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Getting the Interpretation Right when Reading the Bible
The passages below are taken from Tremper Longman III’s book “Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind,” published in 1997 by NavPress Publications.
In a recent comedy, the lead character approached the woman of his dreams and asked, “Mary, what do you think are the chances of a girl like you and a guy like me getting together?”
“Well, John, I would have to say about one in a million.”
With that, John breaks out in a huge smile. With a sigh of great relief, he exclaims, “So ... you’re saying there’s a chance!”
GETTING IT RIGHT
John interpreted Mary’s words---and got them all wrong. Has it ever happened to you?
It’s no exaggeration to say we’re constantly interpreting. As we launch into our day we interpret our moods, our conversations, the morning newspaper, the traffic signs, the look on our boss’s face. Some of these acts of interpretation are so natural and frequent that we don’t give them a thought. As I drove to work this morning and saw the light over the intersection turn red, I stopped without weighing the pros and cons.
In other cases, interpretation takes work. In conversation we often ask others for clarification and elaboration so we can really understand what they’re trying to communicate to us. We want to understand exactly what they intend to tell us (unless, like John, we’re more interested in hearing what we want to hear).
Books and other forms of writing are even more difficult to interpret. We’re engaged in a conversation with the author, but the author isn’t there to respond when we seek clarification. We don’t have the luxury of asking Shakespeare what he was talking about in a particularly obscure section of Hamlet
Similarly, the Bible demands our full interpretive energies if we are to get the meaning just right. After all, the Bible puts us in a rather unique conversation. First, it thrusts us into dialogue with a wide variety of human authors, from Moses, who lived around 1500 B.C., to John, the author of the book of Revelation, who lived at the end of the first century A.D. Most important, the Bible puts us into conversation with our God. For these reasons we need accurate interpretation---an understanding of Scripture that coincides with God’s intention.
This raises a problem, however. The Bible isn’t always easy to understand. Take a quick look at the episode recorded in Exodus 4:24-26, for example. A Bible version such as The New International Version supplies names that aren’t in the Hebrew text to make the action more clear. But not even the most experienced Hebrew scholar is confident about what Zipporah is doing or whose foreskin she’s throwing at whose feet.
Even when the text seems straightforward, we may feel uncertain about our interpretation of it. The words in Ecclesiastes 7:16-18 are easy enough to read and understand:
Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise---
why destroy yourself?
Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool---
why die before your time?
It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
But can the Teacher really mean that we should not be too wicked or too righteous? Is he really advocating the golden mean---that a little bit of wickedness is good for the soul?
Even when we do understand a passage correctly, we may fail to see its place in the rest of the Bible and distort its application. For instance, we may read the speeches of Job’s three friends and make the fatal mistake of applying them as normative biblical teaching. When Zophar stated in Job 20:5, “the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts but a moment,” we might wrongly wonder why our godless neighbor has enjoyed material prosperity and happiness for as long as we’ve known him.
All of us want to treat the Word of God with the respect it deserves, and we certainly don’t want to read into it things that aren’t there. For these reasons, we need to apply the basic principles of hermeneutics---the science of interpretation---as we read the Bible. These principles aren’t laws set in stone, and they should never be applied mechanically as a kind of academic exercise. But used wisely, they can help anyone get a better grasp on the intended meaning of Scripture. Here they are:
Principle 1: Look for the author’s intended meaning.
Each biblical passage has an objective meaning intended by its author. The interpreter’s task is to discover that meaning. This principle seems clear enough, but we must come to grips with a couple of issues it raises.
First, who is the author and how do we uncover his intention? Even when we know the name of the human author (Moses, Paul, David), we have no independent access to him. We can’t ask Paul whether he referred to Christians or non-Christians when he described a person who doesn’t do what God wants in Romans 7:21-25. We can only answer such questions by placing ourselves in the time period when the author wrote and ask what he meant to tell us.
A second issue has to do with the unique character of the Bible as the Word of God. As 2 Peter 1:21 states, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” God is the ultimate author of the Bible, and this important truth has implications for how we understand it. Let’s look at an example in Hosea 11:1:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
Who is the author of this passage? According to the first verse of Hosea, it’s the prophet by that name. But how can we know his intention in the words of this passage? First, we know approximately when Hosea lived. We also have the broader context of the whole book, which gives us a more complete idea of what Hosea intended to say in this one verse. When we study this text in the context of his entire book, we find that Hosea is referring to the Exodus described in the book of Exodus.
Later we may be reading Matthew 2 and come across verse 15. Here the writer applies Hosea 11:1 to Jesus as a youth returning to Judea from Egypt. This reference doesn’t seem in keeping with Hosea’s intention. Yet here we must remember where the meaning of a text finally resides---in the intention of God, its ultimate author. As we read this passage in the context of the whole Bible, we see that God has made an analogy. He is prophetically relating Israel (God’s children, being freed from Egypt) to Jesus (God’s Child, coming up from Egypt). This is a pattern that runs throughout Matthew’s gospel.
Notice that this principle acknowledges there is a meaning to the text. That’s an important point in our age of relativism. A number of scholarly interpreters of the Bible, mostly university professors, suggest that the Bible has no set meaning and that we may read into it whatever we want. On the contrary, when we interpret the Bible we are looking for the author’s original meaning, not imposing our own meaning. When the reader’s interpretation conflicts with the author’s intention, the reader’s interpretation is wrong.
Principle 2: Read the passage in context.
With the Bible, as with all good literature, we must get a grasp of the whole in order to appreciate and understand the parts. We ought never treat a biblical book as a collection of isolated passages. They are connected stories, poems, and letters. The meaning of the individual verses can only be discovered in the flow of the whole literary piece.
This principle does not stop us from turning to the middle of a biblical book and reading a section, but we should only do so if we have a basic understanding of how the passage fits into the message of the whole book. In other words, when we read little bits and pieces of Scripture, we should exercise great caution. Otherwise, we might distort God’s message.
As a new Christian wanting to obey God, a college friend of mine one day searched through Scripture for guidance about getting married. His eyes fell on 1 Corinthians 7:27, “Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife.” At first this confused him, and, having grown up in a church tradition that prized a celibate priesthood, it didn’t seem too far off the mark to him. But as he read in the context of the whole book, he saw, much to his relief, that Paul did not forbid Christians to marry.
The context includes more than just the paragraphs before and after a text. It is an ever-expanding thematic backdrop. For example, consider Genesis 50:20, where Joseph said, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish. . . the saving of many lives.” If we look at the immediate context, we will see that he is speaking to his brothers right after his father had died. To understand what he’s referring to we need to read the entire Joseph story in Genesis 37:1—50:26. Then we see that Joseph’s brothers sold him to Midianite traders who took him to Egypt. We also observe how God used their evil actions to put Joseph in a position of power, which eventually allowed him to save his family.
But there’s an even broader context to consider. If we read Genesis 50:20 in light of the whole book of Genesis, we bring in the promise that God gave to Abraham---about numerous descendants and land. No doubt Joseph reflects on the past, and his statement shows his awareness that God had overruled his brothers’ evil intentions in order to preserve the family line and fulfill God’s promise to Abraham.
We’re still not done with the context, however. The ultimate context of any particular passage is the whole Bible. As we read the Bible we see many parallels to Joseph’s statement but none so vivid as the words of Peter when he described Jesus’ death. In Acts 2:22-24 Peter says that Jesus was killed by men who had evil intentions, but God used those very intentions to save many from their sin.
We can learn to read in context by reading whole books of the Bible rather than just little snippets. If you can sit down for two or three hours to read a novel, try doing the same with Isaiah or Acts, but make sure you do it with a contemporary English version. Whenever you do read a short passage, read it with an outline of the whole book in mind or with the help of a good commentary.
The exact nature of the context may differ from book to book. The context of the historical books comes from the flow of events in the story. In the epistles, or letters, one idea builds upon another. In Proverbs, chapters 10 through 31 have a looser context. In these chapters, one pithy proverb---on laziness, for example---is followed by two on the tongue and then another on laziness. Still, in all biblical books we should have a sense of the whole book as we study any part of it. Always ask yourself how a passage fits into the message of the whole book, even the whole Bible.
Principle 3: Identify the genre of the passage.
Written texts come in a variety of forms. A genre of literature is a group of texts that share similarity in content, tone, or structure. We’re familiar with genre in a library or a bookstore. Books are either fiction or nonfiction. Fiction can be divided into novels, mystery, romance, science fiction, and so on. We gain an initial impression of a book once we know its genre, and its genre guides us in how we read it.
One evening I sat down with a book and was hooked by this opening sentence: “As Gregor Samsa awoke from an uneasy sleep, he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.” It was a striking sentence, but it didn’t shake me. The book was Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka, a story in which human beings can turn into bugs. I was able to suspend my disbelief because I knew I was immersing myself in fiction.
The Bible is a cornucopia of literary types. It reminds me of my mother’s Thanksgiving dinner table. She used a special centerpiece on that special day when we’d celebrate God’s material blessings. She would set a wicker horn---a cornucopia---in the center of the table and fill it with small pumpkins, gourds, and ornamental corn that overflowed onto the tablecloth. As we open the Bible’s pages we encounter a spiritual cornucopia---a gift from God for our spiritual nourishment---in a diversity of writings that command our interest, stimulate our imaginations, and address every aspect of our lives.
As we read from Genesis to Revelation, we move through history, law, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic literature. And when we know the type---the genre---of the literature we’re reading, we can understand it better. We read history differently from how we read poetry. Different genres evoke different expectations and interpretive strategies.
Genre is such an important concept for proper reading of the Scriptures that we’re going to devote the rest of this book to exploring the main types of biblical literature. In turn, we’ll examine how history, law, wisdom and poetry, prophecy and apocalyptic, gospel and parable, and letters should be interpreted. Each leads us, in different ways, to an encounter with Jesus Christ.
Principle 4: Consider the historical and cultural background of the Bible.
The Bible was written in a time and culture far different from ours. So, to discover the author’s meaning, we must learn to read as if we were one of his contemporaries.
How do we do this? Most of us turn to commentaries and other helps. These books can provide insight into the cultural and historical backgrounds of the biblical writings. For example, the Bible often depicts the Lord as riding a cloud (see Psalm 18:7-15, 104:3, Nahum 1:3). A commentary would tell us that Israel’s neighbors frequently pictured their god, Baal, riding a chariot into battle. As we place the biblical image in the light of the ancient Near East, we realize that God’s cloud is a chariot He rides into war. When we turn to the New Testament and see that Jesus is also a cloud rider (Matthew 24:30, Revelation 1:7), we understand that this is not a fluffy white cloud but a storm cloud He rides into judgment. We now sense that the Old Testament imagery was calling Baal-worshiping Israelites to come back and worship the true cloud rider, Yahweh (God’s proper name in the Old Testament, often translated LORD).
What about a passage like Psalm 23:1? Can’t we understand the imagery of a shepherd without recourse to the ancient world? We know what a shepherd does; he protects, guides, and takes care of his sheep.
The answer is yes---and no. Shepherds in biblical times acted like shepherds in modern times in all these ways. But if we aren’t aware of the use of the shepherd image in the ancient Near East, we will miss an important aspect of the psalm. The kings of the Near East often referred to themselves as the “shepherds” of their people. As we read Psalm 23 in the light of its ancient background, we recover an important teaching: The Lord is a royal shepherd.
Principle 5: Pay attention to the grammar and structure within a passage.
We must read our passage closely, in all its grammatical detail. We need to see how the thought of the author progresses. We need to follow his argument, enter his story world, absorb his poetry. To do this, we look for things like connectors (such as but and therefore), verb tenses, and noun modifiers to help us uncover the logical connections between ideas.
Let’s look at conjunctions, tenses, adjectives, and other indications of relationship in a few sentences of Psalm 131. Our example is from a poem that has a special kind of structural feature---parallelism---in which the clauses echo each other. The first clause makes a statement, which is then expanded in the following clauses. When you read any biblical poem, reflect on how the parallelism contributes to the meaning. Here, the parallel structure (both in the meaning of the words and the grammar) links the first three clauses of verse 1:
My heart is not proud, 0 Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
Careful attention to the structural relationship between the three clauses shows that David distances himself from pride in three distinct areas: his core personality (heart), his external demeanor (eyes), and his actions.
The but, which begins the next verse, draws a strong contrast between the pride described in the first verse and the attitude expressed in the second.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
The English translation of the Hebrew verbs (“have stilled” and “have quieted”) indicate that David’s confidence was rooted in the past and continued in the present. He then illustrated his present disposition by using the word like. Note that David didn’t use a generic term for “child”; rather, he used the word for “weaned child.” When we reflect on the word choice, we realize that a weaned child doesn’t need its mother’s milk and is calm on its mother’s lap. The child isn’t grasping for the source of its sustenance but resting quietly in its mother’s arms.
The final verse of the psalm uses imperatives to drive home the truths presented in the first two verses:
0 Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
Serious grammatical and syntactical (structural) study must be based on the original languages. Most Bible readers can’t read the Hebrew text of the Old Testament or the Greek of the New Testament. For that reason, it’s helpful to have a copy of a very literal translation, such as The New American Standard Bible, for serious study. Again, the best way to get a feel for the original text is to compare a number of translations. Also, a good commentary based on the Hebrew or Greek text is invaluable for insight into the grammatical and structural relationships.
Principle 6: Interpret experience in the light of Scripture, not vice versa.
All too often, we distort the Bible’s meaning by allowing our experiences to shape our understanding of a passage rather than the other way around. Many readers take a passage out of context to support their doctrinal theories, ignore the rest of the Bible’s teaching, and argue that their “truth” is the same as biblical truth.
For instance, if sharing my faith makes me uncomfortable, I could build an excuse for not doing evangelism around the biblical passages that speak of God’s love. I could quote 1 Corinthians 13 and a host of other passages to show that God and love are nearly synonymous. Then I might reason: “If God is love, how could He condemn anybody to an eternity in hell?” In this way, I would be “off the hook” for not telling people about Jesus, despite all the clear biblical teaching about sin, judgment, and hell.
Another way our experience can warp interpretation is when we unconsciously lay our Western values on biblical texts as we read. For instance, capitalism as such, is nowhere taught in the Bible; neither is socialism. But American right-wing Christians and Latin American proponents of liberation theology might use the Bible to promote their political agendas. The antidote to such lopsided reading is to point to biblical passages that undermine both capitalism and socialism in the Bible. A white, middle-class experience of capitalism as good and socialism as bad should not lead to thinking the former is biblical and the latter unbiblical.
Perhaps one of the most hotly debated issues in evangelical circles today is whether certain gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy and speaking in tongues, continue today. Arguments on both sides of this debate often appeal to experience over biblical teaching. If someone speaks in tongues, she will be predisposed to believe the Bible justifies the experience---”I can’t deny what God has done in my life!” if someone else observes that in some settings these gifts bring chaos to worship, he might be more likely to find evidence to refute the practice---“How can God be the author of this confusion?”
It’s difficult, but we must constantly strive to interpret our experience in the light of Scripture, rather than using our experience to make the Bible say only what we’d like it to say.
Principle 7: Always seek the full counsel of Scripture.
We should never read Bible passages in isolation from the whole teaching of Scripture. Although many human authors contributed to the Bible, God is the ultimate Author of the whole. And while the Bible is an anthology of many books, it is also one book. The Bible has many stories to tell, but they all contribute to a single story. So we must read a passage, a chapter, or even a book of the Bible in context with the body of teaching and doctrine that flows from the complete history of God’s progressive revelation in the Word.
This principle has many important implications. First, we won’t base doctrine or moral teaching on an obscure passage. The most important ideas in the Bible are stated more than once. When a text appears to teach something obscure or questionable, and we can’t find other passages to support it, we must not attach too much significance to it.
Second, if one passage seems to teach something, but another passage clearly teaches something else, we must seek to understand the difficult passage in light of the one that is easier to understand. That is, we can determine the meaning of the unclear verse by examining the clear teaching of Scripture.
Remember the radio Bible teacher I debated on the subject of Christ’s return? The debate never would have happened if he and his supporters had simply applied the principle of seeking the full counsel of Scripture. You see, they produced all kinds of convoluted mathematical arguments, based on obscure portions of Scripture, which led them to believe Christ would return in 1994. The clear teaching of Scripture refutes the teacher’s approach. Take a look at Mark 13:32: “No one knows about that day or hour.” Just reading that verse should have stopped all the manipulating of passages to reach a faulty conclusion.
To grasp the full counsel of Scripture, we need to study the themes and analogies that stretch from Genesis to Revelation. Then, when we read any one passage, we will be able to understand its place in the unfolding history of salvation. This principle is particularly important as we read the Old Testament. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament, not just a handful of messianic prophecies, anticipated His coming (see Luke 24:25-27, 44).
In this regard, look at Matthew 4:1-11, which describes Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. If we keep the whole of Scripture in mind as we read, this reference may remind us of the Israelites’ forty-year trek in the wilderness. But the comparison goes beyond the number forty. The Israelites also were tempted in the wilderness in the same three areas in which Jesus was tempted: hunger and thirst, testing God, and worshipping false gods. Jesus shows Himself to be the obedient Son of God where the Israelites were disobedient. Indeed, Jesus responded to the temptations by quoting Deuteronomy, the sermon Moses gave the Israelites at the end of their forty-year sojourn.
Reading Scripture in the light of the whole message, the whole counsel of God, not only prevents erroneous interpretations, it gives us deeper insight into the Word of God.
READY FOR THE CHALLENGE?
In light of all we have said about hermeneutical principles, I hope you are inspired to move into the Word with a new vigor, with a heart overflowing in new anticipation. Yet as we’ve seen, interpretation isn’t necessarily an easy task. On one level we could call it quite challenging, for the same book that gently invites us to step into healing waters of spiritual life might cause us significant anxiety; we’re tempted to remain on the shore in fear of certain swirling “interpretive rapids.” Writer Frederick Buechner eloquently summarizes this paradox, describing both the daunting challenge and the compelling attraction the Bible is for us:
[We could say that] . . . it is a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria. Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety, with superannuated superstition and blue-nosed moralizing, with ecclesiastical authoritarianism and crippling literalism
And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair.
In other words, it is a book about us.1
It’s true. In spite of all its potentially confusing variety of styles and themes, the Bible presents one story and a simple message---a story all about us, all about God’s love for us. He made us, but we sinned and broke fellowship with Him. He pursued us and provided our salvation by sending His Son to die on the cross in our place. And God raised Him from the dead that we might believe in Him and follow Him the rest of our lives.
We might think of the Word as a diamond---a single jewel with many facets. We can look through one of its facets and still see the same diamond but from a slightly different perspective. God tells us the one great story through different types of writings that reflect life’s breadth and richness.
The most important thing to remember as you approach the Bible is to come to it with an openness to hear God speaking directly to your heart. He cares about you and your deepest concerns. Don’t allow principles or guidelines to take away the power of your encounter with Him. But do use them as a guide for accurate interpretation.
In the following chapters we’ll explore the different genres God has chosen for speaking to our hearts and minds. We’ll describe each and point out where in the Bible we can discover them. We’ll learn the proper way to read each genre to ensure that we’re getting God’s intended message. And we’ll reflect on why God found these particular types of writings appropriate to communicate His message of salvation and spiritual transformation through Jesus Christ. (83-94)
1. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), p.9.
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