The Opposite of Eisegesis…

Old habits are hard to break. After living in Red Wing, MN, for seven years we moved to Memphis, TN, at my company’s urging (meaning, my job moved to the corporate headquarters in Memphis). After moving, I still needed to return to Red Wing periodically for factory visits. It was a bit odd staying at the local Best Western located a mile from our old home.

During one visit, after a long day at the factory, I headed to the hotel in my rental car. I drove right past the Best Western to our old house, unaware of the mistake until I drove down the street and saw unfamiliar cars in the driveway. Old habits are hard to break.

Last week I introduced the term eisegesis (ˌī-sə-ˈjē-səs), which is the reading of a text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. The word eisegesis literally means “to lead into,” meaning we speak into the text our preconceptions. The opposite? Exegesis (ek-sə-ˈjē-səs). The word exegesis literally means “to lead out of,” meaning the reader allows the intent the text to “come out,” informing his or her beliefs.

I suspect we have been in the habit of reading scripture though the lens of our preconceptions for so long that we drive right by exegesis and end up at eisegesis. The Good Samaritan parable might be adequate proof of that reality. We have been flying upside down a long time as Dallas Willard would remind us. So, how do we get right-side up? First, we recognize we are at the wrong house, change our mind, and head the other direction (this is the definition of repent). Then we rethink how we approach Scripture. Here are a few simple questions to ask as we invite Scripture to speak into our lives:

  • What stands out to me? How might God be trying to grab my attention?
  • What is being said in this passage?*
  • What is NOT being said? (This is a biggie)*
  • What does this passage tell me about who God is?
  • What does this passage tell me about who I am?
  • So what? What am I to do with these thoughts? How might God be asking me to change my mind?

There are plenty of other questions we could address, but this is a good start. It takes practice. Anyone that has played a sport knows of what I speak. Changing a swing, serve, stroke, or stride takes time, effort, and thought until it becomes second nature. Same with the shift from eisegetical to exegetical Scripture reading. But when it does become second nature, Scripture comes to life, transforming our lives! (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and Romans 12:2)

* Case is point: Several years ago I was meeting weekly with a group of college-age young people. We were working our way through the Gospel of John. When we arrived at the well-known John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life), I asked them to close their Bibles (or Bible Apps) and paraphrase the verse. They collectively thought the verse was about them going to heaven. None of them saw the word world. None! (And they were also a bit surprised to discover that heaven is not the same thing as eternal life, but we’ll save that topic for another time.)

“You are NOT the Good Samaritan”

Hearing this statement at a Young Life conference 35 years ago set me on the path to discovering the Jesus of scripture. The speaker (I think his name was Bob) wanted the audience to understand that we tend to eisegetically read scripture. Eisegesis was a newer term to me – one of those theological terms that I thought was of no practical use. The speaker proved to me otherwise.

Eisegetical scripture reading, Bob explained, happens when we read the text through the lens of what we already believe to be true. What we read is shaped by our preconceptions. As I took notes, this cognitively made sense to me. I prided myself that I certainly was above reading scripture through such lenses. Then the speaker rocked my world, wounded my pride, and pretty much disrupted everything for me.

Turning to Jesus’ parable we know as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Bob showed us just how real and subtly we read eisegetically. I remember him asking the audience, who in the story we most identified with. It seemed like we all figured we were the Good Samaritan, or at least tried to be. I know I assumed as much – after all, that’s what Jesus was asking of us, right? It’s what we learned in Sunday School.

Then the unraveling began. Bob helped us understand that Samaritans were despised (nay, hated) by Jesus’ audience, the Jewish theologians of the day. Some members of the Jewish nation had long prior compromised their charter and beliefs and married people outside their faith and ethnic group. These were the Samaritans. They were called half-breeds and dogs. When people traveled to Jerusalem from Galilee to honor God through the various annual festivals, they added days to their journey just to avoid Samaria. The parable, the story that Jesus told, was in response to a religious expert’s question:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”  The expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

As Jesus told the story, one could envision the legal expert understanding why the priest and Levite passed to the other side of the road, away from the robbery victim. They were on their way to serve in the Temple and contact with a bleeding person would have disqualified them to do their jobs. It was the law. However, what probably made the expert’s hair stand up on the back of his neck was Jesus’ introduction of the Samaritan as the ‘good guy.’

Wanting us to get the effect of what Jesus was saying to his audience 2000 years ago, Bob retold the story in modern terms. He talked about a pastor or a Young Life leader passing to the other side of the injured man. Then Bob went on to say, “But a Homosexual, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck! Not so much because he said ‘homosexual’ but because he had messed with scripture, that he had messed with the neat, domesticated story I was so familiar with. I was no longer the good guy – that was no longer on the table as an option.

What’s more, Jesus’ primary point wasn’t to be a ‘good’ Samaritan. The expert wanted to know who his neighbor was. After hearing the parable, he had to admit that his neighbor was, in fact, the Samaritan (though he couldn’t bring himself to utter ‘Samaritan’), and that’s who he was to love.

Who might Jesus substitute for ‘Samaritan’ today, if he were to tell the story in a manner that might make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? It’s an important question that we may not want to think about. Discovering the Jesus of scripture is a wonderful thing, but doesn’t come without the undoing of our domesticated version of Him or without some angst. But, as I said in the previous post, it’s well worth it!