Archaeology of the Word

Archaeology of the Word

The phrase ‘Archaeology of the Word’ describes an interpretative method inspired by traditional Jewish approaches to Torah.

Like an archaeologist digging into layers of soil to uncover hidden treasures, we gradually ‘dig’ into God’s word, sifting layers of text, examining this piece and that and rejoicing as we discover precious insights. ‘Clues’ on the surface of the text direct the reader to a spot to dig.

With your class:

  • Read the text aloud for the class, slowly, modelling how you revere the sacred scripture and pay attention to each word and phrase. (Time permitting, also invite the children to read the text aloud to one another in pairs.)
  • As the text is read, students highlight the ‘clues’ they find there [scroll down for list of ‘clues’].
  • ‘What did you find?’ Note the variety and number of fascinating details uncovered by your class of ‘archaeologists’!
  • Invite discussion. Taking one clue at a time, articulate a question which came to mind as you engaged with the text. Ponder: ‘What might the word of God be saying to us by this little detail in the text?’ Enjoy the variety of interpretations in the class. Urge students to think creatively while staying close to the text.
  • Young children can begin learning this process by just looking for one or two features in the text e.g. repetition and names.

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The Process

Begin by reading the passage aloud, slowly. Scripture sounds different when we hear it, rather than simply reading it off a page. Be attentive to the sound, rhythm and poetry of the text.

Read it a second time, this time asking students to highlight the ‘clues’ that they noticed (see “Ten Clues” below).  Afterwards, engage in a class discussion: What clues did you notice? How might you interpret a particular clue? What might God’s Word be saying to us through that particular clue – e.g., that repeated word, or that unusual turn of phrase?

Don’t be concerned about covering all the clues in one session.  The important thing is that students gain experience in observing detail and pondering the text. Young children may begin learning this process by just looking for one or two features in the text e.g. repetition and names.

This method is conducted in a spirit of joy and wonder (and spirited, respectful debate!) as we are drawn ever more deeply into the inexhaustible riches of God’s Word. In fact, the Rabbis speak of the ‘seventy faces of Torah’ – there is no one single interpretation that exhausts the meaning of a verse of scripture… there are many ways a Bible text can speak to our lives.

Ten 'Clues' to look for in the text

Repetition
In Exodus 18, why is Moses’ ‘father-in-law’ mentioned 13 times in just 27 verses?

Use of Numbers in the text
In the Bible numbers are often symbolic. E.g., the number 3 can suggest the entry of divine power into the narrative. ‘On the third day…’

Questions
Questions in the text can be posed to the reader. How do you answer the Lord’s call to Adam in Genesis 3:9 ‘Where are you?’

Names
In Numbers 22 the name of the pagan sorcerer ‘Balaam’ may be derived from bli am, ‘without a people’. How does this knowledge affect our grasp of the text?

Structure
‘May the Lord bless you and keep you…’ (Num 6:24). In the Hebrew, this poetic passage clearly appears as three lines of increasing length. What can we learn by pondering this structure?

Puzzling words and phrases
In the crossing of the Red Sea, wouldn’t you expect God to tell Moses to split the sea before urging the Israelites to go forward into it? Why the puzzling word order in Exodus 14:15-16?

Rhythm
In Genesis 22, as Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son, there is a steady, almost robotic rhythm underlying this terrifying activity. What can we make of this?

Times
Abraham started early in the morning (Genesis 22:3). Why the early start?

Absence
In the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22) there is no mention of Sarah. Why is the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, absent in a story with drastic familial consequences?

References to other passages
In comparing passages, what similar words and ideas do we hear?