A word means what a writer or speaker means it to mean even if the speaker happens to use the wrong word. One group of office workers are angry with the office manager’s way of running things and wish to protest to the higher management. But they’re very afraid of the O.M and don’t want her to nail them in sly reprisal. One of them says, “We need to write a unanimous note to the bosses.” In this case she has used the wrong word with the right meaning. Her little group got the point while ignoring word choice. In this sentence unanimous meant anonymous. Context is king in interpretation.
It’s really interesting how context reveals the “meaning” of a word or a phrase. The more finely-tuned, the richer our understanding of context, the better we will understand what a writer or speaker is immediately “after”.
We experience the truth of this every day but we do it so easily that we’re rarely aware we’re doing it. Those with a full awareness of the context are aware of the grammatical/lexical possibilities of the words spoken but they’re also aware of things—truths, realities, events—that others are unaware of. This means that while they are fully aware of the grammatical or lexical possibilities of the words being used they don’t “get” what’s going on in the speaker’s mind nor do they “get” what has been generated in the minds of those “in the know” who are part of those addressed. [This is true even if the person who doesn’t have a full grasp of the context is more accomplished linguistically than those “in the know.”]
For example a teacher whose vocabulary is greater than any of the students may not know how a familiar word is being used intentionally by Peter to goad Rachel. The well-known word in this case “means” something known only to Peter and Rachel. (Some think writer/speaker intention is unknowable but they write/speak expecting us to get their point.)
Once more, if I’m angry with someone and he knows it I may say something with barbs in it that only he can feel and pick up on. To others there’s nothing critical in the remark and this is true even though they hear the same words spoken and with the same tone. Intention isn’t always easily discernible and perhaps now and then not east at all. Work is required.
Here’s “John” he’s certain that “Joe” has slandered him and he speaks to him about it. “Joe” denies any such thing but John isn’t convinced and in a Bible class where the discussion is “the works of the flesh” in Galatians 5 John works in some blunt words about the very great wickedness of slander. Everyone in the room agrees with John’s words but the only one that gets John’s real point is Joe. It isn’t only John’s words that give the “meaning” (here I’m talking about intention)—Joe gets his purpose, his intention, “what he really is doing with his words.
It’s because intention is at the center of what a person is doing with words that God says Job’s friends did not speak the truth about Him. Well, at least that’s part of the truth. The friends very often say things that are true but they use them to promote a cause or agenda God did not endorse or approve whereas Job said false things in support of known massive underlying truth about God and this particular situation (see Job 42:7).
Context is everything and because (as we experience every day of our lives, perhaps) we can’t get the entire picture out of which speech arises, we must settle for something less than an exhaustive understanding of the Bible’s message. (That claim, though I firmly believe it’s true needs carefully developed.)
As soon as John utters the word slander it fills with sounds and images and personal feelings that don’t exist on this occasion for anyone other than Joe. Joe knows he is being “got at.” The word in this setting fills with images that are not part of the word itself. Interpretation involves more than the customary lexical and grammatical possibility of the words used.
If “Harold” had brought the matter up it in the class it wouldn’t have generated those additional images in the mind of Joe though it might have made him feel uneasy. It would have been another general and well known observation about one aspect of moral behavior.
But if Harold is a good friend and confidant of John then his remarks on slandering will probably generate other images are that only Joe gets. If Harold is clearly not John’s friend what Joe feels may be no more than some uneasiness.
So what has this to do with texts like Luke 3:1-7? Everything!
Context is everything though it isn’t everything, if you know what I mean.
(Maybe something more in this area later, God enabling.)