Amy (my beloved fiance) called me at work the other day. She was adding some last-minute stuff to a wedding registry and had a question about the bathroom faucets in my house (which will be our house). "Are they silver or gold colored?" she asked. She was thinking about stuff for bathrooms and needed to know the color.
Hey, I'm a guy. It's news to me that folks think about these things. I love that Amy thinks about them, though. Our house is going to be so cool!
Anyway, after I answered the question (they're silver, BTW) I began describing the faucets. But the problem was I that was describing the bathroom faucets in the house I grew up in, not in the house in which I currently reside. I honestly couldn't remember exactly what the bathroom faucets in my house look like.
But I do know I use them every day for their intended purpose, and I never get the hot and cold mixed up. I use the faucet, I don't stop and think about the appearance or mechanics of it all.
I was thinking about this over the weekend, and I thought, "Gee, that's a lot like language". Let me explain a bit.
Sometimes when folks study the Bible, they put a lot of stock in word studies. Word studies are a necessary part of the exegetical process, we should do them. But it is very easy to dwell too much on studying a word in the original language and end up missing the point: The word means what it means in a particular context; all possible or attested nuances of a given word are not intended to be understood with each use of the word.
Think again about bathroom faucets. I learned how these work in the house I grew up in, and I haven't really paid attention to them since I learned that lesson: Hot left, cold right, middle warm. Up on, down off. Every single-handle faucet is pretty much a variation on this theme.
So I haven't had to think about faucets since I learned the basic lessons. That's why when I had to actually stop and picture a bathroom faucet for my sweetheart, I thought about the one I learned the lesson on -- the one in the house I grew up in. The principles are the same, my use of them isn't any different since I understand implicitly how they work.
Now, houses have all sorts of different faucets. There are different faucets in kitchens, in bathtub/shower units, outside of the house for hoses, ones you hook washing machines up to ... the list goes on.
When I say "faucet" outside of specific context, I really could mean any one of those. But chances are the rest of the context of the sentence provides the cues that clue native speakers in regarding exactly which type of faucet is under discussion.
That, and we know that if we were in a kitchen but the faucet on the kitchen sink was reminiscent of a bathtub/shower faucet ... well, we'd find that very, very strange.
The same sort of thing can be said for words used in the Bible. When the native speaker/reader encounters a multiple-sense word, he is able (given coherent text) to disambiguate sense. That is, he can pick up the contextual cues and infer the proper sense of the word. When he's asked to "hook up the sprinkler to the faucet and water the lawn", he knows that happens outside. He's not running the hose to the bathroom and trying to attach it to the sink. Likewise, when drawing a bath, he doesn't turn on the kitchen faucet thinking it'll somehow fill the bathtub.
We need to do better to remember this when doing word studies. I know that D.A. Carson (Exegetical Fallacies), James Barr (Semantics of Biblical Language) and others have written on this, but it is worth mentioning again (and again, and again). It is great to examine how a word is used in, say, the New Testament. But that doesn't mean that all nuances one runs across (or finds in a dictionary) are intended with each instance of the word in the New Testament. In a specific context, a word means a specific thing. In some instances, multiple senses can be attributed. I've seen contexts where I think both literal and figurative senses of a word are intended; but these are usually obvious in context and are the exception, not the rule.
In other words, when exegeting a particular passage, we shouldn't be asking "What does [word] mean?" Instead, we should ask "What does [word] mean here?" Why? Because that is the sort of thing that native speakers/readers implicitly understand. They know which faucet is intended based on context. They don't get confused by studying the vast and numerous types of faucets; how they dispense hot, warm and cold water; different styles and whatnot. If, when reading something like "hook up the sprinkler to the faucet and water the lawn", we stop and look at kitchen faucets and bathroom faucets and import those concepts onto the context of an outside faucet we don't learn anything from the statement even though the same word (perhaps even 'root word') is used in the description. Our understanding is completely muddied and our exegesis is poorer for it. If we read the statement thinking about outside faucets, though, then we understand what was originally communicated.
I know I'm rambling and have mixed concepts to a degree here. I guess what I want to underscore is:
- Words have senses. Individual usages of words normally only utilise one of a word's possible senses. Word studies should focus on isolating that particular sense for the current, specific context. They shouldn't discuss all possible senses and import wide-ranging definitions in a particular context.
- Native language users understand these things implicitly. This means when working with a language foreign to us, we must do due diligence to find the cues that native language speakers rely on to ensure our exegesis is proper.
So, next time you find yourself in a word study examining other instances of a word, make sure to consider similar instances and not just the most widely different instances. You likely aren't looking for super-wide fields of meaning but instead need to narrow down to the particular context.
Can that be boring? Yeah. But remember: faucets are boring too.
Update (2006-04-26): Ken Penner points me to some more information about relevance theory. Thanks for the reminder, Ken. I dug into relevance theory about a year ago and find it fascinating. For those looking for a gentle introduction to relevance theory as applied to Bible translation, I can recommend Kevin G. Smith's dissertation on Bible Translation and Relevance Theory (first link on the list, look for 'pdf'). He works through the issues and then applies them to the translation of Titus. Cool stuff!