His name was Glenn Ray Smith, and he came to me with a worried look on his face. He said, "Pastor, I really enjoy hunting dogs, and I was thinking about breeding some hunting dogs. But one of my friends, a fellow carpenter that I work with on our construction crew, came to me and told me the Bible says that you shouldn't breed dogs."

Yes, Glenn Ray was serious. He honestly did not want to violate a commandment of the Scriptures. He was turning to me to find out if it could be true that God's word said such a thing.

So I went to my lexicon and looked up the word "dog" and all of its occurrences in the Old and New Testament. Knowing that his friend was a reader of the King James Version, I used the lexicon that had all the references in English to "dog" in that version. After going through many references, I finally came to one, which in essence said: "Thou shalt not breed with the dogs."

A text without a context becomes a pretext for whatever we would like it to mean.

Now, of course, in its original context, this commandment had to do with the Israelites not having sexual relations with foreign women. It had nothing to do with the furry little four-footed canines that Glenn Ray was worried about.

This perhaps is an extreme example of a problem I would like to illustrate. A verse of Scripture taken out of its original context--its original historical, literary, social context--can be made to mean almost anything. A text without a context becomes a pretext for whatever we would like it to mean.

I wish to plead for the necessity of reading the Scriptures in their original context. This, of course, requires hard work. It requires study. It requires more than just sitting down with one's Bible and reading. Because, of course, every reader who comes to the Scriptures brings certain modern assumptions about what is and isn't plausible, what does and doesn't make sense, what the meanings of certain words are. No one comes to the Scriptures with a completely blank mind. Everyone brings assumptions to the text.

It is therefore crucial that when approaching interpreting a book as important and significant as the Holy Scriptures one keep in mind a commitment to allow the original inspired authors to have their say. To study, prayerfully and carefully, what the text says--what it was likely to have meant to its first author and its first audience. And having done this, only then to raise and answer the question, How does this apply to me today?

I would want to stress that what the text meant in its original context is indeed still what the text means today. Meaning resided first in the mind of the author who wrote these books--then in the text itself encoded into the words and the sequence of words by the original author. We do not bring to the text meaning, though we may bring expectations and hopes.

And so, as in the case with Glenn Ray Smith, what we hope to do in this column is spend time illuminating the text by investigating it in light of its larger historical, theological, literary, and social context. In this fashion, we have a hedge against inflation, so to speak. We have a hedge against reading too much into the text, a hedge against trying to twist the text in such a way that it will simply serve our purposes.

Johannes Bengel, the great German commentator on the Bible, once said, "Apply the whole of the text to yourself. Apply the whole of yourself to the text." It is a good motto. It means a commitment to lifelong study of God's word. It means a commitment to avail oneself of all of the resources, commentaries, lexicons, and dictionaries one can possibly muster in order to interpret the word of God rightly.

It is my hope that through this column, we will have occasion to illuminate the text by revealing what it likely would have meant to its original author and audience. In this fashion, we will be in a better position to determine whether that text is significant for us today as well.

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