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How to Understand the Bible, Part 1

By Janine Warrington

In recent weeks, we have been going through a journey toward responsible biblical interpretation, asking ourselves what the Bible is, whether we should read it, and what parts we should read. Given that the Bible is an authoritative text given to humanity from God to read, interpret, and apply in its entirety, we are now at the point in this journey when we ask: How can we understand what the Bible is saying?

According to a recent Gallup poll, 30 percent of American Christians believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” The popular slogan, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” suggests that we shouldn’t have to make major decisions about any issues mentioned in the Bible because God has already made those decisions for us.

However, the idea that we can read the Bible literally is a very proud idea. We, as humans, have a limited capacity for understanding God and God’s word. The way I read the Bible is determined by my particularity. As much as I may try to read the Bible without my identity as a young, white, American, female, college student informing my reading, I can’t escape these identifiers completely. If I and another person read the same Bible passage and explain to each other the “literal” meaning of that passage, we will almost definitely say different things.

To say that the way I read the Bible is reading the Bible as it is, is to claim that I can discern the exact voice of God in a way that others cannot.

Not long ago, I was engaged with a conversation with someone in a comment thread online, debating the Bible’s teachings on same-sex relationships. When I mentioned to this person that they should be aware of what translation they were reading, they told me that wasn’t necessary because “the Bible is the Bible.” Yet, reading two translations in parallel will quickly illuminate just how difficult it is to translate the Hebrew or Greek directly and literally into English. For example, in the NIV, just after giving birth to Isaac, Sarah says in Genesis 21:6 “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” Because of an ambiguity in the Hebrew grammar, Robert Alter translates this verse, “Laughter has God made me,/Whoever hears will laugh at me.” Both are legitimate translations of the Hebrew, but they undeniably carry very different meanings. Does that mean one of these translations is right and the other wrong? Not necessarily. Both translators are poring over the raw materials God has given us, creatively engaging with them and doing their best to understand them. Perhaps we have something to learn from both translations. Perhaps the Hebrew is intentionally ambiguous because we are supposed to hold these possible meanings in tension with each other.

What this exercise shows us is that there is no single way to read the Bible, and it is impossible for any human being to discern the “literal” meaning of God’s word. Before we can dive into practical tools and skills for biblical interpretation, we must assume a posture of humility, recognizing that we cannot simply sit down with our preferred English translation of the Bible and read it “literally, word for word.”

Here is your assignment: Not all translations vary so totally in meaning as the above example, but two distinct translations read in parallel will typically have variations in word choice, grammar, and layout. Begin to explore differences in English translations by reading two translations of the same passage – NIV, NLT, NRSV, JPS, and the Message all differ from each other. Look up these translations’ websites to compare their translation practices and understand how the translators make the decisions they make. Bring a Bible with you to church that is a different version than your pastor uses and read along as they read – it won’t take long to notice a lot of differences!

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[…] because of the limitations of our finite human minds we cannot simply read the Bible literally (see part 1), we are ready for some practical biblical interpretation skills as we continue to ask: How can we […]

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