By Janine Warrington
Now that we have assumed a posture of humility as we approach the Bible, recognizing that 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 understand what the Bible is saying?
Two days after the Traditional Plan was passed at the United Methodist Church General Conference, Dr. Joel LeMon forewent his scheduled lecture to discuss with his graduate level Interpretation of Old Testament students about the importance of Bible interpretation. In order to evaluate the suitability of a passage of Scripture to inform a situation in our lives, LeMon outlined four pieces of information we must know about the passage:
The Bible contains texts of many different genres, from history to poetry to apocalyptic literature to legends. Different genres are written for different purposes – dystopian fiction like “The Hunger Games”is meant to entertain and perhaps provide political commentary. Self-help books like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” are intended to motivate and encourage their readers to make meaningful changes in their lives. And memoirs like “Becoming” are meant to tell readers something of the history of their subject and perhaps to inspire with stories of overcoming obstacles. Likewise, the Bible contains stories that make a political claim (e.g., Judges tells several captivating stories which cumulatively make a case for a king in Israel), pieces of wisdom meant to inform the way people live (e.g., Proverbs), and stories about important people meant to inspire (e.g., the gospels recount stories about Jesus). The genre of a text informs the way it is meant to be read, so before we make any claims about the meaning of a text, it is imperative to know what the genre is.
2. Presumed Community
The texts in the Bible were each written with a different audience in mind. Paul wrote many of his letters to specific church communities to address their concerns or failures. Proverbs, on the other hand, is a collection of wisdom from many communities in order to be passed along to future generations. While Paul’s letters are intended for specific people, Proverbs is intended to be read widely and universally. The community who wrote a text and their intended audience can tell us a lot about the intended meaning of that text.
3. Social and historical context
While William Shakespeare and Lin Manuel Miranda have both written historical plays (genre) intended to be performed for the masses in a theatrical setting (presumed community), their works were written in totally different times and places (Elizabethan England and modern-day America, respectively). The world in which an author lives affects what and how they write. Kings and Acts both chronicle historical events, but in completely different times of Israel’s history. Kings functions with an assumption of Israel’s independence while anticipating exile because of the failures of Israel’s kings, while Acts is written with a background of Roman occupation and a posture of hope at the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming. If Joshua was written at the time of the reported events, then it should be read as a historical account of actual events. If it was written during the Babylonian exile, then it should be read as a revenge fantasy for the purposes of reminding the Israelite exiles that they worship a powerful God who will deliver them from the terrible oppression they are facing. The socio-historical context makes a big difference.
A lexicographer is someone who writes a dictionary, and their job is not to record what words mean, but rather how words are used. The meaning of language changes over time, and so lexicographers like Kory Stamper read current publications in order to align the contextual use of a word with its dictionary definition. The word “gay,” for example, has a long history of meaning from lively to promiscuous to homosexual. So, when reading ancient texts like the Bible, we must be wary of reading our modern understanding of words into what we are reading.
Here is your assignment: This is a lot of information to consider when reading the Bible, and it takes a lot of time and research to determine all of this. Not everyone can devote their time to thorough biblical study, but that is why those who do often write commentaries. Go to your local library and find some scholarly commentaries on whatever book of the Bible you’re currently reading. Good commentaries will include all the above information about a book and more. Sit down with a commentary and see how the information you find affects the way you understand the meaning of the Bible text in question.