As I wrote on my Jesus book this morning, I was reminded of some camp meeting preaching I heard as a child from Ezekiel 18:4: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die."
It's a great example of how the same words can be read differently by different people... and a good example of the focus on judgment I grew up with. The way I heard this passage preached was, "Don't think you're going to get away with anything. Be assured. If you sin, you will die. You're going to get it. There's no escaping God. He's going to come after you and send you to hell."
Ezekiel of course has no conception of hell, and this is not what the passage means if one pays any attention at all to the literary context of the verse. The context is the fact that the generation that went into captivity in Babylon was not the actual generation that had sinned. Rather, the sins of the fathers had been visited on the sons, even though the sons had cleaned up their act. "The fathers ate sour grapes but it's our teeth that hurt" (18:2).
Not so anymore, says Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31. But rather, the person who actually does the sinning is the one who will get punished. The person who does the sinning, he or she will do the dying.
But we come to the words of Scripture with our own definitions and, no surprise, find meanings in the Bible that fit with what we already believe. So those camp meeting preachers had this dictionary:
soul: the part of me that survives death
die: eternal death
Ezekiel's sixth century BC Hebrew dictionary had these entries:
soul: a living being, the whole person not a separable part of a person
die: for your body to stop living, no conception of a meaningful afterlife
This "polyvalence" of language (susceptibility to multiple meanings) allows the Spirit to speak in ways the original authors never intended... and it also allows the burrito you had for lunch to write an entertaining sermon.