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Pastor's Corner: How language works

Do you remember the Amelia Bedelia books, by Peggy Parish? Amelia Bedelia works as a housekeeper, but is constantly causing disasters because she inevitably misunderstands what she is told.

At one point she’s roped into a neighborhood baseball game. When she’s encouraged to steal the bases and run home, she picks up the object used to mark third base and sprints back to her house. Another time when she was told to give the chickens scraps, she took small pieces of cloth to the hencoop.

Amelia Bedelia’s problem is that she always takes words strictly at face value, in one meaning she has learned for them, without understanding that the same word can include more than one idea or that words are sometimes used figuratively.

The books about Amelia Bedelia have often made me laugh. But in this little comedy of errors suitable for children, there is also a deep lesson. Really understanding what someone says requires understanding words in context. A word doesn’t just have one meaning. Words communicate meaning by working together. “Home” when talking about baseball does not mean the house where you live!

When it comes to reading and explaining the Bible, there are a lot of Amelia Bedelias out there these days. The Bible uses ordinary human language to communicate some very big ideas. Understanding what it means calls for careful attention to how the words are working together. This science or art of interpretation is called hermeneutics.

A huge part of proper hermeneutics is understanding the sentences of the Bible inside the Bible’s own frame of reference. With reference to baseball, “home” means “home base.” With reference to chickens, “scraps” means leftover food, not leftover fabric. In the same way, as the late Alec Motyer would say, “Bible words have Bible meanings.”

One way we act like Amelia Bedelia with the Bible is when we approach Scripture to find out what the Bible says about some special question we have — about history or prophecy, science or behavior. But it may be that the Bible didn’t mean to answer that particular question. If we squeeze an answer out of the Bible when a subject doesn’t fall within its sphere of reference, we run the risk of making a mistake just as silly as any in Amelia Bedelia.

Rev. Ruben Zartman has been the pastor at Ebenezer Reformed Church in Shafter since 2017.


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