Some simple tools to help you with your Bible reading
Last time, we looked at the motivation that Christians have for reading their Bible. In God’s Word, we hear God speaking to his people, inviting them into a relationship with him through faith and calling them to walk in accordance with Him.
Motivation is important, but even the most motivated Christians will sometimes view picking up their Bible as a daunting task. There are several major characters in its pages with names that can be hard to pronounce. There are passages of tedious laws and instructions as well as prophecies that can feel incomprehensible. We love the idea of reading the Bible, but actually reading it can sometimes feel like a burden.
In this post, I’m going to introduce some basic principles of biblical interpretation that can help Bible readers of any level.
The Means: How Should I Read My Bible?
The word theologians use for the study of biblical interpretation is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics seeks to answer the simple question: How should I read my Bible?
The first thing we should understand is that the Bible is a communication book. In His Word, God has a message that he wants to share with His people. But the Bible didn’t descend to Earth from above, leather-bound and complete. It was revealed over time and through God’s prophets.
This is what theologians mean when they say that the Bible is “inspired.” Scripture is “breathed out” by God who, by the Holy Spirit, inspired human men to write down His Word (2 Timothy 3:16). God is the ultimate author of the Bible, but he used real men with their own unique gifts and personalities to deliver it to his people in real time.
Thus, we can properly say that the Bible is both a comprehensive revelation of God to His people throughout all times and places and that different books given at different times have unique contexts and audiences in mind.
There are often two parts to any kind of communication. There is the thing we say, and then there is the intent we have behind what we are saying. For example, if I say to my five-year-old, "It's a beautiful day outside,” I may not be merely conveying information about the weather. In fact, I may be inviting a response: “We should go outside and play baseball!” The context of my relationship with my son and the social customs of our home help inform the intent behind the communication to my son.
Let’s try applying this basic principle to the Bible. We’ll use Genesis 1-2 as an example.
The early chapters of Genesis describe God’s mighty act of creation. But if we ignore the context, like considering the original audience, we may impose our own understanding on the text rather than listen to what it is saying.
So, who was the original audience of Genesis 1-2? What were the basic social and cultural assumptions held by the author and his audience? Most scholars agree that the original audience of Genesis 1-2 is the community of Israelites who have just left Egypt and are following the leadership of the prophet Moses. After being slaves for so long in Egypt, the Israelites need to be reminded of their identity as God’s chosen people—the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3).
Unlike the creation myths of other Ancient Near East cultures, Genesis 1 gives special attention to God’s power and authority. God does not create the world through a violent struggle with an adversarial deity or by using pre-existing material. Instead, God speaks the universe into existence ex nihilo (out of nothing) by his sovereign power.
But what about Genesis 2? This passage describes in detail the creation of the first people. Before we assume this is a second and separate creation event from the one in Genesis 1, we must consider the original author and ask ourselves what is going on in this passage and for what purpose.
If we take a deeper look at Genesis 2, we see the author is zooming in and providing a more detailed account of God’s creation of mankind. In the passage we read that all mankind descended from Adam and Eve. Consider then, what would be the purpose behind this more detailed account? The implication is that as everyone has been created by God, everyone should be worshiping God—not just those who make up the nation of Israel. Though God has chosen Israel for his own special purposes, the intent of Genesis 1-2 is to remind them (and us by extension) that God is not a provincial deity, but the one, true, living God over all. The story invites a response, namely a love for God that leads to worship.
Already, we can see that applying basic hermeneutical skills to a passage like Genesis 1-2 opens new vistas for interpretation and application. It shapes how we think about worship, discipleship, evangelism, and even our work. Applying these skills also will also grow us closer to God as we hear his voice with new clarity.
With these new principles, you’re ready to read individual passages of the Bible in a fresh, new way.