Look at the Fish: The What and How of Biblical Exegesis
Updated: May 18
You may have heard biblical scholars, translators, seminarians, and general sesquipedalians (people who like to use long words whether they know the meaning or not) use the term 'exegesis' especially in reference to the Bible. But exegesis is not just about reading or studying biblical texts. So what is it, why is it so important for bible translation, and how can you practice exegesis in your own Bible study?
Look at the Fish
I first learned the meaning of exegesis through the story of Harvard biologist and professor, Louis Agassiz. His teaching method became famous through Ezra Pound's retelling of a story from one of Agassiz' students. It goes something like this:
An accomplished post-graduate student approached Agassiz for the final signature he needed to complete his program. Instead, Agassiz presented him with a dead fish and asked him to describe it.
"It's a fish." The student answered with mild revulsion. "I know that," his professor rejoined. "Describe it to me." So the student looked again and gave a few sentences about the fish's genus and species and cited some background information he remembered from various textbooks in a generally acceptable scientific description.
Professor Agassiz hardly blinked. "Look at the fish."
A bit annoyed, the student took the fish with him and returned in a few days' time with a lengthy essay enumerating every detail he could about this dead fish.
The professor waved him away. "Look at the fish."
After three weeks, the fish was barely recognizable as it had severely decomposed under the student's observation. He wearily presented his findings and at last Professor Agassiz conceded, "And now you know something about it."
Dead Fish and the Bible
I know how much you really wanted to read about dead fish and annoying professors today. What does this have to do with reading the Bible?
Exegesis is like looking at the fish. Many times when I read a passage of Scripture, I'm tempted to jump right to the commentaries, devotional material, sermons, my friends, or good old Google to find out what it means or what I'm supposed to get out of it. That's when I hear Agassiz surly voice (or what I imagine his surly voice would sound like) in my head saying, "Look at the fish."
Exegesis comes from the Greek exegeisthai which means "to draw meaning out from" or more simply, "to explain." Its opposite is eisegesis, meaning "to put meaning into" (more on that later.) When the post-graduate student in the story above quoted textbooks or researched his essay without actually looking at the fish, his professor saw that he was missing the point. To draw meaning out of something, you need to look at it... REALLY look at it.
That isn't to say you should not consult other resources like commentaries, pastors, or other study tools. Those are all valuable and we are blessed to stand on so many centuries of biblical scholarship! But it's a balance; don't let them drown out the text itself.
In a way, we exegete every time we encounter a text or hear someone speak, by unconsciously interpreting what it means. Our brains are wired to find the meaning in any piece of language we receive. Fun fact: This is what lets you pick out familiar words from a speech stream of a language you don't even know! It's also how your spouse knows to take out the trash when you say something seemingly unrelated like, "Honey, it's Thursday." We use the words themselves and our knowledge of the surrounding context to decipher the meaning. Exegesis in action! Even in conversation, we are constantly analyzing, "Why is this person telling me this? How should I respond?"
Our brains do the same thing when we read or hear the Bible. We are constantly deciphering the meaning behind the text and we use several tools to do so. Some of those tools are helpful, like looking at the context, meditating on a single verse, and asking for the Holy Spirit's guidance. Other tools, like pulling in our own experiences, cultural bias, or what the latest social media post said, can easily lead us to eisegesis and misinterpretation.
This is what makes good exegesis so important to Bible translation. Translation is not about words themselves, but about transferring meaning from one language to another. Of course, we need to know exactly what that meaning is in order to make a successful transfer! So how do we do that?
Practices for Good Biblical Exegesis
Sometimes when you hear or read something, your mind draws out a meaning that the speaker or author did not intend. In conversation, we usually call this a miscommunication. As long as tempers aren't flaring, it's easy enough to realize you're talking about two different things and fix it by asking the speaker what they meant.
But clarifying the original intended meaning of a biblical text isn't so simple. Since we can't ask Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, or Paul to clarify what they meant, we're left to make our best guess from the text itself.
And right there is the key: The Text Itself. That's your fish.
Good news! You don't need a seminary degree or library of resources to be able to practice solid exegesis in your regular Bible-reading. All you need is the fish. So here are some general rules for good fish-looking - I mean, biblical exegesis.
Re-read the verse or passage a few times. In fact, read it out loud. If you have someone else nearby, ask them to read it aloud. Emphasize different words. Try pausing in various places. It's amazing how meaning changes even when the words stay the same.
Read the wider context. Is this verse part of a longer story? You might need to back up and see what happened immediately beforehand or the fallout afterwards. Is it part of a bigger conversation? Who is speaking to whom, where, and why? Really try to understand the background this part of Scripture rests in by zooming out for a bigger picture view.
Read another translation! We English speakers are blessed to have over 450+ different English translations of the Bible. Even if you don't have another physical Bible at hand, sites like BibleGateway.com and Bible.org make hundreds of versions available at your fingertips. (Thanks, Bible translators!)
Pray. I don't say this lightly or as a last resort. As much as we might want to ask the original human authors what their words meant, we can and should ask the Divine Author what He means. Even better? He promises to answer.
"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him."
There you have it. The next time you hear your favorite sesquipedalian waxing eloquent about exegesis, you can nod sagely and in your best surly professor voice remind them to "Look at the fish."