I recently finished the fourth week of the hermeneutics class that my pastor, Josh, has been leading for a small group of women at my church, and it’s been the bomb-diggity. (Josh once commented in passing that “Paul was straight up gangster”, so I’m just following his lead with the hipster speak.)
Part of the reason I’m loving this class so much is its structure. Josh is walking us through a book of the Bible (Ruth), and teaching us one or two hermeneutical principles with each section we study. We then compare our own study with a someone else’s (in this case, Paul Miller’s solid work “A Loving Life”), to strengthen our ability to test an outside author’s examination of a text against the hermeneutical principles we’re learning. The final step is a discussion about a discipleship relationship we’re accountable to pursue, to apply what we’re learning in our shepherding of other women.
Like I said, bomb to the digitty.
Truth be told, I didn’t drive to last week’s study last night brimming with hope over what God was going to teach us. God had been walking me through some trials that had me identifying with Naomi way more than I had anticipated. I was emotionally drained and spiritually empty. This was a humbling irony given I that was the one who had been asking for and praying for this class to happen for a solid six months. I was dragging myself to the study on commitment autopilot, with my mind and heart overfull with the cares and disappointments of the last several months, and it all felt wrong.
The exercise we’d been assigned that week was one of fitting micro and macro together. We were to read through Ruth in its entirety several times, asking ourselves how the last four verses in chapter 1 fit into the arc of the entire narrative. I had been immediately drawn to the way this final set of verses passage acted as the completion of the circle begun in the first verses. In the first five verses of chapter one, Naomi had left famine-stricken Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. In the last four verses, she was returning with none of them.
“She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21 ESV)
Naomi’s words summarized her interpretation of all that had transpired up to that point; she had left Bethlehem full and was returning empty, all at the hands of the LORD. But the author’s closing comment about the barley harvest gives us a window into what Naomi could not yet see, and what would unfold in the next chapter. I thought this was the insight Josh was wanting us to see.
It took about twenty minutes of discussion and guidance from Josh to unpack how much deeper this section really goes.
The book of Ruth concludes with a group of women speaking over Naomi words that stand in contrast to Naomi’s words at the end of chapter 1. The blessings the women describe extend far beyond Naomi personally. What the LORD did for and through Naomi was something that had begun long before her, through the line of her new son-in law’s ancestor Perez, who himself was born out of the aftermath of a whole-scale family collapse. And it would continue long after her, through the lineage of her grandson to David, and from David to Jesus. And from Jesus to the entire world.
“Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:14-17 ESV)
All of this was foreshadowed in the last verse of chapter 1.
Naomi believed she was coming home bereft of everything that signified God’s blessing and care for her. What she couldn’t see was how God was already preparing her, and the generations who would follow her, for blessings that were even greater than the ones she had lost. The seeds of the blessings God was preparing to pour out on and through Naomi, had been planted in the soil of her present trials, and were already beginning to grow. She just couldn’t see them yet.
In many ways, Naomi was looking at her circumstances the way her ancestor Eve had looked at hers. Naomi was focussing on what she had lost, and not what she had. But unlike Eve, Naomi chose not to turn her heart away from God. She turned towards Him as best as she was able – to His land and His people. And in doing so, she placed herself exactly where she needed to be for God to do abundantly beyond what she could have asked or thought.
God had been at work for Naomi’s good, and our good, all along. The hard things of chapter 1 and the blessings of chapter 4 were inextricably linked. They always are.
There is no resurrection without death.
You would have had to be there to witness the way Josh let us sit with our various initial impressions and thoughts, before leading us to, and through, the words of Naomi’s friends in chapter 4. He took his time. There were uncomfortable silences. If brains could sweat, ours surely were.
As Josh finally lead us through the parallelisms between Naomi’s words in chapter 1, and the words of the women in chapter 4, it was as though the Holy Spirit superimposed my name onto Naomi’s. I could see the trajectory of my heart, and I could see how God was calling me to respond. I could see Him – His trustworthiness, His mercy, and His deep, deep love.
And so my thoughts on my drive away from the study were entirely different from the ones I had had on the way there.
Beyond the way God had worked in my own heart, I was struck afresh by the process God had followed to do it, and what that meant when it comes to the discipline of Bible study and principles of hermeneutics. I’ve read the book of Ruth countless times. I’m familiar with the way it is often taught to women, with all of its drama and romance and relatable characters. I’ve heard the “Waiting for Your Boaz” and the “Living Like Ruth” sermons, and rolled my eyes through most of them. Shallow wading through the surface of the book of Ruth yields shallow, and narrow, insights. But weeks spent in deep, directed study, grounded in tried and true principles of biblical exposition, that reveal the character and the work of God, has yielded fruit that has been nourishing and strengthening my soul, and changing the way I think and act.
I was raised in a tradition that valued training in doctrine and hermeneutics as ends in themselves, and I’ve got the scars to show for it. But this week I was reminded anew of how hermeneutics done right, as a means to the highest and best end of knowing God in a way that changes you, is truly good for the soul.
*Since so many of you had asked, my pastor gladly permitted me to share the syllabus and notes from the initial session he wrote. From scratch.
Seriously – Bomb.Dig.Git.Ty.
If you end up using/leveraging them, and they’re a blessing to you or your church, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to let him know in as many ways as possible how much this ministry is a needed blessing.
2 thoughts on “Between Heartache and Hope (or, How Hermeneutics Done Well Is Good For Your Soul)”
Hi Rachael, I’m interested to know what you, the pastor and the other ladies in the group thought of “A Loving Life” by Paul Miller. We have a review of that book on A Cry For Justice.