It is all Eisegesis
In seminary, we called it an 810 crisis. “Scripture and Its Interpretation” (known by its numerical designation as “810”) was a disorienting class for many students. We had been warned of the difference between the good and necessary Exegesis — the theory that with the right tools, the plain meaning of the text would reveal itself — and the frowned upon Eisegesis — the error of reading into the text our own preconceived notions. We must only take out of the text what was already there, never putting into it what we thought ought to be there.
Now, in this introductory Bible class, we were confronted with disturbing realities: a lack of original manuscripts, faulty translations, variant texts and a historical competition over what should be there in the first place. It seemed that an awful lot of Eisegesis had gone into producing the King James or Revised Standard Version, and for many that became a crisis of faith. Some left seminary altogether, no longer certain they could use the Christian Bible as the key to unlocking life’s meaning.
Twenty years later I was faced with similar dilemmas when my new mother-in-law gave me a collection of handwritten recipe cards, some for food that graced the tables of my husband’s ancestors a hundred and fifty years ago. I wanted to be able to reproduce these dishes authentically, especially those that Tom remembered with fondness from his visits to his grandmother’s little home in Nashua. Unfortunately, age and years of use had taken their toll on some of the cards, smearing and fading the ink. With others, the handwriting was an obstacle to understanding the original intent of the author, needing careful deciphering that at times devolved into guesswork. Quite often, there was a lack of standard measurements — calling for a “large cup” of lard, or instructing the cook to bake the pudding in a “slow oven”-and it was evident that I would need to experiment to find what worked. Some necessary Eisegesis was underway.
My twenty-something self would have been appalled at the idea that I might later use the same terminology for my interpretation of “Exodus” as that for “Date Nut Chews.” I would say that my twenty-something ego was a little bit over-inflated by the intoxicating mix of youth and seminary. There are all kinds of worthy endeavors that call for an unapologetic embrace of Eisegesis, of an unashamed acceptance of our authority to speak, the realization that our lives must necessarily influence whatever text we are preaching from at the moment. If we are true to our calling, our lives will meld with that text, whether it is religious scripture that burns us from within or a song that pulls the heart out of us every time we sing it or a hard true word that we learned in a crucible of pain and that is the only word that can save one whom we love.
If we are preachers or shamans, painters or musicians or writers of food columns, parents or children or spouses or good wise friends who won’t lie just to quiet the stormy seas — it is all Eisegesis. We are not bearers of pure light from outside of ourselves, mere mouthpieces for the absolute truth of a received wisdom. It is all our story, our song, our lonesome spinning out of a thread that may connect with other threads and be woven into something lovely and good and useful in this world.
It may be that your work calls for a lot of Exegesis. If you are a scientist, I want you to be free to discover the reality of our physical world without regard for the feathers that may be ruffled. If you are a judge, I expect you to be an apolitical arbiter of the law. I hold journalists in high regard, because most are honest seekers after fact.
But no matter your profession, sooner or later you will have to trust yourself to interpret meaning and purpose into this world, to trust that your very life can be read like a holy text.
Date Nut Chews
The pressure was on with this recipe, bearing as it does the fond childhood memories of my husband. The challenge was the considerable water-staining on the card that had left numerous words illegible. I pieced it together the best I could. Tom said they were just like his Grandma’s.
Stir in: Beat together until light:
2 eggs ¾ teaspoon salt ½ teaspoon almond extract 1 cup chopped dates 1 cup chopped nuts
¾ cup sifted flour
½ cup sugar
½ cup light corn syrup Pour into a greased 8x8 pan. Bake at 375° for 20-25 minutes. Cut and roll in powdered sugar while still warm.
Sally Rasmussen lives in rural Taylor County with her husband, Tom.