A Layman’s Guide to Biblical Reading and Interpretation (Part 2)

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In Part 1, we talked about the various barriers, bridges, or rivers that must be crossed before one can even get to a correct reading and interpretation of the Bible. The barriers we talked about were: (1) Time, (2) Culture, (3) Language and (4) Geography. While these are not the only barriers, they represent the major ones that must be addressed. In this post, we will look at some of the factors one must deal with while actually reading the text.

  1. Context – Read several verses before the verse in question and read several verses after the verse in question to gain a sense of context. It is even a good idea to read the whole chapter. How does the verse fit into the chapter? How does the chapter fit into the book? How does the book fit into the part of the Bible in which it is found? How does that part of the Bible fit into the whole of the Bible? The first rule is context! The second rule is context! The third rule is context!
  2. Genre – As we read the Bible we need to understand that the Bible is not technically one book, but really 66 books of various types of literature. How one approaches and interprets a biblical text is largely depended upon the genre of the text. Genre (pronounced: “john-ra”) is a literary term that means, “kind,” “type,” or “sort.” As you read a passage of scripture, before you can even begin to interpret it, you must determine what type of literature it is. Is it poetry? Is it a historical narrative? Is it a chronological listing? Is it a parable? Is it a hymn? For example, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in English poetry, the main characteristic is rhyme.
    1. English example: Mary is so blue; but what about you? We recognize this as poetry because of the rhyming sounds of the words “blue” and “you.”
    2.  A good Hebrew example is Psalm 37:1, “Fret not thyself because of evildoers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity.” (KJV) The term: “Fret not thyself” is parallel with and roughly equal to “neither be thou envious” and the term “evildoers” is parallel with and roughly equal to “workers of iniquity.” The author is basically using two different terms to communicate the same concept.

There are other characteristics in Hebrew poetry, but parallelism is the most notable.

  1. Take note of the various figures of speech. In other words, be on the look-out for hyperbole, exaggeration, sarcasm, etc. Just as we use these literary devices in our speaking and writing, they are also present in the biblical text.
  2. Invest in a concordance, a biblical lexicon, a Bible dictionary, a Bible encyclopedia, commentaries etc. – In the words of my New Testament Greek professor at Mississippi College: Dr. G. Rogers Greene, “You can’t tell what it means, if you don’t know what it meant!” Invest in sources that will help you deal with the text in the original languages. Remember, no one in the Bible ever spoke a word of English and not one word was originally written in English. The Bible you read is a version that came from a translation that came from manuscripts that were copied from the autographs (original documents). By the way, when you hear talk about the inerrancy of scripture, the reference is to the original autographs (which we don’t have), not necessarily the manuscripts and even less the translations and versions.
  3. Remember, your primary goal in studying the Bible is not to determine “what the verse is saying to you” but rather “what the verse is actually saying!” You cannot make application without first determining what the text actually says.
  4. Also remember, no matter what you read in the Bible, you are always reading someone else’s mail and ease-dropping on someone else’s conversation. Therefore, you need to know  who, what, why and where? This is akin to context! Who was the author? Who was or who were the original recipients? What was the issue that was being addressed? These are the type of questions that must be addressed if you are going to do serious Bible study! You need to know the original setting! The Germans called it: “sitz im leben;” the setting in life.

While the information contained in this post and in Part 1 is by no means exhaustive, hopefully it will provide you with a springboard to propel you to a more productive and exegetically correct approach to Bible study.

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