In my previous post I talked about the need to interpret the Bible on its own terms, but I didn’t really give any specific ways to do that. This post is intended to help with that lofty goal of contextualizing the Bible in order to better interpret it.
How to Ruin a Biblical Narrative*
*I use the term “narrative” somewhat loosely. Genesis 1-11 contains narrative, but a very different type than one might find in Kings. Basically, it is any text that is telling a story, regardless of how close or far away it is from “history” (more on that in a moment).
In order to show how to properly interpret a text, we should show how NOT to first. If you want a sure fire way to misread a text, do one of the following:
• Critique it with modern preoccupations
This is the error of anachronism—reading passages in ways that make no sense in the time of the original audience. I tell my students all the time—if your interpretation wouldn’t make sense to them then it’s probably not appropriating the text rightly. I’m not speaking of application of course. How we live out the text in our modern world will be different. But what a text means over time should be consistent.
A few modern preoccupations include scientific accuracy, historical accuracy, and mathematical consistency. So if you come to a text looking for it to teach you science or for it to completely agree with scientific principles, you are going to be disappointed. The sun stands still, days are created before the Sun is, and the mustard seed is called the smallest seed though it is not. Or add the fact that the Bible describes a circle whose dimensions would make Pi equal to 3 (1 Kings 7:23-26). And then of course we have “history.” Skeptics love showing where Bible history does not match up with the histories we have uncovered from other cultures.
All of these examples assume that Biblical writers either knew or cared about conveying certain facts. I would suggest that they did not. As I said in my previous post, biblical writers cared far more about conveying truth than they did facts. Furthermore, especially in regard to history, we assume that ancient cultures wrote history like we would. The fact is, they didn’t. Our modern obsession with getting all the facts right just wasn’t shared by them.
The antidote is easy (though not simple): contextual reading. When we read a text as they would have read it we are beginning to do it justice. The only presumption we should bring to the text is that God speaks to people within their frame of reference. God contextualizes the message to that culture. So when things seem offensive, inaccurate, or downright bizarre, instead of trying to explain them away we should try to understand them on their own terms, in their own time and place.
• Domesticate (tame) it with imposed theology
This is the error of eisegesis—reading one’s ideas into a passage when they are not already there. So if we assume that God is all loving and gracious, then we have a tough time reconciling passages in which God brings wrath and punishment. Or if we view the characters as flat and only positive examples to be emulated or negative examples to be spurned, we’re probably reverting back to our Sunday School days rather than good interpretation.
Probably the easiest example of imposing theology deals with the figure of Satan. The New Testament uses phrases images such as prowling around like a roaring lion, a dragon, a beast, etc. to describe him. Most Christians take from these images that he is a terrible being whose only function is to destroy believers. So we foist that view on all the references in the OT and we’re left with a very different interpretation. But if you read the texts on their own (especially Job), you see this figure in a much more illuminating light.
(I recommend our podcasts on Satan if you are looking for a more in depth treatment of this subject. Episodes 1.16, 1.17, 1.18, 1.19, 1.20)
The antidote to eisegesis—reading into the text—is exegesis: gleaning truths out of a passage that are already there. In other words, based on what the authors likely knew and understood, what were they trying to convey? This is so hard to do because we have to set aside, for the moment, so much of what we grew up learning. We read the Bible forward before we read it backward.
Main Principles for Reading a Biblical Narrative
• Read it in context
Doing good exegesis requires knowing historical backgrounds and ancient customs. Unfortunately, most of us are not experts in ancient Near Eastern culture. Fortunately, those who are experts have come out with resources. Good study Bibles and commentaries fill the gaps that we have in our knowledge.
Also, reading in context requires placing any part of the Bible in the grand narrative of the entire Bible. We need to ask, over and over again, “How does this section fit into the overarching message/story of the entire Bible?” If we don’t ask that question, it’s too easy to bend a story or section to our will and preoccupations.
• Read it like a good story
Good stories have certain characteristics that we have come to appreciate. We should expect the unexpected, twists in plot, complex characters, and more. If things always played out like we expected or like they “should,” then stories would be boring. So yes, we castigate the Israelites for being daft, dull, and downright stupid at times. And we assume we would be better, but the reality is that we would not have fared much better. And their failings allowed them to be molded into God’s people and it allowed God to show up and do some amazing things.
• Read it like a good ancient story
There are certain techniques that modern readers often overlook or don’t appreciate. Things like repetition, parallelism, ring devices, and allusions. How many times does the first son get overlooked for the second? How many times do the patriarchs try to pass off their wife as their sister? How many times do the Israelites show a lack of faith? How many times do the prophets call out the Israelites for their sins? The biblical story is full of repetition, which takes the form of parallelism, ring devices (ending how it began), and allusions or references to previous events. That’s how they told stories and we need to appreciate it and not get overly bogged down by the minuscule differences that occur when it is retold (again, modern preoccupation).
In the end, the Bible is intended to be a theological work, not a factual, scientific, or historical one. History is shaped to teach theology. Stories are shaped to teach theology. If we are not looking for the theology of a text and instead are looking to reconcile it with some modern notion then we will miss out on the life giving and life changing purpose of these texts. They are intended to be alive and active—not relegated to verifying some principle, law, or fact.
My hope is that we epitomize Paul’s advice to Timothy:
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” 2 Timothy 2:15