How should we interpret the stories in the Bible?

How should we interpret the stories in the Bible? February 5, 2024

A Bible and pink flowers
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Science book, history book or neither?

“Forget science books, give them the Bible!”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend posted the above comment in response to a meme that showed Santa Claus saying he had been reading people’s posts, and some of them were going to get science books for Christmas. I was tempted to respond by saying that I didn’t become a doctor by reading my Bible, but I decided not to. I think most people would agree that the Bible is not a science book, but the statement demonstrates a larger problem, that of using the scriptures for purposes other than originally intended. I addressed some ways in which the Bible is misused in this essay.

The Bestselling Book

According to the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Bible is the best selling book of all time.

As of 2021, the estimated number of Bibles sold was between five and seven billion. The Bible is full of stories and these need to be interpreted in their proper context. Before focusing on the stories in the Bible, let’s examine storytelling in general.

National Storytelling Week

The first week of February is National Storytelling Week, during which people are encouraged to celebrate the cultural and educational value of storytelling. People engage in various activities to celebrate Storytelling Week, including attending storytelling events, reading and sharing stories, and visiting libraries. Stories can be told to teach important lessons about life, or simply to pass on history. Many Bible stories teach important spiritual and moral lessons, but it is important to have a proper framework for their interpretation.

Approaches to interpreting the stories in the Bible

There are four approaches to biblical interpretation: literal, moral, allegorical and anagogical.

The literal interpretation refers to the plain reading.

The moral interpretation seeks to establish the ethical lessons from a story.

The allegorical interpretation addresses a level of meaning beyond what is explicitly mentioned in the text.

The anagogical (or mystical) approach seeks to interpret events in the Bible as they relate to the life to come.

Let’s look at the story of the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus.

21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. 22 So the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea on the dry ground, and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. 23 And the Egyptians pursued and went after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen.

Exodus 14:21-23 (NKJV)

 

The literal interpretation of this story is simply that the Red Sea parted, and the Israelites crossed over on dry land, while their enemies drowned.

The moral interpretation could be that God protects His people, in this case the Israelites, from their enemies. (This is a very nuanced concept that needs to be explored in a separate essay).

The allegorical and/or anagogical interpretation might be understood to be symbolic of God bridging the gap between our earthly and heavenly homes.

 Jesus was a storyteller

Jesus used parables to teach lessons on a regular basis. For example, the importance of caring for the needy is demonstrated by the story of the Good Samaritan. The fact that Jesus routinely told parables shows us that he expected people to think about the stories and their deeper meanings, as opposed to simply taking everything at face value.

The Bible is not a science book or a history book

Just as we shouldn’t use the Bible as a science book, it’s important to realize that it isn’t a history book, either. When interpreting the Bible stories, we need to consider the historical and cultural context, in addition to the complexities of translation, since it wasn’t originally written in English. And no, giving COVID deniers Bibles to read isn’t going to help them learn about how viruses spread disease- we have science books for that. Finally, for people to get the spiritual benefits from reading the Bible, they need to understand how to interpret it properly.

 

 

About Olapeju Simoyan, MD, MPH
Dr. Olapeju Simoyan is a physician, board certified in family medicine and addiction medicine, with a special interest in the connections between faith and health. She strongly believes that faith and critical thinking are not mutually exclusive. As a female physician, Dr. Simoyan is also interested in women's issues and writes about religious abuse and trauma, with a focus on how misinterpretations of biblical texts have led to the perpetration of abuse within church settings. She has combined her writing and photography in several books, including Living Foolproof, a devotional based on reflections from the book of Proverbs. Her latest book, Transformation and Recovery - Lessons from the Butterfly, is a workbook suitable for people in recovery from addictions and other behavioral disorders. Link to Amazon author page https://www.amazon.com/stores/Olapeju-Simoyan/author/B0BP7RSYBL?ref=ap_rdr&store_ref=ap_rdr&isDramIntegrated=true&shoppingPortalEnabled=true You can read more about the author here.

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