Maybe you recently sat down to read a chapter of the Old Testament and wondered how on earth it applies to you. The symbolism, religious customs, wickedness, death, and destruction that happened anciently can feel foreign and maybe even bizarre compared to the world you live in today, and you may have wondered if any of this is even relevant anymore.
Wherever you are on the spectrum, there are two concepts that could help you feel more fulfilled with your study of the scriptures: exegesis and eisegesis.
These words might seem complicated, but their definitions are really pretty simple. As Brigham Young University professor Eric D. Huntsman explains, exegesis is the process of “asking questions of a text” to understand its original meaning. The opposite is eisegesis, or “reading in,” which is when we have our own preconceived notions about a text.
Andy Naselli, an associate professor at Bethlehem College & Seminary, explains it this way:
“Exegesis interprets a text by analyzing what the author intended to communicate. ... For example, when a young lady who is deeply in love with her fiancé receives a letter from him, she reads it carefully. She wants to understand what her fiancé meant. The text means what the text’s author meant.”
In other words, exegesis is taking a close look at the text with the right intent of learning its true meaning. Exegesis, Huntsman continues, can help readers “identify the doctrines and principles in the scriptures” and give them a bigger picture of how things relate to a larger narrative or book. It can also reduce “the possibility of taking a passage out of context” as we try to apply it to ourselves. This approach can help us “better understand why their apostolic and prophetic authors were inspired to write them as they did,” he says.
But how do we study the scriptures by using exegesis? Huntsman offers some suggestions of historical, literary, and theological questions readers can ask the text in order to have a richer experience with the scriptures. So let’s use some of his questions in conjunction with the Come, Follow Me material for August 1–7 about the book of Job as an example of how to apply exegesis to our scripture study.
Questions to Ask the Text:
1. What kind of writing is the passage, and how does its genre affect how we read it?
According to former BYU–Hawaii president John S. Tanner, the book of Job has “a definite three-part structure consisting of prose prologue, poetic dialogues, and prose epilogue.”
Tanner also explains that the poetry dialogues are “neatly divided into three cycles of speeches, alternating between Job and each of his three comforters.” He believes that these are literary constructions rather than actual conversations, but that the book of Job isn’t necessarily entirely fiction and may be based on a real man’s experiences. In fact, Tanner sees the book of Job as “mixing both fact and fable,” as some things seem to be a little more fantastic and it doesn’t have “as strong a claim to historicity as do most biblical texts.”
Modern scholars, Tanner continues, consider the book of Job to be “wisdom literature,” like the book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These types of texts are “less concerned with the unfolding history of a covenant people through time than they are with the timeless truths of the individual’s relationship to moral and religious principles.”
Learn more about reading poetry in the Old Testament in Come, Follow Me.
2. When and why was this text written? Who was its author?
According to Britannica, the poetry in the book of Job was written between the fourth and the sixth century BCE. Similarly, the prologue and epilogue are dated before the sixth century BCE.
Religious studies professor Mark Larrimore, who wrote a biography on the book of Job, explains in a BYU Maxwell Institute podcast episode that no one really knows where this book in the Bible came from. It’s also a little unusual because Job, who is from the land of Uz—an area of unknown identification—isn’t “part of the story of Israel,” and so “the story already places it in a different place and a different time.”
While it’s hard to say exactly why the book of Job was written, Larrimore’s favorite view is that the poetry was written by a brilliant, inspired genius as a parody of superficial, simplistic stories of faith that people had been telling at the time. The reason for doing so, he explains, is because faith “is much more difficult, patience is much more paradoxical” than those other stories suggested.
However, Larrimore later explains that scholars agree the book of Job wasn’t written all at once by one person, and that it seems to be composed of many different pieces.
3. How did the information in it get to us?
In the podcast episode, Larrimore explains a theory of how the book of Job ended up in the Hebrew scriptures. He says that the poetry may have been so good that “the authorities couldn’t control it,” and even if they said the text was dangerous because it was raising questions they didn’t think were good for people to ask, the text still “somehow took on a life of its own.” Eventually, he says the theory claims it became so powerful that “the best thing that the canonizers could do was to appropriate it.”
4. How does its historical and cultural context affect its interpretation?
Larrimore gives an overview of how the words of Job were received historically. For example, he discusses how reformer John Calvin didn’t look at Job as a figure for Christ or as a prophet who knows that his Redeemer lives. Instead, he looked at the plain meaning of the words and believed Job was a sinner rather than a positive example.
In contrast, others have historically looked to Job as a saint, and he was venerated by many Medieval people. Larrimore says there’s even a church in Belgium where for 1,000 years Job has been the central figure in their church, and patrons pray to him. This was in keeping, he says, with the way Job was understood in the Catholic Middle Ages. At that time, Job was considered to be somebody with a special understanding of the divine or who had a special relationship with Christ, making him a useful and powerful intercessor if one needed help with something.
Job’s speeches where he is at his most anguished and wishes he were dead, wonders why he had been born, and feels that nothing makes sense also became a very important way in which monastic communities understood death and the terror of judgment. Additionally, his words became part of daily religious practice, especially for women. The book of Job, Larrimore says, could articulate things in people’s own experiences that they otherwise might not know how to or might be afraid to express.
“It was when these words of Job sort of moved out of the communal, liturgical context of the monasteries into private individual experience of people; … that’s really the beginning of, say, kind of a modern, individual subjectivity in that Job is my voice. So in my life, everything’s falling apart. I don’t know what’s happening. Who do I turn to? In the past, I might have turned to saint Job since [he] helped me. But now I’ve become Job. Job’s words become mine. Job teaches me how to be patient or how to be persistent,” Larrimore says.
5. What principles or doctrines does it illustrate or teach?
Tanner explains that “Job makes it clear that suffering is not necessarily a sign of punishment,” and prosperity and suffering cannot be easily interpreted. Righteousness also does not prevent us from suffering or guarantee material awards.
He also goes on to say that “individuals often live out personal tragedies quite apart from the general prosperity and happiness of the larger community.” Whereas many of the promises in the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon apply to the entire covenant community, the book of Job is about the plight of an individual.
6. What does it teach us about the person and work of Jesus?
In examining man’s relationship with God, Tanner says he believes the book of Job’s central concern is not “with the philosophical problem of evil but with the personal problem of despair; not with God’s relationship to evil but to man’s relationship to God out of the midst of ‘evil.’”
He goes on to say that Job is never told the reason for the things he has to suffer, and what seemed to be most difficult for him was “a violated relationship with God.” But the solution to feeling “a sense of godforsakenness is, obviously, the revelation that God has not forsaken us” and that human wisdom alone cannot solve a crisis of such proportions.
“We can testify to the truth that the Lord loves and pities His children in the midst of their sharpest sorrows. We can offer scriptural and personal insights about the various purposes served by suffering. But only the Lord can confirm His continuing love through the voice of the only unfailing comforter, His Comforter,” Tanner says.
Want to apply exegesis on your own to other books of scripture? Find these questions and more in Huntsman’s piece “Teaching through Exegesis: Helping Students Ask Questions of the Text.”
▶You may also like: Why a brass serpent? 9 surprising facts about snakes in Old Testament times