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Exegesis: A Powerful Analytical Tool
And why we should use it everywhere!
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic highlights the power of an analytical concept called Exegesis. It’s an amazing tool to help shift perspective and demonstrates how digging a little deeper can illuminate something really interesting and profound that people are largely ignorant of. Today we are going to take a break from technology, leadership, and design and stretch our Polymathic brains with an esoteric religious topic but one that highlights the criticality of analysis. Furthermore, if we’re successful on a topic like this, we can do it for any topic and thereby challenge our assumptions anywhere.
To set the stage for why this review is important we should quickly contextualize the difference between Exegesis and Eisegesis. Whether business, history, innovation, or religion, humans have a bias of interpreting things that happened based on their perspectives, views, culture, and biases regardless of the actual activity or intent of the original actors. This is called Eisegesis and means reading into the situation which leads to a lot of misunderstanding of why things actually occurred.
We see this all the time around actions of the past such as slavery, colonization, wars, and much more. We grade these actions not on how they’d be considered then, but how we consider it now.
Fellow authorwriting , recently addressed the problem with Eisegesis on a 4th of July topic where she pointed out that history needs to be understood in time and context and not in how we’d do it today.
Commenting on the thread, Steven’s response highlights the epitome of Eisegesis.
“You might not be so sure in your presumptions about the relationship between historical facts and contemporary meaning.”
Contrasting this is a method of systems thinking which directs the observer to consider the original context with the culture, language, intentions, and even biases of the original authors and audience in mind. We call this method Exegesis, and it means that you read from the situation leading to a much better understanding of why things happened and what it means if we need to adjust the course in the future.
Today we’ll use an example I wrote almost a decade ago while investigating Christianity. It peels back layers upon layers of built-up assumptions, interpretations, and biases and unlocks something the vast majority of Christians don’t even know about their own Bible. It’s like a fun treasure hunt where something people hold dear becomes even more insightful and valuable if we avoid reading into it, but instead read from the text.
Exegesis is hard though. It takes a lot of work to immerse ourselves in the perspectives of others, in their shoes, minds, and cultures. It is because it is hard that we know it is valuable.
What’s in a word?
Our example is going to get into some nuance about words but I promise, when we tease it apart, it’ll become shockingly simple and much more insightful. It all starts because, in Christianity, the concept of Biblical ‘Law’ is lumped to include all of the directions in the Old Testament. It’s combined post hoc as a way to create a separation between the Old Testament ‘Law’ and the New Testament ‘Grace.’ A concept known as Dispensationalism just in case you wanted the $5 word. This division results in obfuscation of what the law even was, let alone whether there is an ability to even follow it or not.
But what is the Law? What did it mean in that day and age? Right off the bat, we see that the term ‘Law’ is missing a lot of context as a distinction emerges all the way back in Genesis 26:5
“Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments (Mitzvah), my statutes (Chukim), and my laws (Torah).”1
There is substantial confusion though, in the English translations, for what these words refer to and what they mean. This is compounded by Bible translators who rendered different Hebrew words in different ways based on their interpretation and bias. I’ll give just two examples of how the ‘simple’ words we read are much more complex as, in the 1769 edition of King James’s Bible (KJV), we see:
Commandments – what the KJV captures as commandments, the Hebrew text has words such as mitsvah, tsav, peh, dabar, piqquwd, etc. But sometimes the KJV also renders those Hebrew words as precept, ordinance, statute, word, law, and decree.
Law – where KJV has law, the Hebrew text has words like chaqaq, choq, mishpat, and Torah. But the KJV translates those Hebrew words even in other ways, such as statute, ordinance, decree, commandment, custom, judgment, and more.
The same challenges exist with Statues, Judgements, and Ordinances.
If this apparent willy-nilly swapping of words causes your head to spin, you’re in good company! This caused me a lot of confusion in reading the English translations and trying to parse out what is what. It appears, and many believe, that these words are virtually synonymous.
This leads some to accuse Jews or Christians that if they want to obey the whole law then why aren’t they out there stoning adulterers? (Lev 20:10) Or how can they follow Torah when it promotes slavery, (Exodus 21) or is demeaning to a raped woman? (Deut 22) The problem isn’t what the original text says, it’s with what we read into it today.
Stepping Back to see the System
In reality, it is much simpler. Versus trying to reconcile the Hebrew words to the English translation as we investigated earlier, let’s link the English words to the Hebrew:
Torah = Law but better seen as instructions in being righteous
Includes historical lessons
Includes the 10 commandments, or covenant terms
Now remember back, when all of these were mashed together into the same thing as law and commandments but understanding how these relate to each other further simplifies the structure. This diagram provides an image of the layering that I will back up with a deeper study of each of the terms:
Starting from the top, Torah is the overarching concept best understood as instructions. It is derived from the root, yareh that was used in the realm of archery meaning to shoot an arrow in order to hit a mark. This means that Torah is guidance to aim the arrow at the mark. Torah means direction, teaching, instruction, or doctrine.
This relates to the other two Hebrew words derived from the same root as Torah. The first is the word for teacher, moreh. A moreh is one who imparts instruction to his/her students. The second important word is parent, horeh. This indicates to us that one of the primary roles of a parent is to teach and instruct the child. Torah literally means Instructions in Righteousness.
As an interesting aside, what we call the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:6) are technically the ten words (dabar), and why the Greek calls them the Decalogue. (Deca = 10, Logos = words) These are not commandments (mitzvah) but are covenant terms. That nuance helps highlight the challenges of a cursory reading and understanding.
Adding in Context:
Continuing on, according to Deuteronomy, the actual commandments (mitzvah) are further broken down into Chukim and Mishpatim:
Deuteronomy 4 “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes (chukim) and the judgments (mishpatim) which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments (mitzvah) of the Lord your God which I command you.
Chukim has a primary meaning of cutting in or engraving in stone and is, in general, a statute, a prescribed limit or boundary, cut in stone (i.e. permanent). The Chukim are the specific commandments such as morality, animal care, feast days, and sacrificial directions. These are direct orders from God both positive (do) and negative (do not).
Mishpatim, on the other hand, conveys the terms of justice, judgment, and ordinance. The primary sense is to exercise the process of government, to decide a case, or to arbitrate a righteous solution to a quarrel. Mishpatim are, in essence, case law. This describes what the right ruling is for those who violate the Chukim.
For example, in Exodus 21, we transition right from the covenant terms, which appear to be chukim and go straight into the mishpatim on those terms. We see the simple chukah “You shall not murder,” expanded with practical application and just rulings where murderous intent (v 12-14) is delineated from negligence. (v 20).
The difference between chukim and mishpatim is critical and often ignored. The first is a command; the second is a consequence of not following the command.
So, when people ask why Christians would follow a rule against adultery, but not follow a rule about stoning adulterers, it misses that one is a commandment and the other is a ruling. You aren’t commanded to stone adulterers; you are commanded to not be an adulterer. You also can’t arbitrarily execute judgment if you don’t have the authority. Doing so would cause you to violate ‘do not murder’.
Now that we’ve teased out the nuances, we find out that what we have are covenant terms, rules, and case law. Suddenly what seems capricious and convoluted shakes out as quite clear and understandable. I’ve saved an investigation into just how many of the Biblical laws we still follow for another time (hint, it’s almost all of those that apply) but with this context, we can start to address what people find questionable about these rules.
What seems to bother people the most are some of the rulings. In today’s society, we balk at things like what to do in the case of rape (marrying or restitution?) and the structures around bondservants/slaves. But two things come into consideration here.
First, the Hebrews had no prison. It was either restitution, expulsion (which basically guaranteed you’d be a slave of the next tribe/nation), or capital punishment.
Second, the Hebrews were a very tight-knit tribal organization that was closely related. This wasn’t a group of strangers; these were extended families.
The fact is, in that time and culture, these rules and rulings were incredibly progressive given the tribal infrastructure, community relations, and the risks of other tribes.
They were one of the first to have animal rights enshrined into law. They had protections for victims of rape where restitution showed that the woman had value, unlike the other cultures around them. The rules around bondservants/slaves even created challenges within American slavery and today’s contemporary slavery where slaves aren’t treated as well as the Bible directed over 4000 years ago.
Getting the framework right and then stepping back for context suddenly takes a concept that people might believe is convoluted and regressive and shows how interrelated and progressive these were at the time. Exegesis takes something that appears complex and demonstrates it is much simpler.
What I found most insightful about this study was just how convoluted Eisegesis makes a text when so much is read into it and words are twisted to meet modern agendas. Stepping back, extracting the roots of the words, and then bringing them into context for today helps to illuminate so much that’s often just passed over.
So how does this help on other topics? Mainly because you see Eisegesis being applied to so much of our history.
We go back and read, and judge Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson as if they were writing today which can sound regressive. Instead, if you read it as it was then, they were progressive, even revolutionary.
We look at slavery as uniquely an American problem without contextualizing that America, along with England were the first nations to ever eliminate slavery outside of their own borders. (Here’s a great book on the topic)
We look at other cultures, whether contemporary or historical, and interpret their actions through our own experiences, cultures, and values which projects a context that they may not have ever considered.
Fundamentally Exegesis helps to get back to the intent and opens up the nuance of a systems in ways we hadn’t really thought about. It shows us that we can apply this to religion, philosophy, legal writing, and almost any other topic. It allows us to challenge the preconceptions, challenge the bias, and extract out the value.
Exegesis is an amazing tool to help get into what really happened with curiosity. It allows us to investigate with humility and avoid self-righteous interpretations. It enables us to reconceptualize and shift the perspective to see what it looked like back then. It’s something that can be applied historically and contemporarily as we seek to apply the systems perspective to everything and think critically. This doesn’t mean we are justifying the actions of the past. It means we are better prepared to make intelligent changes for the future without throwing everything away.
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Also interesting to note here, that this demonstrates that the ‘Law’ as handed down to Moses was also known by Abraham over 450 years prior to Moses getting them.