In my first post on this blog I shared a basic approach I use for reading the Bible and making personal application of what I find there.
But that post left out some important details that are critical to rightly handling the word of God. I do not want lead anyone to fall into the trap of “reading me” into the Scripture.
So let’s talk about what the Bible IS so what can know what it ISN’T.
But first… a caveat. I am going into some detail here that might be somewhat overwhelming. I believe the information here to be very important, but I do not want to make anyone “give up” on reading. In the end, what matters most is that we pick up our Bibles and read, often and in significant quantities, and thereby change the way we think to be more in compliance with God’s word instead of looking like the world. (Romans 12:2)
I believe that in the end, God is sovereign, and His promise that His words will accomplish His purpose is why we can trust the Scriptures to change us – as long as we read them. (Isaiah 55:11)
So with that said… on to the technical details….
The Bible is a collection of ancient writings by different authors spanning a wide time frame.
Bible scholars are divided as to the actual dates all the books were written, but they do agree that these are ancient, Mesopotamian writings from the Israelite people, and that they have multiple authors. Conservative scholars estimate a time frame of around 1600 years and liberal scholars estimate a time frame of around 800 years, though recently some are revising their estimates to include older start dates, because archaeology has uncovered older samplings of Hebrew writing than once was known.
Regardless of the exact time frame, the Bible was written and edited over a LONG time period. So understanding the culture of the time period written, as well as the author and the audience, is necessary for the best understanding of the writing.
For example, Daniel was from the Persian empire, which had a distinctly different culture and world view than the Canaanite culture when King David lived, which is when many of the Psalms were written. And Solomon, who wrote Ecclesiastes, among other Scriptures, was a different person than His father David and it is evident in both the message and the tone and style of their writings.
There is also some indication that books such as the Chronicles were collections of court records which were then brought together by editors during much later time periods.
We cannot expect that all the writings will sound or feel the same or even have the same themes. While the books within the Bible have similar purposes (revealing God and His work throughout history), each one (and sometimes even different parts of the books) must be understood individually.
The Bible was written by authors in the area we Westerners now call “the Middle East”.
The Bible wasn’t written by people in Britain or the USA or Canada or South Korea or China. It was written by people living in the ancient civilizations of Israel, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
This matters! People see the world through their own cultural thought process, and it is a mistake for us to read the Bible as if the writers viewed the world exactly like we do. The ancient Jewish thought and language were based on physical symbolism of abstract concepts. This can confuse us (and even our translations) if we aren’t careful.
Sometimes we need to step back from the text and realign our perspective with these ancient cultures so that we can understand why they said the things they did or even what they really meant by them.
The Bible contains multiple literary genres.
Some Biblical writings are historical chronicles. Some are religious songs. Some are wise sayings and others are essentially the “by-laws” of the Jewish religion. Some parts may be works of fiction similar to moral fables or morality plays (some scholars think Jonah and Job are this category). Some books are letters written to individuals or groups. Some parts are clearly retelling past events and others seem to be predicting future events.
Therefore, understanding Scripture requires a careful attention to the literary genre so that we can discern the difference between what is intended to be allegorical and what is intended to be historical or prophetic.
The Bible’s purpose is to show who God is and how He interacts with His people and the world.
Because of the Bible we know God not just as the Creator, but as personally interested in the lives of people. We know that He acts in this world through the actions of people.We know He makes plans, considers specific people His friends, and has very high standards for moral behavior. We know He has a full range of strong emotions and yet is holy, unlike we humans who color our emotions with sinful attitudes and actions.
We especially know that while He is both grieved and angered by our choices to sin, He has made a way through Jesus to conquer sin in our lives so we will no longer be His enemies.
The Bible’s purpose is to give us all this information so that we understand the Creator and how He works in the world. It is a God-centric collection of writings.
So what is the Bible not?
It’s not a single book, written by a single author, with a single thematic purpose. Now, because I believe that God was with the authors and any editors, guiding and protecting His word, I believe certain unity or purpose and theme is apparent between the books. However, one should not surprised at differing perspectives or even differing versions of the same stories, because the authors perspective, personal experience, and culture all influence each writing.
It’s not always something we should take literally. Even the most conservative of Bible scholars would agree that genre influences this. All but the most liberal of Bible scholars will say that those pieces which are historical can be understood literally (but see this interview with an evangelical author which gives some insight into the challenges of understanding historicity in Scripture), and all agree that much of the language in allegory, poetry, or apocalyptic writings (Daniel, Ezekiel, Revelation) is obviously figurative.
But most importantly, it’s not a personal letter written to us filled with layered allegory in every verse. The Bible is not about “me”. It’s about Jesus, the redeemer, and God His father, and the human religions that represent His ordained way for us to relate to Him (Judaism and Christianity).
This is a critical point. I can read the story of King Solomon in I Chronicles 8 and see how he interacted with his world, but that story is not an allegory being painted for my life, and while the Holy Spirit can and does teach me through it, it was not penned as a personal message from God to me.
Here is a clear definition of an allegory:
An allegory is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.
If this passage in I Chronicles were an allegory, I might come to some conclusion like this:
“King Solomon was blessed with God’s wisdom, just like we Christians have been granted with God’s wisdom through the Holy Spirit. Just as Solomon busily worked to improve the world around him as a great leader and in so doing shared God’s wisdom with powerful foreign leaders such as the Queen of Sheba, so in this passage God is calling us to build a new ministry focused on sharing our wisdom from God to the world”.
That sounds very good, doesn’t it? And that’s a very common approach to interpreting Scripture. You will hear it from many of today’s popular evangelical Bible teachers and preachers.
But it is utterly misguided, because this is not an allegory.
This is a historical work which helps us better understand the people God has used throughout history. And as I pointed out in the first blog post, it is obvious that King Solomon, though wise, was imperfect, and failed to see the flaw in such institutions as slavery.
But history and literature don’t need to be allegories, or even perfectly accurate historical reports, for us to make personal application. They are applicable because they embody principles of God, nature and society. We can make logical conclusions from them and then apply those conclusions to our lives.
Therefore, I was able to look at this story which contains good things (the building of a civilization) and bad things (the building of racially based slavery institutions) through the light of our modern recognition that slavery and racial discrimination are wrong.
I further was able to look at modern history to see the turmoil between many people groups in the Middle East. I made the logical conclusion that Solomon’s ancient choices might (or might not) have had some bearing on race relations in certain parts of the world today but that it certainly, based on the text, had an impact for at least 400 years.
And from that conclusion I then applied the principle to my life: “my actions could have long-reaching effects. How can I change my behavior to ensure my children do learn to internalize the importance that all people are equal?”
So we can learn from both the good and bad things historical and literary characters did.
We can incorporate that knowledge into our personal body of Wisdom so that we can make better choices and only repeat history when history is admirable. We can see how the people were regarded in relationship with God, so we know when their character is more upstanding. So we can surely find personal learning opportunities in all Scripture.
We can also look at the history in the Old Testament and find ways it points to Jesus in the New Testament.
This is a subject that has been put into many books and even some songs. As Christians, we believe the primary unifying theme of Scripture is that our sin separates us from God, but because He loves us, he made a way to conquer sin for us by sending His Son to be the final sacrifice for us. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the literary climax of the Bible, when it is viewed as a single book (think plot diagrams from high school English class). Every book points toward him in some way.
For example, in Chronicles, we see king after king who is faithless, abandoning a right relationship with God in favor of their culture’s pantheon of gods. The contrast to Jesus shows that He is the King in the Davidic line who will always be true and faithful, unlike the rebellious kings of the past.
Reading the Old Testament with an eye toward Jesus is really quite exciting. I recommend trying it out. It is a much more accurate way of reading the Bible than to view every passage as a sign of what we should be doing tomorrow.
So why, given my caveat at the beginning, does all this even matter?
II Timothy 2:15 has a command from Paul to Timothy to study and learn how to correctly handle (some versions say “divide/interpret/etc) the word of truth. Timothy was a pastor who needed to properly understand Scripture so he could guide his church into right-living and protect them from false-teaching. Now, in context, that means this command wasn’t written to the “layperson”, but to those who would be teachers of the Bible and leaders within the church.
In Timothy’s day, copies of Scripture were few, and handwritten. They were studied carefully by dedicated scholars and teachers who then shared their knowledge with the layperson.
Men from devout families in Jewish culture had the opportunity to study the Old Testament, but women didn’t (literacy in Jesus’ day is a hopping debate, apparently, but it is generally agreed that the women did not have education). And the nonJewish Christians would not know the Old Testament at all.
Also, the New Testament was not originally fully written. It took a minimum of 60 years to write it all, and most scholars think it was longer than that. So what writings existed were sent to the churches where they made hand-written copies for the pastors to use.
It all adds up to a picture somewhat like what we call the “Dark Ages” – a time when the few taught the truth to the many. In that case, the pastors, elders, and teachers were the ones who had to really focus on learning how to explain the Scriptures to their congregations.
However, today’s society is dramatically different. We (nearly) all read. We all can (and most do) have the Bible at our fingertips in both printed and electronic form and in many versions. We all claim to be able to teach our children and most of us believe we have insight to offer our Christian brothers and sisters.
We do expect our pastors and teachers to have additional wisdom we do not have, but frankly, almost all of us consider ourselves to be teachers of the Scripture to at least one other person.
It is a wonderful and dangerous time to be alive.
Consider James 3:1, which says “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”
Since our reality is that we ARE teachers, it is critical that we listen and obey Paul’s command to Timothy to understand and properly interpret the Scripture. This means we need an awareness of genre, author, culture, and overall textual context when we read the Bible. It means reading the Bible carefully to understand what it is actually saying and not searching for hidden meaning unless the textual context makes it obvious there is hidden meaning to be found.
It also means being cautious of which teachers we allow to “tickle our ears”. Are the books we read and televangelists we watch and conferences we attend actually rightly interpreting the Bible? Some are. Many are not. And we must be wise.
This does not have to be an overwhelming or scary approach to Bible reading, though.
Consider Bible story books for children. These just tell the stories, relating events and characters, so that they are imprinted on children’s long-term memory. We need to do the same, as I said at the beginning of this post, by reading large sections of Scripture at a time on a very regular basis.
This will help us to simply to absorb and enjoy the stories and remember the Psalms and wise-sayings. The Word will become a part of us, and then we can, with the blessing of our strong literacy and education and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, make the connections between the various books and stories and sayings.
The Holy Spirit will open our minds to who God is through the Scriptures and He will teach us how to become the people God wants us to be as we read. He will prompt us with the questions to ask regarding genre and authorship, and we have the Internet at our fingertips (but again, exercise caution regarding scholar bias.). And we have our pastors and teachers we can turn to when something just doesn’t make sense to us. (I do caution us against being “Bible Lone Rangers” and strongly encourage turning to our leaders for help. Without guidance from godly Bible scholars, we risk coming to dangerous conclusions. But that is a topic for another post.)
Here is an excellent article discussing the challenge of proper Biblical interpretation. Note that it makes the same point I do… Spend more time reading, and less time interpreting, and you will be closer to the truth.
In the end, our Bibles should look like the one in the picture – well read, cover to cover, in need of a rebinding. I cannot think of a morning when I did not see my father reading the Bible, and his was like that photo – absolutely falling apart – until my sisters purchased a rebinding for him for Christmas one year. That’s the best way to read it. Daily and with love and respect.
Thank you for taking the time to read such a long post – I know this is not what you are expecting based on my other posts. However, I am deeply concerned with the tendency to “play fast and loose” with Scripture in some circles and I believe this topic needs more careful discussion.
I gladly invite your thoughts to the comments below.