I am excited to announce that my colleague Lindsay Kennedy of mydigitalseminary.com and myself have embarked on a new adventure. We have created a podcast entitled Beyond Reading the Bible. The podcast is designed to help people go deeper in their study of the Bible. Many can sympathize with the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39). As the eunuch was travelling back home he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit directed Philip to join himself to the chariot. As he read, Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch’s response was classic: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” We all need to read our Bibles more, but there are times when we become frustrated as we read. We may think to ourselves, “I have no clue what is going on here, ” or “What does that expression or word mean?”
As teachers at Calvary Chapel Bible College York, Lindsay and I both have a desire to see people, not only grow in their understanding of the Word, but also grow in their understanding of how to approach the Bible in order to better grasp its message. A number of good podcasts teach the Bible, we will do some of that as well. But one of our primary goals is to help equip others with Bible study tools, and methods that will help them grow and develop good Bible study habits. While we might all agree that we need to read our Bibles more, our goal is to help others go “beyond reading the Bible,” so that understanding accompanies one’s engagement with the Word.
What Can I Expect to Hear on Beyond Reading the Bible?
Our first two episodes are already up and running. The first episode is entitled “The Big Picture.” After introducing ourselves and our desires and goals for the podcast, we begin by discussing the importance of getting the big picture of the Bible, or any book of the Bible, and present two examples of how to go about that. Our second episode is entitled, “Study Tools.” Lindsay and I thought it important to follow up episode one with some suggestions on important study tools that can help people in their understanding of Scripture. Of course we are both book worms and could have talked endlessly on this subject! However, we held it to a reasonable 30 minutes. 🙂 Episodes to follow will include a variety of topics such as literary approaches to the Bible including such things as the importance of knowing genre. We will also discuss the culture of the biblical world and demonstrate how knowing key concepts can transform your understanding of certain passages and ideas in the Bible. For example, in one podcast we will talk about patronage in the 1st century world and learn how that contributes to a fuller understanding of the biblical concept of “grace.” We will also do overviews of biblical books in order to get “the big picture,” and we will discuss how we go about doing that.
How Do I Begin Listening to Beyond Reading the Bible?
To answer that question, I’ve swiped a paragraph from Lindsay’s blog, as he explains it well. Take it away Lindsay–“The podcast can be found on the iTunes Podcast store or by searching for “Beyond Reading the Bible” from the Podcast app on one’s iPhone/iPad. Alternatively, episodes can be listened to from the Beyond Reading the Bible website.” Thanks Lindsay! I also want to extend a word of thanks to Lindsay, who is the technological brain behind this effort, as well as the one who birthed the whole idea for this project. In conclusion, let me note that our Beyond the Bible website will also include resources, and links to posts on our individual blogs that relate to the topic we’re discussing. And of course, there is space for making comments or asking questions. We hope you’ll give Beyond Reading the Bible a try and come back for future episodes.
A good wordplay catches the eye and often communicates an effective message with wit and humor. The names of companies such as “Cane and Able Mobility Healthcare,” or “Curl Up and Dye,” the name of a beauty salon in London, capture people’s attention, while at the same time effectively communicating what their business is about. This particular type of wordplay is known as paronomasia. Puns are also favorite devices for communicating ideas with wit and humor. Among the better known puns, at least among musicians, is Douglas Adams’s statement, “You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.” For those of a more philosophical bent, Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Immanuel doesn’t pun, he Kant.”
The Use of Wordplay in Samson’s Riddle
Some may not be aware that the Old Testament is also filled with various kinds of wordplay. Of course the wordplay occurs in Hebrew and, therefore, it is not usually possible to communicate it in our English Bibles, but translators give it their best shot when possible. For example, Samson’s riddle to his wedding guests in Judges 14:14, comes through quite well in most English translations. Based on his exploit of killing a lion and later discovering honey in its carcass, which he proceeds to eat, Samson poses the following riddle: “From-the-eater out-came eat[s] and from-the-strong out-came sweet[s]” (translation from Daniel Block, Judges, New American Commentary, p. 433). Although the Hebrew version of the riddle doesn’t rhyme (as Block’s and other English translations do), Samson does use assonance (the use of similar vowel sounds), alliteration (the use of same sounding consonants), and word repetition.
Fun With Names: Paronomasia in the Book of Judges
Although the Book of Judges is not the only book in the Old Testament to play with people’s names, it does have some particularly amusing examples of paronomasia. One of these is found in Judges 3:8, 10. In this short story the Israelite judge, Othniel, battles Cushan Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim. Even in English we can pick up the obvious rhyme between Rishathaim and Naharaim. The NKJV spoils this rhyme by translating Aram Naharaim (which means “Aram/Syria between the 2 rivers”) as Mesopotamia. Besides the obvious rhyme which is a lot of fun to say (try repeating “Cushan Rishathaim from Aram Naharaim” about 5 times!), the name Cushan Rishathaim also is a clever wordplay. The word “Rishathaim” means “doubly wicked.” Cushan may also mean “dark,” and so Cushan Rishathaim means, “the dark doubly wicked one!” Clearly this is not the name that Cushan’s parents gave him! Rather, it is a clever twisting or substituting of vowels to produce a pun that mocks their adversary. The Israelites, and their later Jewish descendants, were famous for making a pun on a name simply by changing a vowel or two. Such a device is similar to modern political cartoons that poke fun at a rival by exagerrating some characteristic of their opponent. Another example of this can be found in Judges 9 when a man named Gaal Ben Ebed strolls into the city of Shechem. Gaal Ben Ebed means “Loathesome son of a slave,” hardly the man’s real name. In cases like this, we will never know the real name of the individual, but we can take an educated guess. For example, by changing a couple of vowels, Gaal becomes “Goel” which means “redeemer.” Were the Israelites making fun of this man whose name may have meant “Redeemer” by calling him “Loathesome?” Remember that when writing ancient Hebrew (much like modern Hebrew) only consonants were used. Therefore, Gaal and Goel would look the same when written out. These examples demonstrate that making fun of a person’s name is not a modern phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon dating back many millennia. While these name changes are not easily detected in English, a good Bible commentary will help identify this use of wordplay.
Words That Look and/or Sound the Same
The technical terms for this kind of wordplay are homographs (words that look the same–“graph” meaning “to write”), homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently) and homonyms (words that look and/or sound the same but have different meanings–e.g., “right” and “write”). The prophets were well-known for using this type of wordplay. For example, when Jeremiah was called to be a prophet God says to him in Jeremiah 1:11, “What do you see Jeremiah?” The young prophet responds, “I see a branch of an almondtree.” The Lord responds, “I am watching over my word to perform it” (Jer. 1:12). In Hebrew the word for almond tree is shaqed, while the word for watching is shoqed. Since the almond tree was the first tree to bud in spring, the point of the wordplay is that God’s word will soon come to pass. Once again, only a good commentary will help the English reader, since this wordplay is not obvious in English. In this case, the words are homographs–they look the same–but they are pronounced slightly differently.
My favorite wordplay of this kind occurs in the story of Eli found in 1 Samuel chapters 1-4. We are told on two occasions that Eli has a weight problem. In 1 Samuel 2:29 the Lord accuses Eli and his sons of making themselves “fat with the best of all the offerings of Israel.” Later when Eli dies, the narrator tells us that Eli broke his neck when he fell backwards off his seat because he was old and heavy. The word heavy in Hebrew is kabed. It is from the same root as the Hebrew word for honor which is kabod. The story of Eli emphasizes that he has not honored the Lord (1 Sam. 2:30). Eli’s heaviness is directly related to the lack of honor that he has shown for God because it is his consumption of the stolen meat from the sacrifices that has contributed to his weight problem. The wordplay between kabed and kabod emphasizes the correspondence between the stolen sacrificial meat and the lack of honor given to God. But there is still more to this story. The word kabod which means honor, can also be translated glory in English. After Eli’s death, his daughter-in-law gives birth to a child that she names Ichabod (notice the word chabod, or kabod–it can be spelt either way—in this name). Ichabod means either “no glory,” or “where is the glory?” The child is named Ichabod because, as Eli’s daughter-in-law states, “the glory has departed from Israel” (1 Sam. 4:21-22). When we follow the wordplay through, we come to realize that the story is telling us that because Eli made himself heavy (kabed) and did not honor (kabod) the Lord, the glory (kabod) departed from Israel. I explore this wordplay in more depth in my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.
These are just a few examples of the different ways that the Old Testament uses wordplay. The discovery of wordplay in the Old Testament not only enhances our appreciation for its artistry, more importantly, it helps us to connect with the theology and messages in the biblical text that we might otherwise overlook. For those of you who enjoy a good wordplay, I would love for you to share some of your favorites from the Bible in the comment section below.
On October 30, 1938, it was reported that cities across the USA erupted in panic over a dramatic broadcast of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Although the broadcast was introduced as a drama, it was conducted as a series of news bulletins without commercial interruption. Some who tuned in late to the broadcast reportedly thought an actual invasion from Mars was taking place! This event is an excellent example of how crucial it is to know what genre we are reading, or in this case listening, to.
Genre is simply the kind or type of literature/art that something is. Examples of genre include, novels, letters, poems, songs, or, as in the case above, radio broadcasts. Within the broad category of genre, there are subgenres. For example, a letter could be a love letter, a business letter, or a legal document of some kind. Novels can be fictional or nonfictional. Further subdivisions may include biographies, love stories, fairy tales, or some other kind of literature. It’s also important to recognize that various genres can be mixed. For example, a novel that is classified as a love story may include comedy, drama, and may be set in the days of the “Wild West,” thereby making it a “Western Novel.”
We often don’t think about genre because it is usually intuitive. In the example above, a novel set in the late 1800s in the Western USA is clearly a Western Novel, and if the heroes are clumsy sort of fellows, as in Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang, we recognize the story is a comedy. Two things are obvious from this example: 1) genre is frequently identified subconsciously; and 2) the form of the genre tells us what kind of literature/art we are experiencing.
The examples I have given to this point are all examples from modern Western culture. Because we know our culture and the language, identifying genre happens naturally. Of course, there are still occassions when we can be fooled, as in the dramatic radio version of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds mentioned above. The misunderstanding which resulted demonstrates how important a correct identification of genre is. The correct identification of genre is even more challenging when we are dealing with a literature written in a different language, in a time long ago, whose culture was very different from our own. Before talking about Biblical genres, however, I want to give one more example which shows how our understanding of genre determines the meaning of a word.
Genre Determines Meaning
In demonstrating how genre determines meaning, let’s use the word “pitch.” Without context, the meaning of the word “pitch” is ambiguous. However, if I’m reading a baseball magazine and come across the word “pitch” I intuitively know that it refers to the act of a pitcher throwing a baseball. If I’m talking to someone who plays soccer (or football) and I use the word “pitch,” it refers to the playing surface known as a “football pitch.” Then again, if I’m talking to a musician, “pitch” refers to the proper tone of a musical note. But, if I’m talking to a roofer, “pitch” may describe the angle of the roof, or the black tarry substance used to water-proof a roof. Context makes all the difference when it comes to the meaning of the word “pitch” and genre is clearly the determining factor in that meaning. Since genre is so important in determining meaning, this fact can not be overlooked when interpreting Scripture. Along this line, one of the mistakes commonly made in biblical word studies is to use a concordance or lexicon and look up every meaning of a word and then apply all of those meanings to a particular passage. This method is as incorrect as thinking that a roofer is talking about a musical note, a playing surface, and the throwing of a baseball, all at the same time when he uses the word “pitch.”
What Kind of Genres are Found in the Bible and How Can We Identify Them?
The chart on the left gives some broad general categories of biblical genres. The Bible includes genres that we are familiar with such as narrative or poetry, and genres that are more challenging to understand such as apocalyptic or prophecy. A large portion of the Bible is narrative, but the narratives of Scripture consist of many different subgenres. For example, the Gospels, which many today would classify as historical biographies, also contain such subgenres as parables, wisdom sayings, prayers, and genealogies. The letters of Paul also utilize a mixture of genres such as hymns, prayers, diatribes, poetry, etc. Similarly, the Old Testament poetic literature is very diverse. The Book of Psalms consists of psalms of praise and thanksgiving, petition, lament, and imprecation, just to name a few. The prophetic books use various genres to effectively communicate their message including, the prophetic lawsuit, lament, funeral dirge, parable, or song.
How can we tell what genre or subgenre is being used? Sometimes this is pretty straight forward, for example, the Book of Proverbs consists of…well…proverbs. Other times, it is more challenging. At times the literature tells us what the genre is. For example, the Book of Proverbs begins with a description of its contents (Prov. 1:1-6), and the Gospels usually tell us when Jesus is speaking a parable (e.g., Mark 4:2).
It is important to remember that form is essential to the identification of genre. All genres take a particular form. This is how we can identify narrative from, say, poetry. Or, to give a more specific example, this is how we would identify a love letter from a business letter. Love letters never begin “Dear Sir,” or “To Whom It May Concern” (unless we are being funny or deliberately misusing terms to make a point). Everything from telephone books, to tweets (on Twitter) has a recognizable form. When I read a tweet from a friend, I am not offended if it is only a couple of sentences long. I understand that is the form the genre takes. If my friend wrote a one or two page response, it would not be a tweet. Thus genre is determined by form. This helps us to understand how a biblical genre is identified when it does not specify what genre is being used–and most of the time it does not.
One example of this is what scholars have called the prophetic lawsuit. Note that this is not an ancient name, but one that Bible scholars have devised to identify the genre. Even though it is a modern classification, the prophetic lawsuit is easily identifiable by its form as well as by the Hebrew word riv (pronounced “reeve,” meaning “contend”). In this genre, God is usually cast by the prophet as the prosecutor and judge, while Israel is the defendent. The charges consist of Israel violating her covenant with God. An example of the prophetic lawsuit can be found in Micah 6:1-16 or Hosea 4:1-19. Understanding the genre and the courtroom picture that is conjured up by it, helps in correctly interpreting the passage.
Examples of the Importance of Identifying Biblical Genres
We finally come to the point of this article, which is to demonstrate how properly identifying genres can help with biblical interpretation. Let’s begin with the Book of Proverbs. A proverb is, “an axiom or a maxim—a pithy saying—that, by and large, generally speaking, is going to turn out to be true. But a proverb is not a prophecy. In other words, a proverb has no guarantee to it” (Heiser, M. S. (Ed.). (2013). BI101 Introducing Biblical Interpretation: Contexts and Resources. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press). An example frequently used to demonstrate the nature of a proverb is the oft’ quoted “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). This statement does not guarantee that a child will always grow up to follow the Lord, instead, it is a statement that is generally true. A misunderstanding of a proverb like this can cause godly parents a great deal of unnecessary guilt. A great example of the nature of a proverb is demonstrated in Proverbs 26:4-5 which states, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” These statements, that have obviously been placed back-to-back by the compiler of Proverbs, would be considered an outright contradiction of each other. But when we recognize the genre and understand that a proverb is something which is generally true, we can see that the author is inviting us to use wisdom in each situation, in order to know which proverb to apply.
Perhaps the most controversial of all biblical genres is apocalyptic literature. Biblically speaking, this includes portions of the Book of Daniel, as well as the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic literature has certain stock features that identify it. A few of these features include: the message being conveyed in terms of a vision, dream, or supernatural journey received by a great man from the past; animals representing various nations; and the use of numerology. I am not going to be able to solve any age old debates on how to interpret apocalyptic literature in this short article, but what I hope to accomplish is to demonstrate why people differ in their intepretations. In short, it all boils down to genre, and how one understands the nature of apocalyptic literature. All are agreed that apocalyptic literature consists of symbols and imagery. The question is how far one should go in advocating a figurative vs. a more literal reading. Premillennialists would argue for a more literal rendering unless the text suggests otherwise (e.g., the lampstands in chapter 1 are clearly identified as the 7 churches–Rev. 1:20), while amillennialists would interpret things more figuratively (e.g., the 1000 year reign does not mean a literal 1000 years, but a long period of time). What is important to recognize here is that an understanding of how one should interpret the apocalyptic genre is the issue. It is not a question of orthodoxy, or of one side being more sincere in accepting the Bible as God’s Word.
Concluding Thoughts on Biblical Genres
Many years ago when I was teaching an adult Sunday School class on 1&2 Samuel, we were looking at a passage that, to the best of my recollection, is found in 2 Samuel 23:20. In this text, it is said that Benaiah, one of David’s mighty men, fought and killed “two lionlike men of Moab.” One lady raised her hand and read from her version which said something like, “they had faces like lions.” She then wanted to know if the men’s faces literally looked like a lion’s face. She missed the simile, because she was so focused on the account being a literal historical narrative. This might seem like an extreme example, but it demonstrates the mistakes that can be made when we do not properly identify the genre or, in this case, the way in which language is being used.
When studying the Bible, we should always ask ourselves what the genre of the book we are studying is. We should also remember that all books of the Bible consist of many subgenres. Just because we have identified the main genre, does not mean our task is done. If you are in doubt about the genre, a good commentary can be helpful, especially those that have a section that discusses “form and structure.” Again, genre is important because it gives us certain parameters in which to determine meaning. In fact, the genre will usually help us understand the correct meaning of the word, because genre determines meaning.
Can’t we just take the Bible for what it says? Isn’t it plain enough? Do we really need others to help us interpret the Bible? These questions came home to me this past week when an old friend of mine emailed me about his concern regarding interpretation of the Bible. He was troubled by the existence of many different churches and the various interpretations of Scripture that they represent. He wanted to know why we need anyone to interpret the word of God for us. His position was, to quote him, “It seems to me that the word of God, the will of God, should be instinctively, intuitively…ACCURATELY interpreted by the knowledge of God I have within me.” He continues, “To wit: I believe God is capable of this…”miracle?” Anyone who experiences God’s true word will know, recognize and understand without the need for another person to assist or interpret for them. So where is this miracle? Why does the world have, (does it) need people who believe they are interpreters of God’s word?”
My friend’s concern is a valid one and his question is worth exploring. One of the points of the Reformation was that individuals did not need to have a priest act as an intermediary between themselves and God. Nor did they have to depend upon the Church’s interpretation of Scripture. Each individual could read the word of God for themselves and allow God to speak to them. This belief helped propel the translation of the Bible into the common languages of people throughout Europe. However, the Reformers were well aware that not everything in the Bible is equally plain. Whether we’re speaking of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or others, these men brought certain principles of interpretation with them to the text, and they were all familiar with the original languages in which the Scripture was written.
The Bible itself teaches that we need others to help us comprehend its message correctly. For example, the disciples of Jesus needed his guidance to comprehend the meaning of the Scriptures. After Jesus appears to two of his disciples on the Emmaus road and instructs them, they later say to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Lk. 24:32). Later Jesus appears to his disciples in the Upper Room and speaks to them of how all must be fulfilled that was written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (i.e., the Old Testament). The next verse states, “And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Lk. 24:44-45). Let me offer one final example, lest it be thought that Jesus was the only one who helped people to understand the Scripture. After the establishment of the Church, the Book of Acts records an incident where the Spirit takes Philip (a deacon and evangelist in the early church) to an Ethiopian eunuch who is riding along in his chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” To which the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). For more on this topic see my article “Can Bible Study Be Spirit-Led and Academic?”
The Response to My Friend’s Question
The rest of this post (mostly) consists of the email response that I sent to my friend in answer to his question. I have modified the format slightly (he didn’t have the benefit of all the pretty pictures you have here in the article) and have corrected and/or adjusted some wording. As I emphasized to my friend, the following response is not all that can be said on this subject. It merely consists of some important aspects to consider.
Dear (friend), your question is an important one and also one that could take a book to answer, but a modest email will have to do. Thanks for asking and for paying me the compliment that I might have some sort of answer to offer.
All Communication Involves Interpretation
First I would say that all communication involves interpretation. As we read each other’s emails we are interpreting what the other is saying. Sometimes we are accurate and sometimes we may misunderstand each other. Speaking the same language and having the same cultural background helps in the communication process. Still, as I read your email (and you mine) because it is written communication, we must discern things that would be more easily communicated face to face. For example, when communicating face to face, I can see your facial expressions, your hand gestures, and I can tell a lot by your tone of voice as to what you mean. As I write this you can’t see those things. You only have the written word, so you have to decide from the language whether I am speaking with a kind considerate tone, or whether I am being condescending or sarcastic etc. That process is interpretation. It is possible that even with the best of intentions you and I may misunderstand each other. You might be positive I’m saying one thing, when in fact, I’m intending to say something different. It is only through the communication process–the give and take–that we finally come to a true interpretation of what the other meant. Because the Bible is a written document, this not only makes interpretation necessary, it also makes it more challenging!
The Importance of Language and Culture in Interpretation
The second thing I would say is that communication becomes more difficult when either language or culture (or both) differ between the people who are trying to communicate. For instance, when we moved to England we learned that American words can have different meanings here in England. If I say 100 bucks, an English person may think I’m talking about a herd of male deer. If an Englishmen tells me to look under my bonnet, I might reply that I’m a man and I don’t wear a bonnet, but what he means is the hood of my car. Context, of course, is a key to interpreting these expressions correctly. Also, culture, and how words are used, makes a HUGE difference in interpretation. Every culture also has certain idioms and expressions that don’t make sense in another language, or even in another culture that speaks the same language. Here in England if I am impressed with something I might say, “I’m gobsmacked.” Someone in America wouldn’t know what I was saying. If I say to someone of another language “Stop pulling my leg” they may take it literally and be confused because their hands are nowhere near my legs. When we share the same culture and language we automatically understand what someone is saying, or at least usually we do, whereas, to someone of a different culture or language our expression will be confusing. All of this involves interpretation. Sometimes we are interpreting without being consciously aware of it, and other times we have to struggle to interpret what someone else is saying. Either way, we are constantly involved in interpretation from the moment we wake until the moment we go to sleep.
The Bible was Written in a Foreign Language, a Foreign Culture, in a Time Long Ago
The third thing I would say is that when it comes to the Bible, we are dealing with a book that was written in another language, in another culture, and in a time long ago. All 3 of these circumstances present interpretive challenges. To begin with, unless you or I read Hebrew and Greek, we are automatically reading an interpretation of the Bible. All English Bibles, or any other language Bible, is an interpretation. It has to be because no language can be translated word for word into another language. Some languages have several words for a certain concept, while other languages have just one word that must do the duty of bearing all the meanings. For example, Greek has 3 words for love while English has only 1. Certain Hebrew or Greek idioms make no sense to us, so it does a translator no good to translate something literally. They must translate the sense. For example, in 1 Samuel 1:5 the literal rendering of the Hebrew says that Elkanah gave his wife Hannah, “a portion for the nostrils.” That is a Hebrew idiom which clearly makes no sense to us in the English world. Scholars still debate what exactly is meant by this idiom. It is usually translated “a double portion.” Personally, I believe it refers to the fact that Hannah has been angered and Elkanah is trying to calm her down and cheer her up by offering her a portion of the sacrifice (see my article, “Anger: The Bible Says the Nose Knows,” or my book Family Portraits).
I’m currently teaching Genesis and Genesis is an excellent book to talk about the importance of interpretation. The first few verses of Genesis (verses 1-2) require interpretation, and different Bible translations interpret it differently. To give you just one example. The New King James translates Genesis 1:2 as “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The New American Bible (NAB) translates this as “a mighty wind swept over the waters.” This is obviously quite different! The problem involves deciding what the Hebrew words mean in this particular context. The word for “Spirit” also means “wind” or “breath” in Hebrew and in Genesis 8:1 this same word is translated as “wind” because this seems to be the obvious meaning there from the context. Furthermore the word translated “God” (‘elohim) is sometimes used as an adjective meaning “mighty” (as it is in Genesis 23:6 where Abraham is called a “mighty prince”). This is why some translations say “mighty wind” and others say “Spirit of God.” The words legitimately mean both, so it is up to the translator to determine from context which meaning seems the most likely. Unfortunately, we can’t speak to any ancient Hebrews to ask them what is meant by this expression! So already in Genesis 1:2 we have had to make an “interpretation.” By the way, Genesis 1:1 is also translated in different ways depending on how one understands the Hebrew grammar (compare NKJV, NRSV, for example).
When it comes to the Bible, it is important that we realize that we are dealing with an ancient document. One of the mistakes that people frequently make is interpreting the Bible from their own 21st century perspective. Here’s another example from Genesis 1. Because of the “Creation and Science” debate many people come to Genesis 1 with an agenda to answer this question. Coming to Genesis 1 in order to answer questions about evolution or the Big Bang means superimposing our cultural questions on the Bible which often ends up making it say something it never intended to say. The (inspired) author of Genesis 1 didn’t know who Darwin was and wasn’t trying to debate the evolution question. Instead, God used him to address the issues that were important to his audience and the culture of his day. If we are going to understand Genesis 1 rightly, we must first seek to understand it in its ancient context. If we don’t know much about the ancient world, and if we don’t know the Hebrew language, then this is where we have to consult books written by those who do. Once we are fairly confident that we know what the text meant to the original audience, then we can make application as to what it means to us today. (The following info was not part of my original email but I include it here for my readers. Earlier this week I was watching a video on Genesis 1 by Dr. John Walton, an expert on Genesis and the ancient Near East. He goes into great detail as to why we need to understand what the ancient author meant and why we need to be careful about bringing our modern agendas to the text. Get a cup of coffee and a sandwich and enjoy his 1 hour lecture by clicking here: Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes.)
The Conclusion of My Email on Why We Need to Interpret the Bible
The fact that many churches/people have different understandings of the Bible or a biblical passage is an example of at least two things. 1) It demonstrates that there are things in the Bible that aren’t always plain. They need study to interpret them correctly because of the difference of time, culture and language. 2) Some people do not observe proper procedures of interpreting the Bible and therefore they come up with interpretations that distort its original meaning. You mentioned that God speaks to each of us and why isn’t that good enough? I do agree that God speaks to us, but it’s been my experience that He usually does it when we put the effort into truly understanding the Bible. If I simply trust the “voice within,” I may be wrong. Someone says, “God told me this passage means such and such,” and I say, “No that’s not right because God told me it means this.” Such arguments are purely subjective. If I only listen to the voice within, why is that voice better, than someone else’s voice within? This leads to the same problem that you voiced your frustration over–i.e., many different interpretations all claiming to be right. There has to be a more objective way of getting at what a passage truly says and means. If someone puts the time into studying the language, the culture, and the time period and takes the context seriously doesn’t it make more sense that they are more likely to have the correct understanding of a passage than someone who simply listens to their inner voice? The person who puts a lot of time into studying the Bible shows that he or she treasures it. Anyone can say, “I think it means this.” Maybe they are right, or maybe they aren’t. Maybe God spoke to them or maybe He didn’t. But when we sit down together and look at the Bible and learn what the words in the original language mean and learn the culture, etc. then we have a much more likely scenario for getting the correct message from the text. (end of email)
Final Thought: The Importance of Knowing the Genre
There are, of course, other important considerations that I did not mention in my email. I thought it was long enough already! One that I just note in conclusion is the importance of understanding genre. We read a love letter differently from a telephone book, and a novel differently from a piece of poetry. The same is true when we seek to understand the Bible. We need to be aware of the genre(s) we are dealing with. If we don’t we may make the mistake made by some people in America in 1939 when H. G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” was presented on the radio in the form of a newscast. People who heard the opening of the newscast realized that the broadcasters were simply doing a dramatazation of Wells’s book. Others who tuned in later, however, misunderstanding the genre, thought that a real invasion from Mars was taking place! Havoc was the result in many cities and communities across the United States! We all approach a piece of literature with certain presuppositions which causes us to interpret it in a certain way. Knowing the genre of the literature we are reading is certainly another important ingredient in reading the Bible properly.
(For those interested on a good book dealing with biblical interpretation, I would recommend, Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, available at Amazon USA / UK).
Let’s face it, many Christians are intimidated by an academic approach to the Bible. In fact, some are very suspicious of an academic approach to Bible study. Doesn’t it leave out dependence on the Spirit? Aren’t academics “know-it-alls,” and full of arrogance? Don’t they reject the inspiration of the Bible? While these questions can sometimes be answered “yes,” I want to plead that it is possible, in fact, necessary for Bible study to be both Spirit-led and academic. Have you ever had a different understanding of a biblical passage than someone else? Do you always agree with family members, friends, pastors, and authors on their interpretation of a text? Does every Christian understand every biblical passage and doctrine exactly the same? The answer to all of these questions is clearly, “Of course not.” But if I am Spirit-led and disagree with a fellow-Christian that I also believe is Spirit-led, then how do I determine which interpretation is correct?
Our Presuppositions Require We Be Spirit-Led and Academic in Our Approach
In his course on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” (which I am reviewing. See posts here and here), Michael S. Heiser says it this way, “Meaning is not self-evident….Getting meaning out of the Bible is far more than just sitting down, opening your Bible, and just reading it.” For example, we all bring certain presuppositions to the table when we interpret Scripture. As Heiser points out, some of these are conscious, but some are also unconscious. We naturally filter things through our own background and experience. For example, I have learned as an American living in England that certain expressions, or actions do not have the same meaning here in Britain as they do in the USA. If I do not make adjustments (recognizing my own presuppositions and substituting new ones), I will often misunderstand and be misunderstood. The same is true of bible study. No matter how sincere and reliant on the Spirit someone may be, a study of biblical culture, history, language, etc. is important, or else misunderstandings will develop. This means I must learn some ancient history, and something about ancient Near Eastern culture in order to understand the Scripture. Therefore, I must study, and studying brings me into the world of academics!
The authors of “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes” (see my review here) illustrate the problem I am referring to very well. They put it this way: “When we miss what went without being said for them [i.e., the biblical authors] and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture” (p. 13). An excellent example of this is Jesus’ statement to the church at Laodicea, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot” (Rev. 3:15). This statement has always puzzled many people. Why would Jesus want anyone to be cold, which to us implies a total lack of faith? Although I have heard many sincere, Spirit-filled teachers teach on this verse, their conclusion was wrong! The authors of “Misreading Scripture” explain that Laodicea lies between Colossae and Hierapolis (in modern-day Turkey). Colossae was well-known for its cold water, while Hierapolis was known for its hot mineral water. By the time waters from Colossae or Hierapolis reached Laodicea, however, they would be lukewarm. So the words “hot” and “cold” are both positive terms in Revelation 3:15-16, and this is why Jesus can say, “I wish you were cold or hot.” The Laodiceans were all too-familiar with lukewarmness! To arrive at the correct understanding of this passage, some knowledge of ancient geography is necessary (for a full explanation see pp. 10-11 of Misunderstanding Scripture).
Being Spirit-Led and Academic in Our Bible Study is no Different Than Exercising Other Gifts
I believe it is important that we understand that the Holy Spirit often uses some of our own sweat and toil to bring clarity and understanding. Let me illustrate it this way. I am a musician. I enjoy playing guitar and have played in Christian bands, written songs and recorded a couple of cds. I believe that the musical ability I have is Spirit-given. However, it is important for me to develop the gift that the Spirit has given me. When I don’t practice, I don’t improve! I have spent many hours in my life practicing my guitar, practicing with a band, taking voice lessons, piano lessons, music theory lessons, and classes on how to write a song. I’ve read a lot of books on music as well. All of these things have helped me grow as a musician. If I did not practice and study, but simply expected the Spirit to do all the work, I would be a poor steward of the gift He has given me and a poor musician as well. Bible study is no different. If I am a good steward of God’s Word then I will put in the study time. I will wrestle with texts, and ideas, and doctrines. Although God is gracious in giving us many wonderful gifts through the Spirit, one constant I find in all of life is that to really excel at something you have to work at it! Thus, I believe that Bible Study must be Spirit-led and academic.
Do You Have to Know Hebrew and Greek to be Saved?
I remember a number of years ago when I was in Bible College, one of my teachers told the following story: One day a Bible teacher was asked by a skeptical student, “Do you have to know Hebrew and Greek to be saved? To which the teacher replied, “No, but someone does!” This little story illustrates a valuable point. Certainly every Christian does not have to learn the original languages of the Bible. In fact, it’s not realistic to think that they will. However, in order for us to have a translation of the Bible in our own language, it is important that someone know the original language! It’s possible that some who know the biblical languages can at times come off as know-it-alls, but that bad attitude is not an argument against evangelicals learning Hebrew and Greek. Think about it. If no evangelical Christians learn Hebrew and Greek, then we will be leaving the interpreting of all of the Bible translations and writing of all the scholarly commentaries in the hands of those who don’t share our commitment to Scripture.
Doesn’t an Academic Approach to Bible Study Go Against the Belief that the Bible is Simple Enough for Anyone to Understand?
In one of the textbooks I use for my Genesis class (How To Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III), I recently ran across a response to this question that I would like to share. Longman identifies this idea as coming from the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, etc.). I am quoting him at length because his explanation is important. He writes, “The Reformers argued strongly for the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture. They rightly held that the Bible was not written in a code. Further they defended the view that the Bible could be understood on its own terms (sufficiency of Scripture). We do not need the tradition of the church fathers to understand the Bible. When rightly understood, these doctrines are fundamentally important and crucial to defend. The problem is that the priesthood of all believers as well as the perspicuity and sufficiency of Scripture have been wrongly understood and applied in areas they were never intended to be applied. In short, what the Reformers understood the Bible to teach was that the message of salvation in the Bible is clear and understandable to all without the need of a priestly mediator or scholarly input….However, not everything is equally plain” (How to Read Genesis, p. 20). Longman goes on to give a list of questions raised by the Book of Genesis that require study and thoughtful reflection (e.g., “Who are the Nephilim?”).
Therefore to say that the Bible requires some academic elbow grease on our part is not to say that the message of salvation is hard to understand. Many who come to Christ know very little about the Scripture, but they still find the gospel message easy enough to understand. I am simply affirming that in order for us to continue to grow in our faith and knowledge of God’s Word, we will have to apply the same discipline to studying the Bible that we do to any other endeavor in life. Regarding the Reformers I would also add that all of them could read the Scripture in its original languages. Again this is not to say we all need to be able to do this, but simply to affirm that the Reformers saw the need for deep Bible study while acknowledging the simplicity of the gospel message.
In conclusion, Bible study is not an “either/or” proposition. We either are Spirit-led or we are academically minded. These two approaches are not opposed to one another. The real problem is motivation and attitude. Do I want to impress people with my knowledge? Does my study make me think that I am better than others? If my motivation to learn is driven by these ungodly characteristics, then clearly I have a problem. But if my motivation is to know God more and to be able to teach and disciple younger believers, then that is a motivation well pleasing to God. I am convinced that the Christian who desires to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word should seek the help of the Spirit and use every available academic tool that aids the believer in deepening his or her understanding of the Bible.