Eisegesis: Exegesis' Evil Twin
Updated: May 3, 2022
Last week, we talked about biblical exegesis, what it means and some tips for good exegetical practices in your own Bible reading. We briefly mentioned the opposite of exegesis: eisegesis (pronounced ICE-eh-jee-suhs), which I have affectionately dubbed Exegesis' Evil Twin.
So just to review, exegesis is from a Greek word meaning "to draw meaning out from" or explain. Notice that prefix 'ex' to remind you that exegesis pulls meaning OUT. On the other hand, eisegesis starts with the Greek prefix 'eis' which translates as INTO. Eisegesis is reading meaning INTO a text.
Because our brains are constantly decoding our surroundings to find the relevant meaning, we're nearly always performing exegesis or eisegesis. The primary difference then is where the meaning comes from. We can either take meaning OUT from the text or speech itself or put our own meaning INTO it.
Think of the last time someone said or did something that didn't make sense to you. You may just ask them to explain what they meant (exegesis). Or, you may try to make sense of it based on your own knowledge and experience of that person and your expectations for their speech and behavior (eisegesis).
Biblical eisegesis means putting our own meaning into the text. Because we can't ask the biblical authors, "Hey, what did you mean by this?" sometimes we supply our own meaning based on our experience or our expectations of what God should or should not be like. Intentionally or unintentionally, we can read ourselves into the text, and as far as the Bible is concerned, that's a recipe for disaster.
The Deadly Danger of Eisegesis
If you're not sure why this is so dangerous, let me point to the king of word-twisting himself: Satan. The very first time he shows up on the scene (Genesis 3), he whispers, "Did God really say...?" One of the reasons he's such a master of deception is that he carefully hides his lies in the wrappings of truth, sometimes even God's own words. And like Adam and Eve, we've been falling for it ever since.
People have used God's Word to inappropriately justify all kinds of ungodly actions and beliefs. In the 1800's, several pastors used Genesis 9:20-27 to justify American slavery and white superiority, even going so far as saying, "Negro Slavery is an institution of heaven and intended for the mutual benefit of master and slave, as proved by the Bible" (Iveson L. Brookes). Yikes. They were reading this meaning into the curse of Ham, a passage of Scripture wholly unconnected with 1800's America.
And before you think eisegesis is a problem of yesteryear, Christians are still doing it today. I've heard eisegesis preached in youth groups regarding Paul's words to women in 1 Timothy 2:9-10. As a teenager in the American church, I was taught that Paul was referring to women "dressing modestly" and this was defined as covering an adequate amount of skin and avoiding tight form-fitting clothes.
But Paul was writing to an ancient Greek audience for whom mini-skirts and spaghetti-strap tops were simply not a thing. In their book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, biblical scholars Brandon O'Brien and Randy Richards point out that this passage is not, as so many youth pastors have taught it, about modesty culture. Paul isn't talking about the sexual modesty of Ephesian women or American teenagers. He's recommending economic modesty to the wealthy women of the church, made clear by the surrounding words, "Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire." Paul was addressing economic inequality in the church and how church members could love and support each other well. Instead, this verse is used to chastise young women for their fashion choices, with ramifications that reach far beyond clothing.
You can probably think of other examples where God's words were twisted to fit an extra-biblical agenda. Eisegesis is dangerous for the church, communities, and Bible translation. A text that is supposed to correct our misshapen views of God and those around us can through eisegesis be used for the exact opposite.
Practices to Avoid Eisegesis in Bible Reading
From a literary criticism perspective, we know it's impossible to leave all of our own bias, worldview, experiences and perspectives behind when we read the Bible. But here are a few ways to combat the temptation to use God's Word to serve your own ends, intentionally or unintentionally.
Check your heart. Sometimes I find myself turning to the Bible when I want to prove something is true (like the fact that I'm right in an argument), searching for exactly the right verse to seal my case. In doing so, I'm using the Bible as a weapon I can wield rather than a voice of wisdom I can follow. So if you're coming to the text with a predetermined answer, take a step back. God's Word is not your case-in-point.
Pray for the help of the Spirit. Ask for the humility to listen to his Word rather than speaking your own understanding over it. Stop asking, "What does this passage mean to me?" and start asking, "What do You mean for me to hear, Lord?"
Check your conclusion with the rest of Scripture. It's fine to make an argument from the Bible, but you should have more than a verse or two to back up your claim. Ask if this meaning is consistent with the rest of the Bible (which is not necessarily your own knowledge of the rest of the Bible!) There are many online tools to help with topical and word studies that make this easy.
Seek wise counsel. The Bible was written over several centuries in different cultures and locations. Ask your church leaders and remember that worldview/cultural bias are sometimes difficult to see around. Seek outside your normal social media echo chamber. I'm reminded of Proverbs: "Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety." Proverbs 11:14
Please pray for Bible translation teams to accurately translate God's Word for their communities without perpetuating the damaging lies of eisegetical interpretation. Pray for the humility to handle Scripture carefully so that God's truth is spoken clearly and his church around the world is empowered to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." Micah 6:8