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Exegesis Series: Part 4

Last week we looked at the ‘historical’ approach to scripture were we asked questions such as, “what can this tell me about how people saw the world in its time and place?” or “what can this tell me about the customs or cultural practices of the people associated with this part of the text?”.

As we continue our series on the interpretation of scripture, we focus this week on the ‘practical’ approach. Looking at scripture through this lens seeks out practical advice or everyday wisdom that is being imparted through the text. Consider questions such as “what advice or guidance does the text offer to the original audience regarding things they might have encountered throughout their lives?”. Consider two examples below:

Genesis 4:15-16 (NRSV)

Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

This part of the narrative about the two sons Cain and Abel has some guidance that was unfortunately necessary to think about for the ancient Hebrews. In ancient Hebrew society, property was passed down to the firstborn son which meant that second sons may have often felt slighted or dishonored by their father. Jealousy may have been common amongst younger brothers, and some may have killed the older sibling to try and gain the inheritance. This passage arguably provides practical advice for how to respond. You brand the sibling who committed the murder and banish or exile them to distant lands.

Exodus 5:7-9

You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.

In this early section from the Exodus narrative, the practical approach suggests how a people can identify when they are being abused by person(s) above them. If a person is expected to increase their productivity without compensation elsewhere, they are being treated like pharaoh treated the Israelites with pharaoh as a sort of practical example of a ‘bad’ ruler. Not only does it help people identify abuse, it also predicts what the response from the ‘higher ups’ will be, that the people cry out because they are lazy rather than because they are being taken advantage of. As common as unreasonable work demands are in our own day and age, it seems likely that the ancient Hebrews could have used this story to argue for their own dignity. I do not know if this is true of the ancient Hebrews, but people have often paid ‘tax’ or ‘duties’ to rulers through labor rather than material goods, and so this may have also played a role in helping to regulate labor demanded as a civic duty.

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