How to Interpret the Bible
Christians have been hearing or reading the New Testament coming up on two thousand years, and people have dived into the Old Testament even longer. Many, many ways of looking at both have surfaced in that time.
But throughout, the general idea has been to make the Bible a part of your prayer and reflection, to connect it with your spiritual questions and longings. But how do you do that? While there’s no foolproof method, here are a few ideas we think will keep you on the right track:
- FIND A QUIET TIME AND PLACE.
- PRAY. Never hurts, right?
- THINK ABOUT WHAT’S GOING ON IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW. Reading Scripture is really about listening, and a big part of listening is looking to your own experience in search of what God is saying to you (the technical term is discernment).
SELECT A PASSAGE, AND LET’S DIVE IN
- Read the Text! I know it sounds obvious, but it’s really not. We’ve heard so much about some Bible stories we feel like we’ve really got them down. But do we? It’s easy to confuse the thousands of stories about passages from the Bible with the passages themselves.
Example: Everyone knows about how the devil tempted Eve to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden, right? Except that, in the actual passage (Genesis 3:1-24), the devil is never mentioned and neither is any apple. “The serpent” (Gen. 3:1) is the culprit who tempts Eve, and the fruit in question is identified only as “the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden” (Gen. 3:3).
- What does the passage say exactly?
- Does it make sense?
- Is it different or the same as I expected?
Tools to help: a Bible, especially one with good footnotes.
- What about the CONTEXT? Too often we’re ready to quote a particular verse of Scripture as if the words could make sense by themselves. But what comes before and after a verse or passage (the literary context) is generally critical to understanding it. And knowing a bit about the life and customs of people in biblical times (the historical and cultural context) wouldn’t hurt either. Have you ever noticed that certain things people in the Bible do seem really weird? For example, why did people make sacrifices of animals in biblical times?
Example: At the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the globe-trotting apostle Paul is ticked off: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel,” he tells the Christians in Galatia (Galatians 1:6). But you have to keep reading to find out what’s really going on. Some other “apostles” have come around and convinced the local Gentile Christians that if they really want to be friends of God, they have to be circumcised (ouch!). Of course, behind the scenes here is the most ancient of Jewish customs–circumcision is the mark of identity for Jewish males. But St. Paul preached what we might call the “law-free” gospel?he taught that God wants everyone as they are, that belonging to Jesus is a matter of faith in him, not a matter of belonging to a particular nation. And after all, Paul’s the apostle who brought them the faith, their spiritual big cheese. So naturally Paul feels a bit put out–these Galatian Christians have not only messed up the message, they’ve ditched the very leader who cared for them!
Now you try it. Pick a Bible passage and ask yourself:
- What is happening in the sections before and after the passage I chose?
- Is there anything that I just don’t get?
- Are there special customs or cultural background here that would help me?
Tools for Reflection: Try your Bible’s footnotes, especially if you’ve got a Study Bible. Next go for a good commentary or Bible textbook, or look up what you just don’t get in a Bible dictionary.
- Think about your passage as somebody’s story. Faith is relationship with a God who is beyond our imagining. In other words, you just can’t pin God down. So safer than making broad generalizations about God is to tell stories?stories about human beings who found themselves on holy ground, face-to-face with the God of Mystery. The Bible is one of the largest collections of such stories there is. Interpreting a passage from the Bible means understanding the story at the heart of the passage. How do we figure them out? The same as with any story. We check out the setting, the characters, the plot twists, ironies, and what the point is.
Example: A great Bible story is that of King David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12-13). David had it bad for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his soldiers. So he “arranged” for the man to die in battle. Afterward, Nathan the prophet drops in to court and treats David to a story. A rich man giving a dinner has ripped off a poor man’s only lamb to feed his guests. David is incensed at such treachery, but Nathan surprises him by revealing that the treachery is his! He has done the same to his soldier Uriah (women may not find Nathan’s comparison flattering). The whole sequence of this story is classic, giving us tragically flawed characters, the betrayal of an honest man, unexpected plot twists, a final scene of terrible irony?David unwittingly condemns himself! It’s near soap opera, but the perceptive reader knows we all have pulled minor versions of David’s escapades?making bad choices in love, letting friends down, accusing others of what we have just done ourselves.
- Whose story is this passage telling? Who is it about?
- How do I feel when I hear it?
- What ultimately is the point and what can we learn from it?
Tools to help: a love of stories, attention to the patterns in a story,
a sense of things like character, irony, the moral of the story.
- What does it all mean for me? Probably the most challenging part of reading the Bible is figuring out the connection to my own life experience. Occasionally it’s easy to do so (I mean, what part of “love your enemies” don’t we understand?); sometimes it’s nearly impossible (what could the story of the prophet Jeremiah hiding his underwear in a rock [Jer. 13:1-11] have to tell us?), and much of the time it’s just a little more complicated than we thought (the Good Samaritan parable in Luke 10:30-37 is not just about being nice to people). The Bible often gives us better questions than it does answers. How do I love my enemies? Why does God always call the last person we’d expect?and is that me? It’s best to try to look for the human dilemma or spiritual question involved. Then trust that meditating on the passage (with an open mind) will bring out some lesson I need to ruminate on. From there it’s not so difficult to look at my own life and see where the question or lesson applies.
Examples of lessons: I am responsible for people who are different from me (the Good Samaritan). Fear is often what keeps us from trusting God (Jesus inviting Peter to walk on water in Matthew 14:23-33).
The process: The mother of the prophet Samuel was named Hannah, and her story is told in 1 Samuel 1:1-20. In ancient societies (and in many contemporary ones as well) a woman’s worth is based on her ability to bear children. By those rules, Hannah’s sterility should have made her a nobody. Yet, according to the Bible, she was thought particularly special in the eyes of both her husband and God. This should lead us to reflect on who the mocked and forgotten people are in my life. How can I show them respect and kindness, communicating God’s special love for them?
You made it through camp! You can put your training to use by picking up your own Bible and reading it with new insight.
Remember that you can get the overview of any book just by clicking on it in this section. If you still have a question about your reading of the Bible, send it to our Question Box and we’ll respond post haste.
Good luck. And may the Book be with you.