Douglas Wilson wrote, “Words are the bricks with which you build. Buy the bricks before starting on the wall” (Wordsmithy, Moscow, ID: Canon, 2011, p.104). He was advising aspiring writers to study etymology and ancient languages. I’ll commandeer his point to encourage those who study the Bible to begin with the beginning.
Books of the Bible were constructed from stories. These stories were built from episodes. Episodes arose by gatherings of paragraphs. Paragraphs disemboweled produce sentences. Sentences dissect into words. Words are our bricks. Let’s observe them to start.
I’ll use Luke 2:1-21, NET for a sample text. It’s a pretty familiar text for many Christians, so we’ll work hard to observe it well.
First, notice a theme to key words in the first few verses
- city of David – 2 times
- house and family line of David
- firstborn son
- Lord – 2 times
- vast, heavenly army – a phrase that explains what angels are
What stands out? Major attention is drawn to power, glory, and governing authority. There’s some tension between Imperial authority (represented in Caesar and his underlings) and God’s authority (represented in his son).
Let’s keep looking at another class of words
- Mary, who was promised to be married to him
- expecting a child
- the time came to deliver
- child wrapped in strips of cloth – 2 times
- laid in manger – 3 times
- no place for them in the inn
This group lends itself to another theme: that of unpredictable lowliness.
I’ll mention one final set of observations regarding word choice in Lk 2:11:
- Today your Savior is born in the city of David
- He is Christ
- He is the Lord
The narrator, through the angel, communicates loads of information simply by his word choice.
- What is a “Savior”? One who saves. A hero. A rescuer. He’s not the guy who runs out of the burning building to save his own life; he’s the guy who runs into the burning building to save others’ lives.
- What is a “Christ”? We need some background help on this one, but “Christ” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah,” which means “Anointed One.” What on earth is an “anointed one”? We don’t have those anymore! Think of it as someone inaugurated and sworn into office. The narrator wants us to know that Jesus has a job, and he’s authorized by God to execute that job.
- What is “the Lord”? It’s what the Jews of old would call God himself. Flip through your Old Testament, and see how often the word LORD shows up in all caps. That represents instances where God’s personal name (something like Yahweh, but we can’t know for sure how it was pronounced) was used in the Hebrew text, but translation traditions hand it down to us as simply “LORD.” The narrator wants us to know, through the angel’s proclamation, that Jesus is, in fact, God.
I’m beginning to move into interpretation, so I’ll hold off until we get to that step in the OIA process. Your take-home point for now is: the first part in how to study the Bible is to observe (not just see, mind you, but truly to observe) the words on the page.