Note: Per request of one of my family members (who may or may not read this whole post) for future blog posts, I have posted links to certain words or concepts that may not be understood by the "layman." Please click on the links if you want further explanation of what is meant by a certain word or phrase.
One of my most enjoyable experiences in the seminary was being able to sit at the feet of Dr. Richard Davidson for a few hours while taking an independent course with him. It was my last semester and in order for me to leave a little early, I had to sign up for a 4 credit independent course and complete it the summer before I technically graduated. I had no doubt in my mind who I wanted to take the independent course with, and I was very grateful when Dr. Davidson agreed to mentor me in this endeavor.
So I spent 10 or so hours over the span of the summer visiting with him in his office and just talking about Old Testament studies. It was truly a delight. Having known him for a number of years already, since I would frequent his house while playing in a Christian band with his son as an undergraduate, I had always admired his kind spirit and Christian heart.
He was also the one, as well, who really turned me on to the Old Testament and the Hebrew language a year and a half earlier when I took a class from him on the Prophets and Writings. And so I met with him sporadically throughout the summer and enjoyed simply talking about whatever it was that I wanted to talk about as it related to the Old Testament, Hebrew, intertextuality, etc.
One of the things that stands out in my mind, however, that I was just reminded of this past week, was towards the beginning of our time together. I can't remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something along the lines of, "I know that the job of the biblical exegete is to determine what the author intended to say." This, after all, is what had been pounded into my head throughout my undergraduate studies, as well as all my seminary studies heretofore. If the person truly wants to understand what a certain text means, I had been told, he must try to figure out what the author was trying to say. What was his intention when he wrote what he wrote?
So it came as a great shock when Dr. Davidson stopped me ever-so-politely mid-sentence and said, "Actually, that is not entirely true." He then explained, "It is not the job of the exegete to figure out what the author intended to say, but what the text itself intended to say and is saying." He continued, "After all, we can never really know what the author was intending to say. We do not have Moses or Solomon or Paul sitting here next to us 2000 or 3000 years later, telling us what they meant when they wrote what they wrote. All we have is the text itself. That's all we have to go on."
And it suddenly hit me in the last few days that this is an important distinction that must be made. I read a paper that someone sent to me about a certain topic that the Pentateuch addresses. And this person was trying to convince the reader that Moses (or whomever the writer believes wrote the book) was really addressing this subject when he wrote what he wrote, and this is really what he means to say.
The problem is, the text itself does not say that it is addressing this particular subject (as opposed to another one). And we do not have the benefit of having Moses sitting next to us, whispering into our ear what he really meant when he wrote what he wrote. All we have is the text itself.
Now, don't get me wrong. We do need to take the proper steps to get our context straight. It is important for us to try to recreate the setting in which the author wrote - you know, the historical setting, the geographical setting, etc. But even if we have the context down to a "T," this is still no guarantee that the author really had what we think he had in mind, actually in mind. We cannot read his mind. All we can do is read what he wrote.
As an example: I could read an article in a newspaper that someone has written that talks about a baseball field that has green fences and thousands of seats. But even if I could prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the author was sitting in Fenway Park at the time he wrote his article, unless he explicitly tells me that he is writing about Fenway Park (or there are enough particular details in the article so as to remove all doubt), there is no way I can prove with 100% certainty that he was, in fact, writing about Fenway Park. For all I know, he could be writing about Wrigley Field, or some other baseball park. And unless I have that author sitting right next to me, explaining to me what he intended to mean, I cannot presume that I know exactly what his intention was. All I have to go on is the text itself.
How much more so does this apply when we are talking about the biblical authors, who wrote thousands of years ago, about places I have never been or people I have never met? So we must be ever humble in presuming to say that we know what the author really meant to say, when all we have is the text itself.