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Reading a story is easy, right? Well, that’s not always actually the case when it comes to reading the Bible. There are many stories that don’t make sense in the Bible on their own, remember that story in the book of Judges, where the man killed his virgin daughter for God? (If not then go back and look at the blog about context for context, it’s called ‘Context’.) Other stories may make sense on their own but are much richer in their meaning once we know how to interpret them correctly. For example, Jesus, in Matthew 9:35-38, and Mordecai, from the book of Esther, both have stories that are much richer when one takes the time to interpret them correctly.
As already mentioned in previous blogs, understanding the context of the story is the starting point. Next, one needs to remember their focus in reading – look for the subjects of a text and not the objects. On this point, Dr Gabel reminds us, “As the first chapter of this book has argued,” – see previous blog, ‘Subjects v. Objects’ – “objectivity in dealing with the past was of no interest to the writers of the Bible. Perhaps they could not even have conceived of such a thing. When they told their stories of the past, they did so not for the sake of the past but for the sake of the present- their present, of course. That is, they selected material concerning the past and shaped it according to what they felt were the needs of their own present-day audience.”
In fact, many Biblical authors record events that occurred out of order in order to stress their point better to their audience – we see this with how Jesus was tempted during His fast in the wilderness. In Matthew, Jesus is first tempted to make Himself food, then He is tempted to jump off a building, and finally He is tempted to worship the devil for the sake of world dominion. In Luke, however, Jesus is still first tempted to make food, but second He is tempted to worship the devil for world dominion, and lastly He is tempted to jump off the building. Matthew was writing to Jews and stressing the point of Christ’s divinity thus He put the temptation of world dominion last; Luke was writing to a gentile who was curious about Christ so Luke put the temptation of jumping off the building last, to stress the point of Christ’s ability to overcome depression, anxiety, and etc.
Though the authors structured sacred history to fashion their points, I still believe that this process was directly inspired by God!
One of the most important ideas that help me in understanding how to read Biblical narratives is from Duvall’s book, Grasping God’s Word. In this book, he writes out a 5-step interpretive journey to understanding the text. It’s important to realize that the Bible is not a time machine, though our study of it is a journey that must transcend time.
The Bible is not a time machine, though our study of it is a journey that must transcend time.
The five step journey that Duvall offers is as follows,
- Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
- Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
- Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text? Or What is the underlining meaning of the text?
- Consult the Biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? “You prove the Bible with the Bible,” as my pastor would say.
- Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live this principle out?
One must ask all of these questions correctly to truly understand everything that a Bible story is trying to say. If we don’t understand what the text meant to the author and audience in their time then we can never take that principle into our own times.
If we don’t understand what the text meant to the author and audience in their time then we can never take that principle into our own times.
Before moving on to examples, I would like to briefly explain how to read and understand Laws in the Bible. THEY SHOULD NOT BE READ AS SIMPLY A TO DO AND / OR A NOT TO DO LIST. They are highly symbolic and even prophetic in nature. Some laws are still meant to be followed, however. The way we determine what to do with the Law starts with our interpretive journey through time (as seen above), but then continues on to determining the point of the law and who it was directed at and for. For example, laws about clothing and sacrifice are now not to be followed, as the point of those laws was for purity, for now Christ has come and fulfilled the law so that we are pure through Him, rather than through the law. However, laws concerning murder or stealing or etc are all moral laws and still apply to us today. Laws concerning how we ought to worship God still apply to a degree, that is as long as we understand that Christ is now the high priest so that we approach God directly through Him.
Laws concerning how we ought to behave towards God are known as vertical laws; laws concerning how we treat each other (i.e. don’t murder) are called horizontal laws; laws concerning anything else are ritual laws. Christ fulfilled the ritual laws, for their point was to prophecy about Him in some way. As such, we no longer are obliged to obey ritual laws or laws pertaining specifically to the Israel nation. God set His people apart through the law before Christ, but now we are set apart by living holy lives under Christ’s influence in us. In order to understand the laws, we must understand why and to whom they were written, then we must discover the theological principle, or the subject, behind the laws and apply that principle to today’s world without the law itself.
(Laws) are highly symbolic and even prophetic in nature.
I gave the example from Matthew chapters 8 & 9 in the video above. Now, I would like to use the story of Mordecai as my example of how bridging the gap of time can help us understand a biblical story. Mordecai is found in the book of Esther, likely written by Ezra who also wrote Nehemiah and Ezra as the prequel to Esther in a Bible-type trilogy. Ezra’s point in writing was to rally the people of God back to the Word of God and the traditions of God. His audience would have been a people, either fresh out of, or still enduring an exile. The audience was familiar with basic Jewish stories but possibly not the laws themselves. As no American has dealt with any true form of exile in our time, getting to a point where we are familiar with the stories is much easier today than it is to understand the spirit of exile today.
A few basic stories the audience would have known includes the story of how Saul (a Benjaminite) let king Agag go free after God instructed Saul to completely obliterate him and all his people. They would have known Goliath was from Agag’s lineage and David was a Benjaminite. They would have known a few other stories of Agagites and Benjaminites duking it out also. These two groups were seen as rivals. So, in Esther, when Hamman (an Agagite) tried to get Mordecai (a Benjaminite) killed, the original audience would have understood this as a rivalry. But through Mordecai’s obedience to God during exile, Hamman was hung and ALL his followers were killed by the Jews, at the Assyrian King’s demand.
The theological principle is then this: sometimes God must bring us to exile before He can deal with our rivals. This fits our overall view of the Bible as we know from Matthew 8 that we must give up everything to follow Christ. So, finally, to apply it to today’s times, we look at our own rivalries – whether they be lust, arrogance, or whatever it is that keeps coming back to tempt us – and we realize that God might have to bring us to exile in order to deal with our rivals. We, then, should pray for God to send us into exile so that we can overcome our sins \ temptations that keep coming back!
Sometimes God must bring us to exile before He can deal with our rivals – that is any sin or temptation or problem that seems reoccurring in our lives!!!!
The point is: In order to read Biblical narratives, our studies must go on an interpretive journey through time.
In order to read laws, we must understand their prophetic and symbolic nature.
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 Gabel, John B., and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. 64. Print.
 Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. “Chapter 18: Old Testament – Narrative.” Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. Print.
 Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. “Chapter 19: Old Testament – Law.” Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2001. Print.
 Barton, John. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.
 Longman, Tremper. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. Vol. 4. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006. Print.
 “Dr. Constable’s Expository (Bible Study) Notes.” Dr. Constable’s Bible Study Notes and Commentary. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.