(The following comprises Part Eight of the Saturday series on Secondary Illuminations of Scripture.)
I do believe that God can be and was so exacting in choosing the original languages (insofar as they are available to us in the earliest critical manuscripts we possess) and locations as to consider names and places a potential conduit for secondary illuminations. Otherwise, He would be a smaller God than I can envision.
We need to be careful when referencing Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, however, not to assume that all definitions of a word apply to the instance at hand. Context and tense often determine a much narrower range than the lists offered us. Additionally, some dictionaries list any old way the word has been interpreted by Bible translators, even if experts might know better today. Checking multiple English translations, cautiously aware that translation committees are sometime operating under their own biases, may sometimes help as much as the Greek and Hebrew lexicons.
The temptation to over-apply root words in determining the nuances of current words is also a concern, for it can lead to fallacies. The discernible ties between words and their roots are not always current to their popular usage in English or any other language. Someone saying goodbye today is rarely thinking that the word carries the import of, “God be with you.”
Years ago, I sat through several services at a house church where the pastor kept The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance in a place of prominence, referencing it frequently and applying all the meanings of the word in question AND the word it derived from AND the words which derived from it to the passage at hand in order to get the most thorough interpretation. The studies and sermons became the Amplified Bible on steroids sans knowledge of the languages and all that tenses and context would do to narrow the field of authorial intent. I know I was tempted to do the same thing in my naivete when I first purchased the Zodhiates’ Word Study testaments for myself. While these studies were helpful and often inspired, I had to learn how to sort through my discoveries to discard or shelve some.
Bashfully, I recall how one of my first word studies was to search through the entire Old Testament trying to discern the differences in application between the feminine word for righteousness and the masculine one. Granted, it was an intriguing question. At least I had enough sense that time, despite my lack of training in hermeneutics, to realize I had outstepped my ken and to begin forming hermeneutical guidelines for myself both for literal and secondary illuminations.
However, both the problem of applying too many definitions and the concern of relying too much on word derivations are far greater when forming doctrine or literal interpretation of passages, for which a keener grasp of the language is most helpful. I have rarely delved into word range or roots for determining the literal meaning of a passage and attempt to be very careful, particularly as someone who has not yet learned the languages, when I do. I talk to those who know the language, look for scholarly papers, and use multiple reference works, some of which do help you understand a bit how the Hebrew and Greek tenses work and how the range in usage is limited.
One might assume as I have, somewhat more freedom in acknowledging God’s hand in language for shaping the hidden gems of secondary spiritual meanings provided these accord with the gist of Scripture and have been highlighted by the Spirit. However, not everyone will agree with me on that.
One of the challenges even biblical experts face is the flurry of question marks that can develop over time regarding knowledge of ancient geography. In working on a book manuscript that has to do with themes of rejection and redemption in the Trans-Jordan tribes (Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh, each of which I found to represent different personalities and life paths), I found much meaning in the events that took place on their land. However, scholars aren’t always clear on the tribal boundaries. To add to the confusion, sometimes cities within the boundaries of a certain tribe were allotted to another tribe—and not just to the Levites. If we really feel a location is important for spiritual reasons, we can compare resources and try our best, holding some of our conclusions with a loose grip.