The Value of Searching for Original Meaning

Why is it so important to search for the original meaning of biblical passages?

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One of the things that has been stressed in seminary education for many years is the original meaning of the text. And if we know the meaning of the original text, it often helps us to avoid wrong applications and does help us to find the right applications. I teach Hebrew, and one of the things that I often say to my students is, the value of your knowing Hebrew is that you'll be able to help your congregations realize what's going on in many of these cases.

For instance, I think about the book of Ruth. Well, we don't thresh wheat on the top of a hill anymore. We don't have foreign girls coming into a setting in another culture in the same way. But we do see what God is saying about human behavior. Well, if we understand what was going on with Ruth, how she in her situation nevertheless cared for her mother, how she in her situation was willing to risk, really, her life on that threshing floor at night with a rich, elderly, landed, male citizen who could have raped her and left her helpless, we can see something of her courage. We can see something of her love for God and understanding what's going on in that setting, in the language. And the Hebrew word hesed is the word that means "passionate devotion" to someone to whom you don't necessarily owe that. And Ruth demonstrates it as a person who is, really, helpless.

Answer by Dr. John Oswalt

Dr. John Oswalt is the Visiting Distinguished Professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary.