The Bible Doesnâ€™t
Have to Be Hard to
Michael D. McGehee
Copyright 2000, 2017
Smyth & Helwys Publishing
Thanks to my friends and colleagues at
the College of St. Benedict for their encouragement and advice.
Sr. Angelo Haspert, O.S.B.
Sr. Shaun Oâ€™Meara, O.S.B.
Prof. John Merkle
Sr. Mary Reuter, O.S.B.
Sr. Mary Anthony Wagner, O.S.B.
I am grateful that I, as a Protestant, was able to teach at a Catholic college
and learned about how wide Christâ€™s church extends.
If Jesus Told a Joke, Would You Laugh?
Why Do Christians Argue So Much about the Bible?
Is a Parable Fact or Fiction?
Does Every Proverb Apply to Everyone All the Time?
What Biblical Promises Are Meant for Me?
Do We Have to Believe the Hymns We Sing?
Is â€œThe Story of Jesus and His Loveâ€ Just a Story?
How Are St. Johnâ€™s Letters Different from â€œDear Johnâ€ Letters?
Does Poetry in the Bible Have to Rhyme?
Is Prophecy Foretelling or Forthtelling?
How Do We Respond to Ethical Instruction
How Much Theology Is in the Bible?
Is Biblical Genealogy Meant to Reveal Biology?
How Should We Interpret Quotations?
Did People Look at Their Sundials During Ancient Sermons?
Does History Tell Everything That Happened?
Are There Myths in the Bible?
How Should We Read the Bible?
If Jesus Told a Joke, Would You
magine a friend picking up a telephone book, showing it to you, and
saying, â€œI just finished reading this great novel. Let me read some parts of
it to you.â€ Imagine him opening to the middle of the book and starting to
read the names, addresses, and phone numbers that appear under the letter
P. If he were a talented reader who could modulate his voice, he might be
able to read the names and numbers with a great deal of feeling, sometimes
reading a name with disgust, sometimes with awe. Yet, even if he could
read the names and express a different emotion for each name just by
changing the tone of his voice, you would know that he was doing
something odd. In fact, you would probably wonder if he was joking with
you by this strange way of reading the phone book.
Figuring out how to describe what is odd about this way of reading the
phone book depends on recognizing that somehow your friend has made a
mistake about the kind of thing he is reading. After all, even though the
telephone book is like a novel in a number of ways, a telephone book is
not a novel.
The telephone book and a novel both have peopleâ€™s names. Yet the
phone book has more characters than even that classic but convoluted
Russian novel War and Peace. There are all kinds of people in the phone
book. There are heroes and villains, handsome men and beautiful women,
blue-collar workers and executives, and on, and on. Each one of them has
a story. If we knew their stories, we would probably be very moved as we
read the phone book. Some life stories would make us cry, while others
would make us laugh. Unfortunately for those of us who want to hear life
stories, the phone book does not tell us the stories of the people whose
names are recorded. It does, however, give us some information about
each person. We can learn an address and a telephone number. But that
sort of information is useful rather than interesting, and no one stays up
late at night just to read columns of names and numbers. Any book critic
who made the mistake of reviewing the phone book as if it were a novel
would say that the plot was weak and that the characters were never really
Nevertheless, even though phone books and novels both tell us things
about the people whose names appear in their pages, the simple fact is that
a phone book is not a novel. It is a list. Literate people familiar with
telephones and modern communication would not make the sort of mistake
just described. Even without studying phone books in any high school or
college classroom, literate people know that the phone book belongs to a
different category or â€œgenreâ€ (pronounced zhahnâ€™ra) of literature than a
Mistakes in genre do not happen very often in normal reading or
conversation. Most of us can almost instantly recognize whether we are
reading a sermon, a play, or a love letter. In fact, when we think of other
possible mistakes in genre, they all seem farfetched. For example, we
would think it odd if someone criticized The Hobbit because it did not
describe the treatment hobbits needed for hypertension and went on to say
that any decent medical book about hobbits should deal with that disease
because hobbits are known to eat so much rich food. In the same manner,
we would wonder about the sanity of anyone who said that x= 2y+ 3z + 17
had an unusual rhythm pattern for a limerick. Fantasy novels are not
medical encyclopedias, and equations are not limericks.
Yet there are times when confusion about genres can occur. That is how
many jokes work. You might think you are hearing a true story and then
realize that you have been listening to a joke. Still, this sort of genre
misunderstanding does not happen regularly. At most, we need to hear
only a few words before we can recognize the difference between a joke, a
fairy tale, a marriage proposal, or a request to turn down the television.
Literate people do not normally have problems with genre in the
contemporary use of their native language. Mistakes in genre often occur,
however, when we are exposed to a different language or to literature
written in the past. Learning another language involves learning about
different genres and about the clues to those genres that might be common
in the new language. But reading ancient or medieval literature also
requires that we know something about the styles and types of writing that
were in use during previous times. Understanding genres is important for
Christians today because the Bible combines both of these factors. The
Bible was not written in English but in Hebrew and Greek, and even
worse, the most recent parts of it were written more than 1,900 years ago.
Mistakes about genre occur so often when people study the Bible that
most of us do not even notice them. For example, it does not take a lot of
Sundays going to church or watching religious television broadcasts to
hear a statement such as â€œThe Bible teaches . . .â€
Before we go any further, let me make it clear that as a Christian I am
very interested in what the Bible teaches. But how can I be sure that the
Bible is really teaching something? How do I know whether, instead of
teaching something, the Bible is stating it or affirming it or quoting it or
presuming it or using it as part of a story to make some other point?
For example, the Bible does not teach that Christians are to obey every
command of Jesus. Consider the time when Jesus told two of the disciples,
â€œGo into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied
there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it hereâ€ (Luke
19:30). Luke reports that Jesus gave this order to his disciples, but the
order itself is part of the overall story about Jesusâ€™ entry into Jerusalem. If
a person today were to take this report of Jesusâ€™ remark to his disciples as
a teaching about how Christians today were to behave, we would probably
need a new ritual in our worship services: donkey untying.
This kind of absurdity in misinterpreting Jesus leads to the question that
is the title of this first chapter: â€œIf Jesus told a joke, would you laugh?â€ I
realize that this is an odd question and that some Christians might be
uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus told jokes. But, assuming that Jesus
might have told one, would you laugh? It would depend on whether the
joke was funny, of course. Given the fact, however, that Jesus was an
experienced and successful public speaker, I think we can assume that any
jokes he might have told would have been funny.
Getting back to the question asked in this chapterâ€™s title now forces us
to face the problem of genre. How would we know that we were hearing a
joke? What would be the clues?
In a face-to-face meeting it is not hard to figure out when a joke is
coming. Someone might simply say, â€œLet me tell you this funny story.â€
But we can often tell by the tone of someoneâ€™s voice or by a smile that the
other person is going to say something funny. And there are also verbal
patterns to jokes that let us recognize that we are about to hear one. Every
time I hear someone begin a story along the lines of â€œThere was a priest, a
rabbi, and a minister, who . . . ,â€ I expect a joke.
Sometimes a joke does not become clear until the punch line. That is
when you finally realize that there was a pun hidden in the words that
described the situation or that the incident being reported has turned into
something incredible. In any case, though, you realize you are hearing a
joke because of certain external or internal clues to the genre.
The importance of recognizing that there are different genres, which
must be discovered by external and internal clues, is obvious when we
consider how difficult it might be to read a long and complex book like the
Bible. In any book of more than a thousand pages, there may be all sorts of
genres. And unless we appreciate the genre of what we are reading, we
may make the same mistake as the hypothetical person who read the phone
book as if it were a novel.
Even quickly reading one of the four Gospels shows that there was a
variety of things that Jesus did when he spoke. He did not spend all his
time teaching people about how they were supposed to behave, for
example. Instead he told parables, delivered sermons, engaged in
dialogues, said blessings, gave orders, asked rhetorical questions, and
rebuked people for wrong behavior. To figure out what Jesus meant in any
given situation requires knowing something about what he intended to be
doing with his words at that time. And, in the same manner, to discover
what Paul (or Jeremiah or the Psalmist) meant in a Scripture passage
requires knowing the genre of that passage.
For example, taking a comment from one of Jesusâ€™ parables as if it
were, in its most literal sense, a teaching about Christian behavior would
surely mean misunderstanding what Jesus intended. When Jesus finished
the parable of the Good Samaritan, recorded in Luke 10:25-37, he said,
â€œGo and do likewise.â€ He did not mean that Christians were to travel up
and down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho looking for injured people so
that they could drop them off in motels. Instead he intended â€œGo and do
likewiseâ€ to function in a much more general sense, meaning that we have
a responsibility to help those we meet who are in need.
In this book I will discuss a number of different genres that can be
found in the Bible. After a brief explanation of each genre and some
examples of it, I will comment on how Christians today might make sense
of the other parables, hymns, law codes, genealogies, and so on, that make
up the Scriptures. Occasionally I will mention how Christians have
previously disagreed, or currently disagree, about the correct genre and
proper interpretation of a passage.
Whatever else this book is, it is not Scripture, and I expect that a few
readers will disagree with some of the interpretations presented here. But
disagreements about how to interpret Scripture are nothing new and, in
fact, appear to have been common, according to the New Testament itself,
among the first Christians. My purpose in illustrating the variety of
literature in the Bible and showing why it is important to understand that
variety should not be taken as an attempt to weaken any believerâ€™s faith.
My purpose instead is to discover, as much as we can, the original
message the biblical authors attempted to communicate.
Why Do Christians Argue So Much
about the Bible?
e all love to be right, to think that we have the answers. It is probably
as much a part of our human nature as is the desire for food or sleep. There
is no point in judging this human trait to be either sinful or dangerous,
because the desire to learn about things, to understand what we see, and to
be correct in our thinking leads us to study both the world and ourselves.
The truths discovered and expressed by geniuses as diverse as Emily
Dickinson and Albert Einstein have their roots in our natural longing to
The problem, however, comes when our desire to be right interferes
with our actual ability to understand something that is complex. We
prematurely claim understanding. When we should be continuing the
process of learning and study, we close our minds to further inquiry. Then,
to make things worse, we often go from the belief that we are right to the
conclusion that people who disagree with us are wrong because of some
personal defect. This is especially the case if the truth that we think we
have has something to do with religion. Then we not only think that other
people are wrong, but also that they are sinful and must have closed their
minds to Godâ€™s truth.
This is not the place to delve into the psychological and sociological
factors that influence our tendency to make premature conclusions. This is
a book about how to read the Bible, and I want to keep the focus on how
we can better our understanding of the Scriptures. Therefore, even though
there are other factors involved in why Christians argue so much about the
Bible, there are two primary mistakes Christians make in the actual
process of reading the texts that lead to disagreements. These mistakes in
reading then lead to all sorts of strange errors in interpreting the Bible.
The most common mistake made by people who read the Bible is
â€œtaking things out of context.â€ By this I mean selecting a part of the Bible
â€”what is selected can sometimes be as small as a single word but usually
is a verseâ€”and then getting a message out of this selection without any
consideration of what went before it or what comes after it.
To see how absurd this approach is, we only need to consider what
Jesus said in Luke 14:26: â€œWhoever comes to me and does not hate father
and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life
itself, cannot be my disciple.â€ Not for a minute do I believe that Jesus is
teaching here that Christians are supposed to hate their parents and
families. Instead, his statement in verse 26 must be seen in the broader
context of the verses surrounding it. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 15:33
where Paul says to eat, drink, and make merry because tomorrow we will
die, he is not explaining how Christians are to behave. Rather, he is
quoting a slogan made by certain ancient philosophers in his development
of a logical argument about the resurrection of Christ. Paul rejects the
Epicurean view, and anyone who reads the whole of chapter 15 can easily
see that he does.
These two examples are extreme, and I have yet to hear Christians
seriously propose taking these two verses in the way just described. Yet
Christians regularly select words, phrases, and verses they like and then
ignore the surrounding material as they focus on the idea that came to
them while they were reading a particular word, phrase, or verse. The
resulting theological interpretations can be as strange as taking literally
Jesusâ€™ remark about hating your parents. The only way to avoid this error
is to look at the context of the passage. But that is not as easy as it sounds.
Although taking individual words and phrases out of context seems to
have no logical explanation, the problem of taking verses out of context
has, at one level, a rational basis. The Bible is usually presented in such a
way that it is easy for us to misunderstand what we are reading. Most of
our Bibles are printed with numbered chapters and verses running through
every paragraph on every page. The mistake we make is looking upon
these numbered verses as individual units of theological information. Each
verse is assumed to have a significant meaning. After all, why would it
have been given a unique number unless it had some special meaning that
the reader was supposed to discover? Yet, even though some verses do
have that kind of freestanding and unique meaning, most verses can be
understood only in their context.
The verse numbers that we have were not put in the Bible by the
writers. They were placed in the text by the first printers and copyists, who
needed a quick way of finding their way through hundreds of pages. The
chapter and verse numbers in use today were not standardized until about
1560. Even though they help us move quickly from one passage to
another, I think it is fair to say that the verse numbers, which were put into
the text to help find and correct errors, actually caused more problems than
they solved. The verse numbers helped printers find errors in spelling and
word order, but they led to a very different sort of error by giving an
almost mathematical foundation for simpleminded and legalistic
interpretations of isolated verses.
Instead of reflecting on isolated verses, a reader who wants to
understand an authorâ€™s message should look at each verse in its context.
There is a word to describe a unit of biblical material that is not taken out
of context. That word is â€œpericopeâ€ (pronounced per-ICK-oh-pee). The
word itself comes from two Greek words that mean â€œto cut around.â€ A
pericope is a unit of biblical material that can be marked off (cut around)
so that when it is read there is a beginning, an end, and an overall meaning.
There are times when a single verse counts as a pericope, as in Proverbs,
but usually a pericope is a larger collection of verses. For example, the
verse about hating your father and mother fits into the pericope of Luke
14:25-33, in which Jesus explains the importance of the Christian life. The
overall point seems to be that in comparison with our devotion to the
gospel, all other affections are insignificant.
There are a few passages in the Bible where even the scholars differ on
the beginning or end of a pericope. For example, should the pericope that
begins in John 3:1 end at verse 10, verse 15, or verse 21? Such
disagreements about the limits of pericopes are rare. Nevertheless, in the
passages over which there are disagreements about a pericopeâ€™s length,
there can be wide differences of opinion about what is being said.
Recognizing that the context of a verse is crucial to interpreting
anything in the Bible allows Christians a way to start a reasonable
discussion on matters about which they disagree. If you have ever heard
someone quote Paulâ€™s phrase in Galatians 5:10, â€œI am confident about you
in the Lord that you will not think otherwise,â€ out of context and use it in
support of what they were saying at the time, you will understand how
hard it can be to discuss any difference of opinion. There is great value in
seeing that Paulâ€™s remark was part of an emotional appeal within the
overall context of his argument for the validity of the gospel. Paulâ€™s
statement cannot be used legitimately as a sort of religious land claim,
with whoever quotes it first concluding that they have staked out the
boundaries of the truth.
As long as we Christians continue to disagree with one another by
quoting isolated Bible verses at one another, we will never be able to
engage in dialogue. This kind of behavior is often called a â€œverse war.â€ It
makes about as much sense as the childrenâ€™s card game of â€œWar.â€ There is
no logic, skill, or intelligence involved in the play. What matters most is
the cards you were dealt. The winner in the card game of â€œWarâ€ is usually
whoever can sit there the longest, flipping up card after card, and the
winner in a â€œverse warâ€ is usually whoever can fire off the most verses.
But when we go beyond single verses and start to explore the message
of a given pericope and say why we think that such-and-such interpretation
is the best one, we will be able to talk. That does not mean that talk will
lead to agreement. But it does suggest that we will be able to begin to
understand the viewpoint of others.
The second most common mistake in reading the Bible is â€œtaking the
Bible literally.â€ Everyone has heard this expression. But just what does it
mean? I have never met or read or heard of anyone who took the Bible
literally. Instead, all Christians I have ever met, including the
fundamentalists who say that they take the Bible literally, take parts of it
literally and other parts of it figuratively. For example, few Protestant
fundamentalists take Jesus literally when he says, â€œThose who eat my flesh
and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last
dayâ€ (John 6:54). The usual explanation among Protestants, including
Protestant fundamentalists, is that Jesus meant this comment about eating
flesh and drinking blood in a figurative sense. There are many Roman
Catholics who do take this verse literally, but at the same time, they
usually interpret the New Testament references to Jesusâ€™ â€œbrothersâ€ as
actually referring to his stepbrothers.
Since no one takes the Bible literally from cover to cover, groups of
Christians differ instead on what they understand to be the figurative
statements and the literal statements. When asked how they know which is
which, the usual answer is, â€œItâ€™s obvious.â€
Of course, another possible but equally unpersuasive answer is that the
Holy Spirit has revealed it to them personally. People who use this second
approach are saying, in effect, that they are given a special gift from God
that you do not have and that you must accept their word for it. You should
not ask to have God reveal the truth to you because that means you doubt
Talking with other Christians who believe that they are hooked up to
Godâ€™s fax machine or who have different opinions about what is â€œobviousâ€
can be very difficult. Since there is usually some sort of negative judgment
being made against those who disagree about â€œtaking the Bible literally,â€ I
have found that the most effective way to get a discussion about genre
started is to make biblical literalists prove that they really do take the Bible
literally. You begin by quoting a series like: â€œO come. Let us sing to the
Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!â€ (Ps 95: 1); â€œI
am the light of the worldâ€ (John 8:12); and â€œWhoever comes to me will
never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirstyâ€ (John
6:35). Then you ask whether God really is a rock, whether Jesus actually
traveled at 300,000 kilometers per second (the speed of light) on his
journeys in Palestine, and whether Christians ever have experienced
hunger or thirst. As soon as biblical literalists admit that some statements
must be understood in a figurative sense, we have to ask how they know
which ones these are. And if the answer is, â€œItâ€™s obvious,â€ we need to
bring up issues of educational level, scientific literacy, the history of
biblical interpretation, and the fact that Christians do not always agree
about what is obvious.
After many years of reading and studying the Bible, I wish that I knew,
for sure, all the biblical passages that are meant to be taken literally, all the
parts that have a symbolic meaning, and how to interpret these various
sections. But I do not know, and even more to the point, I do not believe
that other Christians know either. Finally, I do not see that it is fair for
Christian folks who disagree with other Christian folks to say that anyone
who disagrees with them cannot be saved, especially when they are unable
to provide either a logical explanation or some miraculous event to
substantiate a claim to supernatural revelation.
In the rest of this book we shall explore some of the literary clues in the
Bible that can help us decide what pericopes were intended to be read in a
â€œliteralâ€ sense and which have some other kind of meaning. Although
many literal facts can be discovered in the Bible, the Bible is not a book
filled with facts. It is a book filled with history, proverbs, parables,
sermons, letters, poems, hymns, and so on. And unless we know
something about those genres, we can never understand the Scriptures.
Is a Parable Fact or Fiction?
robably the easiest genre to recognize in the Bible is that of the parable.
The most familiar parables are those Jesus told. They are easier to find
than examples of other genres because the Gospel writers often introduce a
parable by calling it a parable. The parables that are more difficult to spot
are those that contain only internal clues to their genre.
Knowing that a biblical passage is a parable, however, does not
necessarily give us a direct understanding of what the message of the
parable is. The major problem for modern readers is that the biblical
authors never spelled out the complete procedure for interpreting parables.
A few parables have explanations added, but most stand by themselves.
That means we have to work inductively when we study parables, which
we do by reading them and looking for what they might have in common
with other parables as we attempt to interpret them.
Because the biblical authors recorded parables but did not explain their
literary nature, later readers have tried to understand the genre as best they
could. Parables have been defined in a number of ways. A modern reader
can find parables described as stories or statements that (1) compare
something common with something uncommon, (2) attempt to make a
major point about correct behavior, (3) help people think about a complex
issue by providing an illustration that puts the issue into the context of
everyday life, or (4) convey a message to the wise that will be
misunderstood by the simple.
Trying to define the exact nature of parables is beyond the scope of our
present study. This book is not meant to resolve ongoing technical debates
among scholars. But even if we cannot know as much as we would like to,
it is still possible to know a great deal about parables without knowing
everything about them. Following are some general guidelines about
discovering and interpreting parables.
The easiest way to find parables is to look for the passages that are
actually called parables in the text. Matthew 13:31 provides an example of
this external contextual evidence about genre: â€œHe put before them another
parable: â€˜The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took
and sowed in his field.â€™ â€
Many parables, however, must be identified on the basis of internal
evidence. In Luke 14:16-17 Jesus begins the parable of the wedding feast
by saying: â€œSomeone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for
the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, â€˜Come;
for everything is ready now.â€™ â€ Even though Jesus mentioned this
â€œsomeone,â€ he was not intending for us to believe that there really had
been such a man. Instead, he was using one of the standard introductory
phrases for parables. Also used in other parables are phrases such as â€œA
certain man,â€ or â€œThere was a man . . .,â€ or â€œThere was a woman . . .â€
We give similar literary clues when we introduce fairy tales by saying,
â€œOnce upon a time . . .â€ No one who hears that introductory phrase to the
story of Cinderella, except perhaps for some small child, thinks that the
speaker intends for us to believe that there actually is either a date that we
can associate with Cinderellaâ€”say AD 1207â€”or a specific locationâ€”say
on the eastern edge of the Black Forestâ€”where she was so mistreated by
her stepsisters. We are not interested in looking in history books to find out
when the â€œhandsome princeâ€ began his reign. The introductory phrase is
the clue that we are going to hear a fairy tale. And just as fairy tales
usually have some sort of moral that we discover after hearing the story,
parables also make some point that could not be as easily communicated
except by the story or illustration they provide.
Many parables do not begin by mentioning â€œa womanâ€ or â€œa man.â€
Their introductory clue is a question about something complex, which is
then answered by an illustration coming out of everyday life. An example
of this is Jesusâ€™ parable of the yeast in Luke 13:20-21: â€œAnd again he said,
â€˜To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a
woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was
But recognizing parables is neither very difficult nor very inspiring. In
any case it is only the first step. The real challenge of reading parables is
making sense of them. Since they were never meant to be taken literally,
we have to search for the nonliteral meaning hidden inside. Let us consider
Matthew 13:45-46, the parable of the pearl, as an example. â€œâ€˜Again, the
kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding
one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.â€™ â€
Understanding this parable requires using imagination and intuition. To
discover the point, we need to think about the pericope as a whole. For
someone who takes the Bible literally but ignores the literary nature of the
material, this parable will not make much sense. After all, Jesus is not
saying that since the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant, it normally has
a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, or that it goes to sleep at night, or that
it is always interested in making a good profit on its investments. Instead,
Jesus is making a point about what we should do when we discover a
treasure of incredible worth. We need to be willing to give up those other
things that once mattered in order to possess the newly found treasure.
The key to understanding parables is searching for the primary message
of the parable as a whole. The most common error in reading parables is
looking for too many messages. Or, to put it into more specific language,
the most common error in reading parables is to assume that they are
allegories. Allegories are fictional narratives in which each major person,
place, thing, or action in the story is meant to stand for something else in
the real world. Modern examples of allegories are John Bunyanâ€™s
Pilgrimâ€™s Progress and C. S. Lewisâ€™ The Pilgrimâ€™s Regress. There are a
number of allegories in the Bible, especially in Revelation. For example,
the scarlet woman in Revelation 17 and the various items associated with
her were intended to represent individuals and incidents from the
persecutions that Christians were suffering at the hands of the Roman
Empire in the first century.
Nevertheless, there are a few parables that are given allegorical
interpretations in the Bible. The parable of the sower, for example, in
Mark 4:1-9 is interpreted somewhat allegorically by Jesus. He explains
that the seed sown represents the word of God; the seed that falls on the
rocky soil represents those who hear the word gladly; the weeds represent
the cares of this world; and so on. But even though this parable is written
in a sort of code, the parable of the sower still has the overall point that
different people will respond differently to the word of God.
Most of the other parables do not seem to need this extended allegorical
interpretation. They only try to make one major point. The problem with
using allegorical interpretations is trying to make the parables too relevant
to contemporary situations. This can lead to ridiculous interpretations. For
example, if we explained the parable of the sower by saying that the seed
represented television evangelism, the seed on the rocky soil represented
people who switch channels too often, and the weeds represented
commercial television, we would be quite justified in saying that Jesus
intended no such meaning when he used this parable.
Understanding allegories involves solving the puzzle or, to describe it
better, breaking the code. We discover what the allegory is about and then
figure out what the various items symbolize. But there is no real check on
this method of interpretation once we start it. We can project almost any
meaning desired into the passage being studied. It is much better to focus
on finding the primary meaning of the parable rather than letting our
imaginations run wild.
Another major problem in understanding parables also involves
ignoring the primary meaning of the passage. But, in contrast to
misreading parables as allegories, with this error we do not break the
allegorical code but instead assume that the major character involved is
showing behavior we are to imitate. Of course, in the parable of the pearl
and the parable of the woman and the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), we could
legitimately imitate the behavior of the major characters. But in other
parables, major characters act in ways that are surely inappropriate for
Consider the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-8). Jesus tells of
a rich man who audited the steward who managed his property and, when
he found that his steward was cheating on the accounts, commended the
man because he had been so clever with his finagling. I do not believe that
Jesus intended for us to follow the example of either the rich man or the
steward. He does not want us to cheat others in business so that we can
give more to church. His point was, as near as I can tell, that many people
are clever when it comes to scheming at ways to make money, but foolish
when it comes to considering what is really important. The parable is
showing that the behavior of both the rich man and the steward was
Even though parables often reveal something about how people are to
act, sometimes the parable as a whole is meant to cause an emotional
reaction that leads to an action not described in the parable. In 2 Samuel
12:1-4, Nathan the prophet tells a parable to King David about a rich man
who stole a lamb, a beloved pet, from a poor man in their village and used
the slaughtered lamb as the main course at the rich manâ€™s banquet. The
prophet intended for the parable to inflame and anger the king. David was
hooked by the story and was angered by the rich manâ€™s behavior, a callous
abuse of power, which David then wanted to punish. When David
demanded to know the rich manâ€™s name, Nathan stated (2 Sam 12:7), â€œYou
are the man!â€ The parable described an unjust act that was similar to the
abuse of power David had committed when he arranged for the murder of
Uriah so that David could marry Uriahâ€™s widow. The parable was meant to
evoke a feeling, and that feeling was supposed to lead to action.
Although there are many different reasons given for people speaking in
parables, Matthew 13:10-17 states that parables are meant to reveal
mysteries. But mysteries are mysterious. And modern readers going
through the parables may find themselves disagreeing about what a parable
is really saying. That is both the strength and the weakness of parables.
They are very good at communicating a feeling or helping us see
something from a new angle, but it can be very difficult to explain feelings
and images. I think it is possible that Jesus chose to use parables so often
because he himself was aware that some truths are better expressed in
stories than in logical exposition.
Does Every Proverb Apply to
Everyone All the Time?
roverbs are sayings that give advice about behavior. There is no
problem coming up with examples of them: â€œA stitch in time saves nineâ€;
â€œLoose lips sink shipsâ€; â€œDonâ€™t look a gift horse in the mouth.â€ Since there
is a book in the Bible called Proverbs, along with isolated proverbs
sprinkled throughout the other books, it is important that we come to an
understanding of how to interpret them.
The proverbs we can find in the Bible are a mixed bag. They range
from the profound Proverbs 21:13, â€œIf you close your ear to the cry of the
poor, you will cry out and not be heard,â€ to the rather gossipy Titus 1:12,
â€œCretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.â€ When we look at
a proverb, we sometimes need to balance what it is saying with some other
proverb. For example, compare Proverbs 20:1, â€œWine is a mocker, strong
drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise,â€ with 1
Timothy 5:23, â€œNo longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the
sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.â€
When we begin to interpret proverbs, the first thing to notice is that
although proverbs give advice about behavior, they are often in the form of
statements and not in the form of commands. The advice about how to
behave in these cases is not stated but rather implied by the proverb. For
example, if we wanted to follow a modern proverb literally, how should
we interpret â€œLoose lips sink shipsâ€? Is it enough to say that we believe the
proverb to be true? But the point of this proverb is not to provide an
explanation of why ships sink. Ships sink for all sorts of reasons. The
message of this proverb is not stated explicitly but instead is implied. It
gives a warning to keep quiet about information that others might use
The second thing to notice about proverbs is that no one with sense
takes them literally. Understanding proverbs requires us to go beyond the
simple advice implied by the proverb and to apply the message in a
different context. â€œA stitch in time saves nineâ€ is not just meant to advise
people about sewing up small rips in clothing. The proverb is giving
advice about the importance of looking after small problems before they
turn into big problems.
Understanding proverbs requires wisdom. We have to figure out what
the message of the proverb is, see how it might apply in our lives, and then
decide if the advice really applies to us at the present time. This last
suggestion is important because proverbs are often contradictory. Consider
these two well-known, nonbiblical proverbs: â€œLook before you leapâ€ and
â€œHe who hesitates is lost.â€ Upon hearing these two proverbs, we might
conclude that they contradict each other and deny that there is any value in
them. At least one of them must be false. But is that the right way to
Does not each of these proverbs give good advice? I think that each
proverb is full of useful and important advice. But what requires wisdom
on our part is figuring out under what circumstances each one applies. At
times in my life I needed to hear, â€œHe who hesitates is lost.â€ At other times
I needed to consider â€œLook before you leap.â€ Neither proverb was meant
as a guide for all human life at all times. Someone with wisdom will
recognize the value of particular proverbs depending on the circumstances
of his or her current situation.
These general comments help explain some of the â€œcontradictionsâ€ we
can find among the proverbs of the Bible. Consider the two that occur side
by side in Proverbs 26:4-5: â€œDo not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will become a fool yourselfâ€ and â€œAnswer fools according to their
folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.â€
Considering this issue on a strictly biblical basis, how are we supposed
to answer a fool? Do we speak foolishly along with her, or do we reply in
a serious manner? Even though a literal reading of these proverbs will
cause them to be seen in contradiction, I do not see them in that way. It
seems to me that in understanding proverbs, an intelligent woman must
judge whether the advice applies to her own situation. Does she want to
make the foolish person get serious? Or is she willing to kid along with the
foolish person because the other person is incapable of being serious? In
either case, the Bible is giving good advice. The challenge is discovering if
and when it applies to a particular situation.
In the New Testament, Jesus says a number of proverbs. In the Sermon
on the Mount he states two with a similar meaning (Matt 7:6). â€œDo not
give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or
they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.â€ Just what did
he mean? I am not sure, but obviously he was not talking about giving
Communion wafers to, say, Snoopy or about tossing the crown jewels in
front of the trough at the pig farm.
Understanding this proverb requires that we figure out what is holy and
who the swine are. There are a number of things I can think of that are
regularly called holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy of Holies, the Holy Father,
holy matrimony. And there are a number of things that are, in fact, holy
but not necessarily called holy in everyday speech: the gospel, the creeds,
the twelve apostles, and so on.
Perhaps the proverbâ€™s message here is a warning not to give something
sacred to people who will not be able to appreciate it. But I think it would
be taking this proverb too far to say that Christians are not to share the
gospel with nonbelievers since it is a holy thing and nonbelievers will not
appreciate it. All in all, understanding Matthew 7:6 means seeing that it
applies to some situations, but not all possible situations, and that a man or
woman must use wisdom to discover when it applies in his or her life. All
of us, at one time or another, have to deal with pearls (or swine), and we
need to think about our behavior with them.
Easier to understand is Jesusâ€™ proverb in Matthew 5:14, â€œYou are the
light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.â€ Jesus is not
teaching us about geography or camouflage in this statement but is
pointing out that important things cannot be hidden. The sentences before
and after this proverb show that he intended it to apply to his followers.
They are to be the light of the world and to shine their light throughout the
world so that all might give praise to the Father in heaven. Jesusâ€™ proverb
here is probably easier to interpret than the one about pearls and swine,
because this one has a more general application.
The basic rules for interpreting proverbs involve recognizing that the
pericope we are reading is a proverb, discovering its message, seeing how
that message might apply to our lives, and then deciding if (or when) it
gives advice we need to take. That last step requires not only being open to
the biblical text, but also being aware enough of ourselves to know that the
advice we need to hear is not always the advice we want to hear.
Finally, quoting biblical proverbs to other people can be just as risky as
quoting any other Bible passage. Unless we have thought very seriously
about the application of a proverb to another personâ€™s situation, we may do
more harm than good. As Proverbs 26:9 expresses it, â€œLike a thornbush
brandished by the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.â€
The fool quoting proverbs is just as likely to harm others (and himself) as
is the drunkard who is waving around a branch with thorns.
What Biblical Promises Are Meant
here are many promises in the Bible. Jesus, Paul, Moses, and the
prophets not only make their own promises but also tell of promises being
made to others by God. The major problem modern readers have with
interpreting biblical promises is not so much finding them but figuring out
when and to whom they apply.
In Hebrews 13:5 the author quotes God giving the promise, â€œI will
never leave you or forsake you.â€ In this last chapter of Hebrews the author
is summing up much of what he had said earlier and is giving advice about
how people are to behave. The promise he quotes is actually a rewording
of the affirmation found in Deuteronomy 31:6, near the end of Mosesâ€™
sermon there: â€œHe will not fail you or forsake you.â€ Since this affirmation
is found in both the Old and New Testaments, is in a variety of texts, and
seems to be addressed to two general audiences, I believe that it is a
promise that still applies to believers today.
Yet, this promise (like so many others in the Bible) would be very easy
to misinterpret. We must note the specifics of the promise. Godâ€™s presence
is promised to us, but that does not necessarily mean that we will always
feel it. Perhaps this promise also functions as a reminder that even when
we feel absolutely alone and isolated, God is still with us. In addition, the
promise makes no claim that only good things will happen to us because of
In contrast to this general promise, there are other biblical promises that
seem to be more limited in scope. In the book of Deuteronomy we can find
dozens of other promises in Mosesâ€™ sermon. How are we to interpret
them? Consider the rather general promises of growth and prosperity made
in Deuteronomy 6:3: â€œHear therefore, O Israel, and observe [Godâ€™s statutes
and commandments] diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so
that you may multiply greatly in the land flowing with milk and honey, as
the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.â€ But Godâ€™s
promises can be much more specific, as in Deuteronomy 7:12-14:
If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the Lord your God
will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; he
will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb
and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase
of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your
ancestors to give you. You will be the most blessed of people, with neither
sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock.
Were these promises meant only for the Israelites who followed Moses
into the Promised Land, or are they meant for Christians today? As much
as someone who owned a ranch today might like to take Deuteronomy
7:13-14 as Godâ€™s personal promise about livestock production, verse 12
sets the condition that the recipients of the promise are to observe the laws
that had been given to them. Further, the audience being addressed in
Deuteronomy is a nation more than three thousand years ago and not an
individual reader today.
How can modern believers know if a biblical promise is meant to apply
to people today? And how can we know if a promise made to one group,
such as the ancient nation of Israel, can apply to another group today, such
as the modern nation of Brazil or to those folks who live in northeast
A necessary step in interpreting promises found in the Bible is
admitting that many of the promises recorded were not meant for all
people at all times. For one thing, many promises are conditional ones. If
Israel or some particular person does something, then the promise will be
fulfilled. Secondly, and more importantly, many promises seem obviously
restricted to specific times, places, and people. If every promise found in
the Bible were meant to be applied universally, then most of them would
have been proven false. I prefer to think that we have misinterpreted a
biblical text by applying it too broadly rather than to think that God had
Consider two promises that appear to have been limited to specific
times and people. In Genesis 28:13-15 Jacob is having a dream in which
he sees a ladder going up into heaven from the earth:
And the Lord stood beside him and said, â€œI am the Lord, the God of Abraham
your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and
to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you
shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south;
and all the families of the of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your
offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will
bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have
The promises made here appear to be meant for Jacob and his descendants.
But similarly specific promises can also be found in the New Testament.
In Matthew 9:19-22 there is a narrative that tells of Jesus healing a woman
who touched him. She seems to have been afraid to speak to Jesus directly
and so slips beside him and touches his cloak. â€œJesus turned, and seeing
her he said, â€˜Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.â€™ And
instantly the woman was made well.â€ As much as I would like to think that
having faith would cause a person to be healed of any disease, Jesusâ€™
promise here appears to be specifically limited to the woman who touched
him. Note that this promise is recorded in a narrative that tells of a
personal encounter between Jesus and the woman. Jesus did not make this
promise to a general audience in a sermon or to a group of people
receiving a letter.
After seeing that many promises recorded in the Bible are conditional
or were meant for specific people in different circumstances, we can
consider what is probably the most common error in interpreting this
genre: â€œclaiming promises.â€ This claiming of promises involves reading
the Bible, finding something that speaks to you, and then believing that it
directly applies to you as Godâ€™s personal promise.
There is something odd about this whole approach to reading the Bible.
For example, imagine a college student, Sharon, who is disappointed with
the grade she has received on a term paper. She expresses her concern to
the professor of the course. The professor knows Sharon and is aware of
her other grades. The professor then says: â€œDonâ€™t worry about the grade on
your term paper. Because of all your other excellent work, youâ€™ll still get
an A in the course.â€ Now imagine that on the next day another student in
the class, Bob, comes up to the professor and says: â€œThanks for your
promise, Dr. Jones. Iâ€™m so glad you said, â€˜Donâ€™t worry about the grade on
your term paper. Youâ€™ll still get an A in the course.â€™ Thanks for promising
that Iâ€™ll get an A.â€ I think the professor would have good grounds to object
to Bobâ€™s claiming the promise made to Sharon. The promise was for her,
not for Bob. Even though Bob has quoted Dr. Jones exactly, it would still
be unfair of Bob to accuse the professor of being dishonest. We do not
have the right to claim promises that were made to other people.
This is not to say that we should never believe that certain promises are
meant for us. We might be led by the Holy Spirit to believe that a promise
originally made to King David could apply to us now. But the ultimate
basis of that belief is a personal feeling, which may or may not be correct.
And just as our feelings may accurately reflect the influence of the Holy
Spirit, they may also sometimes reflect what we wish was the influence of
the Holy Spirit. A personal conviction about the present applicability of a
promise cannot be based upon reading the Bible as a thousand-page
contract in which the Party of the First Part (God) promises to do certain
things for the party of the second part (me) whenever the latter party points
out those promises to the Party of the First Part and says, â€œBut you
Yet there are promises that continue to be difficult to interpret.
Consider John 15:7, part of the farewell speech Jesus makes to his
disciples before he is arrested. Jesus says, â€œIf you abide in me, and my
words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for
you.â€ Was this promise meant only for the disciples gathered around the
table with Jesus then, or is there a broader group (including us today) for
whom the promise is being made?
I am inclined to believe that this promise has a broader application. But
that judgment is based on the fact that there are several important
qualifications stated before the promise. One qualification is to â€œabideâ€ in
Christ and have his words in our heart. Jesus was not making a simple
promise that we can get whatever we want just by asking for it. His
promise was based on the assumption that those who are in Christ will not
only know how to ask, but will also know about what they should ask. In
other words, I may not get a new sports car simply because I ask for it.
There is no foolproof way to interpret promises in the Bible. And all of
us are going to be foolish at one time or another. Like everyone else, I
want a number of very specific good things to happen to me and to my
loved ones. And more than once I, too, have been tempted to claim
promises made to others.
Probably the best check on this sort of self-centered interpretation of
the Bible is to study the Scriptures in a group, especially in a group of
people who do not all think alike. By being in such a group, we can hear
the thoughts and experiences of others. By studying together we can also
discover to what extent we may be inappropriately claiming promises and
whether we are really being open to Godâ€™s word.
Do We Have to Believe the Hymns
ewish and Christian congregations have been singing hymns for
thousands of years. The most familiar biblical examples of hymns can be
found in the book of Psalms. Although some psalms were probably
composed as individual works of private meditation, the majority of the
psalms were hymns, which believers chanted or sang as a group. But
hymns are not confined to the psalms. In the Old Testament they can also
be found in the Song of Solomon (which is also called the Song of Songs
in some Bibles) and in Exodus 15. In addition, most scholars have
concluded that there is at least one hymn in the New Testament. (Paulâ€™s
quotation of that hymn will be examined in another chapter.)
In thinking about how to interpret hymns, we can begin by considering
why people sing hymns. Most of us sing because we enjoy it. My voice
has never been good, but I still enjoy being able to join in a congregationâ€™s
singing, especially when there are stronger voices that help me keep up
with the beat and follow the melody. Singing can be enjoyable in itself,
and experiencing the sound and community spirit of a crowd singing
together is, for many people, the high point of worshiping. When
congregations sing together, there is an increase in group solidarity.
Singing means sharing something of ourselves, and often it reminds us of
other people and places. Many memories from our past can be evoked
during congregational singing. The memories need not be conscious
pictures or words. Sometimes we experience only a brief wave of old
feelings and emotions. I think that explains why many people do not like
new hymns in worship services. Their opportunity to relive personal
history is taken away. Yet hymns can also remind us of the history we
share with other believers, and no selection of hymns will ever meet
The primary distinction to keep in mind when we read hymns in the
Bible is that a hymn is not a creed. Even though there are some churches
that might sing the Nicene Creed or some other statement of faith, in
general we sing hymns for a different reason than we recite creeds. Creeds
were meant to summarize as accurately as possible what Christians believe
(or once believed). The typical procedure was for creeds to be composed
by groups of believers who discussed every word that appeared in the
statements. The discussion period often took years. Every word, phrase,
and idea was put there for a reason that seemed important at the time. This
method of composition is in radical contrast to that of hymns. The words,
phrases, and ideas in hymns are usually the composition of an individual,
and they typically express a particular interpretation of life and faith.
The conclusion to be drawn from looking at these different methods of
compositions in reference to modern hymns is that we should look upon
biblical hymns in the same manner. The psalms, for example, are not
necessarily creeds or teachings. Most of them express the individual
feelings of their authors. Sometimes, but by no means always, we can
affirm the feelings of the authors. Consider, for example, Psalm 58:6-11:
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
like grass let them be trodden down and wither.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;
like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
People will say, â€œSurely there is a reward for the righteous;
surely there is a God who judges one earth.â€
The last stanza suggests that the righteous will be able to look upon
washing their feet in the blood of the wicked as a reward for their own
goodness. It will be an activity in which to rejoice. To understand these
verses, we need to recognize that the Bible is not teaching that we should
bathe our feet in other peopleâ€™s blood or that this activity is being
promised as a reward to us. Rather, these stanzas express the emotional
outrage the ancient author felt because of the wicked who abused their
power. The reasons for his feelings can be seen in the earlier verses, Psalm
Do you indeed decree what is right, you mighty lords?
Do you judge people fairly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.
The wicked go astray from the womb;
they err from their birth, speaking lies.
They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of the charmers
or of the cunning enchanter.
I do not think that modern Christians need to share the authorâ€™s
particular desire for revenge, but we can share the feelings of outrage he
felt for dishonest leaders in positions of power. And, given that we
recognize that ancient society had different views of violence and revenge
than we do now, we can alsoâ€”to some extentâ€”understand why he wanted
to see the blood of his enemies. (Now that our civilization is so advanced,
we prefer death and destruction to be carried out from a more distant
vantage point. That is why we prefer bombs and chemical weapons to
swords and spears.)
Further, just as we need not share in all the personal desires expressed
in biblical hymns, I do not see that we need to accept all the theological,
scientific, medical, political, or anthropological implications of the hymns.
For example, consider the theological implications of Psalm 13:1:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your
face from me?
In this verse the author is expressing his feelings of isolation. He is not
teaching that God has the sort of mind that forgets things or that God
actually has a face that could be hidden. He is telling God how he feels
when it seems like God is not there.
Neither are hymns meant to teach us about science. Rather, they
demonstrate the scientific understandings of their authors. For example,
Psalm 24:1-2 is not a direct challenge to the modern geological theory of
The earth is the Lordâ€™s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
For he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.
In this psalm the author shows his familiarity with the ancient view that
the earth floats upon the waters of the deep. He is not presenting the
Bibleâ€™s view of how the continents formed. It would require a total
misunderstanding of the genre of hymns to imagine that Christians are
required to object to plate tectonics because that modern theory goes
against the Bibleâ€™s teaching that land masses are supported by water.
In addition, surely no one would argue that Christians are to withhold
medical treatment for the elderly, even though Psalm 90:10 affirms, â€œThe
days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.â€
The author is giving a lament that life is so short. He is not teaching us
about the maximum length of life allowable for believers. He is not telling
us to â€œpull the plugâ€ on anyone over eighty.
In the same manner, the political implications of the psalms (if they
were interpreted as teachings about how government and society should
operate) would be that slavery was the natural order of things and that rule
by kings and royal families was preferable to other political systems.
Kings and royal families were part of the world order in biblical times.
They appear in the psalms because they were part of the ancient world and
not necessarily because God wants us to scrap the democratic process.
Finally, the anthropological implications about human nature in the
psalms are reflective of the authorâ€™s individual views and may or may not
indicate what the Christian position ought to be. Consider the description
in Psalm 14:1b-3:
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good, no, not one.
Are modern Christians to look upon this portion of the psalm as a
summation of the biblical view of human nature, or should we consider
this as a statement of the authorâ€™s feelings of betrayal and disillusionment?
Many Christians have used this passage to support the idea that humans
are incapable of good at any time. The problem with that interpretation is
that it ignores an important piece of context. The first part of the first verse
of Psalm 14 indicates that â€œFools say in their hearts, â€˜There is no God.â€™
They are corrupt . . .â€ In any case, the fact that this description of foolish
humanity is in a hymn and not some other genre means that we need to be
careful before we say what the Bible is teaching here. We may be able to
make the case for the â€œtotal depravityâ€ of the human race, but this is not
the passage to do it.
When we come to an understanding of how the genre of hymns must
influence our interpretation of them, we should be alert to the danger of
overinterpreting what we find in them. But once we admit that the hymns
of the Bible primarily reflect the thoughts and feelings of earlier
individuals, we must also be aware of the possibility that the theological
(or social or anthropological) implications in them might indeed reflect
biblical teaching. I do not believe that modern Christians have the right
simply to reject whatever they do not like in the hymns. But neither should
we accept recorded, personal meditation as biblical teaching. To avoid
these two extremes and discover how the Bible is relevant now, we must
interpret the hymns by drawing out their implications and then comparing
the individual authorâ€™s insights with what we find elsewhere in the Bible.
Is â€œThe Story of Jesus and His Loveâ€
Just a Story?
arratives are found throughout the Bible. Genesis begins with a
narrative about the creation of the world, and the last chapter in Revelation
contains the end of a narrative in which the author describes the vision of
heaven he has experienced. A narrative is, to put it very simply, a story.
There will be a character or characters in the story, and they will either do
something or have something happen to them.
The literary category of narrative is a very wide genre. It actually serves
as the general term for a number of more specific genres. In fact, knowing
that a biblical passage is a narrative does not help us very much when we
attempt to understand it. What we really need to know is whether the
narrative being studied is a parable, a history, a myth, a legend, an epic, a
joke, a short story, or something else. I am not saying that all of these
types of narratives can be found within the Bible, but they do illustrate the
range of possibilities along which narratives can be more accurately
It is only after we get a better idea of the specific genre we are reading
that we can begin to interpret the narrative at hand. When we find a
biblical passage that tells a story, we must look for the internal and
external clues that will tell us what sort of narrative we are reading. In an
earlier chapter we considered the internal and external clues that might
indicate that a given narrative is a parable. In later chapters we will explore
three other types of narratives in the Bibleâ€”history, legend, and myth.
The most common mistake in reading a narrative is taking a part of it
out of context. By that I mean focusing on a few words or a few verses
within the narrative and ignoring the point of the narrative as a whole. For
example, imagine a contemporary man reading a newspaper story about
the financial success of a millionaire who has made his millions by
purchasing shares of stock in IBM. The man reading the newspaper is
wondering what to do with his savings account and decides to turn to the
Bible for help. He lets the Bible fall open, and his eyes fall upon Luke
10:37, where he reads the sentence, â€œJesus said to him, â€˜Go and do
likewise.â€™â€ The newspaper reader decides that God is telling him to invest
I do not have anything against people who read newspapers or invest in
IBM, but I do think that the newspaper reader in this illustration has made
two major errors in his decision to buy IBM stocks. His most serious
mistake is â€œbibliomancy,â€ that is, using a randomly selected passage from
the Bible for the purpose of divination. In other words, he is seeking
guidance about the future by using the Bible as a fortune-telling device.
Less superstitious but equally foolish is his second mistake, taking
Luke 10:37 out of its context. This sentence is the final comment in the
pericope in which Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. The
narrative involved here begins at Luke 10:25. The point of Jesus telling the
parable and following it with the exhortation, â€œGo and do likewise,â€ seems
to be that we are to follow the example of the Good Samaritan by helping
people in need. The newspaper reader has missed the whole point of the
story. IBM might be a good stock to invest in, but our investor will have to
discover its potential in some other fashion.
The misinterpretation of narratives is not limited to this sort of frivolous
example. An overly emotional state or a period of great stress can often
overwhelm any ability to hear the wisdom contained in the Bible. For
example, consider a seriously ill woman reading the narrative about Adam
and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-24). In the story of the Fall the
serpent clinches his temptation of Eve by saying, â€œYou will not die.â€ The
sick woman begins to think about that sentence while she is in the hospital.
There are two different ways of misinterpreting the serpentâ€™s statement
to Eve, either one of which could lead to the seriously ill woman causing
harm to those she loves. First, she might decide that she does not need to
make a will because God is telling her by this verse that she is going to
live. Second, the woman might conclude that since the serpent had been
lying when he said, â€œYou will not die,â€ she needs to give up any idea of
surviving because God is telling her by this verse that she is going to die.
The potential harm that the ill woman might cause to others is based, to
some extent, on a misguided reading of Genesis 3. The seriously ill woman
would do better to speak with and to listen to her physician, her pastor, her
friends, and her family as she attempts to come to terms with her illness.
Becoming obsessed with isolated Bible verses does little good, and
expecting a direct communication from God just because you read the
Bible seems to be turning God into an all-loving, all-powerful â€œgofer.â€
I do not mean to imply that Christians should never have feelings of
assurance or that belief about God communicating directly with someone
is false. Such things are possible. But the personal conviction of those
feelings and beliefs develops from a subjective experience. We cannot
claim that they are based in some objective reality found in the Bible.
Biblical narratives can indeed speak to us, but many of them are stories
that simply do not apply to our present circumstances. To discover what
narratives might be relevant to our own circumstances, we must study and
read the Bible on a more serious level than merely dropping it on the table
as a way of letting it fall open to â€œthe verse of the day.â€
After figuring out what kind of narrative we are reading, the next most
crucial factor is keeping in mind that the narrative as a whole needs to
direct how the individual parts of it are to be interpreted. This can
sometimes be more of a challenge than it first appears. For even though
short and straightforward narratives tell a simple story, longer narratives
can be much more complicated. In longer narratives we can find dialogues,
soliloquies, prayers, promises, lies, half-truths, parables, proverbs,
sermons, laws, and on and on. These get included in the narratives because
these things are happening among the characters. There can be genres
within other genres.
This idea of overlapping genres is not hard to grasp. Throughout
nonbiblical literature we can find novels, for example, that also contain
poems, lectures, sermons, songs, parables, and even short stories. There
can be narratives within narratives. Within the Bible, larger narratives
would be entire books such as Exodus, the Gospels, or Esther. And within
these larger narratives we can find shorter narratives, along with other
genres such as sermons, laws, or promises.
The key point, though, is that we must consider the narrative as a whole
before making a final conclusion on what any given part of it means. This
policy guards against making major mistakes, like taking the serpentâ€™s lie
as a direct communication from God or ignoring the overall effect of a
story by limiting our focus to a single verse.
Making sense of complex narratives is a two-way street. In one
direction, we move from the narrative as a whole to the individual
components. In the other direction, we move from individual pericopes to
the narrative as a whole. Both directions are important.
The Gospel of Matthew is a very complex narrative, and it illustrates
this dual process. To understand a major portion of that narrative, for
example, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5â€“7), we must consider how the
sermon fits in with the overall narrative of the Gospel. For example, does
Matthew present Jesus in such a way that we might be justified in thinking
that Jesus is being ironic when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount? To
be more specific, when Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5:5 saying, â€œBlessed
are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,â€ was Matthew being sarcastic?
Even though a skilled actor could read the Sermon on the Mount to an
audience with a sarcastic tone in his voice, even to the point of making the
audience believe that the sermon was meant ironically, I do not believe
that anyone who has read the whole of Matthew would ever be convinced
by such a perverse interpretation of the smaller part.
That is one direction in the dual process. The other direction involves
making sense of Matthewâ€™s Gospel as a complete narrative. To acquire a
holistic view of the work, we must read the individual literary components:
parables, proverbs, quotations, dialogues, sermons, miracle narratives,
genealogy, passion narrative, resurrection narrative, and so on. Then, on
the basis of all this material in all these different genres, we develop an
opinion on what Matthew was trying to tell us when he wrote his entire
The opinion we reach can be a profound and convincing interpretation
(like a judgeâ€™s opinion on a matter of law). But the power of any particular
interpretation is in its ability to make sense out of all the individual
components in Matthew. So if our opinion of Matthewâ€™s purpose in
writing the Gospel involves ignoring substantial portions of the text or
rejecting the message of individual pericopes because they seem to
contradict one another, we probably need to hold that opinion more
tentatively. The best understandings of long narratives require keeping all
the evidence in mind.
How Are St. Johnâ€™s Letters Different
from â€œDear Johnâ€ Letters?
ost of the books in the New Testament are letters. Knowing that a
text is a letter, however, does not tell us much about how to interpret it.
Letters, whether ancient or modern, come in many different forms. And
unless we know the kind of letter we are reading, we are likely to stumble
into the sort of error illustrated by the man who read the phone book as if it
were a novel.
To help us begin this examination of biblical letters, I want to point out
the diversity of the modern genre of letters. There are love letters and
â€œDear Johnâ€ letters, letters of introduction and letters of resignation, family
letters and thank-you letters. The mail we get can range from junk mail to
fan mail. But the possibilities are not exhausted by these sorts of letters
addressed to individuals. On a more formal level, we can think of a â€œletter
of protest,â€ which one government might send another, a â€œletter of
agreementâ€ between corporations, or a â€œpastoral letter,â€ which a group of
bishops could send to members of a church. For example, the Roman
Catholic bishops in America often write pastoral letters that give
instruction on current social issues.
Even though we can usually tell what kind of letter we are reading
within a sentence or two in the first paragraph, many modern letters are
deliberately written so that they will mislead their readers. Almost
everyone has received a letter that starts out with a â€œDear Friendâ€ and
turns out to be a form letter from some business of which you have never
heard. The main problem we encounter in making sense of biblical letters,
however, does not develop because they were written to mislead us but
because we do not always take account of why the particular letter was
When we think about why letters are written, we need to go beyond the
simplistic explanation that all letters are meant to convey information to
those who are far away. While it is probably true that all letters, whether
ancient or modern, convey some information, that is seldom the primary
purpose that underlies a given letter. The primary purpose of many letters
is to express some affection (such as love, friendship, sympathy, gratitude,
congratulations, and so on). But letters can also give orders, make threats,
encourage people to â€œkeep up the good work,â€ or attempt to persuade the
recipients to do something.
Further, in most letters longer than a paragraph or so, there are usually a
number of purposes that motivated the author to write. For example,
college students regularly write letters that not only convey information
about their studies, but also request an extra forty dollars for long distance
telephone calls. Or, as another modern example, a love letter might also
attempt to persuade the recipient to make a weekend visit.
Similar combinations of purposes for writing also underlie biblical
letters. Consider Paulâ€™s letter to the Philippians. Paul expresses affection
for them throughout the letter. What he says in Philippians 1:7 about his
love can serve as an illustration of this pattern:
It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your
heart, for all of you share in Godâ€™s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and
in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
There are more than twenty sentences, phrases, or words by which Paul
refers to the feelings of love and gratitude he has toward the Philippians. In
addition, Paul provides some information in chapter 2 about his assistant
Timothy and the messenger Epaphroditus, whom the Philippians had sent
to him, and near the end of the letter he reminds the Philippians of the
partnership they share with him in his missionary work.
As important as these biographical elements and expressions of
affection are for showing us what kind of man Paul was, I do not believe
that they reveal the primary motivation Paul had for writing this particular
letter. Throughout the letter Paul attempts to encourage his readers to
persevere in the Christian life. In Philippians 1:27 he puts it this way:
Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I
come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are
standing firm in one spirit . . .
In addition to this somewhat general exhortation to the Christian life (and
others, which can be found in Philippians 2:12-13; 3:1, 15, etc.), Paul can
also get quite specific about how Christians are to behave. He urges the
Philippians to act with selflessness and without grumbling. He even makes
the outrageous exhortation that the Philippians should follow him not only
in what he says, but also in what he does (3:17; 4:9). This is an amazing
statement that few Christians would have the nerve to repeat.
There is a technical word for the type of letter illustrated by Philippians.
It is a â€œparaneticâ€ letter. There is not a precise English equivalent to this
type of letter today. The purposes of paranetic letters are to remind people
how they are expected to behave and to encourage them in that behavior.
Sometimes a paranetic letter will merely repeat general moral advice, and
sometimes it will more specifically spell out the behavioral implications of
the moral advice that the readers already know is right. For example, as
part of Paulâ€™s reminder that the Philippians should be living with the peace
of God, he urges them to occupy their minds with what is true, honorable,
lovely, gracious, and worthy of praise (4:4-8).
Even though most New Testament letters are paranetic, a few are not.
The letters of Jude and 2 Peter have a very different tone than what we
find in the letters of Paul, James, and John. Jude and 2 Peter are more
abusive than paranetic. Jude, for example, refers to certain â€œungodlyâ€
persons who pervert the grace of God in verse 4, but the author does not
actually explain what they do, what they teach, or why his own position is
to be preferred. He appeals to his own authority and expects the recipients
to accept his judgment without question.
This is in sharp contrast to the style of reasoning we find in Paul,
James, or John. In James, for example, we find an exhortation not to judge
people by their appearance (Jas 2:1). But James does not end the
discussion there by â€œpulling rankâ€ and moving on to his next instruction.
Instead, he gives an illustration of the behavior he objects to and then
develops an argument explaining why that behavior is wrong, based on his
interpretation of Leviticus 19:18, â€œYou shall love your neighbor as
In Paulâ€™s letters also we can find reasons provided for a desired
behavior. Paulâ€™s usual procedure is to give reasons and to develop
arguments when he is urging some particular action he considers
important. Even though he occasionally loses his temper and resorts to
name calling (as he does in Phil 3:2, â€œBeware of the dogs! Beware of the
evil workers!â€), Paul still makes an effort to persuade his readers by
personal illustrations and by references to what God has accomplished
This is not to say that the reasons and arguments given will always be
persuasive. For example, Paulâ€™s exhortation for women in worship to wear
head coverings or veils (1 Cor 11:2-16) seems to be supported by his
concern that the angels might lust after women who are not properly
covered (v. 10). I find Paulâ€™s reasoning difficult either to accept or even to
follow. His contention that members of one species (angels) might lust
after members of another species (humans) is like saying that a human
being might become sexually aroused by looking at a rutabaga. If such a
thing were possible on the human-rutabaga level, it would surely be a
matter for a human psychotherapist to deal with, and not the rutabagas. My
own view is that Paul is so convinced that women ought to be wearing
head coverings that he introduces as many reasons he can think of to
support that position, even when some of the reasons do not make sense.
(Paul is not the only biblical author to develop such strange arguments, but
this instance is one of the most egregious examples.)
The most common pitfall in interpreting paranetic letters (or paranetic
sections within other types of letters) is â€œmirror reading.â€ Mirror reading
involves assuming that any behavior condemned in a letter was actually
taking place among the recipients. For example, when the author of 1 Peter
4:15 says, â€œBut let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or
even as a mischief maker,â€ I do not think we are justified in believing that
his readers were murdering, stealing, and practicing lives of crime. A
paranetic letter usually involves reminding people about what they already
know is right. It does not necessarily point to actual problems among a
letterâ€™s readers. Biblical authors can make it quite clear when they are
condemning something that is really taking place (for example, 1 Cor 5:1-
13 or Rev 3:14-22).
In interpreting biblical letters, we should always make an initial effort
to understand the purpose of the letter as a whole. By using our
imagination, we can ask what the primary effect of the letter was intended
to be. Then, in the light of that working hypothesis, we can move on to
look at individual sections within the letter. Within paranetic letters we can
find personal greetings, chatty narratives, argumentative paragraphs, bursts
of temper, occasional teachings, and so on. It may turn out that some of
these sections distract from (or even undermine) the authorâ€™s intention for
the letter as a whole; but, nevertheless, they and the overall intent should
be considered together.
If we want to focus upon what an author is saying in a specific section
within a letter, we must consider the pericope as a whole and ask what its
overall purpose was. A series of paragraphs within a letter may be saying,
at their most basic level, things such as, â€œI thank my God every time I
remember youâ€ (as in Phil 1:3-11) or, â€œDonâ€™t be misled by people who
modify the gospelâ€ (as in Gal 1:6-10).
The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that any given
statement within a pericope must be interpreted in terms of how well it fits
in with the overall point of the section. To take a single sentence out of
context, such as Ephesians 5:22, â€œWives, be subject to your husbands as
you are to the Lord,â€ can cause us to misunderstand an authorâ€™s overall
point. The section of this letter that has this instruction for wives, in fact,
begins with an injunction that husbands and wives are to â€œbe subject to one
another out of reverence for Christâ€ (5:21) and contains the exhortation
that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (5:25). The
discussion of marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33 does present a hierarchy
within marriage, but the author is not as chauvinistic as would appear if we
only heard 5:22. Furthermore, if we go on to consider how male dominated
the society was in the first century, we may even come to the conclusion
that the author was unusually sensitive to the idea that marriage involves
mutual obligations and responsibilities.
Of the literary categories we have examined so far, the genres of letters
and narratives are the most complex. While a proverb or a parable might
be as brief as a single sentence, a letter or a narrative could be several
thousand words long. And just as a narrative might contain a sermon or a
collection of parables, a letter could also have ethical instructions,
quotations, or promises. Nevertheless, even in these complex cases of
overlapping genres, we must take account of the literary context of any
given word or statement we wish to understand. For unless we consider the
literary context, there will always be the danger that we shall overlook a
message inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Does Poetry in the Bible Have to
e normally think of poetry as written material that has rhyme and
rhythm. We usually recognize it because it is printed in stanzas with the
lines not going all the way to the right-hand margin.
But poetry is not poetry
Just because of the way
It appears on a page.
There is something more
To poetry than what meets the eye.
Depending on the edition of the Bible that we read, we can find dozens
of pages of material that are printed in this poetic format. Isaiah, Jeremiah,
the Psalms, and Job, among many other books, all have extensive sections
But poetic language is not limited to the poems that appear in this easily
recognized format. Just because we see words printed from margin to
margin without breaks between some of the lines, we cannot assume that
what we are reading is not poetry. For example: â€œWhose woods these are, I
think I know. His house is in the village though. He will not see me
stopping here, to watch his woods fill up with snow.â€ Even without the
clues provided by a particular layout on a printed page, most readers
would suspect that those three sentences were not straightforward prose,
including those readers who have never heard of Robert Frost.
Poetic language is not exhausted by poems. It has so much energy that
it can bubble up in almost any type of writing. Poetic language can include
not only rhythm and rhyme, but also metaphors, similes, onomatopoeia,
alliteration, and many other figures of speech. Appreciating the sound of
Hebrew or Greek poetry (in other words, things like its rhyme or rhythm)
will be impossible for 99.99 percent of people who read the Bible today.
Modern readers bring different skills and education to the study of the
Bible, and it is unrealistic to expect all of us to share both expertise in
ancient languages and similar aesthetic opinions.
I might as well confess that I have never cared for poetry and so will
not comment on the linguistic elegance and beauty of biblical poetry. In
this chapter I will limit the discussion to making sense of a few figures of
speech that can be found in the Bible. I do not deny that there is far more
to biblical poetry than what we will examine, but one starts walking by
taking individual steps, and beginning a journey by taking individual steps
is as necessary for walking across a room as it is for walking across
A dominant characteristic of poetic language in the Bible is its
strangeness. The similes we read are not those likely to evoke familiar, or
even pleasing, images. (A comparison that uses â€œlikeâ€ or â€œasâ€ is a simile.)
For example, consider a few of the similes we can find in the Song of
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes, that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved. (4:2)
Such a comparison between teeth and sheep had never occurred to me
before I read this scripture. Even now it sounds odd. But equally strange to
our ears probably are Song of Solomon 6:5b and 7:4c:
Your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your nose
is like a tower of Lebanon overlooking Damascus.
The strangeness of many of these images comes from the fact that the
poetic language of the Bible was written in a very different culture. Many
of the rural and agricultural images no longer make sense, and many of the
ancient connotations associated with the words have changed. Comparing
someoneâ€™s hair to a flock of goats a thousand years before Christ was
surely meant as a compliment; I am not certain it would be so interpreted
The fact of the strangeness in the Bible can be a very useful reminder
for those who read it today. To understand biblical writers, we must have
some sense of their time. Many Christians simply assume that all parts of
the Bible are as equally meaningful in the present as they were in the past.
That is not the case. Their world is not our world.
Reading a comparison of someoneâ€™s nose to a tower in Lebanon
reminds us that towers were once considered beauties of architecture and
that Lebanon was once known throughout the world for its glory. When
we read other comparisons in the Bible, we should also be aware of the
different presuppositions ancient peoples had about war, the roles of men,
the roles of women, agriculture, government, and technology.
The most troubling type of poetic language we find in the Bible is the
metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech where one person, place, or
thing is called something else for the purpose of explaining it or
highlighting one aspect of its nature. Our greatest problem with metaphors
is recognizing them. Similes have a â€œlikeâ€ or an â€œasâ€ to clue us in on the
comparison, but we can easily read over metaphors without noticing what
is being communicated.
Nonbiblical metaphors in common use are recognized fairly quickly. In
As You Like It, Shakespeare gave us one of the best-known: â€œAll the
worldâ€™s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.â€ He extended
the metaphor to talk about the roles men and women play and how those
roles change during the performance. Shakespeare was giving us neither a
physical description of the earth (â€œa stageâ€) nor a metaphysical description
of humans (â€œmerely playersâ€). Instead, he was highlighting a particular
aspect of human life.
But biblical metaphors are often missed. We frequently make the
mistake of thinking that we are reading a scientific (or historical or
metaphysical) fact any time the word â€œisâ€ appears in the Bible. The
working hypothesis for many readers of the Bible is that the word â€œisâ€
means the same thing as the equal sign (=) in mathematics.
That is a very odd assumption. Consideration of two selections with the
word â€œisâ€ should illustrate its oddness. (I have added italics to the
quotations.) â€œGod is loveâ€ occurs in 1 John 4:16 and is one of the most
quoted affirmations of the New Testament. On the other hand, almost
never memorized is Leviticus 6:14-15, but it, too, contains the word we are
This is the ritual of the grain offering: The sons of Aaron shall offer it before the
Lord, in front of the altar. They shall take from it a handful of the choice flour
and oil of the grain offering, with all the frankincense that is on the offering, and
they shall turn its memorial portion into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to
I believe that everyone can recognize the fundamental difference
between the verb â€œisâ€ in â€œGod is loveâ€ and â€œThis is the ritual of the grain
offering.â€ The verb in the second quotation precedes an explanation of the
grain offering. The verb in the first holds the metaphor together. Even
though I am convinced of the truth of â€œGod is loveâ€ and am willing to
debate anyone who denies it, we still must face the fact that God is also
called many other things in the Bible: a rock, a warrior, a king, the God of
gods, a father, and so on.
If we do not allow for the verb â€œisâ€ to show us metaphors, we fall into
an ocean of logical absurdities. For example, consider what someone who
takes â€œisâ€ as â€œ=â€ could do with the following two affirmations about God
from 1 John 4:16 and Ps 95:1.
(1) God = Love.
(2) God = A Rock.
Therefore: (3) A Rock = Love.
Evidently, folks in our society are making a major theological error
when they send flowers to express affection. The Bible seems to teach that
we should â€œsay it with rocks.â€ Unless we admit that the simple word â€œisâ€
often holds a biblical metaphor together, we will miss what an inspired
author was actually sayingâ€”in addition to making ourselves, the Bible,
and Christianity look ridiculous.
Knowing that there are metaphors in the Bible, however, does not solve
all the problems of understanding what was being said. Admitting in the
abstract that metaphors can be found from Genesis to Revelation does not
tell us how to interpret a particular sentence that uses an â€œisâ€ (or some
other form of the verb â€œto beâ€). We will still face the problem of deciding
which statements are metaphorical and which are not.
Debates will continue among Christians about what should be
interpreted in a literal sense and what should be interpreted in a
metaphorical sense. Among the most troublesome passages are the
â€¢ Jesusâ€™ statement during the Last Supper when he held up the bread: â€œThis
is my bodyâ€ (Luke 22:19).
â€¢ Asaphâ€™s statement to the gathered congregation: â€œYou are gods, children
of the Most High, all of youâ€ (Ps 82:6).
â€¢ Jesusâ€™ statement during a debate when he was teaching in Jerusalem:
â€œThe Father and I are oneâ€ (John 10:30).
â€¢ Jesusâ€™ comment to the disciples during the Last Supper when he was
telling about the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit, the Father, and
himself: â€œThe Father is greater than Iâ€ (John 14:28).
â€¢ Jesusâ€™ public announcement after Peter had declared that Jesus was the
Messiah: â€œAnd I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my
church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against itâ€ (Matt 16:18).
Differences in interpreting these five sentences have caused deep and
even violent disagreements among Christians. We are at the point where
many people refuse to allow that anyone can be a Christian unless she
interprets one (or more) of the above in a literal sense. Yet there are also
people who refuse to admit that anyone can be a Christian unless he
interprets one (or more) of the above in a metaphorical sense.
This is not the place for me to enter into the theological debates over
those statements. My hope is that when people who call themselves
Christians find themselves in a heated disagreement about one of the
above statements, they stop calling one another names and start talking
about how they know whether a particular statement was meant in a literal
or metaphorical manner. For example, how do we know whether the
author was expressing himself in a straightforward description of reality or
in some sort of poetic language, such as a metaphor? This procedure will
not end arguments among Christians, but it will, at the very least, help us
to understand one another better.
Is Prophecy Foretelling or
lthough prophecy appears throughout the Bible and is one of the most
regularly mentioned types of literature in the Scriptures, it is probably the
most misunderstood biblical genre. Almost everyone thinks that prophecy
means predicting the future. The prophets of the Bible are imagined to
have been people who had the ability to see into the future. Their major
duty, it is commonly believed, was either to predict events in the life of
Jesus, usually hundreds of years before he was born, or to describe events
that are likely to take place in our present time, such as the end of the
This commonly held view of prophecy has an element of truth in it, for
much prophecy was meant as a warning from God about the future.
Biblical prophets often gave notice to an individual or group that unless
their behavior changed, they would be punished. In addition, the writers of
the New Testament regularly explain events from the life of Jesus by
pointing out that what occurred took place in order to fulfill prophecy.
But we make a fundamental mistake about the nature of this genre if we
think that the prophetsâ€™ major functions were to speak and write about
what was going to take place long after their deaths. The term prophecy
comes from two Greek words that mean â€œsomething brought forth.â€ What
the prophets â€œbrought forthâ€ was a message from God, and the message
they delivered was primarily for their contemporaries.
If we are to become convinced about the validity of that assertion, we
need to look at the whole work of the particular prophet we are studying.
Too often, Christians only consider individual verses out of context when
they read the prophets and then interpret these verses in relationship to
Christ. But when we read an entire prophetic book and ask what its overall
effect was intended to be, we can realize how much we may have been
missing. To illustrate this approach, let us consider the work of the prophet
I will concede that sections of the book of Amos deal with the
messianic hopes of its writer and that Christians have traditionally seen
Amos 9:11-15 as applying to Jesus Christ. Yet the expression of those
hopes was not among the major messages of Amos in 750 BC. While
inspired by God, Amos condemned several common practices:
â€¢ the cruelty of certain business leaders:
Because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandalsâ€”
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the
afflicted out of the way (2:6b-7a).
â€¢ the complacency of many of the rich:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, Who are on Mount Samaria, Who oppress
the poor, who crush the needy, Who say to their husbands, â€œBring something to
â€¢ the hypocrisy of certain religious leaders, mentioning one of themâ€”
You say, â€œDo not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of
Isaac.â€ Therefore thus says the Lord: Your wife shall become a prostitute in the
city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword; and your land
shall be parceled out by line; and you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and
Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land (7:16b-17).
â€¢ the folly of the self-righteous who lived with the comfortable delusion
that God was always on their side:
[The Lord says,] I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your
solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain
offerings, I will not accept them; And the offerings of well-being of your fatted
animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will
not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and
righteousness like an everflowing stream (5:21-24).
As we consider these specific passages, along with many others in
Amos, there is no trouble in seeing that God was displeased with the
people of Israel in the middle of the eighth century BC. By the words of
Amos, God warned the people of Israel, explained how they needed to
change, and among everything else, even offered hope for the future. The
book has a complex message. But the fact that Godâ€™s message then was
complex is not an acceptable reason to ignore it today. I believe that
societies with complex social and religious problems probably require
such complex messages.
If we continue to think about the book of Amos as a whole, we can also
begin to see that Amosâ€™ prophecies are based upon what might seem like a
rather odd belief about God. The content of Amosâ€™ prophecy is based on
the presupposition that ethics is not merely a human affair. How humans
treat one another also affects their relationship with God. In fact, we can
find material within the prophetic books that suggests God is the most
offended party when people mistreat one another. This presupposition is
one that goes against the grain of most modern ethical thought.
Speaking personally, on the basis of years of teaching ethics and
biblical studies in college, I have discovered that most students find this
idea incredible. Why should God be concerned with human-to-human
relations? Many of my students do not see how â€œit is any of Godâ€™s
businessâ€ to be involved in ethics. They, and probably most of the rest of
our society, analyze human behavior from the human perspective only and
seek answers to contemporary problems from this perspective alone.
But the incredulity with which college students look upon prophecy is
less disheartening than the misuse of biblical prophecy, which so often
occurs within modern churches. I do not believe that this misuse is
deliberate, but the effect of it is just as damaging to our spiritual lives as if
it were. As I see it, there are three primary ways in which prophecy is
misunderstood by Christians today.
The first misuse of biblical prophecy involves ignoring its original
intent and considering only Christological prophecy as significant. After
the resurrection of Jesus, some of the earliest Christians (especially
Matthew and Paul) emphasized how many prophecies Jesus had fulfilled.
They were attempting to persuade people familiar with the Hebrew
scriptures that Jesus had indeed been the Messiah promised by God. They
were not trying to interpret the prophets but to evangelize about Jesus.
But too many Christians today misunderstand Matthewâ€™s and Paulâ€™s
intentions and thereby conclude that the New Testamentâ€™s rather narrow
focus on messianic fulfillment is the only method of study appropriate to
the prophets. I am not saying that Matthewâ€™s or Paulâ€™s methods were
wrong. Their focus on certain sections within the prophets was needed for
their evangelistic work; it was their task or calling. Our modern task,
however, is to live as Christians in our world. And unless we listen to the
total message of the prophets, we are likely to overlook an important part
of the gospel.
The second misuse of biblical prophecy does not consist in overlooking
what a given passage says but in applying its message to the wrong
audience. For example, we could read the passages just quoted from Amos
and misinterpret them by saying that they show how bad â€œthe Jewsâ€ were
and by saying that they let us see the reason why God â€œrejected the Jews.â€
Even worse than that (but it sometimes is still done), we could say that
â€œthe Jewsâ€ have always been rich, cruel, and involved with a religious life
that displeases God.
Such misinterpretations of the prophets are monstrous. When Christians
read the prophets, they need to imagine what abuses of the past gave rise
to the prophetic word. And then when Christians seek to interpret the
prophets today, they should make an effort to see what abuses in the
present, and especially what abuses in their societies or in their own
churches, might be similar to those of the past. It may be, for example, that
some aspects of contemporary American behavior or that certain religious
activities of modern Christians are as displeasing to God as anything that
occurred in 750 BC.
The third misuse of biblical prophecy involves considering prophecy as
a sort of code that must be broken so that we can figure out when (and
how) the world will end. While it is true that there is a subcategory within
the genre of prophecy that attempts to reveal how the world will end, there
are only a few examples of it within the Bible. This subcategory is the
apocalypse. The word â€œapocalypseâ€ comes from the Greek and means,
roughly speaking, a revealed secret. In Daniel, 1 Thessalonians, 2
Thessalonians, and Revelation we can find apocalyptic sections. It is fair
to say that their authors were attempting to tell us a secret about the
ultimate fate of the world.
But are we smart enough to figure out what they were saying? I find
that I agree with Martin Luther, who once complained that he did not like
the final book of the New Testament because â€œa revelation ought to be
revealingâ€ and that Revelation did not live up to its name. Yet the fact that
hundreds of attempts to decode Revelation have been published (and
proven false) does not stop well-meaning folks from deducing what â€œ666â€
means or who â€œthe Great Beastâ€ is. Given that Jesus had the wisdom to
say, â€œBut about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in
heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Mark 13:32),â€ perhaps we would
do better to follow his example than that of those people who claim (in
effect) to know more than he did.
In any case, the genre of the apocalypse is different from most
prophecy. But confusing one with the other continues to this day. People
who mean well sometimes get so wrapped up in the process of
â€œinterpretingâ€ prophecy that they lose track of the gospel. They read all
prophecy as if it were apocalyptic literature and become more interested in
descriptions about the end of the world than in our responsibilities within
the present world.
To some extent this is very understandable. But part of the explanation
for being sidetracked from the real message of the prophets is not just a
matter of ignorance about genre. We Christians today (and I include
myself) do not want to hear the prophets. I do not want to see myself
among the cruel, complacent, religious phonies who were condemned by
Amos more than twenty-eight centuries ago. I do not even want to ask
whether the words of Amos might be relevant to my society, my church, or
my life. Surely God is more pleased with our modern songs and solemn
assemblies than with those of the past.
Is it any wonder that I would rather use Amos to look into the future?
Or that I prefer to use his message to condemn people not of my own
nation or religion? Or that I am more comfortable when I can use his
words for the sake of giving myself a pat on the back because I had the
smarts to see that Jesus fulfilled certain messianic expectations? Can
anyone wonder why we have such a hard time listening to the words of the
How Do We Respond to Ethical
he title of this chapter is deliberately general, and it may seem to some
readers to be so vague that it is useless. But I wanted a term broad enough
to include the more specific literary categories of orders, laws, advice, and
commandments. Throughout the Bible we can find hundreds of narratives
that contain reports of the ethical instructions spoken by a character (or
characters) within the stories. Yet we can also find passages in which the
author appears to speak directly to his readers and tells them how to
At times, authors give ethical instructions on their own authority. At
other times they claim to act on Godâ€™s authority. A modern reader can find
a great deal of ethical instruction that is quite specific, the sort of
instruction that is almost like a formula:
In situation S you must do D but not E.
Whenever a person is in situation S, there can be little doubt about how
to behave. But Christians today are faced with ethical decisions that can
range from what to watch on television tonight to whether to support a
particular political candidate. Many of the most specific ethical
instructions in the Bible do not seem relevant to our actual circumstances,
and many of our specific problems were never considered by any biblical
Yet we should not be overly hasty in judging the relevance of ethical
instruction in the Bible. It may turn out that the principles of right behavior
today might be discoverable among the orders, laws, advice, and
commandments given so long ago.
The term â€œorderâ€ in the above list refers to one-time instructions given
to a particular person or group. Orders are usually recorded within
narratives. Few readers would make the mistake of thinking these orders
are relevant today. For example, Luke 19:28-44 tells how Jesus ordered his
disciples to bring him a donkey so that he could ride into Jerusalem on
Palm Sunday. I have yet to hear of any Christian nowadays who felt
compelled to untie donkeys, even though Luke 19:30 is unambiguous in its
report that this was what Jesus had ordered.
In contrast to the obviously limited applicability of orders, laws were
meant to be followed for an extended period of time. Laws also differ from
most orders in that they were not given to an individual or a small group,
but were usually intended for all people within a society. Most of the laws
in the Bible are recorded in the Old Testament.
In the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) we can find, among other
things, the legal codes of ancient Israel. The people of Israel were
supposed to actâ€”both as individuals and as a society collectivelyâ€”in the
manner described by the laws. Examples of these laws would be laws
about how to treat slaves (Exod 21:1-11), how to make restitution for a
theft (Lev 6:1-7), and how to protect natural resources (Exod 23:10-11).
Figuring out what to do now with those laws that were given to ancient
Israel is one of the greatest problems in biblical hermeneutics.
(â€œHermeneuticsâ€ is, put simply, the study of how to apply the Bible today.)
Should those laws apply or not apply today? Are all, some, or none of
them relevant in our contemporary world?
If we say that some (or all) of the ancient laws apply today, to what
situations are they relevant? Should they apply to modern nations, such as
Korea and South Africa? Or are they limited to the Christian church and its
members, regardless of the nation where they live? Or, since defining who
exactly is in the church would take a lot of effort, do they apply only to
individual Christians who feel their consciences leading them to follow the
This is a difficult series of questions. Yet the questions can become
even more difficult when we face the fact that many of the laws have
methods of punishment and procedures of establishing guilt (or innocence)
that seem strange today. For example, a wife accused of adultery could be
tried by being forced to drink a mixture of water, dust, and cereal (Num
5:11-31). She was considered innocent if her abdomen did not swell and if
she did not have a stomachache. Death was the official penalty for
committing adultery. Interestingly enough, the text does not record the
procedure for establishing whether a husband was guilty.
My own opinion is that laws given at one time and in one place cannot
be taken up wholesale by a different society. Modern societies are built
along very different lines than ancient ones. Economic laws prohibiting the
charging of interest or legal codes describing how a slave owner can
punish his slaves no longer make sense. For better or worse, earning
interest on investments seems built into all sectors of our world and
national economies, including even church-sponsored pension plans that
count on earning interest to support their retirees. In addition, I have yet to
hear Christians argue that slavery should be reintroduced so that we can
fulfill the laws about the proper treatment of slaves.
This is not to say that we can ignore the laws we find in the Bible;
many of them could be relevant today. The difficulty is deciding which
ones should be followed and which can be ignored. To discover which
laws are relevant and which ones are not, we need to use some additional
standard of moral instruction. By using this supralegal standard, we can
judge the relevance of the laws recorded in the Bible.
For example, I believe that the laws governing slavery have been
nullified, overturned by Jesusâ€™ statement of the Golden Rule, â€œDo unto
others as you would have them do unto you.â€ But laws such as those in
Leviticus 19:9-16 (about providing food for the poor, theft, honest
business practices, respect for the handicapped, and justice within the legal
system) seem required by the same statement.
This point leads to the next category of ethical instructions:
commandments. The most famous examples of this genre are the Ten
Commandments. In the commandments we have ethical instruction that
seems intended for all people at all times. Commandments are not always
specifically named as such in their contexts, but I think it is clear that, for
example, â€œYou shall love your neighbor as yourselfâ€ was intended as a
commandment in both the Old Testament (Lev 19:18) and the New
Testament (Matt 22:39; Rom 13:9; Jas 2:8; etc.).
Recognizing the differences among orders, laws, and commandments
will take wisdom. There may be times when we do not want to follow
some particular ethical instruction and so will be tempted to categorize it
as an out-of-date law or as an order that simply does not apply now. The
danger of that temptation gives us good reason to study the Bible with
groups of Christians and not merely by ourselves. Ethical instructions that
seem to have a universal character are likely to be commandments. And
when they appear in a variety of contexts and are mentioned by several
authors, it becomes more likely that we are dealing with commandments.
But those three genres still leave room for another possible category of
ethical instruction: adviceâ€”which is much harder to deal with. Advice
differs from orders in that it has an ongoing character and is not limited to
narratives. Advice differs from laws in that it is not meant for a society but
for a smaller group, or even an individual within a larger society. It differs
from commandments in that advice usually is tied in with very specific
To illustrate these distinctions, we will consider 1 Corinthians 7:1-40,
where Paul provides an extended discussion of marriage. In this chapter
Paul gives both advice and commandments. He even helps us decide
which is which by explaining what he is doing. In verses 6, 8, 12, 17, 25,
32, 35, and 40, Paul either states or implies that he is giving his own
advice about the issues at hand. In verses 10, 11, and 15, he either states or
implies that he is providing an instruction from God.
But Paul did not follow this pattern throughout his letters. He has left us
hundreds of lines of ethical instruction. But which ones did he look upon
as his personal advice, and which did he consider as being from God? How
can we decide between these two possibilities? To put it another way, was
Paul more likely to identify his own advice as his own advice or to identify
something he looked upon as a commandment from the Lord as being from
God? Deciding this issue certainly requires consideration of what Paul
thought he was doing with his letters. Did Paul think he was writing
â€œScripture,â€ something on the same level (in his own mind) of Isaiah or
Exodus? Or did he think he was writing a more normal letter to his fellow
believers where he was quoting from Scripture to make his point about
Perhaps Paul just expected that his readers would be able to tell which
was which. He certainly expected his readers to use their common sense,
their previous study of the Scriptures, and their personal knowledge of him
when they tried to make sense of his letters.
Paulâ€™s advice is worth hearing. I do not want to imply that his advice
may be discarded, but we need to compare Paulâ€™s advice in a given letter
with commandments found elsewhere in the Bible or with the advice of
some other author that might also apply. Next in the process of
understanding Paulâ€™s ethical instruction must be an awareness of Paulâ€™s
historical context. What local situations did Paul face? Do the
circumstances he faced seem similar to those we face today? It is possible
that excellent advice for one time period might be hopelessly inadequate
The same technique illustrated with Paul could be applied when reading
other material in the Bible. What did other biblical authors think they were
doing when they gave ethical instruction? Did they identify everything
they wrote as a permanent instruction from God, meant to be followed by
all people at all times? Or did they intend a more limited range of audience
Even though we have a number of ways to distinguish among the types
of ethical instruction, the technique and the questions given above will not
meet all the possible difficulties we might face in trying to interpret the
Bible. Is it possible that there were moments in which Paul, for example,
thought he was giving a commandment from God but in which he was
actually recording his own best judgment at the time? Paul himself was
willing to admit that he could get carried away when he became
overexcited (2 Cor 11:16â€“12:21). If Paul misunderstood some situation in
the ancient church and thereby made a mistake in his advice, surely we
would be making an even greater mistake to base our present behavior on
what he said in those circumstances.
I regret casting Paul as the villain in this biblical scenario. He proved
his devotion to the cause of Christ in ways that middle-class Americans
probably cannot imagine. The comments and questions I have raised about
Paul must also be brought up in reference to the other authors, characters,
and events recorded in the Bible. Like it or not, we need to make an effort
to interpret the ethical instruction we find in the Scriptures. Some of it will
probably be irrelevant today, but much of it certainly still applies. Our task
is figuring out what sort of ethical instruction we are reading.
How Much Theology Is in the Bible?
any readers assume that the Bible is full of theology. However, just
as many Christians claim â€œpromisesâ€ as a result of misunderstanding the
genre of some particular passage, it is also true that many other Christians
make a mistake when they read a narrative, parable, or whatever, and
interpret that passage as if its genre were theology.
Although both types of errors involve mistakes about genre, there is a
major difference between these two types of genre misunderstandings.
When we claim â€œpromisesâ€ that are not actually promises, we usually only
hurt ourselves. But when we misread dozens of pages from the Bible by
taking them as teachings in theology, we have an opportunity to start our
own churches and to affect far more people.
For almost two thousand years, and especially for the last five hundred
years, Christians have argued about the theology of the Bible. Many
churches claim that their theology comes directly from the Bible. One
conservative Protestant denomination puts it, â€œWe speak where the Bible
speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.â€
The underlying assumption of such statements is that the Old and New
Testaments have a theology that can be drawn from a straightforward
reading of the Scriptures. Other Christian churches have said that the
Scriptures need to be interpreted by some authoritative body (such as a
council of bishops) or by some properly ordained individual in order to
make the Bibleâ€™s theology clear. These churches usually find it impossible
to speak with one another about theology.
The key to understanding this debate is recognizing that theology
means different things to different people. Depending on how the term
â€œtheologyâ€ is defined, many scholars have concluded that there is no
theology in the Bible. In the modern and most narrow sense of the term,
theology means the same thing as systematic theology, that is, an academic
discipline that seeks to provide consistent and convincing explanations
about God, humanity, the world, and their mutual interrelationships. In this
sense of the word, there is probably no theology in the Bible.
But systematic theology is not what most people have in mind when
they talk about theology. We usually use the term to mean statements and
opinions about God, humanity, the world, and their mutual
interrelationships. The crucial difference between systematic theology and
theology is not in the content of their study but in the formerâ€™s effort to
achieve consistency and plausibility.
That difference does not mean that systematic theology is better than
theology. After all, the effort to construct a system may be premature if we
try to put things together before all the facts are known. In addition, when
we realize that any theological system must include God, humanity, and
the world within its area of study, we also need to face the possibility that
the â€œfactsâ€ about these matters may be beyond the human mindâ€™s capacity
to grasp. And finally, it may even be the case that the systematic theology
of thinkers such as St. Augustine or John Calvin is no more profound than
the (unsystematic) theology that can be found in the fiction of Fyodor
Dostoyevsky or C. S. Lewis.
Still, I do not see that the obvious limitations of our knowledge and the
probable limitations of our intelligence mean that â€œanything goesâ€ when it
comes to theology. Opinions about God are not like opinions about ice
cream. We can all have opinions about what ice cream we like the best,
and we can all be right. But some theological opinions are so inconsistent
and implausible, or so vicious and narrow-minded, that they deserve to be
deconstructed by systematic analysis.
To the best of my knowledge, I have never read any systematic
theology in the Bible. No biblical author sought to develop a complete
explanation of God, humanity, the world, and their mutual
interrelationships. Nonetheless, a modern reader can find a great deal of
material in which biblical authors explored the major questions of life and
the universe. Many of them did theology.
The challenge for Christians today is not finding these passages, but
making sense of them. For example, Paul never says, â€œHere is my
understanding of Godâ€ at the beginning of a few paragraphs where he
spells out a coherent and consistent description of the Being who is
omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all-loving. Instead, Paul makes
a number of statements about God, Christ, Godâ€™s relationship to Christ,
Godâ€™s relationship with the Jews and with the Gentiles, Godâ€™s concern for
all humanity, and so on. Making it even more complicated to discover
Paulâ€™s theology is the fact that these statements can be found in at least a
dozen different genres and that they appear in letters that were written over
a period of at least twelve years. Those who are interested in Paulâ€™s
understanding of God must look at all these statements together and
attempt to make sense of them.
But the situation with Paul is simpler than that of most other biblical
authors. Whereas other writers provided us with only a few hundred
words, Paul left us several thousand words in the New Testament. There is
simply less to study if we are trying to discover, say, Malachiâ€™s
understanding of God or Judeâ€™s understanding of Christ.
At first we might think that the solution to discovering something quite
specific, such as Malachiâ€™s view of God, is to give up on looking only in
Malachi and to broaden our focus to the whole Bible. We will then say that
whatever turns out to be the Bibleâ€™s understanding of God was a part of
Malachiâ€™s theology. But what do we do when biblical passages differ from
How, for example, can we make sense of the following four passages
that deal with suffering?
For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of
parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me. (Deut 5:9)
The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a
parent, not a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the
righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
The Lord said to Satan, â€œWhere have you come from?â€ Satan answered the
Lord, â€œFrom going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.â€
The Lord said to Satan, â€œHave you considered my servant Job? There is no one
like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns
away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against
him, to destroy him for no reason.â€ Then Satan answered the Lord, â€œSkin for
skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your
hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.â€
The Lord said to Satan, â€œVery well, he is in your power; only spare his life.â€
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him,
â€œRabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?â€ Jesus
answered, â€œNeither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that
Godâ€™s works might be revealed in him.â€ (John 9:1-3)
These four passages were selected because they illustrate the range of
options we can find in the Bible that we would need to examine before
working out a theology of suffering. But how do we make sense of them?
We might just pick one and ignore the others. Or we could ignore the Old
Testament passages and accept only the New Testament passages. Or we
might try to harmonize them all by saying that sometimes Moses is right,
and sometimes Ezekiel is right, and so on. But with this last approach, how
would we ever know whether some present suffering was more accurately
explained by the view of Moses, Jesus, or Ezekiel?
Understanding biblical theology is not as easy as many Christians think.
It is not a matter of shutting our eyes, flopping open the Bible, and putting
our index finger on Godâ€™s message for us today. It is a task that requires
looking at different passages and different genres and then going on to try
to make sense of them. It also requires study, making an effort to become
familiar with the Bible. And by â€œthe Bibleâ€ I mean â€œthe whole Bibleâ€â€”not
only those parts that our tradition favors, but also the sections that do not
get preached or were not studied during our religious education.
Theology is in the Bible, but it is a hidden treasure that must be found
before it can be held. Because I am convinced that Jesus is the revelation
of God and that the Bible is the record of that revelation, I want to discover
what the Bible might have to say about the deepest questions that have
concerned human beings. But the Bible does not have a money-back
guarantee that anyone can pick it up and find out all the answers to all the
questions he or she might have.
Unfortunately, the Bible is not foolproof. Well-meaning folks, and
many not-so-well-meaning folks, have used the Bible as the basis for
constructing odd beliefs and practices. They have often used the Bible as a
magic mirror that reflected themselves and their desires. That is an easy
way to read the Scriptures, but there is far more to learn when we make the
effort to discover what the inspired authors themselves had to say.
Is Biblical Geneaology Meant to
lmost everyone who has tried to look up particular passages in the Old
Testament has discovered at least one genealogy. Genealogies are the lists
of names we usually skip when we try to read straight through the
Scriptures. A genealogy is often called a family tree. But a family tree with
unknown names on the branches does not excite anyone, and I will be
among the first to admit that the genre of genealogies is probably the least
interesting one we can find in the Bible.
Knowing that the sons of Gomer were Ashkenaz, Riphath, and
Togarmah (Gen 10:3) probably matters to someone, but I have not met that
person yet. At the same time, genealogies are easy to recognize, and more
importantly for our purposes here, knowing something about the literary
character of genealogies can serve as a warning about what happens when
we try to take the Bible â€œliterally.â€
In order to understand this genre, we must make a distinction between
biblical genealogies and modern genealogies. A modern family tree is
intended to be an accurate record of oneâ€™s biological ancestors. It is crucial
for these modern records to show oneâ€™s grandmothers and greatgrandfathers and great-great-whatevers in their proper order. These records
must contain information that is as biologically precise as possible.
Knowing the biological ancestry of someone can be very useful for
physicians and scientists who are attempting to trace a genetically
transmitted problem or condition. On the basis of modern genealogical
research, it has been found that Huntingtonâ€™s chorea, for example, is an
inherited disorder but that Lou Gehrigâ€™s disease (also known as ALS or
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) cannot be proved to have been transmitted
Family trees in the Bible do not serve the same function as these
scientific genealogies. Both types of genealogies (modern and biblical)
give us valuable information, but the information is not at all the same. In
fact, we would have a better idea of how to read biblical genealogies if we
thought about them listing ancestors in a spiritual or symbolic sense rather
than in a biological sense.
There are modern parallels to this notion of spiritual or symbolic
ancestors. Consider the two great national holidays of the United States:
the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Now, as far as my family has been
able to learn, some of my biological ancestors came over in the middle of
the nineteenth century hoping to escape poverty in Britain. Yet on the
Fourth of July I am very willing to think of and speak of â€œour ancestorsâ€
who declared their independence in 1776. And on Thanksgiving I can also
consider the Pilgrims and the Native Americans as â€œour ancestors.â€ On
that day I can join in the common hope that the dream of sharing with one
another and thanking God for our blessings could unite all Americans in
the present time.
If someone were to corner me and object to my speaking of â€œour
ancestorsâ€ in reference to Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July because the
McGehee family members were latecomers to the United States, I would
say that by â€œour ancestorsâ€ I meant those men and women who were my
spiritual ancestors and not my biological ancestors. Even if I kept my
temper and said nothing further, I would surely think that the kind of
person who would make such a pedantic objection about biological
ancestry was someone who did not have much feeling for the spiritual side
Supporting this theory that the biblical writers thought of genealogies in
this symbolic sense is the fact that the names and sequences in genealogies
sometimes differ even within the Bible. For example, in Joshua 14:6 and
Numbers 14:30 a certain Caleb is mentioned and described as a son of
Jephunneh. Apparently Caleb was not an Israelite but a Canaanite who
helped the Israelites settle in the Promised Land. But in the later work of 1
Chronicles, Calebâ€™s â€œancestryâ€ has changed. He is listed as an Israelite and
the son of Hezron (2:18, 42). His daughter Achsah is mentioned in both
traditions: Joshua 15:16-17 and 1 Chronicles 2:49. Calebâ€™s heroic activities
led to his being considered symbolically an Israelite, which his genealogy
in later material was changed to reflect.
The fact that Calebâ€™s family tree is presented in two quite different
ways will bother almost no one who reads the Bible. But there are two
genealogies in the New Testament that can lead to fierce arguments,
especially when their differences are pointed out. The genealogies are
those of Jesus.
The first genealogy appears in Matthew 1 and the second is in Luke 3.
If we compare the names in the two lists, it will not take long to discover
that the names differ. The most obvious discrepancies are that the names
of Josephâ€™s father are not the same and that the lineage from King David is
traced through different sons of David. Although Matthew traces Jesusâ€™
ancestry through the royal family, Luke does not.
Matthewâ€™s Version Lukeâ€™s Version
David the King David the King
If we do a little more research and compare these two New Testament
genealogies with the genealogies of some of the most important characters
in the Old Testament, other differences also appear. For example, the list
of ancestors from Perez to King David in Luke 3:32-33 is not the same as
in Ruth 4:18-22. Matthew 1:3-6, on the other hand, agrees with the
genealogy in Ruth.
But does this similarity really prove that Matthewâ€™s genealogy is more
accurate than Lukeâ€™s? The question is intriguing, but we cannot answer it
by comparing only the genealogies in Matthew and Ruth. After all,
Matthewâ€™s list of kings from David to Jechoniah does not include a
number of the kings whose history can be found in 1 and 2 Kings and 1
and 2 Chronicles. In addition, there is a certain pattern to his list. Matthew
typically leaves out the names of the worst kings. And given his
knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, Matthew certainly knew who they were
and what they did.
If we read these genealogies of Jesus according to our modern
standards of family trees and expect to find exact biological relationships,
we probably have to conclude that these lists are in obvious contradiction
with one another and other biblical materials. But if we read the
genealogies of Jesus as the literary attempts of Luke and Matthew to
describe Jesusâ€™ symbolic heritage, we do not run into the theological
problem of wondering whether or not we must reject one of the traditional
genealogies. It seems clear (to me, at least) that Matthew intended to show
that Jesus was of the royal family, had a legitimate claim to the throne, and
thereby fulfilled one of the expectations associated with the Messiah. In
contrast, Luke wanted to show that Jesusâ€™ symbolic heritage was through
the spiritual leaders of Judah and that he had fulfilled the messianic
expectations associated with the nonruling families who remained true to
In the spiritual sense that the evangelists intended for us to read the
genealogies in their Gospels, there is no contradiction. It is not only
possible, but also true that Jesus was symbolically descended from both
the royal line and the â€œfamilyâ€ of spiritual leaders in Judah.
Even though these comments about the genre of genealogies can free us
from certain theological difficulties, it is still true that different
understandings of genealogies have caused problems within the Christian
churches. For more than seventeen hundred years there have been
Christians who argued that Luke was giving Maryâ€™s biological genealogy
and Matthew was giving Josephâ€™s biological heritage. Such a contention is
often made today by people who claim to take the Bible â€œliterally.â€
There are two different replies to make to this contention. The best
reply is to say that the theory cannot be supported by what we find in the
Bible. First of all, Luke and Matthew neither indicate nor imply that they
want to say anything about the biological relationship of Jesus and his
ancestors. In fact, both of them contain narratives in which Jesusâ€™ birth is
described as a miracle in which a virgin gave birth. Josephâ€™s relationship
to Jesus, according to Matthew and Luke, is not a biological one.
Therefore, whether Josephâ€™s father was Heli (as in Luke) or Jacob (as in
Matthew) is not at all important in a scientific sense because neither could
have been the biological grandfather of Jesus.
Secondly, I find it strange that some of the Christians who are so
concerned about protecting the â€œliteral truthâ€ of the Bible have to do so by
arguing that when Luke wrote â€œJoseph,â€ he meant â€œMary.â€ A theory of
inspiration that claims to be literalistic and yet assumes that â€œJosephâ€ =
â€œMaryâ€ every now and then is a theory that does not need to be argued
against; such a theory literally contradicts itself.
We are much more likely to discover the meaning of what Luke and
Matthew were saying if we recognize that they were following the
standard way of writing genealogies in the Bible. Biology was not their
interest. They were showing us a more important type of relationship when
they gave us Jesusâ€™ spiritual heritage.
How Should We Interpret
efore we begin exploring how quotations in the Bible can be
interpreted, we need to become more specific about the meaning of the
term. There are two primary meanings for â€œquotations.â€ The first refers to
the words that appear in a dialogue, spoken by characters in a narrative. In
the longer biblical narratives, such as Mark or 1 Samuel, we can find a
number of statements, questions and answers, speeches, prayers, and so
on, all of which have quotation marks indicating where they begin and
end. The second kind of â€œquotationsâ€ involves the repetition of material
originally written or spoken by someone earlier. Most of the quotations we
will consider in this category were made by New Testament authors who
incorporated selections from the Old Testament into their own letters,
narratives, prophecies, or ethical instructions.
It is not difficult to interpret the first kind of quotations, that is, when
characters are quoted speaking in a dialogue. These quotations are meant
to give the reader a sense of what was being said. They need to be
interpreted within the context of the pericope in which they appear and
should not be read as isolated promises, ethical instructions, or whatever.
Many statements within quotation marks simply do not tell the truth. For
example, a character may be quoted when telling a lie (as Satan is in
Genesis 3) or when giving the wrong interpretation to some event (as Jobâ€™s
friends do throughout the book of Job). Therefore, a reader must not focus
on the individual quotations attributed to a specific character within a
passage, but at the message of the narrative as a whole.
When we look at each narrative as a whole, we do not need to get
bogged down in pointless discussions about the exact words that were said
at a given place and time. More important is the overall meaning of a
passage. For example, consider the narrative about Jesusâ€™ calming of a
storm at sea. This narrative appears in Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41,
and Luke 8:22-25.
Although the plot is basically the same in all three accounts, the
individual words within quotation marks differ among the Gospels. In
Matthew the disciples seek help from Jesus by waking him and saying,
â€œLord, save us! We are perishing!â€ In Mark they ask a question, â€œTeacher,
do you not care that we are perishing?â€ And in Luke the disciples ask for
help, saying, â€œMaster, master, we are perishing!â€ In all three accounts
Jesus is addressed by means of a title, and the word â€œperishingâ€ is used;
but the exact wording of the disciplesâ€™ plea for help differs, as does the
title used in reference to Jesusâ€”Lord, Teacher, or Master. A modern
reader can find literally hundreds of differences like this in the wording of
quotations throughout the Gospels.
But biblical writers never claimed that their dialogues were meant to be
exact, word-for-word quotations of what actually was said during some
event. They probably assumed that no one would expect them to record
exactly the words that had been used. There were no people walking
around with tape recorders or video cameras back then. When the writers
of the Gospels did their research into the events of Jesusâ€™ life, they
probably were faced with spoken accounts and written records that
differed. These sorts of differences are similar to those faced today by
courts of law, reporters, and parents who must try to figure out what
happened during some event on the basis of testimony that does not always
Because of the obvious differences within Gospel dialogues, if
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had claimed to be recording the exact
words of Jesusâ€™ life, we would have to conclude that at least three of them
failed to tell the truth. But since they never make such a claim, we can read
their Gospels with the conviction that they are giving us a reliable
interpretation of the life of Jesus. We discover the truth about Jesus not by
focusing on whether he was called â€œLord,â€ â€œTeacher,â€ or â€œMaster,â€ but by
looking at the meaning of the Gospel narratives as a whole.
The second type of biblical quotations does not necessarily have its
boundaries set off by quotation marks, but recognizing this type is usually
not difficult. These are repetitions of material that originated elsewhere.
Many Bibles have footnotes that indicate where a given statement
originally appeared. But looking back at the original context does not
explain why a later author quoted from the earlier source. In fact, if we
want to understand a quotation, we must first have some idea about what
the quotation was supposed to do in the later work.
This effort requires us to keep in mind that a quotation has both an
original and a later context, and also that a quotation must be interpreted
differently if the genre of these two contexts varies. This is as true for
interpreting quotations today as it is for interpreting New Testament
quotations. It should be easy to see that a statement and the later quotation
of that statement might have differing meanings if we consider some
Since quotations are a type of literature common in both the modern
and ancient worlds, we can begin thinking about the literary functions of
quotations by considering why people use them today. Well, as Virgil
expressed it so well, â€œNon omnia possumus omnes.â€
Now, whether or not that Latin quotation irritated you enough to hurl
this book against the wall, you probably grasped the point that people can
quote things in order to show off. College professors, newspaper
columnists, and certain kinds of writers do it all the time. I doubt,
however, that any New Testament authors quoted material for that reason.
Quotations are also used when people argue, or to put it less
dramatically, when they are trying to prove something. Quotations are
heard frequently when people debate anything from politics to religion.
Some of these quotations are so powerful that they can end a debate. It
takes a rare person in a college classroom to disagree with any statement
that follows â€œWell, as Einstein said . . .â€ And not many Christians in a
theological discussion ever dismiss a sentence that follows, â€œYes, but Jesus
said . . .â€ Yet quotations need not end a discussion; they can also support
the case an individual is making. In these circumstances quotations
function as evidence or as appeals to authority.
Such uses appear most frequently in the New Testament. In James 2:8
the author quotes Leviticus 19:18, â€œYou shall love your neighbor as
yourself,â€ to clinch his argument that Christians should not discriminate
against the poor. And in Mark 10:7-8, during a discussion about divorce,
Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, â€œFor this reason a man shall leave his father
and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.â€
The original context in Genesis dealt with marriage, but Jesus has put the
stress of the quotation on the last clause (â€œthe two shall become one fleshâ€)
and has made it a major part of his explanation about divorce.
The most common usage of Old Testament quotations in the New
Testament follows the same pattern of presenting evidence in order to
make a point. Throughout the Gospels, especially, we can find statements
such as Matthew 1:22, â€œAll this took place to fulfill what had been spoken
by the Lord through the prophet . . .â€ That sort of introduction is then
followed by a quotation from the Old Testament. These quotations were
intended to function as evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
But quotations can also be brought up with the intent of refuting the
quotation. For example, to explain my own faith to an agnostic, I might
quote Friedrich Nietzscheâ€™s provocative question, â€œIs man only a blunder
of God, or God only a blunder of man?â€ The purpose of quoting Nietzsche
would be to make his philosophy explicit so that I could explain why I
Paul did the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:33 when he quoted a wellknown slogan associated with Epicurean philosophers: â€œLet us eat and
drink, for tomorrow we die.â€ No one who reads the chapter where that
statement appears would think that Paul was endorsing that lifestyle. Jesus
was doing something similar in Matthew 5:38 when he quoted Exodus
21:24, â€œAn eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.â€ Jesus followed this by
saying: â€œBut I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes
you on the right cheek, turn the other.â€
Still other functions of quotations can be found. Sometimes we quote
something because we wish to modify it, bring it up to date, or expand on
its meaning. The Supreme Court does this regularly when it quotes from
the First Amendment, â€œCongress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,â€ and
then states how those phrases apply today.
Jesus did this sort of thing in Matthew 5:27 when he quoted Exodus
20:14, â€œYou shall not commit adultery.â€ Jesus modified the statementâ€™s
original intent, which was to condemn the particular action of adultery, by
expanding its jurisdiction to include willfully lusting after another person.
In Acts 17:28 Paul is presented doing something similar as well, but in this
case Paul is not quoting from the Old Testament. Instead, he is quoting
two non-Christian, Greek writers, Epimenides and Aratus.
Both Paul and Jesus used these quotations as the starting point for
further remarks. However, not only did their quotation of earlier material
serve as the logical basis for further ideas, but it also gave them a chance
to connect with the people who were listening. By quoting material that
was familiar to and honored by their audiences, they established the
common ground to begin a dialogue. If Paul or Jesus had just started off by
giving their own ideas without the quotations, especially to hostile or
indifferent audiences, they would have been far less persuasive speakers.
Yet there is still another kind of reason behind peopleâ€™s use of
quotations. The remark from Virgil, which I quoted above, â€œWe are not all
capable of everything,â€ can help us clarify a somewhat different reason for
using quotations. Some writers have an ability to express complex ideas in
short, clear sentences. Other, less concise writersâ€”those of us who are
used to rambling on from one vague idea to anotherâ€”like to use
quotations as a means of improving our prose. An apt quotation can
convey as much information as a computer chip.
Quotations used in this way can summarize what has been said, can
foreshadow what will be said, or can illustrate what is being said. One of
the best examples of a quotation being used to illustrate a point can be
found in Philippians 2:6-11. This early Christian hymn (recognized
because of its non-Pauline vocabulary and its peculiar rhythmic pattern) is
quoted by Paul to illustrate the proper behavior Christians should exhibit
toward one another. After mentioning the name of Christ Jesus, Paul
Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as
something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being
born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself,
and became obedient to the point of deathâ€”even death on a cross. Therefore
God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and
under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the
glory of God the Father.
In interpreting this passage, the first question to ask is the same one we
ask when we discover any other quotation: â€œWhy is this material here?â€
Unless our answer to that question is based on the realization that Paul has
quoted this hymn to illustrate Jesusâ€™ humility and obedience as an example
for us, we may develop some very odd ideas about Jesus.
This passage was not meant to teach us about the metaphysical nature
of Jesus. It was never meant as systematic theology. It was used to give us
an example to follow. If we make the mistake of seeing this as a
theological statement about Jesus, we might have to conclude that Jesus
had not been a real human being. The hymn says that he had come â€œin
human likeness,â€ but there is a big difference between being in human
likeness and being human. A statue, a portrait, or a robot could all be made
to look human, but that would not make them human.
Paul quoted the hymn not because he agreed with all the metaphysical
presuppositions it implied, but because he wanted to make his own point
about humility. If we constructed a Christology based on taking the hymn
in Philippians 2 as Paulâ€™s major teaching about the metaphysical nature of
Jesus, we would probably come up with the first great heresy faced by
Christianity: Docetism. (Docetism comes from the Greek word dokeo,
which means â€œI seemâ€ or â€œI appear.â€) This kind of theology said that Jesus
had not been a real man but had only seemed to be a human being. Not
only does such a theology not agree with what Paul says elsewhere, but it
also goes against the manner in which Jesus was presented in the Gospels.
The main problem with Docetism is that if Jesus was not truly human, his
suffering and death would lose much of their meaning. He would not have
been able to identify with us if he had been something that only seemed
In summary, when a quotation appears in the New Testament, it may be
there because the author agrees with it, disagrees with it, or both partly
agrees and partly disagrees with it. There is no way to tell what the
authorâ€™s position is unless we read the quotation in its complete, later
context. Was the author using the quotation to prove or to refute a point?
Was he using it as a basis on which to develop some related idea, or did he
agree with one particular aspect of the quotation but not with all the other
ideas implied? Only after we answer the question of why an author used a
quotation can we move on to ask what the author intended to say.
Did People Look at Their Sundials
During Ancient Sermons?
n contrast to hymns, which are often the favorite part of worship services
for many Christians, sermons are seldom what we look forward to when
we attend church. There are a number of reasons for preferring hymns to
sermons. Sermons sometimes challenge us to make unwanted changes in
our lives. And while hymns usually affirm us and make us feel involved in
the Christian life, sermons can remind us that we are not living up to our
calling. We may prefer hymns to sermons because sermons can be poorly
delivered, inadequately prepared, or just plain dumb.
Yet sermons have been around for a long time and seem to be the best
way of communicating certain kinds of messages. But before we examine
some sermons from the Bible and make an effort to interpret them, it
would be worthwhile to consider what sort of things contemporary
sermons communicate and how well they accomplish their task. Since the
sermon is one of the few biblical genres that can be found today, we can
understand ancient sermons better if we first think about modern sermons.
When I was in seminary, the basic lesson of the course in preaching
was that a sermon is not a lecture. A lecture is designed to teach
something. While a sermon can attempt to teach something new, a sermon
can also do many other things. A sermon can comfort people in suffering,
encourage them to continue doing what is right, or remind them of
something they already knew was right but have not been doing. The
general word for those three activitiesâ€”comforting, encouraging, and
remindingâ€”is exhortation. In a sermon a minister should exhort the
To succeed in its exhortation, the sermon must provide reasons for the
desired result. If a pastor wants people to be comforted in hard times, he or
she could use examples of others in suffering and how they overcame
adversity. The sermon could contain stories from the Bible, say about Job
or Hannah. The congregation might be reminded of biblical promises
about a life to come or about finding Godâ€™s peace now.
If, however, a pastor wants people to change their behavior, there are
other ways to convince them about the need for change. The sermon may
show how some common behaviorâ€”what â€œeveryone doesâ€â€”is actually
causing harm. A pastor might appeal to a congregationâ€™s better instincts
and point out that loving others requires that we make changes in our lives.
Or one could give up the idea of working on our better instincts altogether
and instead point out the possible consequences of following the crowd or
of doing nothing. Bad things can happen to good people. And there are
times when our behavior brings harm on ourselves. A preacher may
sometimes have the responsibility to make us aware of that.
The fact that a sermon should not be a lecture means that its primary
purpose is something other than giving information. Information may be
communicated in a sermon, but good sermons usually do more than that.
No matter what sort of exhortation is involved, if the sermon is to succeed,
there must be an element of persuasion in it. Whether a speaker is
comforting, encouraging, or reminding a congregation, he or she needs to
persuade them about something. Perhaps the members of a community
need to see that current suffering will pass, or that they can accomplish
what seems difficult, or that they should remember what they have
But there needs to be a balance between having the sermon persuade
the congregation and respecting the feelings and intellects of the
congregation. Some techniques of persuasion are unfair. The very effective
means of persuading people that we see on television, say to buy new cars
or designer clothes, and that often involve snob appeal or sexual
exploitation, are out of place. But legitimate persuasion can be done by
many different rhetorical devices: quoting a Scripture, referring to an
expert, repeating or rephrasing key ideas, developing logical arguments,
exaggerating major points, giving a list of reasons, focusing on one side of
an issue, using humorous stories, and so on.
There are a number of sermons in the Bible. Among the most famous
are Jesusâ€™ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5â€“7, Jesusâ€™ Sermon on the
Plain in Luke 6:20-49, the sermon recorded in Nehemiah 9:5â€“10:39, and
the book of Deuteronomy. The books of the prophets are also full of
sermons. In addition, although the New Testament book of Hebrews is
often called â€œThe Letter to the Hebrews,â€ it is actually the copy of a
sermon with a P.S. written on the end at 13:22-25. (To see that the genre of
Hebrews is not a letter, contrast its beginning with those of Paulâ€™s letters or
the brief letters in Revelation 2â€“3, and then compare how similar Hebrews
13:20-21 is to the benediction in a modern sermon.)
The key to interpreting sermons, whether in the Bible or not, is to
discover what the sermon was intended to accomplish. After hearing or
reading a sermon, it is always a good idea to ask, â€œWhat am I now
supposed to feel, do, or think?â€ An effective sermon will have delivered a
clear message, and answering the question about its intended effect should
not take a lot of time.
The major problem that prevents us from understanding a sermon,
though, is only paying attention to parts of it. Since a sermon is supposed
to be a unified whole that gets a message across, if we merely look at parts
of the whole, we may misunderstand the message. And since sermons
often use rhetorical devices to strengthen the force of their exhortation, if
we put undue emphasis on an exaggeration or a quotation or a humorous
story in a sermon, we will probably miss the point.
For example, even biblical sermons often contain exaggerations. We
might as well start with an example that will irritate some readers, but I
think it can illustrate the situation perfectly. Consider Jesusâ€™ remarks about
lust in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:28-30):
But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already
committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear
it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for
your whole body thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut
it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for
your whole body go into hell.
If we act on the assumption that Jesus really made these comments about
lust, why is it that we so seldom come across Christians who are without
eyes or hands? Surely there are only a few people who would argue that it
is because lust is never a problem for Christians. Why, then, do we disobey
The answer is that Christians recognize that Jesus was not speaking
literally. Not for a moment do I believe that Jesus intended for us to pluck
out our eyes or cut off our hands to avoid lust. This is, in fact, one of the
few passages that almost all Christians have recognized as needing a
nonliteral interpretation. That kind of interpretation is the only one that
makes sense. For one thing, Jesus certainly knew that hands and eyes are
not the organs that cause the most trouble in this matter. But even more
importantly, Jesus used this exaggeration deliberately to make his listeners
realize the seriousness of sin. He expected them to react with horror when
they imagined what it would be like to cut off a hand. But he then wanted
them to move beyond that emotional reaction and go on to compare the
relative value of oneâ€™s hand and the value of oneâ€™s soul.
Yet, even though almost all modern readers, simply by using their
common sense, know that Jesus was exaggerating in this passage, many of
us cannot admit that other exaggerations may also exist. This
unwillingness to read the Bible on its own terms leads to a lot of the
exaggerations (and other rhetorical devices) in biblical sermons being
For example, Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31 are passages in which the
author indicates that Christians will not be able to receive forgiveness for
sins deliberately committed after being saved. These frightening words
have caused many sleepless nights for believers. But once we realize that
these passages are sections within a sermon and are, in fact, exaggerations,
which were used to stress the seriousness of sin, we see that they were not
meant to be taken literally.
Additional evidence that this material from Hebrews is exaggerated can
be seen by comparing it with other biblical texts. Throughout the New
Testament, but especially in the ethical instruction of Paul or in passages
such as 1 John 2:1, writers have made it clear that Christians can (and
should) repent of their sins. And Jesus himself is quoted, in sermons and
prayers and other genres, urging us to forgive others so that we, too, might
experience Godâ€™s forgiveness. If the forgiveness of sins were not possible
(or our committing of sins impossible!), it would have been senseless for
Jesus to talk so much about them.
Although there are a number of rhetorical devices that can be found in
biblical sermons, we should not assume that everything is exaggerated. I
believe that Jesus told the absolute truth, but by means of a metaphor,
when he said (Matt 6:24), â€œNo one can serve two masters; for a slave will
either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the
other. You cannot serve God and wealth.â€ Jesus is telling us that when we
decide on the ultimate purpose of our lives, we will have to choose
between seeking financial success and seeking God.
I wish there were a complete description of all the exaggerations and
other rhetorical devices that can be found in the Bibleâ€™s sermons. It would
be very nice to know if Jesus was exaggerating when he spoke about
turning the other cheek (Matt 5:39) or about the wrongness of divorce
Unfortunately, since we do not know what kind of inflection or gestures
Jesus used when he made these comments, I do not see that we will ever
be able to have absolute certainty in our interpretation. But by considering
what the Gospels tell us about Jesus elsewhere and by considering what
other biblical writers have to say, we can come very close to understanding
the message we were supposed to hear. This same method of comparing
and contrasting the content of a sermon to other Scriptures is our best way
of interpreting any biblical sermon.
Does History Tell Everything That
he Bible is full of history. But there is less history than some people
think, and more history than others might believe. This paradox is an
accurate statement of the situation because, in part, even the term â€œhistoryâ€
is ambiguous. On the one hand, history is everything that has happened. In
this sense, because the Bible is a book from the past, the entire Bible is
history. On the other hand, and more importantly, history is a record of the
past that attempts to provide a reasonable interpretation of people, events,
and ideas. In this sense, history is a genre that can be found (along with
many other types of literature) in the Bible. It is history in this sense of the
word that will be examined here.
History is a particular type of narrative. As a category within the
overarching genre of narrative, history is distinctive because it is based on
fact, while a narrative can be fiction or nonfiction or a combination of
both. In the Bible the most common fictional narratives are the parables,
and the most common nonfiction narratives are history. Two types of
biblical narratives that have elements of both fiction and nonfiction are the
legends and the myths. We shall examine the genre of myths and how to
interpret them in the next chapter. But because legends are so similar to
history, we will compare the two of them later in this chapter.
In spite of what many people believe before they actually begin to think
about it, history is not a complete collection of facts about the past. No
history could ever tell the whole story of even a minor human event, for
example, a family eating dinner at a fast-food restaurant. There would not
be room on a million pages to describe fully the second-by-second changes
in the thoughts and feelings, the biochemistry of those thoughts and
feelings, the chemistry of digestion, the length of every strand of hair, the
texture and color of the clothing, the previous educational experiences, and
the sociological characteristics of each of the human beings eating their
dinner. Then, when you remember to include explanations detailing how
and from where the plastic, paper, hamburger, buns, grain, wheat, lettuce,
potatoes, and deep-fat fryers came to be in that particular restaurant, you
realize that to describe this dinner completely you must also give reports
on the development of the earthâ€™s plant and animal life, the advance of
human technology, and a description of contemporary business practices.
Those who have attempted to write history have long recognized that
the overwhelming mass of data associated with any human event cannot be
fully recorded. One of the most profound New Testament authors admitted
this limitation in John 21:25: â€œBut there are also many other things that
Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the
world itself could not contain the books that would be written.â€
Because historians cannot totally describe any event, they must select
what they consider to be the most important things going on at a given
time. But what historians consider most important depends on what kind of
history is being written. Describing a dinner at a fast-food restaurant will
be very different if one is writing a report on the American family in
general, a history of deep-fat fryers in particular, or a biography about a
member of the (hypothetical) family who grew up to become the first
woman president and who remembered that particular meal because she
first announced her dream to become president while eating french fries.
Historians not only select what part of the complete facts to tell, but
also attempt to explain why and how that selection was made. In addition,
well-written history seeks to put things in some kind of context by asking
what led up to the event, what contemporary factors influenced it, and
what was significant about it.
Knowing these things about history helps us to see that any history will
provide only a partial explanation of an event, person, or idea. Some
explanations may be narrower and less persuasive than others. Historians
usually differ about what is the most important thing to say about an event
and how to interpret the event. The practical consequence for readers is
that we need to be alert to what a writer intended to do in a given historical
passage and what sort of explanation he or she was presenting.
Consider the historical account in Exodus 14 of Israelâ€™s flight from
Egypt under Moses. I accept it as true that the people who were looked
upon as Israelâ€™s ancestors left Egypt against the will of Egyptian leaders.
And I accept the claim that part of the escape involved the Israelites
crossing the Red Sea in a way that was denied the Egyptian soldiers. The
explanation given in the text is that this was done by God.
Except for saying that there had been a mighty wind, however, the text
does not tell us exactly how God accomplished this event. For example,
did God create this wind out of nothing, or did it result from normal
meteorological phenomena that God arranged to occur at this particular
time? The text does not give us a complete explanation. Further, if
Egyptian historians recorded the escape, I suspect that they would have
interpreted it very differently. They might have focused on the difficulty of
moving chariots through mud, or said that the Hebrews were not worth
going after, or spoken of how their god Osirus was punishing the pharaoh
for some impiety.
The Exodus can be interpreted in many different ways. History needs to
be true to what happened, but the real room for disagreement comes when
historians attempt to explain why something happened. Biblical history,
which regularly makes claims that God had been involved in some
particular event, was written by believers who interpreted events a certain
way. Even when other historians agree on what happened, when it
happened, and who was involved, they will probably disagree on why it
happened. In that sense, accepting any biblical history as true requires a
faith commitment. Readers who are skeptical can always doubt any
historical explanation that brings God into the account.
In addition, when historians are writing, they never have complete
information. This occurs not only with quotations but also with chronology
and even, sometimes, with the events themselves. The ancient Greek
writer Thucydides, who is usually called the Father of History, stated the
rule that has become standard for historians dealing with incomplete or
contradictory information. Historians are expected to use their best
judgment in selecting which information and interpretations they consider
most probable. Furthermore, if the exact words that were spoken during an
event were lost, a historian was allowed to paraphrase speeches or
dialogues that made the most sense, given the circumstances of the event.
Knowing that writing history means making a selection from an
incomplete set of facts and developing an interpretation based on the
historianâ€™s best judgment can help us interpret history in the Bible. A
detailed comparison of Ezra with Nehemiah or of 1 and 2 Kings with 1 and
2 Chronicles shows a number of differences in names, events, and
chronology. But differences among histories also occur in the New
Testament. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the
story of Jesus. But they differ in terms of exact quotations from Jesus,
chronology, locations, and even incidents.
If we approach the Gospels with a simple-minded definition of history,
one that does not conform to what historians actually do, we will have to
conclude that the Gospels are not history. But if we see that history
involves the selection of information, different interpretations of events,
and the possibility of creating dialogue, we can see that the Gospels are
indeed history. Each of the authors was making choices about what to tell
and what to leave unsaid. And at times, each used his best judgment to tell
what happened and what exact words were said.
For example, the narrative of Jesusâ€™ entry into Jerusalem before his
crucifixion can be found in all four Gospels. But Mark 11:1-10 and Luke
19:28-38 quote Jesus differently in his instructions to bring a donkey for
him to ride. Then, while Matthew 21:1-9 has Jesus asking his disciples to
bring two animals (a donkey and her foal), John 12:12-19 reports that
Jesus himself â€œfoundâ€ the donkey he rode.
Recognizing that differences like these (and there are hundreds of
them) can be found throughout the Bible does not undermine my faith.
That is because the genre of history involves human beings making
judgments about what gets recorded and how it is reported. I am convinced
that God has been involved in past events, like the Exodus from Egypt or
the resurrection of Jesus. But because biblical history is similar to other
types of history, I expect that history in the Bible will have some
differences in interpretation and even in the facts reported. After all, the
Gospel writers were never attempting to get all the details right in their
stories about fetching donkeys. They had other, more important concerns.
Their interest was in convincing us that Jesus was the Christ, who
would be the Savior of the world. That point is made explicitly in John
20:30-31. â€œNow Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his
disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that
you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and
that through believing you may have life in his name.â€
It may be that some Christians reading this chapter will object to the
explanation of history I have outlined above. They could say that â€œhistoryâ€
is a different genre depending on whether it is written by humans or by
God. I will admit that possibility. However, if someone wants to say
something such as, â€œManâ€™s histories can vary but Godâ€™s history is perfect,â€
that person is faced with two major problems. The first is needing to invent
another term for this genre of â€œGodâ€™s historyâ€ since it will be different
from any other type of history. The work of historians involves
researching, thinking, evaluating, judging, and writing. Since God would
not need to do any of the first four activities, it seems to me that â€œhistoryâ€
would be a misleading term to use in reference to any work of which God
was the sole author.
The second but far more serious problem is how we make sense of the
differences that occur throughout the historical sections of the Bible. This
is not just a matter of fetching donkeys; it also involves hundreds of
variations in quotations, names, dates, and places. If we start with the
assumption that God is directly responsible for every word in these
sections, we are going to wind up with some very strange ideas about God.
However, if we start with the assumptions that God has been involved in
human life and that writers (as human beings) have done their best to make
sense of that involvement, the variations in the Bible no longer undermine
convictions about Godâ€™s wisdom, power, or love.
Misinterpreting history in the Bible can tend to weaken those
convictions. For example, the primary danger in interpreting biblical
history is assuming that what people did, or what God said (or what people
claimed God said), is to be followed today. You can pour over Old
Testament accounts of ancient warfare until you start to feel queasy, but
surely it is going too far to assume that because ancient war was conducted
along certain lines, we are commanded to practice war in the same way. I
have yet to hear a minister (or military chaplain) argue that Christians in
the army should follow the ancient Israelite practice of killing all men,
women, and children in certain captured towns.
Why, then, were some of the horrible events of biblical history
recorded? My own view is that some of these accounts were recorded,
under Godâ€™s inspiration, to serve as bad examples for us; that is, they show
what people were willing to claim God was saying. Often, folks made the
claim that â€œGodâ€ was saying the very thing that would give some sort of
financial or political benefit to those who spoke for God. At times these
beliefs were probably quite sincere. But there certainly were times when
religious claims were consciously constructed in an attempt to persuade
people to do what their political or economic leaders wanted done.
Jeremiah and Amos, among others, make this same point.
Perhaps our Bibles need to have a statement similar to what one hears
before controversial TV programs: â€œStatements expressed herein reflect
the views of their authors and not necessarily those of the management.â€
The classic example of this is the Canaanite conquest told about in
Joshua. In this war the Israelites had been told â€œby Godâ€ to kill all the
inhabitants of certain captured towns. Surely we can admit that it is often
cheaper to kill people and take what you want than it is to buy things from
them. There is also a certain security you can get when you kill everyone
in your way and make sure there will be no one left who is interested in
seeking vengeance. There were benefits to wiping out native populations,
and it is at least possible that the Israelite leaders chose to claim Godâ€™s will
as part of their own strategy of conquest. There are Old Testament
speeches where people claim that God told them to conduct certain types
of warfare. But the critical issue is whether those speeches are accurate in
terms of what God said or whether those speeches only record accurately
what someone said about God. In any case, even if someone believes that
God did tell the ancient Israelites to conduct war in this manner, it is surely
too much to believe that later nations have the God-given right to kill
whoever stands in the way of their territorial expansion.
In the same manner, the incident of David and Bathsheba was recorded
in 2 Samuel 11:1â€“12:25 not to encourage us to act like David, say by
walking around on the roof so that we can watch women sunbathing. The
writer intended for us to react against Davidâ€™s example when reading the
account. In reading historical narratives, if we consider what the author
was trying to show us, we can see that everything reported is not
I realize that this interpretation of biblical history can be argued, but the
distinction I now want to make between history and legend could also be
the ground for disagreements. Although more complex definitions are
possible, legend is exaggerated history. In other words, legends are based
on something that actually occurred, but the descriptions of either the
characters or the events (or both) have been exaggerated.
History, legends, and parables are all subcategories of narratives. But
distinguishing history from a parable is far easier than distinguishing
history from legend. Parables have internal, literary clues to their
character. For example, the phrase â€œThere was a manâ€ is the standard clue.
Detecting legends is more a matter of judgment. I am certain that
Christians will often vary on which narratives should be seen as history
and which narratives were meant as legend.
In my judgment, for example, the short narrative of 2 Kings 2:23-25, in
which the prophet Elishaâ€™s curse upon some boys who were making fun of
his bald head leads to two bears coming out of the woods and killing fortytwo children, seems exaggerated. So, too, does the story about Samson
catching three hundred foxes, setting their tails on fire, and letting them
loose in the wheat fields of Israelâ€™s enemies (Jdgs 15:1-8). Legends can be
found in other parts of the Bible, but to demonstrate that legends are a
biblical genre, I have highlighted only two of the best examples. It is
possible that these two are historical reports or based on actual events, but
believing them to be so does not seem necessary to understanding either
Elisha or Samson. In any case, if God inspired the biblical authors to write
legends, we need to read those narratives as legends.
Interpreting biblical history is a complex enterprise. But once we are
willing to admit human authorship (and the implications of that
authorship), we can move beyond fussing over details and go on to
discovering Godâ€™s presence in the Scriptures.
Are There Myths in the Bible?
here is a lot of argument about whether myths occur in the Bible. But
like so many other arguments among religious people, the answer depends
on how we define the term. Nevertheless, this disagreement continues to
be a very real problem since there are many definitions of the word
â€œmyth.â€ Spending an hour in the library looking up definitions of myths
will give you at least the following possibilities: (1) A myth is a story that
seeks to explain why things are the way they are. (2) A myth is a story that
deals with gods or goddesses. (3) A myth is a story that holds a community
of people together.
Interpreting myths can be complicated, especially when we are first
getting used to the concept of myth. Scholars who study literature disagree
about how the term should be used. Even the experts in comparative
mythology have differences of opinion about how to understand myths. In
addition to that, however, is the fact that the word â€œmythâ€ has such
negative connotations. The word automatically upsets some readers. The
primary negative connotation comes in the popular usage of the word,
where a myth means a story or a belief that it simply not possible. But if
we set aside this popular misconception about a myth being a false
narrative, we should discover that the concept of myth allows us to make
sense out of many problem passages in the Bible.
Before describing what I mean by myth, I want to stress that the
common element in the three definitions given above is the word â€œstory.â€
Myths are a kind of narrative, having both fictional and nonfictional
It happens that the most famous Greco-Roman myths fit almost all the
definitions. â€œPandoraâ€™s Boxâ€ is one such classical myth. After she had
been created by the supreme god Zeus, Pandora was given many presents
by the gods and goddesses, including a beautiful box she was told never to
open. But curiosity got the better of Pandora, and she opened the box. Out
came a swarm of vicious reptiles, each one named after the various
troubles and disasters that afflict humanity: War, Hatred, Greed, and so on.
Pandora saw these creatures escaping from the box and tried to close it.
When she finally got the top to stay on, the box was empty except for the
final monster, who was named â€œKnowledge of the Future.â€ If that creature
had escaped, no hope would have been possible. According to the myth, if
we human beings knew the problems we would face in the future, life
would be impossible. We would all give up.
â€œPandoraâ€™s Boxâ€ is a good example of a myth. It fits the three standard
definitions. The story has gods and goddesses, it explains why so much is
wrong with the world, and it is a story that the ancient Greeks shared as
part of their cultural heritage. But this does not mean that the myth was
looked upon as being trueâ€”if by â€œtrueâ€ we mean â€œthe truth, the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth.â€ Most Greeks never thought that there had
been a real Pandora. Furthermore, there are other Greek myths that also
explain the source of evil. Most educated Greeks would probably have said
that the myth of Pandoraâ€™s box was a story that tried to illustrate how
suffering is caused by humans who meddle in affairs they are supposed to
Truth is a difficult concept to apply to myths. It is especially difficult if
our view is that â€œtruthâ€ must be a set of facts, accurately stated according
to chronological sequence, with no facts left out. According to this very
high standard of proof, â€œtruthâ€ can probably be found only in scientific
reports about specific experiments. But we make a major mistake if we
think that only scientific writing is able to express what is really true.
For example, consider the Greco-Roman fable about the fox and the
sour grapes. When the fox was unable to grab the grapes he wanted, he
walked away muttering that the grapes were sour. On the one hand, foxes
(at least as far as we know) do not talk to themselves, and so on one level,
this fable is false. The facts are all wrong. On the other hand, the reality of
â€œsour grapesâ€ is something with which most of us are familiar. In fact, our
trying to express the notion of â€œsour grapesâ€ in straightforward prose is an
excellent way to see how well the fable works at expressing a complex
human characteristic. The fable turns out to be an effective way to show
the reality of this human emotion.
In the same manner, if we criticize J. R. R. Tolkienâ€™s The Lord of the
Rings because it is based upon the fiction that there are hobbits and magic
rings, we miss the whole point of reading this story. Even though the story
is not factual, it is still able to express a number of important truths about
friendship, loyalty, trust, and continuing with a hopeless task because it is
the right thing to do.
The truth that can be expressed by a myth is similar to the truth that can
be expressed by a fable, a novel, or a parable. I do not want to rule out the
possibility that a myth might have some basis in fact or might be the best
possible description of a historical event. (In this I think I agree with C. S.
Lewis, who once remarked that the story of Jesus Christ is a myth but a
true myth because the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred.) A myth can
be related to history. After all, there was a first man and a first woman. But
a relationship to history is only incidental to the main purpose of myth,
which is to tell a story in simple language to convey something much more
profound. No matter how the myth relates to what actually happened, a
good myth can tell us something both important and true.
The best clues to recognizing myths are internal ones. Is there
something in a passage that is unknowable or logically impossible? By this
question I do not mean to rule out miracles. Miracles recorded in the Bible
usually mention witnesses and are often logically possible. Setting aside
legends, most of the miracles found in historical writing do not involve
logical impossibility but rather circumstantial improbability. The â€œmighty
windâ€ that allowed the Israelites to escape Egypt in the Exodus is an
example of such an improbable event. The event itself is not impossibleâ€”
just improbable. And surely the timing of such a mighty wind is what
constitutes the miracle.
Finding an internal clue, especially in a narrative where the message
seems more important than any historical account of the events, provides
good evidence that we are reading a myth. But the ability to recognize
myths in the Bible will be influenced by our knowledge of the world. For
one thing, what was once considered â€œhistoryâ€ might come to be seen as
myth. The story of Noahâ€™s ark provides an example of this reevaluation.
For hundreds of years this story was assumed to be a historical account of
a universal flood and Godâ€™s method for saving the animals. But a scientific
approach to the study of the natural world has convinced many Christians
that the biblical author was writing myth. Internal clues to the mythic
nature of the story are the observations that there is no evidence for a onetime worldwide flood; there was not enough room on the ark for all the
animals; there was not enough food on board; there is no mention about
how the freshwater fish (or the saltwater fish) could survive in the flood
waters; there is no mention of how the plants survived; and so on.
If we take it as possible that the world (in the sense of the â€œworldâ€ as
known by Noah) did experience a flood that Noah, his family, and their
animals survived, we could look upon the narrative as historical. But that
semiliteral approach is sometimes objected to on the grounds that when the
Bible says â€œworld,â€ it means â€œworld.â€ I am in agreement with that sort of
remark. The Bible says what it says and means what it means. Our
problem as readers is figuring out what it meant.
In addition to the fact that some biblical myths were once seen as
history, recognizing myths may require some courage because of the
added psychological pressure many religious people feel when they are
challenged about their beliefs. I can remember presenting this
interpretation of Noahâ€™s ark to an adult Bible study class and hearing a
visiting minister make the observation that â€œGod must have made the
animals get smallerâ€ as they went up the gangplank and then â€œmust have
put them into suspended animationâ€ once they were led to their rooms.
I do not doubt that God could do that sort of thing. But I question the
reasoning of anyone who comes up with that sort of interpretation of
Noahâ€™s ark. To put it simply, that is not how the author of Genesis chose to
tell the story. It seems to me that dealing with biblical passages as they are
recorded is a much better way to read the Bible. The policy of
â€œmultiplying miraclesâ€ in order to make everything in the Bible into
straightforward history (that is, inventing miracles to fill in all the
historical and scientific gaps in narratives) seems like refusing to listen to
the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit inspired someone to write a myth, we
should be willing to read the material as it was inspired.
The flip side of refusing to see any myths in the Bible is seeing too
many. (I would need to be convinced that any myths can be found outside
the book of Genesis.) We need to be careful before we deny the historicity
of an event. On the other hand, very often it does not matter whether a
passage is history or myth. The message of the selection could be the same
in either case. Still, there are times when the historicity of a passage is
crucial. The accounts of Christâ€™s resurrection, I consider to be historical.
Paulâ€™s analysis of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 has persuaded me
that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we have made a terrible
mistake in trying to lead Christian lives. I do not see that anything crucial
hinges on the historicity of Noahâ€™s ark, but Christâ€™s resurrection is a
After concluding that a particular narrative is a myth, we must go on to
interpret the myth. This is not as easy as interpreting a parable. Myths can
be a richer genre in that they often evoke a wide variety of feelings and
ideas. But because they can have many layers of meaning, it is easy to give
them perverse interpretations.
Even though the myth of Pandoraâ€™s box tells of how her curiosity led to
the present unhappy state of the world, I think it is going too far to say that
the mythmaker, and those who remembered the myth, hated women and
blamed feminine curiosity for making a mess of the cosmos. It is true that
Greco-Roman culture was male-oriented and undervalued women, but that
was not the primary message the mythmaker was trying to communicate.
We cannot prove Greco-Roman gender bias on the basis of this myth
alone. (One could demonstrate that bias fairly easily by looking at other
literary and historical examples, but that is another issue.)
In the same manner, it is possible to give perverse interpretations to
biblical myths as well. Consider the narrative of the Fall in Genesis 3:1-24.
Adam and Eve had been told not to eat of the fruit of a certain tree in the
Garden of Eden. Eve was tempted by the serpent, deceived by it, ate some
of the fruit, and Adam joined her for a bite. Perverse interpretations of this
myth would be that this particular God wanted people to be stupid (that is,
not to acquire knowledge), or that the Bible teaches that Godâ€”being
jealousâ€”has an inferiority complex, or that women are the cause of
everything that is wrong with the world, and so on.
I consider these examples perverse interpretations because they are not
based upon an effort to discover what the author was trying to
communicate. It may be that the author was anti-intellectual, narrow in his
understanding of God, and a misogynist, but I do not think he was trying to
communicate those aspects of his personality in telling us the myth. I think
he was trying to say something about finding our place in the universe and
recognizing that the world could have been a paradise if human beings had
not tried to make themselves gods.
In general, modern readers of the Bible probably should make an initial
effort to give biblical myths the benefit of a doubt. What positive message
(if any) was a particular author trying to communicate? It is easy to get
sidetracked by looking at how certain myths have been used to oppress
scholars, heretics, women, and all sorts of other people. No one who has
studied the history of Christianity can deny that people calling themselves
Christians have used the Bible as a club to bash those who stood in their
way. But focusing only on the history of such later behavior can make us
miss what the biblical authors said. It is possible that the biblical materials,
including the myths, contain a great deal worth listening to.
How Should We Read the Bible?
ow that we have reached the end of this book, which explores biblical
genres, I do not want to leave a false implication that there are no other
types of literature that can be found in the Bible. Scholars love to develop
specific subcategories within genres, and we can find other lists of biblical
genres. In addition, it is likely that scholars of ancient literature may
discover material or acquire more detailed knowledge from the biblical
world and give us more information about some particular genre that was
commonly used in the past but died out later. For example, epic poetry was
extremely popular in the ancient world, but few people write it (or read it)
Yet, even though further study can usually help us understand more of
the Scriptures, it often happens that the scholarly study of the Bible loses
all contact with the interests and concerns of Christian readers. The genres
examined here are those categories that I consider most important. Many
of them are controversial, and some of the examples used could be argued.
But by knowing these genres, we have the background to start making
sense of even the most difficult passages in the Bible.
After reading a biblical selection, we must ask about the kind of
literature being read. Is the passage a parable, a hymn, a quotation, a myth,
or something else? It is only by knowing the genre of the text that we can
discover what the author was trying to say.
Of course, we still need to use common sense. There are passages that
have overlapping genres. Parables are found in narratives; commandments
are found in sermons; and ethical advice is found in letters. In cases like
these, we need to make a decision about which genre is most important for
interpreting the passage.
For example, consider the statement in Matthew 5:43, â€œYou shall love
your neighbor and hate your enemy.â€ The genres overlap here. Jesusâ€™
statement is (1) a quotation (2) in ethical instruction (3) in a sermon (4) in
a narrative. To understand Jesus in this passage, we must realize that he
was quoting that statement in order to disagree with it. When we consider
the paragraph of ethical instruction that surrounds the quotation, especially
the sentence that follows (Matt 5:44), â€œBut I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,â€ we can see Jesusâ€™ overall point.
Knowing that the quotation is in a sermon and a narrative does not help us
as much as knowing that it is within a section of ethical instruction.
Another example can be found in Paulâ€™s Letter to the Galatians: â€œMy
friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the
Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you
yourselves are not temptedâ€ (6:1). This is ethical instruction (and, more
specifically, advice) contained in a letter. If we refused to accept Paulâ€™s
advice because Paulâ€™s letter was written to the Galatians more than
nineteen hundred years ago, we would miss the point. The genre of
Galatians is indeed a letter. And the people who first received it made their
own decisions long ago about whether or not they would accept Paulâ€™s
advice. But ancient letters to dead people may still have something to say
to us. In fact, if we judge Paulâ€™s advice in terms of the biblical
commandments about loving one another, it seems to me that we need to
follow Paulâ€™s advice even today. When it is necessary, we ought to correct
one another in a gentle manner, lest we be tempted to become selfrighteous. In our effort to understand Galatians 6:1, we need to recognize
that the less significant genre is that of the letter, and the more significant
genre is that of ethical instruction.
Finding the genre that matters most is the way to make sense of
passages with overlapping genres. It may turn out that we will decide that
a passage in question is a myth or an exaggeration within a sermon. But
that does not mean we should ignore that passage. No genre has the truth
locked up. A good writer can probably communicate in several genres, and
surely a divinely inspired message could be communicated within a variety
of literary forms.
I am convinced that an inspired writer could have told us something
important in any genre he chose to use. Furthermore, if God inspired
someone to write a proverb or a myth, then we who read the Bible must do
our best to understand those proverbs or myths. How God chose to inspire
biblical writers was a decision made without my input, but I am willing to
trust Godâ€™s judgment. It seems to me to be the height of pride to think that
we are smarter than God and able to decide beforehand that God can only
communicate with us in one way. We need to let God speak through the
literature we have.
I do not have an explanation for all the things that are in the Bible.
There are passages I like and passages I do not like to hear. I like to be
reminded that God loves me and cares about me, and I especially like to
hear passages that seem to promise me health, comfort, wealth, and public
respect. But there are other parts I am less crazy about. I do not like to read
about what I might need to do in order to help those around me, especially
if such activity might require money, time, or effort. I am also troubled at
times by the passages I do not understand. Could I be missing something I
need to hear? And might the cause of this lack of understanding be in my
intellect or in my narrow-mindedness?
This book was not meant to explain everything you always wanted to
know about the Bible. It was meant to demonstrate how the knowledge of
literary genres is a necessary component in any serious study of the Bible.
We should always begin our study of the Scriptures by asking what the
author was trying to say. Only after that can we go on to compare the
authorâ€™s message with our own particular circumstances. We start by
seeking the sense of the Bible. We end up by finding Godâ€™s presence.
Title Page 2
If Jesus Told a Joke, Would You Laugh? 6
Why Do Christians Argue So Much about the Bible? 11
Is a Parable Fact or Fiction? 16
Does Every Proverb Apply to Everyone All the Time? 21
What Biblical Promises Are Meant for Me? 25
Do We Have to Believe the Hymns We Sing? 30
Is â€œThe Story of Jesus and His Loveâ€ Just a Story? 35
How Are St. Johnâ€™s Letters Different from â€œDear Johnâ€
Does Poetry in the Bible Have to Rhyme? 44
Is Prophecy Foretelling or Forthtelling? 49
How Do We Respond to Ethical Instruction? 54
How Much Theology Is in the Bible? 59
Is Biblical Genealogy Meant to Reveal Biology? 63
How Should We Interpret Quotations? 68
Did People Look at Their Sundials During Ancient
Does History Tell Everything That Happened? 79
Are There Myths in the Bible? 86
How Should We Read the Bible? 92
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We have highlighted some of the most popular subjects we handle above. Those are just a tip of the iceberg. We deal in all academic disciplines since our writers are as diverse. They have been drawn from across all disciplines, and orders are assigned to those writers believed to be the best in the field. In a nutshell, there is no task we cannot handle; all you need to do is place your order with us. As long as your instructions are clear, just trust we shall deliver irrespective of the discipline.
Are your writers competent enough to handle my paper?
Our essay writers are graduates with bachelor's, masters, Ph.D., and doctorate degrees in various subjects. The minimum requirement to be an essay writer with our essay writing service is to have a college degree. All our academic writers have a minimum of two years of academic writing. We have a stringent recruitment process to ensure that we get only the most competent essay writers in the industry. We also ensure that the writers are handsomely compensated for their value. The majority of our writers are native English speakers. As such, the fluency of language and grammar is impeccable.
What if I don’t like the paper?
There is a very low likelihood that you won’t like the paper.
- When assigning your order, we match the paper’s discipline with the writer’s field/specialization. Since all our writers are graduates, we match the paper’s subject with the field the writer studied. For instance, if it’s a nursing paper, only a nursing graduate and writer will handle it. Furthermore, all our writers have academic writing experience and top-notch research skills.
- We have a quality assurance that reviews the paper before it gets to you. As such, we ensure that you get a paper that meets the required standard and will most definitely make the grade.
In the event that you don’t like your paper:
- The writer will revise the paper up to your pleasing. You have unlimited revisions. You simply need to highlight what specifically you don’t like about the paper, and the writer will make the amendments. The paper will be revised until you are satisfied. Revisions are free of charge
- We will have a different writer write the paper from scratch.
- Last resort, if the above does not work, we will refund your money.
Will the professor find out I didn’t write the paper myself?
Not at all. All papers are written from scratch. There is no way your tutor or instructor will realize that you did not write the paper yourself. In fact, we recommend using our assignment help services for consistent results.
What if the paper is plagiarized?
We check all papers for plagiarism before we submit them. We use powerful plagiarism checking software such as SafeAssign, LopesWrite, and Turnitin. We also upload the plagiarism report so that you can review it. We understand that plagiarism is academic suicide. We would not take the risk of submitting plagiarized work and jeopardize your academic journey. Furthermore, we do not sell or use prewritten papers, and each paper is written from scratch.
When will I get my paper?
You determine when you get the paper by setting the deadline when placing the order. All papers are delivered within the deadline. We are well aware that we operate in a time-sensitive industry. As such, we have laid out strategies to ensure that the client receives the paper on time and they never miss the deadline. We understand that papers that are submitted late have some points deducted. We do not want you to miss any points due to late submission. We work on beating deadlines by huge margins in order to ensure that you have ample time to review the paper before you submit it.
Will anyone find out that I used your services?
We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.
How our Assignment Help Service Works
1. Place an order
You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.
2. Pay for the order
Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.
3. Track the progress
You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.
4. Download the paper
The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.