the importance of discovering the context of a passage in Bible study, especially for the purpose of teaching. Context is the story behind the story. It is the surrounding, perhaps unmentioned details that help give the story meaning. When a passage is taken out of context we commit a hermeneutical no-no in that we are then free to make the passage mean what we want it to mean. Yet, as we have discussed before, a passage never means what it never meant (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, loc 574 Kindle Ed.). Context is important. Allow me to demonstrate.
As a pastor I feel sometimes like a wedding groupie. If there is a wedding within 50 miles I’m probably going, either by invite or as the officiant. Over and over again I have heard Christian couples include a powerful Bible verse in their vows:
“Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
I am not trying to be critical. I get it. These are great words that seem to appropriately express the spiritual commitment of marriage. If you want to use these words in your ceremony, do it; I’m not knocking it, but you should be aware of the context.
The words are from Ruth 1:16. They were voiced by Ruth, not to her husband, but to her mother-in-law. They were not even said at a wedding, but after a funeral. Ruth’s husband has died. Ruth met her lat husband because her in-laws had left Bethlehem due to famine and had settled in the pagan land of Moab. Ruth, at the time she said these words was not a believer. She was a good pagan girl. I would argue even that when Ruth said these words she did not become a believer. She was simply expressing a common cultural formula to her mother-in-law.
In moving back to Bethlehem they were crossing a national border. In ancient pagan thought the gods were sort of caged by the borders. Each nation had their gods and if you wanted to escape the wrath of a certain god, you could move to a land out of his domain, where other gods ruled. Ruth was saying, “We are crossing the border. I want to be a part of your people by also receiving the dominion of the rule of their God.” The beauty of the story is that even though Ruth did not fully comprehend what she was saying, she would soon find that the benevolent rule and law of Israel’s God would indeed become her salvation.
When the verse is read in context it has a whole new meaning. I would even argue that it has an even greater meaning than one that we would supply for it. As creative as we may be, there is a power already in the Word of God that we cannot rival. As teachers and students of the Bible our task is not to supply meaning to the Word. This is called eisogesis (Greek preposition eis means “into”). It means to read meaning “into” the text. Our task is exegesis (Greek proposition ek means “out of”). As Exodus is the story of God pulling His people out of Egypt, so exegesis is the task of pulling the meaning out of a Scriptural text. The meaning of the text is already there. We do not supply it, we discover it!