Thursday, September 6, 2012

How to Read and Not to Read the Bible

The most important thing you'll ever learn in seminary can be summed up by this statement: "Context, context, context. Context is king." If you don't understand the context, you don't understand, period.

You have failed to cooperate in the process of learning and communication if you do not bother with context. You're ignoring your dialogue partner. You're zoning out and talking at someone instead of with him. You're flat out being rude, and have no need for anyone else to be with you as you chat away, since your conversation is between one person, not two. So if we are to let anyone speak, especially God, we need to stop looking to hear our own voices and start seeing what the other is saying within the context of the whole of what he or she is saying.

I was reminded of this when I came across this ad for a new book ( that I thought was quite interesting. I didn't find it interesting because I found it a convincing way to read the Bible, but because I thought this is the sort of thing that will convince a generation of people who are biblically illiterate.

No doubt, many people know Bible stories and have traditional interpretations that this book will challenge, but the problem is that neither those traditional understandings nor the challenges this book makes, if the hermeneutic presented in this clip remains consistent throughout, actually take the time to read what the Bible is saying.

Instead, it becomes much like that scene from "Fiddler on the Roof," where the socialist young Jewish nomad, Perchik, is teaching Reb Tevye's daughters that the story of Jacob and Laban is meant to teach us that we should never trust an employer.

This sort of "Aesop's Fables" method of biblical interpretation is a bad hermeneutic if one wishes to listen to the Bible. It's a great hermeneutic if one wants to listen to himself and get some divine support for his own ideas, but not so much if one wants to hear what the Bible actually has to say.

This is because it chops up the Scripture and takes it out of context. In this way, this parabolic/moralistic way of reading the text is no better than any other literalistic prooftexting. It just sounds more artsy to the untrained ear. In reality, there are numerous holes that an understanding of the story within the whole of the narrative would puncture in such eisegetical impositions upon the text. We love the idea that God doesn't want us to obey in faith, but rather be independent thinkers who pay no attention to the road He laid out for us. Of course, the glaring question becomes, "Then why should I obey the idea that I shouldn't blindly obey, since that is the road the Bible lays out for us, and that isn't what God wants?" So God doesn't want us to do what He tells us He wants us to do, and we know that because He tells us what He wants us to do. See the nonsense? And that is exactly what happens when we try to make the Bible support our philosophies of life rather than listen to the one that it lays out for us. Our philosophies are going to be self defeating and complete rubbish, so if we approach the Bible seeking to find our philosophies there, that's exactly what we'll find . . . without ever hearing the challenge the Bible actually makes against our philosophies.

Of course, another question one might ask is whether Cain was finally getting the hang of being independent from the path God laid out for him when God told him to get a grip on his sin, and Cain murdered his brother instead. Talk about self sufficient, independence. God must have been so proud that he gave Cain a vacation.

Do us all a favor, better yet, do yourself a favor, and read biblical books, collections of biblical books, and the Bible as a whole in context. That will save us all from using the Bible to regurgitate the very poison that is choking us to death. Let the Bible speak. Stop interrupting with what you already believe, especially since what you already believe is so unbelievably stupid. We don't need more independence from God. That's all we do have in this culture. We need some people who actually have independence from the culture and all of its philosophically suicidal tendencies. And we can only have independence of thought if a voice that transcends culture gets to speak into our lives.

So, no, reading the Bible as a bunch of little stories that support exclusively modern Western ideals is a bad idea, not only because it's hopelessly ethnocentric and elitist to think that such ideals as being rewarded for not obeying God would actually be supported, rather than corrected, by Scripture, but because it never provides the Scripture the opportunity to actually say what it wants to say about those ideals. Scripture is merely a collection of a thousand truisms that can be used to advocate any man's ideals. But if we allow the Scripture to speak, we hear it say that "the [human] mind is more deceitful than anything else, and desperately sick. Who can understand it?" It is the Lord who searches the mind and ideas of a man in order to judge them appropriately. Hence, if we do not allow Him to wade through the muck and mire of our own philosophies with what He intends to say within the context of His Word, we will be left to the mercy of our own foolishness and deception.

To be honest, this is the number one reason why there are so many biblical interpretations. It isn't because the Bible is so loose and unclear with what it says that you can interpret it in so many ways. It's simply because, in the vast majority of cases where you have numerous interpretations, no one bothers to read what is said in context.

So here is my very basic advice. Read an entire book of the Bible and ask yourself what the main argument the book is making might be. Then go back over the individual passages within that book and ask yourself how those individual passages fit into the argument as a whole. If they don't, you either have the wrong understanding of the individual passages or the wrong understanding of the book's argument. Either way, keep at it, back and forth, back and forth again, and you will eventually come to it. Scripture is meant to be pondered and understood with perseverance, so keep seeking and ye shall find. If you want an immediate understanding of the Bible, such impatience will likely not receive it. Then, once you have done this with the book, do it for the entirety of a section of Scripture (like the Tetrateuch or the Deuteronomistic History or the Book of the Twelve). Then, try and understand how it all fits together within the message of the canon. That's the way you're going to understand the Bible beyond these pathetic cultural/cultic misuses and abuses of said Bible. To put it plainly, "Context, context, context. Context is king."


  1. Great point. That Hebrew Commentary guy was shoe-horning his philosophy into the Bible--eisegesis instead of exegesis. And the idea that Karl Marx was a shepherd? I think I just threw up a little in my mouth...

  2. LOL. I know. I was stunned that an interpretation that flies so obviously in the face of what the narrative is actually saying is so casually put forth as some ingenuous answer to understanding that passage. Amazing.