Reading the Bible is not as simple as it may seem! I think the reason there are so many false teachings is because people read the Bible without realizing that there are certain factors that must be dealt with in approaching the biblical text. The primary factor being that the Bible is the Word of God and God is Spirit, therefore the Bible is a spiritual book. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (NIV) But even with the Spirit, there are some principles the reader must adhere to if he or she is to correctly read and interpret the biblical text. So with that in mind, I want to share this simple layman’s (a person with no formal theological or seminary training in hermeneutics and exegesis) guide to biblical reading and interpretation. I am going to present this in two parts because before we can even get to the biblical text, there are some things we must consider:
The primary thing we must consider as we approach the biblical text is to understand that there are some barriers, bridges, or rivers we must cross before we can even get to a correct reading and interpretation of the Bible. Part one of this presentation is a brief discussion of four such barriers.
- Time – We must first of all consider the fact that the Bible was written many years ago in a time much different from our own. God has always dealt with his people in what I call: progressive revelation. For instance, when Moses delivered the Children of Israel out of Egypt and they crossed the sea, the Bible says that they walked over on dry land. However, some forty years later, when they crossed over the Jordan, the waters didn’t receded until the priests got their feet wet! It could be that one of the reasons God deals with us differently today is because we have been given much more revelation because of the passing of time. Therefore, it is an exegetical mistake to force our time back upon the biblical characters or to bring them to forward to our time and judge their actions according to our time.
- Culture – We, those of us who live in America, live in a modern Western culture, but the Bible was written by and to people who lived in an ancient Eastern culture. Some of the things written in the Bible have more to do with culture and custom than spiritual or Godly principles. We must remember that when the original authors wrote, it was not in the fore-front of their minds that their words would be read by people of a different culture hundreds of years later. They were writing about particular situations in their particular time and culture. When Paul wrote about women keeping their heads covered, it was more of a cultural thing because generally the women of that culture who didn’t cover their heads were immoral women. So Paul told the women in the church to keep their heads covered, not only to honor their husbands but also to keep them from looking like a lady of the streets! When we read the Bible, we must always remember that it was written by and to people from a time and culture much different from our own. So it is an error to say that those people were “just like us” because they weren’t. They didn’t even think like us! For instance, in America today the primary focus is on the individual, but in the days and culture of the Bible, the primary focus was on the group! They didn’t think like us!
- Language – The next barrier is language. No one in the Bible ever spoke a word in English! As far as we know, the English language wasn’t even developed at that time! Consequently, we must understand that the Bible we hold in our hands is a version of a translation that came from manuscripts (copies of the original documents) that were written from the autographs (the original documents) of the original writer. The Old Testament was written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament was written primarily in Greek. And just as we use figures of speech, such as sarcasm, exaggeration, hyperbole, and irony in our language today, so did the ancients in biblical days. We should be aware of that fact as we read the Bible.
- Geography – There some others, but the fourth and last barrier we must deal with before we can get to a correct reading and interpretation of the biblical text that we are going to address is geography. It is important as you read the text that you be aware of the factor of geography. It helps when you know that although there was only about 18 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho; Jerusalem was about 2500 feet above sea level while Jericho was about 825 feet below sea level! That’s a difference in elevation of over 3,000 feet in just 18 miles! Therefore, the road between the two was steep, rocky, winding, and was notorious for being a haunt for highway robbers. We would be more understanding of why the priest and the Levite passed the man on the other side in Luke 10:30, if we understood the geography and culture of the time.
These are just a few of the perquisite factors we must keep in mind as we approach the biblical text. I will comment on what we need to consider as we actually read the biblical text in Part 2 of this study.