Principles of Bible Reading: How Else Could It Be Said?
An important assumption of close reading, whether or not the text at hand is Scripture, is that every detail matters. Every detail can and should be subjected to scrutiny. Now, not every detail is equally important, but this process of observing and critically analyzing the details of a text is how we determine which details are important and the level of their importance.
One way we can subject details to scrutiny is by asking, “How else could it be said?” This kind of question is particularly important when doing a semantic field analysis, which is the study of families of words with related meanings and their uses in order to understand subtle distinctions among these words. You do this (or ought to do this) when doing a “word study” (a popular and venerable form of Bible study).
But this question, “How else could it be said?”, is not just useful in the study of words as words. It also helps us get at the meaning of a word within its specific context and so of a text as a whole. That is a complicated thought, so I will try to break that down and illustrate it.
Let us consider two examples from our recent post, “A Kingdom of Priests to the Nations.” This post examines details from two biblical texts: Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 61:6 (the similarity of verse number is coincidental). Exodus 19:6 says, “But you – you will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” A launching point for this post was the question, “Why a ‘kingdom of priests’ rather than a ‘kingdom of kings’, or something else?” In other words, how else could this have been said and how would the meaning of the text have been altered had it been said differently? What other ideas or phrases might we expect in this context, and how does the text surprise us or disrupt our expectations?
“What other ideas or phrases might we expect in this context?”
Though we are dealing with the humanities and not the natural sciences, this is actually a very scientific thing to do. Any well designed scientific experiment will try to create two or more variants of a situation and study the differences between these variants. So that we can know what is responsible for the differences, we make sure that the variants differ in a minimal number of details, if possible only one. Those differing details are called variables. If you have an experiment with multiple variables, the data you glean from that experiment will likely not be of much use, since it cannot be determined with any certainty what is the cause of the resulting differences between the control situation and the variable situation.
In studying texts closely, the detail we are subjecting to scrutiny has become our variable. In Exodus 19, I focused on the phrase “kingdom of priests” because it is prominent in this passage and, therefore, in the book of Exodus. This introduces the part of Exodus where God reveals himself on Mount Sinai, gives the Ten Commandments, and institutes a covenant between Israel and himself. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect that the things God says here are thematic. God appears to be telling us in the broadest terms what his purpose for Israel is. This means that if we are going to understand God’s purpose for Israel, we need to meditate on what “kingdom of priests” means.
So I began asking questions, such as:
- What place do priests usually have in a society?
- What is a priesthood for?
- Most especially, what if we replaced “priests” with something else?
I do not need to repost the whole lesson. I would encourage you to go read it for yourself. For the present, what I want to point out is how I contrasted “kingdom of priests” with “kingdom of kings”. The observation I made was that if God’s purpose for Israel was to make them a dominant military and political force in the world, and in this way to spread the fame and glory of the LORD, “kingdom of priests” is not really the most apt image. Something more like “kingdom of kings” is far more relevant. When we also study the differences between the respective roles of priests and kings in a society it leads us to some surprising conclusions about God’s purpose for Israel relative to the other nations of the world.
“We might have expected, rather, ‘your God’ or ‘their God’, but not ‘our God’.”
A second example of this “hypothetical replacement” method can be seen in the section dealing with Isaiah 61:6. This verse says, “But as for you, you will be called ‘priests of the LORD’; ‘ministers of our God’ it will said of you.” The detail I focused on was “our God”, because the people making this proclamation about renewed Israel are strangers and foreigners – the Gentiles. In other words, non-Israelites are claiming the God of Israel as their own, which is a surprising detail. We might have expected, rather, “your God” or “their God”, but not “our God”. But instead of what we would expect, we have a possessive pronoun implying a relationship (even a covenant relationship) between non-Israelites and the God of Israel.
Again, I am not going to spell out my conclusions concerning this detail, because my conclusions are not the point here. You might very well come to different conclusions after subjecting these two details to the same kind of scrutiny I subjected them to, and that would be wonderful. My point in this post is to highlight the key role of the question, “how else could it be said?” By thinking in these terms and suggesting hypothetical replacements for key details of a text, we bring ourselves closer to understanding the text because we have to attempt to replicate the kind of thinking that constructed the text in the way that we have it.