Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hermeneutics: The Art of Interpretation

You've done it.  You've all done it.  You've been doing it since sixth grade whether you knew it or not.  Don't bother denying it.   Hermeneutics is the "art of interpreting texts".  This usually involves ancient texts.  However, almost all literary analysis involves elements of this art.

The etymology of hermeneutics goes back to the Greek god Hermes; known mainly as the messenger of the gods.  In his role as messenger, Hermes frequently thwarted plans by the other Greek deities and humans by omitting critical information in messages or just plain lying.  Thus, he becomes an excellent icon for interpreting texts, since the reader must constantly be aware that some information is not known or must be derived from other sources.

Here are six things to consider when reading any ancient text:
  1. Language to Language translation issues: this is so obvious, most people never think about it.  But idioms never translate well and footnotes can greatly help.  Remember that when you're reading assembly instructions for your new Ikea furniture.
  2. Language Over Time issues:  languages change.  English in the 1920's was different than English today.  Yes, if you could travel back to 1920 Boston you would still survive.  But you would also have to learn new language skills.
  3. Language Over Geography issues:  This could be divided by Rural/Urban, East/West, North/South, etc.  It happens to this day.  In Minnesota, you order a soda.  In the Midwest, you get a pop.  In Texas, you get a Coke; as in ... Waiter: "Would you like a Coke?"  Customer:  "Yes."  Waiter: "What kind?".  Customer: "Dr. Pepper."
  4. Cultural issues:  many ancient cultural issues are lost on pragmatic Americans.  What are a culture's rules regarding:  marriage, sex, trading, animal husbandry, praying, idols, revenge. belching after dinner?  Misunderstanding these social cues could easily lead to family feuds or boiled lambs head for lunch ... it just depends.
  5. Legal Differences:  knowing the law can make or break your understanding of a particular situation.  In the Book of Genesis, Jacob is tricked into marrying Laban's oldest daughter, Leah (not Carrie Fisher).  When Jacob confronted him the next morning, Laban agreed to let Jacob marry the younger daughter, Rachel, if he first remained married to Leah for seven days.  Why is this seven-day period important?  According laws in the ancient mid-east, a husband could divorce his wife during the first seven days of their marriage for any reason.  After that, the husband must have a valid reason to claim a divorce.  So, in this case, Laban is leveraging the legal situation against Jacob's romantic interest in order to keep both daughters married.
  6. Technological issues:  understanding technological limitations and advances can help you understand the struggles of ancient peoples.  Again in Genesis, The Servant of Abraham is seeking a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac.  When the Servant arrives in the land of Haran, he meets Rebekah at the city's water well.  Rebekah offers water to the Servant's entire caravan consising of at least 5 men and 10 camels.  This is something most readers gloss over; especially in light of the drama and excitement immediately following Rebekah's watering of the caravan.  That's because almost no one stops to consider a) thirsty men can drink 1 gallon of water, b) thirsty camels can drink 50 gallons of water, and c) the truly ancient technology of water wells.
Water wells of the 1800's used pumps (either hand powered or windmill powered).  Before then, water wells used buckets lowered via rope - ala a Thomas Kincaid painting.  But ancient water wells are dug out of the sand in an upside down cone formation until water is found.  And then steps are laid down in a large spiral to the bottom of the water well.  The typical ancient water well descends approximately one-and-a-half to two stories when compared to modern buildings.
The water must be retrieved using a large, clay urn.  Rebekah was probably using a 4-gaillon urn.  So, five men times one gallon each plus ten camels times 50 gallons each divided by one, 4 gallon clay urn gives us (tap tap tap ... cha chug ... tap tap tap ... cha chug ... ) 126 TRIPS UP AND DOWN THE STAIRS .... or ... 250 FLIGHTS OF STAIRS (UP AND DOWN) !!!  
In the morning heat no less!!  And she offered to water the caravan without being asked.  Do they make anyone like that today?  (that's a rhetorical question)
Classes in hermeneutics are available from most seminaries.  They are as entertaining as they are enlightening.  And they will give you a lifetime of powerful reading skills.

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