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The blunder in our Bible reading

The blunder in our Bible reading


I’ve been talking to the trainees at CBS about how to read the Bible.

Like most of you, they already have a decent idea of how to do this. They know about the reading process of COMA—Context, Observation, Meaning, Application. And (again like most of you) they have also learned to read the Bible by doing it over many years, and by hearing the Bible taught and preached well over many years.

But I love a good clarifying definition, so I’ve put together this one to sharpen their understanding of what’s involved in reading the Bible (or ‘exegesis’, if we want to make it sound more impressive). I’m suggesting that:

The aim of good Bible reading is to listen and respond to what God is doing in this text—through these sentences addressed to their implied original readers within the larger biblical context of God’s saving revelation of his Son

There are all sorts of interesting things we could explore in this definition.

But the aspect I want to explore in today’s post is the seemingly innocuous phrase “through these sentences”. Our goal in Bible reading is to see and respond to what God is doing through the sentences and paragraphs that make up the passage that we’re reading.

A statement of the bleedin’ obvious if ever there was one.

But this obvious statement is necessary because of what it denies: we don’t say things or do things with words—only by arranging those words into sentences. Sentences are how we say something (or do something) through language.

Why am I teaching you to suck eggs like this? Because I think we have a problem in this area.

Perhaps it’s because we love the Bible and its words so much. But judging by the exegetical arguments I keep hearing us make, we sometimes seem to think that meaning is conveyed by words rather than sentences—as if words are little suitcases that carry around with them all kinds of meanings and concepts and ideas that can be unpacked into any given sentence. Or that what a word is doing in this sentence can be discovered by noting what it was doing in that sentence over there.

This is the blunder I keep seeing us make in our Bible reading and exegesis and preaching. (And I have done it myself more than once!)

Let me try to explain what I mean with a non-biblical example.

Let’s say that when the Moore College scholars of the future are poring over the 18 leather-bound volumes of the collected works of Tony Payne, they read these two sentences about boys, one in volume 3:

God blessed me with two boisterous, clever boys—Luke and Nick.

And another in volume 7:

I separated the two boys who were fighting, and told them to stop being so stupid.

In these sentences, the lexical sense or meaning of the word ‘boy’ is the one we’d find in the dictionary: a male child or young person, or possibly a slave or servant. This is the semantic range or field of the word ‘boy’. We discern which part of the semantic range applies in any particular sentence by … reading the sentence in its context—that is, whether the boys in question were are someone’s male children (as in the first sentence) or just young males generally (more likely in the second) or slaves (unlikely in either).

So far, so easy.

However, various concepts are also associated with boys in these two sentences—boisterousness, cleverness, fighting, the fact that they come as blessings from God. But these concepts aren’t super-glued to the word ‘boy’, as if they follow it around wherever it goes. This is one of the key mistakes we make in Bible reading and exegesis. We take concepts that are associated with a word in one sentence, and transfer them into another sentence in a completely different place.

We say things like this as we write our biblical commentary: “Payne often associates boys with cleverness (see vol. 3, p. 27). For Payne, ‘boy’ is cleverness language. It’s likely therefore that the two fighting boys in volume 7 were having an intellectual dispute, not merely a physical one, and that when Payne tells them not to be ‘stupid’ he is referring to a temporary lack of good sense, not impugning their innate cleverness.”

This is linguistic balderdash.

Boy is notcleverness language’. Cleverness doesn’t ride around on the coat-tails of the word ‘boy’ waiting to jump into any given sentence that ‘boy’ appears in. ‘Boy’ means a ‘young male or male child’, and if you want to say that this or that boy is clever (or stupid), you do that by making a sentence. In everyday English, we know this, and would never make such a basic linguistic error. We know that you don’t say things by using a word and expecting your hearers or readers to know or remember how you might have used that word on some completely different occasion, and then read those associated concepts or referents into the sentence that is coming out of your mouth.

But somehow, when we come to read the Bible, we find ourselves doing strange things like this quite often (and I confess I have done so myself).

For example, have you ever read (or made) an argument like this one?1

Many opinions of working women have been shaped by the word in Genesis 2:18, ‘helper’. This word therefore merits some greater attention. Was the woman to be merely a helpful assistant to the man? In our day we use the word ‘helper’ in the sense of a plumber's assistant, handing the boss the right wrench for the job. But that is far from the meaning of the Hebrew word used to describe the first woman.

God created the woman as an ‘ezer’ [the Hebrew word in Gen 2:18]. The word ‘ezer’ occurs twenty-one times in the Old Testament. In two cases it refers to the first woman, Eve, in Genesis 2. Three times it refers to powerful nations Israel called on for help when besieged. In the sixteen remaining cases the word refers to God as our help. He is the one who comes alongside us in our helplessness. That's the meaning of ‘ezer’. Because God is not subordinate to his creatures, any idea that an ezer-helper is inferior is untenable.

This author wants to counter the idea that because Eve is Adam’s helper, this renders Eve somehow inferior or subordinate to Adam. And the argument starts well by pointing out (quite rightly) that just because we often associate the word ‘helper’ with junior apprentices or assistants in our linguistic context, we can’t then read those concepts back into Genesis 2—as if the concepts of ‘inferior status’ are attached to the word ‘helper’, and can be unloaded into whichever sentence ‘helper’ appears in.

Unfortunately, however, the author then makes precisely the same mistake with the OT usage of the word. It’s quite true that the word ‘helper’ is used elsewhere in the OT to refer to God, with associated concepts of superiority or salvation or ‘coming alongside us in our helplessness’. But this doesn’t mean that these concepts are attached to the word ‘helper’, and can be applied in any other sentence that ‘helper’ appears in. The word ‘helper’ doesn’t mean ‘a superior or powerful person who comes alongside us in our helplessness’.   

The word ezer in Hebrew means almost exactly what the word ‘helper’ does in English: ‘someone who offers help or comfort or assistance’. Whether that ‘helper’ is superior or inferior or subordinate or divine or powerful or incompetent can only be determined by seeing what sort of helper they were—by reading what the author said about that helper through these sentences to their original implied readers (to go back to my definition of good reading).

The possible inferiority or superiority of the ‘helper’ in Genesis 2 can be determined in only one way—by reading the sentences of Genesis 2. And if those sentences don’t say anything much about inferiority or superiority (which they don’t), then we should accept that, and move on.

We seem to do this sort of thing too often. We go hunting through the cross references (or via our Bible software) for other passages that contain the same words that appear in the passage we’re reading.  And then we starting taking associated ideas, concepts, referents or events from the cross-referenced passage—often arbitrarily or conveniently—and slot them into the sentences we’re actually reading.

Now before you get defensive about your exegetical habits, let me point out three caveats or exceptions.

1. Sometimes concepts that are associated with a word can carry over into a subsequent use of that word in the same paragraph or passage; that is, when the context of the sentences that are being made makes it clear that the ‘boys’ the author is talking about in one sentence are the same clever, boisterous boys from the sentence before. It’s not always the case—because the author might deliberately use the same word in different ways for effect or contrast. And of course, the further apart the two usages are, the less likely that there is any connection—that is, that the author wants his implied original readers to make a conceptual connection in their minds through the repetition of a particular word. When the two usages are in two entirely different books or documents, the likelihood that the author wants his readers to make some conceptual connection is very remote.

2. Sometimes, an author does use a word or phrase to connect the sentence he is writing with concepts contained in a completely different sentence somewhere else by making a quotation or allusion. We come across this quite often in the Bible, especially because it is one long, sprawling, unified story, supervised and breathed out by one divine author. But caution is in order!

  • First, we need to be confident that the author is actually making a quotation or allusion in a way that his implied original readers would have understood. The fact that a single word in a Pauline sentence was also used in the Septuagint of 2 Chronicles 7 doesn’t mean that Paul was wanting his readers to nod and tap the side of their noses and think, “Oh of course, this is 2 Chronicles 7 all over again!” The quotation or allusion needs to be part of what the author himself is doing in the sentence—not an obscure connection we have found by using Bible software.

  • Secondly, we should make of the quotation or allusion what the sentence makes of it, and not think that anything and everything from the usage of a word or phrase in the original quoted context can be read into the sentence in which it is being quoted. For example, when the author of Hebrews keeps using the word ‘priest’ to describe Jesus, with all the rich OT history and connotations that his Hebrew readers would have shared, that doesn’t mean that any or every concept associated with the OT word ‘priest’ applies to Jesus—in fact, the whole point is that it does not (e.g. he is not from the tribe of Levi, and he does not have to make sacrifice for his own sin, etc.). When Matthew has Jesus refer back to the sign of Jonah in Matthew 12, that doesn’t mean that the concepts of cowardice and disobedience associated with Jonah also apply to Jesus. Nor does it mean that ‘fish’ is ‘resurrection language’, and that when Jesus feeds the 5000 two chapters later with fish he is foreshadowing his resurrection. (And yet somehow, we manage to fall into the trap of making these sorts of arguments.)

3. A final exception—sometimes a word is used so often to refer to a particular thing (in a particular linguistic community) that it comes to have a special attachment to it. It becomes a jargon word, or what biblical scholars call a ‘technical term’—so you only have to use that word and readers know that you are referring to a specific example of what that word could refer to. ‘Gospel’, for example, is an everyday word meaning ‘an announcement of great or significant news’. That’s what the word means. But by the time Paul uses it in 2 Tim 1:8 to urge Timothy to “share in suffering for the gospel”, he would have been confident that Timothy knew which ‘gospel’ he was talking about, and all the concepts and content associated with it. ‘Gospel’ has become a jargon word within the linguistic community that Paul shared with Timothy.  ‘Technical terms’ like this are not all that common, and you have to be very sure of your evidence before narrowing down a word in this way to a particular set of concepts or referents.

I started this post talking about the importance of reading sentences, and now I have found that I have asked you to read way too many of them!

But I have done so not only because all this requires a bit of explaining, but because it’s important. Understanding God’s word is vital, and therefore reading it well is vital—neither failing to listen carefully to what God is doing through sentences and paragraphs of Scripture, nor reading extraneous ideas or concepts into them, especially via the words that the sentences contain. God speaks to us through the sentences of Scripture, addressed to the original implied readers, within the larger context of the whole biblical revelation about his Son. So we read the sentences in the NT in light of the OT sentences that preceded them; and we read the OT sentences with an awareness that they foreshadow the Christ to come (because the NT sentences tell us so!).

My particular hope is that our antenna will quiver with caution whenever we hear phrases like these:

  • ‘Fire’ is judgement language. ‘Fire’ is sometimes metaphorically associated with judgement; but that doesn’t make fire ‘the language of judgement’—as if wherever the word ‘fire’ appears, the concept of ‘judgement’ is not far behind.

  • Paul often uses the word X to refer to Y, and so therefore … Failing the unlikely event that the word X has become a technical or jargon word, what Paul is using X to refer to in this sentence should be determined by what this sentence is saying, not other sentences he wrote elsewhere. The referent Y is not super-glued to the word X, so that when X is used in a sentence the characteristics or concepts of Y can be read in or implied.

  • Let us look at all the instances of the word X in order to find out what the Bible teaches about X. Word studies are somewhat useful but often misleading. What the Bible teaches about the subject of X is not carried around in the word X, or constructed by adding together all the things or concepts that X is used to refer to in various places—not even if we start at the beginning of the Bible and do this biblical theology style! Discovering what the Bible teaches about the subject of X is done by reading the sentences and paragraphs in which that subject is discussedwhether or not the word X is used to discuss it—and seeing what those sentences say, within their immediate and larger biblical context.

Can we please stop making these linguistic blunders when we read the Bible? I will if you will!


I’m going to run with my standard PS, which is to say “There’s so much more that could be said!”.

I will mention one other complication: we often use various Bible words to refer to whole subject areas or doctrines (e.g. ‘justification’, ‘sanctification’, ‘pastor’, ‘worship’, ‘church’). And so we can end up confusing the word with the subject, and get ourselves in a muddle. We can think that whenever we see the word ‘sanctification’ in the Bible it must have something to do with the subject of ‘growth in Christian godliness’ (interestingly, it quite often doesn’t). And vice versa, we can think that because the word ’sanctification’ quite often doesn’t refer to ‘growth in godliness’ in the Bible that the whole idea of sanctification as ‘growth in godliness’ is suspect (it isn’t; it’s just talked about in various sentences that often don’t use the word ‘sanctification’!).

One final note: the kind of blunder I’ve been talking about is sometimes referred to as either ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ (where you take the various concepts that are associated with a word and wrongly assume that they are carried around in the word, ready to be transferred into any context); or ‘illegitimate identity transfer’ (where you think that because a word refers to something in one context then characteristics of that identity or referent can be transferred to a completely different context in which the word is used). James Barr coined these terms in his 1961 book The Semantics of Biblical Language.

One of the particular targets of Barr’s critique was Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, which he criticized for its widespread ‘illegitimate totality transfer’—that is, for confusing the rich theological ideas of the Bible with words that are used to convey them; as if what the Bible says about the unconditional, free, gracious love of God is loaded into the Greek word agape.

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders …


The argument about ‘helper’ in this quote has been made numerous times in numerous places. This example is from this short article.

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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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