Excavating the Word

Plaza de la Luna, Teotihuacan

Every archeologist knows that you can’t discover the material culture of the past without digging for it. Most of the really old stuff sinks into the dust and dirt, and the parts that remain above ground don’t tell the whole story.

But excavating is hard. It involves removing massive amounts of dirt and rock in tiny amounts, and sifting though it all, little bits at a time. It takes lots of patience, hard workers, the necessary equipment, governmental permission, time, and money.

Which points to the need of the archaeologist, or any investigator, for something more crucial than a spade or a brush. It’s what really makes him dig.

It’s curiosity.

The drive to know and to understand, and to increase one’s understanding – to locate, decipher, identify, and interpret – that is what motivates the digging.

So it is with Scripture. Not just reading the word, but mining it. Study is digging, and digging is searching for what I hope to find: truth that will guide me, enlighten me, transform me.

The archaeologist is very careful in her digging. She will note the exact location of every artifact, every fragment. By their dating, disposition, depth, and relation to other objects, she will determine if they belong together, or to another time and another group of occupants at the site.

Our study of God’s word is carried out in a similar manner: seeing the proper context, genre, addressees, and so forth, in order to arrive at a sound interpretation and valid applications.

When I taught the Bible to teens and adults in my church, I was always trying to convince them that they should study, but to little avail. When I gave a class on how to study the Bible, no one came – even though I had just taught the best-attended class in years. They could sometimes be convinced to read their Bibles, but not to study them.

Champoeg State Park, Oregon

My students, I am convinced, were never driven by curiosity. Feelings of obligation and peer pressure are not enough. Even knowing that the Scriptures hold invaluable treasures found nowhere else seems insufficient for many Christians.

Is it possible that one of the things that saps our curiosity is the feeling that we already have gleaned the most valuable truths? That a lot of searching will not yield much more than we have already read?

What if I, as a teacher, had something to do with tamping the curiosity of my learners? How? By making it seem that Scripture has no underground, that digging won’t turn much up? If I did not show them what it took, in my studying, to uncover what I did, they might think there was not any digging involved, but just a careful scan of the surface.

What if an archeologist thought that everything he could find was above ground, out in the open? Would he ever dig? What if I gave the impression the truth found in the Bible was mostly low-hanging fruit? Over the years I’ve heard plenty of teachers who have left this impression. “Isn’t it obvious?” could be their motto.

But the older I get, the more I realize that, obvious or not, I didn’t get many things that were recorded in the Word. I have to admit that I accepted explanations and interpretations that did not really answer my questions. They did not ease the tensions I felt.

But curiosity got the better of me. After excavating a site for decades, the archeologist still can see only part of the whole picture. Pompeii, for example, is still being uncovered. Only two-thirds of the city has been dug out of the ashen tomb from Vesuvius. What has already been found does not lessen one’s curiosity, it heightens it.

…they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.

Acts 17:11

I go to my study with questions. That’s what moves me to dig in. When I find a fragment that fits perfectly with a previous find, it increases my curiosity, and keeps me digging.

When I next have that role, I think I shall not try to persuade my students they should study rather than just read the Bible. Instead I’ll do all in my power to make them curious, to ask questions that only the Word of God can answer, to look for treasure that only digging will uncover.

Steve Dehner is a Northwest author and speaker who grew up in Portland, Missoula, Montana, and Seattle. He writes across several genres, including essays, articles, and reviews. His first book, "At a Loss: How to Help a Grieving Friend," was recently published by Greentown Press. He lives with his family in Forest Grove, Oregon, where he is working on his first novel. See more at stevedehner.com


  • Austin Decker

    A wonderful little blog on studying and on our approach to others. There is a real need for getting people to be curious and get hungry for GOD’S book. He wrote a book and that blows me away every time I think about it. Also, something that drives me is when I find a fragment that does not (seem to) fit with my previous find haha, that increases my curiosity, and keeps me digging even more than finding connections I think, but thats just me. Great blog. I will share.

    -Austin Decker, Animated Bible and Theology on Youtube and (www.FinalDestinyVideos.com)

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