The following is a guest post by Kaleb Cuevas from Logos:
Perhaps you have committed to a new Fall Bible study at church or are eager to dive into the latest new Bible study resource. Either way, you likely have the best intentions to stick with your new study on a consistent basis and increase their biblical knowledge. However, without the right mindset or frame of reference, you can easily lose interest and motivation.
Here are 5 strategies for helping you stay engaged by bringing your Bible study content to life.
1) Study for the right reasons
It is easy to view Bible study as an intellectual exercise. But acquiring information about the Bible is not a proper end in itself. Paul described the purpose of Scripture: “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). If our studies do not equip us for good works, then they are unprofitable studies. As we read the Bible, our goal must be to ultimately apply it to our lives.
2) Consider the historical setting
Contrary to popular belief, the Bible was not written to 21st century Americans. Each book of the Bible was written by a specific person, to a specific group of people, in a specific culture, at a specific time, and for a specific purpose. If we miss these details, we are likely to misunderstand much of what we are reading. Many good study Bibles include much of this information in the introductions to books of the Bible, so we would recommend starting with one of those.
3) Use historical definitions of biblical words
Very few Greek or Hebrew words have an exact English equivalent. So we have to remember that the English words in a translation may not mean exactly the same thing as the original Greek or Hebrew. One way to get around this obstacle is to do a word study, examining every occurrence of a particular word in the Bible to see how it is used therein. However, this method is time consuming, so it might be helpful to acquire a good Bible dictionary that compiles such studies on major words in the Bible. It makes it easy to understand what a given word actually means when used in the Bible.
4) Keep it in context
All too often, we read the Bible as if it were a collection of unconnected verses. A single verse taken by itself can appear to mean something totally contrary to the author’s intent. We wouldn’t skip to a sentence in the middle of Moby Dick and expect it to make sense, so why do we do this with the Bible? One good example is Jeremiah 29:11. This verse is frequently claimed as a promise for God’s specific blessing on an individual. But when we look at the context, we see that God was talking to the Israelites, whom he had sent into exile for their sins. Only after being in exile for 70 years would God bring them back to prosperity. Those are “the plans I have for you” according to Jeremiah’s full context.
5) Understand the genre
The Bible is made up of 66 different books, and they include many different genres of literature. There are epistles and narratives, poems and parables, instances of wisdom literature and apocalyptic literature, and a host of other specific styles. Keeping them all straight can be confusing, but it’s a vital part of understanding what we read. Thankfully, there are tools to help us here as well, books that provide an overview for each book of the Bible—including the genre—along with a number of other important details.
5 Strategies for Bible Study was written by Kaleb Cuevas who is Marketing Manager for Logos Bible Software, a product of Faithlife, which uses technology to equip the Church to grow in the light of the Bible and offers 14 products and services for churches.
This post on maintaining a godly perspective is a follow up post based on the discussion found in my previous article entitled “Sound Advice for Bible Study.” In that post I shared some of John Walton’s advice (from his Genesis Commentary in the NIV Application series), regarding a sound approach to Bible study. As pointed out in that post, Walton breaks his advice down into three different categories: 1) methodological commitments; 2) personal commitments; and 3) values commitments. Having looked at Walton’s methodological commitments in the previous post, I would now like to examine what he calls, “personal commitments,” of which there are three:
We must be willing to preserve a godly perspective on the issue and accord Christian respect to those we disagree with, refusing to belittle, degrade, accuse, or insult them. Ad hominem arguments and other varieties of “negative campaigning” should be set aside.
We must not allow our differences of opinion to overshadow and disrupt the effectiveness of ministry and our Christian witness.
We must decry the arrogance that accompanies a feeling of self-righteousness and portrays others as somehow less godly because of the position they hold. (Walton, J. H. (2001). Genesis (p. 189). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.)
Reflections on Walton’s “Personal Commitments” When We Disagree
All three of these commitments are important if we desire to maintain a Christ-like interaction with others. Let’s look at them in order.
Regarding #1, it’s very normal to feel personally attacked (and sometimes the attack is personal!), when a dearly held interpretation or view of ours is challenged by someone else. As Walton shares, however, “We must be willing to preserve a godly perspective….” This includes refusing to engage in personal attacks, even if we perceive the other person has personally attacked us. We should do our best to remain focused on the issue and seek to present biblical (as well as archaeological, cultural, etc.) evidence for our belief and interpretation. When a discussion is downgraded to an argument that involves character assassination, no one wins.
Principle #2 addresses the pragmatic outcome of disagreements that become the pretext for a battleground. Ministry is seriously disrupted and affected. If we respond in an ungodly way it will also certainly affect our Christian witness. This is certainly part of the enemy’s plan. If he can cause Christians to focus on their differences to the point where they fight and divide over them and present a bad image to unbelievers, he has won a major victory. (These observations are presented with the caveat that we are not talking about the foundational truths of Christianity which, if changed, would destroy its distinctive message).
Principle #3 addresses pride. Here is the root problem of all divisiveness over “non-essential” issues in biblical interpretation. A steady, and frequent, dose of humility is always the best remedy when discussing different understandings of Scripture. It is pride and self-righteousness that leads to the personal attacks noted in Principle #1. Pride and self-righteousness also damages our Christian witness and always disrupts effectiveness in ministry. Thus Principle #2 also falls under the umbrella of this third principle.
In the third, and final part, of this series, we will look at what Walton calls, “values commitments.”
NIV Application Commentary on Genesis is available at Amazon USA / UK
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.
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).
Introducing Biblical Interpretation Part 3: Logos Mobile Ed
“Introducing Biblical Interpretation” is a video-based course on hermenuetics (how to study and interpret the Bible) by Logos Bible Software. In my first post I looked at the layout and overall format of the Logos Mobile Ed courses, as well as giving a brief overview of the purpose and content of this particular course (You can read that review by clicking here). My second post on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” focused on the content of the first half of this course, noting its strengths and weaknesses (You can read that review by clicking here). This post, my third and final review of this product, will focus on the content of the second half of this course.
In the last half of “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” Dr. Michael S. Heiser focuses on three important areas: literary context; linguistic context; and application. The discussion of literary context is by far the longest section of the course, comprising 53 videos. Dr. Heiser divides his teaching on literary context into two broad categories: 1) a discussion on genre, and the various genres that can be found in Scripture; and, 2) a discussion of literary devices or techniques used by biblical authors.
The Importance of Genre in Biblical Intepretation
Because of the length of this section, it is not possible to summarize everything it contains. I will simply note a few of the literary genres and devices that Dr. Heiser talks about and what can be learned from these insights. Heiser argues that it is impossible to know what words mean without an understanding of genre. He illustrates this by the word “descent.” “Descent” has multiple meanings and only by knowing the genre can we discern what is meant by it. For example, the meaning of “descent” differs depending on whether the genre is a genealogy, a landscape plan, or a flight manual. Heiser follows his discussion of knowing the genre by introducing the controversial topic of what it means to interpret the Bible literally. This is an important topic that he returns to later in the course. I will reserve further comment on this idea because I wish to devote a future post to exploring this subject. The discussion of what is literal versus what is figurative, or even, what do we mean by a “literal interpretation” of Scripture, is a key hermeneutical issue and I am glad to see Heiser tackle it.
Some of the various genres explored include, Old and New Testament Narrative, genealogies, various types of psalms, genres peculiar to prophetic literature such as the lawsuit or funeral dirge, epistles, and apocalyptic. Heiser spends a lot of time examining prophecy and apocalyptic in both the Old and New Testaments and explaining the differences between the two. This is helpful because these two genres are often confused or, at least, conflated. He differentiates between predictive prophecy and preaching using the usual categories of “forthtelling” (preaching) and “foretelling” (prediction). Heiser emphasizes that about 80% of prophecy is preaching to the contemporary situation the prophet finds himself in. He also discourages placing our own meaning on symbols used by the prophets. It is important that the ancient meaning of the symbols and what it would have meant to the writer, audience, or prophet be the determining factor. Heiser also argues that prophecy can have more than a “one to one fulfillment.” This means that, although a passage might be applied to Jesus, or the new covenant, within the New Testament, it might also have a more immediate fulfillment in the prophet’s own time. He uses Amos 9:10-12 as an example, noting its Old Testament context and its use in Acts 15:12-17 where James (the speaker) and Luke (the author) put a different spin on it. He argues for “Sensus Plenior” which means that although a passage might have a certain meaning within its original Old Testament context, it can take on a “fuller meaning.” This is because God may see something that we in our finiteness may not. Other possible uses of Old Testament passages include analogical (a situation is similar to a past event), or typological (when a person, event, or thing foreshadows something in the future). Although I am in agreement with Heiser, some theological traditions would disagree with some of his conclusions (e.g., some would argue there is only one fulfillment of a prophecy). However, he does an admirable job illustrating his conclusions from Scripture.
Biblical Interpretation: Understanding the Use of Literary Devices
This section of the course includes discussions on such devices as chiasm (mirror imaging), gematria (the use of numbers to communicate a message), hyperbole, metaphor, poetic parallelism, typology, as well as others. For those who are not familiar with these ideas, this section will prove to be very informative. For example, Heiser gives two examples of chiastic structures and explains the significance of this literary device. He shows how the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) is laid out in a mirror image, and also how the Book of Matthew can be similarly viewed. The picture below illustrates the chiastic structure of the story of the Tower of Babel. Notice how the ends of the story use similar wording, all working toward the middle of the story where “the Lord comes down” which is the turning point of the story.
Most of us who have read Revelation are familiar with the use of gematria in Revelation 13 where the number 666 stands for the anti-Christ. Heiser points out another possible use of gematria in John 1:32 where the Spirit descends as a dove at Jesus’ baptism. In Greek the numerical value of the word “dove” is 801 which is the total numerical value of the Greek alphabet. It is suggested that the use of “dove” here may be a way of referring to Jesus as “the Alpha and Omega” (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). Another, more controversial proposal by Heiser, is that gematria may explain some of the large numbers used in the Old Testament regarding populations and armies. While some maintain the numbers should be taken literally, others argue that geography, ancient sociology, and archaeology do not support some of the large numbers (e.g., 2-3 million Israelites leaving Egypt and wandering in the wilderness) used in the Old Testament. The argument does not dispute inspiration, but suggests that the numbers must have another significance other than just literal, and Heiser suggests that gematria may perhaps be one possible explanation.
The Linguistic Context and Biblical Interpretation
Unit 5 of “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” concerns understanding words and syntax. Heiser mentions this is where some often begin their Bible study. Using concordances or Lexicons to do word studies is important, but he maintains that a word, in and of itself, has no meaning. He argues, and rightly so in my opinion, that without knowledge of the social context (Unit 3 in this course) and the literary context (Unit 4, just discussed), it is impossible to know what a word means. Heiser states, “If you can’t understand what a person thinks, how can you understand what they wrote?” He illustrates this by using the word “run.” By itself the word “run” has no meaning. “Context is King” as Heiser says. Is “run” a noun or verb? Actually it is both, but only context will tell you which. Furthermore, the word “run” when used as a noun has 12 different meanings, while “run” used as a verb has 50 meanings! Although this unit addresses a very important subject for Bible study, its primary value is for the Logos owner and user. I found this unit extremely helpful in teaching me things about doing word studies, or syntax studies in Logos that I never knew before. I will certainly return to the videos in this section again and again. However, if a teacher wanted to use the videos in this unit to teach a class about linguistics and they were not Logos users, then most of the instruction here would not be very helpful (but see my comments in the next paragraph below). Among the topics covered (again there are too many to mention them all) are: detecting the form of a word (in the original language); determining relationships between words; detecting the semantic range; and understanding and analyzing at the word level.
There are, however, some videos in this section that anyone would find helpful, including those without Logos. One brief segnment contains a further discussion on the use of scholarly commentaries. Here Heiser returns to a subject explored earlier in the course (the use and value of commentaries) and demonstrates how scholarly commentaries are helpful in providing word and syntax insights. Heiser also ends this section with a very helpful discussion about differences in ancient manuscripts. For the person who struggles with why there are so many English versions, or which one is the best, or asks, why they differ, or why some English translations have footnotes that give an alternate reading or leave out a passage entirely, these 4 videos provide a helpful foundation for answering such questions.
The final unit (#6) concerns application on both a personal level, and suggestions for those who are preparing sermons or Bible studies in order to instruct others. Regarding the individual and application, Heiser suggests we should always ask what a passage teaches us about God, his character, and how he carries out his plans and goals, what we learn about other people (does it illuminate something in our own lives?), and how the passage helps us apply the two greatest commandments of loving God and others. Heiser continues with some practical advice for preachers. Some of his suggestions include: being real with people (open not guarded), speaking to several groups of people (families, singles, old, young, etc.), and making application that is rooted in daily life (real events as opposed to mystical or unlikely situations)
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Second Half of “Introducing Biblical Interpretation”
I found two minor errors in the second half of this course. The first occurs when Heiser is discussing the New Testament’s use of the Old. As noted above, he argues for “Sensus Plenior” (a passage may be shown to have a “fuller” meaning in the NT). When discussing Acts 13:34-35 he notes that this is a quote from Psalm 16:10. Throughout the rest of the discussion, however, he constantly refers to this reference as Psalm 22. The screen has the correct reference and the written copy also has the correct reference, so hopefully the listener will realize that Heiser keeps accidentally mentioning the wrong Psalm. A second error occurs when Heiser is talking about ancient biblical manuscripts. As he is informing his listeners about the oldest complete copies of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), he notes that they are from the 4th century. This is correct, but he then states that they date to around 550 A.D. which is incorrect. In fact, the 4th century refers to the 300s not the 500s, and the correct date is around 350 A.D. for these manuscripts. This mistake of 200 years is also found in the written copy. These are minor issues, but they are inaccuracies worth noting in case Logos is able to correct these mistakes in the future.
There are many strengths to the second half of the course. Perhaps the greatest is the indepth treatment of various biblical genres and literary devices. In my opinion, there is a wealth of information here that acts as a great introduction for someone beginning more serious Bible study. I am also happy to report that a majority of the Logos resources recommended under “Further reading,” were also available to me. In my review of the first half of this course (review #2 in this series), I noted that I did not have access to a lot of the recommended reading material. The reverse was true for the second half of the course, so this was a welcome change. Again, the availability of the recommended reading material will depend on what version of Logos you have. Overall this is a very fine course on biblical interpretation. Heiser knows his subject well and presents it in a clear but relaxed style. I know that I will come back again and again to some of the videos in this series and I heartily recommend it to others.
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.
Introducing Biblical Interpretation Part 2: Logos Mobile Ed
If you would like expert guidance on how to study the Bible, then you should consider the Mobile Ed course by Logos entitled, “Introducing Biblical Interpretation.” In my first post on “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” (which can be found here), I looked at the overall format of Logos’s Mobile Ed courses and provided an overview of what this course has to offer. In this review I will look more specifically at the first half of the course, detailing its strengths and weaknesses. Before proceeding, however, I would like to point out some exciting new developments with Logos. In my previous post, I noted how Logos Bible Study software has taken Bible study to a whole new level with Logos 5. No sooner were my comments “hot off the press” when Logos introduced its newest and latest version Logos 6! Logos 6 makes some gigantic leaps in Bible study and I can’t wait to procure a copy of it. For an introduction to Logos 6 click here (Now Logos 8!). Now on to the review!
In a brief introduction to the course, Michael S. Heiser announces that his task is threefold: 1) to alert the student to various obstacles interpreters face (hence why there are different interpretations of a biblical text); 2) to train the student to “see things in the text.” As Heiser states, “Bible study, Bible research is a lot more than Bible reading;” and 3) to act as a guide by showing how to analyze the text, as well as, introducing various resources that are available to help with Bible study.
Heiser begins unit 1 with 10 obstacles to interpretation. Here is his list:
Obstacle #1: Presuppositions
Obstacle #2: The Author
Obstacle #3: The Reader
Obstacle #4: The Medium
Obstacle #5: The Meaning
Obstacle #6: Translation
Obstacle #7: Precedent
Obstacle #8: Context
Obstacle #9: Relevance
Obstacle #10: Validation
In order to conserve space, I will not take the time to go through each of these. Some are obvious. For example, “presuppositions” (#1). This involves being aware of our own experience and background and being careful about reading things into the text. Translation (# 6) is another obvious obstacle. I will focus on a few less obvious obstacles (or at least attempt to explain how Heiser sees certain things as obstacles). By “The Author” (#2) Heiser means that since we don’t know who wrote some of the books of the Bible and since we can’t get into the ancient author’s head, finding the author’s meaning is not always a fruitful approach. While it is true that we don’t know who wrote some of the books of the Bible, some of the methods that Heiser introduces later in the course are a reliable way of getting at the meaning of the text. Heiser himself will encourage us to find the author’s meaning and not substitute our own (in unit 2 under biblical context, he makes a point about the perspective of the author and the audience). Therefore, I must admit to a little confusion here. Perhaps he means we should not get side-tracked by pursuing a portrait of the author, but focus on the text itself.
Heiser is clearer on what he means by other obstacles. The Reader obstacle (#3), discusses an approach popular in some academic circles known as “reader response theory” which says the reader determines the meaning. In other words, “The text means what whatever I think it means.” Heiser rightly cautions the student against this view and offers a helpful critique. This particular obstacle is more likely to be encountered by the serious Bible student who is reading certain scholarly works (seminary students, pastors, etc.). While all can benefit from this course, an example like this points to the kind of audience that Heiser is addressing. Heiser refers to another obstacle as “Medium” (#4.) By “Medium” he means that the Bible is a written document and so we do not hear voice inflection, or experience body language when the text is being read. As a result, a written text is harder to interpret than a verbal communication where these things can be observed and heard.
The next section of the course (unit 2) is very short and acts as an introduction to what follows. Unit 2 consists of 2 parts. In part one Heiser discusses the importance of context. By context, Heiser does not simply mean the literary context of a passage, but rather, the social, cultural, and religious context in which a passage was written. It is important for us , as much as is possible, to get into the world and thinking patterns of the ancient biblical author (here again is where I find confusion with his obstacle #2 mentioned above). Heiser then goes on to introduce three contexts that the Bible student needs to be aware of. They are, the “Worldview context,” the Literary context,” and the “Linguistic context.” Each of these “contexts” are the focus of units 3, 4, and 5 respectively. We will proceed by looking at unit 3, the “Worldview context,” and save the others for our next review.
Unit 3, “Worldview Context” consists of the following subpoints:
The Historical Context
The Cultural Context
The Religious Context
Tools for Worldview Context
Finding English Translations of Ancient Texts
Using Reference Works to Study Ancient Background Context
Monographs for Studying Ancient Background Context
Devotional or Popular Commentaries
Illustrating Different Types of Commentaries
31. Finding Scholarly Journals in Logos
33. Logos 5 Tools for Background Research
34. Online Resources
35. Using Online Resources for Biblical Interpretation
Heiser begins unit 3 with a helpful breakdown of 3 subcategories that are important to understanding the “Worldview context”. These subcategories are: the historical context; the cultural context; and the religious context. Under the historical context Heiser discusses the importance of geography (knowing biblical places), knowing the broad historical context (history of the ancient Near East, especially Israel), and knowing the immediate context (the historical context in which the author wrote). Under the cultural context, Heiser lists 3 areas of importance: attitudes, morals, and daily living. Under religious context, Heiser (who likes to break things into 3 categories) talks about the importance of understanding cultural beliefs, supernatural and supersitious beliefs, and ritual purity.
But how does an average student gain some knowledge and competence in these areas? It can all seem a bit overwhelming. The rest of this unit is devoted to various tools and resources that are available to the student. Heiser acts as a guide (one of his purposes!) in showing the student not only the various types of sources, but the value, or lack thereof, of certain sources, and how to use them. For example, I found his discussion on the various kinds of commentaries to be a helpful guide to the lay person or beginning student. Heiser breaks commentaries down into (you guessed it) 3 kinds. Devotional or Popular (a one volume commentary with very general info), Expositional (more specific, English based, dealing with some textual issues), and Scholarly (based on research in the original languages, with more indepth discussion of the various issues raised by a text). Another helpful discussion concerns Internet resources such as Google Books and Google Scholar, as well as online journals and the pros and cons of various wikis.
Problems With “Introducing Biblical Interpretation”
Before delving into a few problems that I have found with “Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” I want to state that Heiser has pulled together a vast amount of helpful material and has, for the most part, presented it in a clear and logical way. This course is well worth the few shortcomings that I mention here.
“Introducing Biblical Interpretation,” like other Mobile Ed courses from Logos, contains recommendations for reading material. After each section, there is a link to various sources in Logos for further reading. Some of the material in the quiz sections (including Midterm and Final exams) are based on these readings. This is what you’d expect in any course. However, if you are taking a University course, you have access to all the books in the University library. The problem with Logos Mobile Ed courses is that, unless you have one of the top of the line packages in Logos, there are a number of resources that you won’t have access to. While it would be great to have the best Logos package available, sometimes that’s just not possible. My particular package is the Logos 5 Gold package, plus I have supplemented this with other resources over the years. In spite of that, I frequently found that I only had access to a small portion of the recommended reading material–usually 1 of 2 or 1 of 3 sources. This, of course, creates quite a handicap for passing the quizzes and exams. It is also very frustrating when you would like to do the recommended reading. What is the solution? Obviously being able to purchase the sources would be ideal, but what if you can’t? I’m wondering if there is a way that Logos could create access to a certain portion of the resource for the person who has purchased the Mobile Ed course? For example: there is an article in a Bible dictionary that is recommended reading. I don’t have the dictionary, or the money to purchase it. Could Logos give me access to that particular article without granting access to the entire dictionary? Is there a way to build that into the Mobile Ed course? I’m not a computer programmer and what I’m suggesting may be a technological nightmare, but I’m wondering if there isn’t some sort of compromise that would help the eager student. The upside for Logos is, if the student gets a lot out of a particular resource, it might provide the motivation to purchase that item.
I’ve discovered two other minor problems with “Introducing Biblical Interpretation.” The reason I call them minor is that they appear to be “one off” type problems. The first example involves using a tool that provides the wrong definition for what the teacher (Heiser) is discussing. Following Objection #6 Translation, at the end of the discussion, there is a link under “Guides and Tools” to “Translation.” Clicking on the link, you expect to read a definition or article that deals with the translation of biblical languages. Instead, what you find is a definition that relates to one being taken to heaven (ala Enoch, Elijah, or the rapture!), or being translated into the kingdom (Col. 1:13), but nothing about Bible translation! Another minor quibble is making sure all reading materials assigned are relevant. Objection #10 in unit 1 discusses “Validation.” Heiser notes that none of us are perfect and, therefore, even if we are equipped with the right tools and approach, we need to continue to recognize our limitations. I couldn’t agree more. However, one of the assigned readings for this segment is a Bible Dictionary article on “humility.” While it is true we need a large dose of humility when interpreting the Scripture, it doesn’t seem that reading a definition from a Bible Dictionary is particularly helpful (maybe that’s just me though). If the reading assignment doesn’t further the student’s knowledge, then it’s superfluous. If humility needs to be emphasized further, then a teacher’s exhortation is more motivating than a dictionary article.
Again, the problems encountered in “Introducing Biblical Interpretation” are minimal compared to the many gains that one will receive from the course. I look forward to getting into the second half of the course and sharing what I find in a future post.
Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?
I am currently in the process of reading two large commentaries on Bible backgrounds. Both are from IVP, the first is entitled Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, and the second, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. As some of you are aware, I have already posted an initial review of the Old Testament Bible background commentary (click here to read the review). Why spend so much time learning about Bible backgrounds? Why not just jump right in and study the Bible itself? Well, I do believe we all should “jump in” and study the Bible, however, when it comes to understanding the Bible, knowing things about the history of Israel and the ancient Near East, the cultural settings of the biblical world, yes, and even the languages, can make a huge difference in understanding a passage properly.
As I noted in a previous post (Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes), reading the Bible is like taking a trip to another country. At first we might not even think about the differences; we’re just excited to be making the journey! However, once we arrive, we inevitably experience culture shock. Not only is the language different, but what is considered polite, humorous, or acceptable behaviour is often quite different. Living conditions, how governments work, how (or if) children are educated varies from place to place. Even when countries speak the same language, the meanings of words, as well as what is considered socially acceptable, can be quite different, as I have learned as an American living in England these past 11 years. Cultural knowledge is indeed important. As a result, when it comes to the Bible, I have become a bit of a Bible backgrounds junky. This is why I am constantly reading and reviewing books that deal with Bible background material (like my review of The World of the New Testament), or posting articles that deal with some aspect of ancient culture which can enlighten our reading of Scripture (see, for example, my articles on Grace in 3D, Envy and the Cross, or Cross Examination). It also explains my fascination with archaeology and why I love reading about the excavations of ancient biblical cities, or the discovery of interesting artefacts (see the articles under Biblical sites).
Any number of passages confuse Bible readers who are unfamiliar with the “world of the Bible.” Even the simplest of things such as the mention of weights, measures, or money can be frustrating. What’s a cubit, or a seah, or a denarius, and how do they compare to modern standards of weight, measure, or currency? What makes Sarah think it is OK to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a wife? What is Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 all about? Not only are there things we don’t understand, but there are also presuppositions we carry with us from the 21st century when reading the text. For example, we may forget that ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, not an industrial culture. Or, when we read Paul’s letters we may assume that he is writing to Christians who worship in large public buildings like we do today, as opposed to smaller house-churches, or even smaller apartment buildings. This may seem like a small matter, but understanding that Paul is addressing many small house-churches in Romans, and not some big metropolitan church that meets in a large public facility, helps us to better understand some of the problems he confronts in this letter. Being aware of cultural values that were important in the ancient world such as honor and shame, can deepen our understanding of a number of passages throughout Scripture, including Jesus’ clash with the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Gospels.
In a future article I will seek to demonstrate some of the benefits of applying background knowledge to our understanding of the Bible (meanwhile, if you’re unfamiliar with some of the posts I’ve mentioned above please feel free to read them. Just click on the links provided). I will also share some of the insights that can be gained from the Bible background commentaries mentioned above as I continue my review of them.
Mind the Gap: Guidelines for Gaps in Biblical Narratives
No matter what the story is, or who the storyteller is, it is impossible to give every detail of an event. This means that there are inevitably “gaps” in every story. It’s great when the person relating the story is there with you because you can always ask questions that help to fill in the gaps. But if the story is written down and it is not possible to contact the author, gaps become more challenging. This is especially true of biblical stories which were written centuries ago in another language with a different cultural setting than ours. Some of the gaps we find in biblical narrative are a result of the distance between ancient times and the 21st century. As Robert Chisholm states, “Many of the gaps we perceive in a story would not have been present for an ancient Israelite audience, for ancient readers would have intuitively understood nuances of their language and aspects of their culture better than we do” (Interpreting the Historical Books, p. 69). However, sometimes the author deliberately left a gap in a story, and it is these intentional gaps that I am focusing on in this article.
Intentional Gaps in Biblical Narrative
There can be a number of reasons for intentional gaps in a story. First it is important to remember that writing in the ancient world was an expensive process and writing materials were not as readily available as they are today. Furthermore, space was limited. Books were not in use and only so much material would fit on a scroll. All of this means that a biblical author had to be selective about what to include and what to omit. One reason then for a gap in the story is that the detail was not considered important enough to include. Sometimes a gap occurs because the writer has left enough evidence in the text for us to figure out the obvious answer. This is probably the reason for one of the most famous gaps in the Old Testament. It seems that everyone who reads Genesis 4:17 asks the obvious question, “Where did Cain get his wife?” The author asserts that Adam and Eve are the first human beings and that all humanity is descended from them (e.g., Gen. 3:20; 5:1ff.). If the author’s story is taken at face value, then Cain’s wife must be a relative (either a sister or niece, etc.). It would be a waste of precious space for the author to explain this “obvious” detail.
Another reason for gaps may involve the literary artistry of the biblical author. Gaps in the narrative may lead to surprises later in the story. For example, 2 Samuel 21:5-8 reveals that there are other living descendants of Saul besides Mephibosheth and his son (see 2 Sam. 9). Gaps naturally create curiosity and, at times, the author may use gaps to encourage the reader to investigate the text more carefully. The disappearance of Samuel from 1 Samuel 4-6 is an example. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel is a young man who receives the word of the Lord. However, when Israel is defeated by the Philistines and the ark of God is captured (1 Sam. 4), Samuel appears nowhere in the story! When Samuel finally reappears in 1 Samuel 7, he is a much older man. Why are so many years of Samuel’s life blanked by the author? We may presume that some of the material was irrelevant, as we have already discussed, but any reader must wonder how such an important figure can disappear from the story at one of the most critical moments, with no explanation of his whereabouts! The writer seems to be using this gap in the story of Samuel’s life to make an important point. Chapter 3 ends by telling us that the Lord let none of Samuel’s words “fall to the ground” and that all Israel knew that Samuel was a prophet of the Lord (2 Sam. 3:19-20). In fact, the statement made immediately before the battle with the Philistines is “And the word of Samuel came to all Israel” (2 Sam. 4:1). If Samuel was indeed God’s prophet, and his word never failed, then his absence in chapter 4 further emphasizes Israel’s apostasy. When the Israelites met the Philistines in battle they did not consult God’s word through Samuel. All we learn is that after an initial defeat, they put their trust in a religious relic–the ark (1 Sam. 4:2-5), rather than in God Himself. By removing Samuel from the narrative, the author subtly comments on Israel’s faithlessness without directly commenting on it! This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that when Samuel reappears in the narrative (1 Sam. 7:3), he is calling on the people to “return to the Lord” and to “put away” their foreign gods. In other words, it appears that when the crisis of 2 Samuel 4 happened, rather than turn to the Lord and Samuel, Israel turned to false gods! This technique of gapping used by the author causes the thoughtful reader to question Samuel’s absence and to read 2 Samuel 7 in light of the comments in 2 Samuel 3:19-21 and 2 Samuel 4:1.
The Danger of Interpreting Gaps in Biblical Narrative
Because gaps naturally create curiosity, it is always tempting to provide an explanation for them. Before attempting to explain a gap we should ask several important questions. First, is the gap due to our lack of historical or cultural knowledge? If so, it is not an intentional gap created by the biblical author and we should be cautious about offering explanations for something we don’t have enough information on.
Second, is the gap important to the story, or is it there because the details would be superfluous to the story? In other words, does the gap exist because the author has no interest in pursuing that particular aspect or detail? If this is the case, then we must consider that it may be a waste of our time to pursue something that the biblical author did not care to illuminate. Some bible studies fall into the habit of attempting to answer questions that the Bible itself is not concerned about, and that ultimately we can never know the answer to. This is a great waste of time and energy because we can miss what the author is really wanting to communicate and chase rabbit trails that, in the long run, are meaningless.
Third, if we discern that the author has intentionally left a gap so that we will dig deeper into the text, we must still be careful to ask the right questions. Using the example above about Samuel is a case in point. While we can observe that there is a gap in Samuel’s life story, the questions we ask about this observation are important. If we ask, “Where was Samuel all those years?” and then seek to answer that question by making guesses about his whereabouts (maybe he went to prophet school, etc.), we miss the point. The important question is not, “Where was Samuel?”, a question we can never answer, but “Why does the author choose to omit Samuel from the story?” When we ask the correct question about a gap, we then have the opportunity to go deeper into the text.
How do we know if we are asking the right questions? The real test as to whether the question is helpful or not is to ask where it leads. Does the question lead us back to the text to search for clues that will provide an answer, or does the question cause us to speculate about what “might have happened” without anyway of proving it one way or the other? If we are seeking to understand the Bible, then questions that lead us to investigate the text and find answers in the text, are good questions. Conversely, questions that lead us away from the text and prompt us to come up with imaginary solutions (even if the solutions are reasonable), are not good “Bible study” questions. The difference can be summed up in two words: interpretation vs. speculation. Interpretation involves filling in gaps by looking at clues in the text. Speculation involves our imagination about what might have happened. To give an example of speculation that leads to bad biblical interpretation, I once read a Genesis commentary that blamed Sarah for Abram’s trip to Egypt (Gen. 12:10)! The text gives absolutely no indication that Sarah prompted Abram to move to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan. Now we might speculate that Sarah did so, but that is just our imagination at work. Whether Sarah did or didn’t can never be known. All we know is what the text says and it only focuses on Abram. It seems to me that a great injustice is done to Sarah by blaming her for what the text infers was Abram’s mistake! This same kind of mistake happens frequently in bible-study groups and Sunday school classes. We often drift from the text and end up discussing endless possibilities of what “might have happened.”
Rocky Balboa was Right!
One of Rocky’s famous lines is, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps, together we fill gaps.” Gaps are indeed a fact of life, especially when it comes to telling a story! My hope is that this article helps us to appreciate the gaps that exist in biblical narrative and provides a constructive approach to them. There are different kinds of gaps–some intentional, some unintentional. Together we can “fill gaps” but it is important to ask the right kinds of questions if we desire a deeper understanding of biblical stories.
(For further information on gaps, see my book Family Portraits. For an example of gap-filling that attempts to follow biblical clues, see my treatment of Abiathar in chapter 8 pp. 92-94.)