koch_ruthboaz.jpgLate last week I put up a post on Hermeneutics and Experience, that interpreting and reading Scripture depends on our ability to read the Book of Our Experience. Since then I’ve been running another, related topic through my mind. I think a lot about what happens when we read a text of any sort, or even engage in a conversation. When one person says a particular word to another person, there are certain things that can happen in response: (a) apathy, or no response (b) a “connection” is made between speaker and listener where both parties mutually understand what the word is supposed to imply, as in “inside jokes,” and (c) the speaker means one thing, but the listener “hears” or understands something totally different. The old joke about the woman who promises her new husband that “tonight is going to be the most beautiful night of your life,” who promptly spends his entire night looking expectantly out the window, comes to mind here. There is also the possibility that the speaker will use a word in a completely erroneous way, or use the wrong word in a given situation, which causes further complications in humorous or, unfortunately, destructive ways. And often enough, translation issues come up that can cause all kinds of confusion, especially in cases where a person might technically use the “right” word, but in the context it was spoken, might be exactly what the individual did NOT want to say, or has meanings to the hearer that the speaker would never have dreamed of.

Speech, though, is usually tailored and customized so that the listener gets maximum effect from what is said. Obviously this is true in politics, and it’s just as true in religion, and it’s just as true in the academy and anywhere else. Even though two parties might share the exact same word vocabulary in the exact same language, if the speaker ignores the fact that the listener does NOT share the same conceptual meaning behind the words spoken, the message will be either lost or radically misunderstood until the two can figure out what their common ground is. For example, if in speaking of where someone is, I might say “She’s off to the left.” Some hearers will now think “She’s a Democrat.” Others will think “She’s a liberal.” Others think “She’s a Mainline Protestant.” Others might come to the conclusion that she is physically to the left of where I’m referencing.

Texts and books work the same way, I think. When we read something, we’re taking in what the writer “says.” The writer, if she’s worth her salt, writes in such a way that her specific word will mean something that her readership will connect with in a way that both writer and reader mutually understand to be the same thing. He depends on the ability of a particular word or phrase to invoke specific images in the mind of the reader. Psychological, emotional, intellectual, mental, spiritual, and even physical responses can be stimulated by virtually any word we read, and these stimuli lie behind the word choice of the writer in the first place.

What I’m getting at is words can’t have a static, once-for-all-time meaning, especially when they’re translated from other languages, like Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, and so forth. We, on the receiving end of the written text, simply cannot always know with absolute certainty what the text is really trying to say. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try; we certainly should, and we should use every available tool at our disposal to at least establish a high degree of probability what a certain word or phrase or text might or probably means. When we reduce texts to one particular meaning, then the preacher I mentioned the other day is right, because we let our experience completely dominate whatever the text says, either what it really says, what it might say to us still, and what we silence the text form saying at all. Obviously this kind of reductionism is absurd, whether it’s the reductionism of the professional academic biblical source critic who analyzes the words and rhetoric of texts thought to lie behind the text as it exists, or the Fundamentalist who harmonizes away all the tensions and smooths out all the rough edges with a mishmash of selective literal and allegorical interpretations and who silences passages that, left on their own and understood in a more plain sense, might be offensive to moral sensibilities.

Close with an example. The Book of Ruth is a great narrative, but it uses a particular metaphor, or more specifically a particular euphemism, that Bible translators translate into English but which absolutely destroys the scene it takes place in. The Hebrew phrase in question is normally translated as “uncovered his feet.” In the scene, Ruth gets Boaz drunk and then, after he’s gone to bed, goes to his bed and “uncovers his feet” and lies down at “his feet.” I’ll let you all look it up yourselves, it’s Ruth 3. In Hebrew idiom, Ruth definitely uncovered something of Boaz, but it was definitely not his feet. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a foot is just as foot (as in the case of the woman in Mark 14 who washed Jesus’ feet or Mary in John 12 who anointed his feet with oil or when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in John 13). And sometimes, as in Ruth, it’s not. The whole book, for those with eyes to see and ear to hear, is loaded with sexual tension, not with little cartoons and flannel-graphs of Ruth lying down at the foot of Boaz’ bed.

This is a deliberately provocative example, but the point is that even in an obvious case, such as this, it is all too easy to deliberately or unwittingly misread what we read; in fact, in a book like the Bible, so laden with parables, poetry, parodies, and deliberately rich symbolic imagery, writers go out of their way to make sure that some things have two, three, four, or a hundred possible meanings. There is simply no way to prevent the words of a speaker or writer (or both, in the case of stories with dialog!) from taking on meanings beyond what their original symbolic intent was, especially when the texts are constructed on the images, metaphors, and genres of other texts, some of which we have, and some of which we don’t. Reducing these text of Scripture to the absurd is so tempting in the face of so many potential questions and misreadings; but it is precisely that potential that allows for 2000 years of interpretive tradition, a stream in which ours are just small tributaries that flows into a mighty river.