Basics in Bible study and Pitfalls in Interpretation
For centuries, priests have been the only interpreters of the world's scriptures. The reasons are simple. These writings were often considered too 'holy' for the average person to understand on her own. Holiness was a full-time job. The act of reading a religious book required great spiritual knowledge. Even more, it required that the book be actually touched by the reader! The average person worked from dawn to dusk and was too busy (and dirty) making a living to follow all the purification rules that holiness required. Hands and fingernails marred from hard work were obviously too unclean to handle God's words. Also, few people could read. Those few who had books and who could read usually belonged to the religious and upper social classes. What with work and keeping the family together, the average person would not have seen any use in reading. Priests were trusted to teach everyone what the priests considered important.
Today, many people read, books are everywhere, people have more time and the average person believes he can trust himself to understand most things if given a chance. Yet for all this, the bible still remains one of the most unread books in many homes. This is sad because the bible is not a complicated book. Written by common everyday people for common everyday people, it has much to offer.
So here we are. You friend has a bible that has been sitting on her bookshelf for way too long. She flips her TV channel past televangelists on Sundays and she keeps feeling that she really ought to read the bible 'one of these days.' During the major holidays, she has seen one TV bible movie after another. It all looks so hokey, but nevertheless her eyes start wandering towards the Family Bible. Then she picks up the bible and either she 'gets' it or doesn't. If she doesn't, she calls up her bible-reading friend -you- for advice in helping to read it. Okay, here is some advice that might help your friend:
Dear Beginning Bible reader:
The first-time bible reader can tackle bible reading in many ways. But sooner or later, the reader will face certain hurdles. First, you have to tackle your prejudices and those parts of the bible that go against your emotional, sexual, religious, ethnic or modern sensibilities. This is not to say that the bible is old-fashioned. Only that -if you care to admit it- you believe it is.
The power of stories
You might ask for instance: 'Why did God tell us great spiritual truths in the form of stories? Why didn't He simply give us long lists of facts, warnings, truths, etc?' I can only answer that people have always loved stories. We often tell stories to illustrate a certain truth. Most cultures have told their religious truths through stories. This is how God made the human mind: Truth and the Way and Life are all intertwined.
Someone else might say, 'These bible stories are old-fashioned and just plain silly.' But, remember, if you haven't read the bible, how do you know these stories are silly? You are simply relying on second-hand opinions from ministers, television, and from the world at large. And what about those silly stories, like the Adam story? In churches and in bookstores across the country, there might be a good thousand sermons on Adam and Eve. Ministers will often use the story to talk about anything from Sin, Appetite, Creation, Evolution, Land Management, Heaven, Temptation, Shame, and countless other topics. A story is only silly if you can't find any meaningful substance in it.
This one story can yield a gold-mine of sermons. This shows the richness of the bible stories and the creative ability of the human spirit to see spiritual truths in Scripture.
Someone else might challenge, 'Okay, you say you're going to help me understand the Bible. How do I know you aren't trying to indoctrinate me?' I can only answer, that mis-interpretations are always happening. More often than not, these mis-interpretations are not a matter of life and death. Sometimes, however, a bad interpretation of a bible verse can cause wars, social injustice, personal depression, spiritual crises or just plain confusion. Jesus once said 'if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch.' This statement means 'If our spiritual teachers are blind and we make the mistake of following their teaching, we will all end up in the wrong place spiritually.' How, then, do you know if I am blind or biased?
In my defense, I will ask you to consider any bible reading help you may receive from me or any other Christian -clergy or laity- as a journey in which the helper shows you the landscape and point out major landmarks. Christians will either try to lead you to their denomination or to Christ. If you read enough books by different Christian writers, you will be able to see the difference soon enough.
In the meantime, I'll give you some tools to help you understand the bible better.
Here are my five basic rules of bible reading:
1. When reading the bible, use common sense. If a biblical passage is obviously symbolic, do not take the passage literally. If the biblical passage is meant to be taken literally, do not make it into a symbol. There is a verse in the bible which says, 'If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.'
I remember a co-worker telling me that she felt God was being verse harsh to demand that people pluck their eyes out. I would've chuckled. But she was quite serious. I told her that God doesn't want you to pluck out your eyes. The verse really means: 'no matter how much you love your sin -even if it is as dear to you as your eyes - get rid of the sin.' I don't know if she believed me. Her idea of God was different than my own. She actually thought God was harsh and demanding enough to make 'literal' eye-plucking demands.
2. The second rule of bible reading is: Read biblical passages in context. This is fundamental in all reading. It's the first thing they taught us in reading comprehension class. When we go to church, we rush from verse to verse as the preacher tells us. That's good. But, after church, when we're by ourselves at home, we should return to the passages to read all the verses in context. Sometimes, we must read the entire paragraph, chapter or even the entire book before we can understand what is really going on. Biblical writers are notorious for digressing from their main point and then returning to it through another line of thought. You won't get the entire story if you study only one verse. It is good to memorize favourite bible verses but this is no substitute for reading the entire bible passage.
I remember an incident in college when an atheist challenged me on the Bible. He said, 'The bible says we must forgive our enemies and yet it also says an eye for an eye. It contradicts itself.' I reminded him that both verses were found in the same conversation, same chapter. If he had read the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapter 5- 7) in context, he would have understood that there was no contradiction. He would have seen the subtlety of Jesus' commands.
3. My third rule of bible interpretation is not really mine. It is a rule found in the bible and it is this: Use the bible to interpret the bible. The bible tells us to compare 'verse to verse, word to word, precept to precept and line to line.' It also tells us that it does not disagree with itself because God's Holy Spirit spoke through holy people to write the bible. The books in the bible are written by writers who lived centuries apart. Yet, amazingly, they all say the same things about human nature, God, faith, and sin. When Moses tells us that the first humans in the Garden did not 'trust God.' His idea of faith in God is the same as Jesus' ideas about faith. The requirements of faith in Eden are the same requirements as those in the Book of Revelation.
4. The fourth rule of Bible interpretation is to beware of your own agenda. Racial, sexual, political and class agenda have been the major cause of biblical misinterpretation. Many a minister has allowed race, sexual orientation, class, and politics to interpret a verse. There is a saying in the bible: 'Seek and you will find.' If an atheist opens the bible hoping to find that it is a horrible little book, she will find that it is indeed a horrible little book. She will only look at what offends her 'sensibility' and will --because of her agenda-- not see what the bible is actually talking about.
5. The fifth rule of Bible interpretation is this: If you don't know about the meaning of the passage, withhold judgement. Some have dismissed the bible because they could not 'get past' a verse they had problems with. Or, they could not stand a particular biblical character. 'One friend kept wondering how God could call someone like David a man after His own heart?' Let's face it: there are only a few times in your life when knowing the exact right meaning of a bible passage will be a life or death decision.
6. The last rule of Bible Reading is to read the bible in a language you understand. Okay, some of us are Shakespearean scholars. But I highly recommended that teenagers, new adult readers and those of us not fluent in King James English use a contemporary English version of the bible. The grammar, word order, and meanings of King James' English are different from ours. It is also different from the English used in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. I'll give you some examples. What does the phrase 'suffer the little children to come to me' means? As Christians, we know that suffer means 'allow.' But this word can confuse an innocent searcher who will ask, 'Why does he want the children to suffer to come to him?' See what I mean? One famous verse in the gospel of John is: 'The light shined in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.' The meaning of the word 'comprehend' has changed. In King James' time, it meant to encompass or to conquer. When they saw the old Aramaic/Hebrew word that meant to conquer, they used 'comprehend.' When modern folks say 'comprehend,' we mean 'to understand.' Therefore when they read the KJV, they misunderstand the verse. I've heard some great sermons on the darkness not 'understanding' the light. These wonderful sermons and interpretations were valid in their own way. But the verse still means: 'the darkness did not conquer the light.'
There are also a few pitfalls that you might fall into when you read the bible. I will list them briefly.
Pitfalls of Bible Interpretation
Now that you know the basic rules of interpretation, here are some of the causes and pitfalls of Biblical mis-interpretations:
1. Don't mistake the bible's depiction of an ugly situation as a biblical endorsement. For instance, many people say that the bible is for slavery or anti-women. As you read the bible, you will discover that this is not true.
2. Don't assume you know everything about bible Culture. For example: Moses gave the new nation of Israel a law commonly called the Eye for an Eye law. You've probably heard about this law. It means that if some takes someone else's life, he or she must lose his own. Some people think this law is barbaric. They say a good God wouldn't be so unforgiving? But, human nature is quite vengeful and the Eye for an Eye law puts a limit on revenge. Consider some of our more vengeful fantasies. When someone hurts us, we often want to take MORE than an eye from those who have offended us. (Remember what went through your mind the last time a driver cut you off?) The 'Eye for an Eye' law also has many biblical loopholes. For instance, the Refuge Cities were created where 'accidental murderers' could live free from punishment.
3. Don't use race, class or cultural prejudice to interpret the bible. For instance, people who are racist often interpret Noah's curse as an endorsement of their prejudice. This is a mistake and it has created much social injustice such as slavery and many dangerous cults.
4. Don't use your denomination to interpret the bible. Christianity has many denominations. Some people read the bible through the tinted glass of their denomination. Nothing is wrong with doing this. Most denominations agree on the main points of the religion. However, there are differences even among the major denominations. It is best to read the bible for yourself. Then prayerfully decide which denomination best reflects your understanding of the bible. If you make a mistake, you can always change denominations. The epistles of St Paul were written to churches with many flaws yet Paul considered these churches "Christian". Although several so-called Christian churches contain grievious errors, (My white husband and I -a black woman- have personally been offended on more than one occasion in independent Baptists churches whose ministers stopped in the middle of sermons to proclaim that interracial marriage is a sin). No denomination is the right one. God's people are scattered throughout many denominations in Christendom.
5. Don't turn bible characters into Sacred Cows or Scapegoats. Look at the story of Hagar and Abraham, Michal and David. These aren't simplistic 'good guy/bad guy' stories. Many people, for instance, often judge the many prostitutes and divorced women that turn up in the bible. They are often harder on these women than the bible prophets are. The Samaritan woman who spoke to Jesus at the well is often used as an example of a 'bad' woman. Modern readers don't understand that middle eastern men of that time could easily divorce women for any kind of reason, childlessness, talking back, old age. They also forget that during bible times, poor women without families had few choices when life dealt them a harsh blow. The much-divorced Samaritan woman may have had a big mouth or been unable to bear children. The fact that she ended up with a man who was 'not her husband' is more likely the effect of destroyed self-esteem rather than sin. The plain truth is we cannot easily judge a situation we know so little about. John didn't tell us the backstory.
6. Try to have a sense of humour. Jesus was the Word, and as such, He could have His puns. He made many jokes. When he saw Zaccheus, he made a pun on the name 'Jacob' and said Zaccheaus was a man without guile, a true Israelite. When his disciples wanted to call thunder from heaven, he called them the 'Thunder Boys.' The jokes have a bit of truth in them, but they are nevertheless jokes. Jesus is not humorless. The bible is full of jokes. People who can't recognize a joke when they see one often turn a simple joke into a sermon. Even worse, they believe Jesus to be humorless and unapproachable.
7. Don't be too quick to think that the bible is contradicting itself. Sometimes, this requires close reading. Sometimes it simply requires knowing the culture a little better. For instance, in one place in the bible we read that Esau had three wives (Basemath, the daughter of Elon; Aholibamah, his uncle Ishmael's daughter, and Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite.) And, in another place, the bible tells us that Esau married Adah whose father owned a well. Someone who is not accustomed to the biblical habit of throwing nicknames around might say, 'The Bible is making a mistake. Who is Adah? I thought Esau only had three wives. How can God write a book with such a mistake in it?' The simple answer is this: 'beeri' means 'well-man' or 'owner of a well.' Judith's father was Beeri (well- man) and Adah's father owned a well. So Judith and Adah are the same person. The Bible has not made a mistake. It never does.
8. Don't read too quickly and try not to assume. Many people believe that three wise men visited Jesus on the night of his birth. But re-read the story: the bible doesn't say how many wise men worshiped Jesus. It doesn't even say the wise men were kings. The wise men were also not present in the inn on the night of Jesus' birth. They arrived at his mother's house two years later. In the story of Samson and Delilah, many readers assume that Delilah was a prostitute. They believe this because a verse that describes Samson's visit to a harlot occurs just before the verse in which Delilah makes her entrance.
9. Don't assume that people from another time were not as smart as people living in our age. Many modern day readers assume that we are less likely to be 'fooled' into believing something is a miracle. But people have always been smart, cynical and untrusting.
10. Try to identify with the biblical character you're reading about. Sometimes we believe that if we were in a certain person's position, we would behave better. This makes us judgmental and self-righteous. If we are unable to identify with a beaten slave like Hagar or with a cast-off wife, like Michal we will be judgmental towards a bible character's behavior. We are also showing our human tendency to identify with the people of praise and renown instead of the wounded.
Some people don't like the imprecatory Psalms--those Psalms in which the writer cries out for revenge. They think that a religious person shouldn't sound so hateful. But these psalms show an honest relationship between God and His people. Bible people didn't hide their feelings from God. Moreover, the people who judge the writers of the vengeance psalms have probably never seen their children split in two by foreign invaders. It is hard to understand when we do not really understand the life of the writer.
11. Don't let your discomfort with sexual issues make affect how you view the story. We are often more prudish than bible characters are. In the story of Ruth, we are told that Ruth 'uncovered Boaz's feet.' Many bible readers will steer around this part of the story or assume Ruth merely lifted Boaz' clothes as a symbolic action. Yet everywhere else in Scripture, the euphemism 'uncover' is used to describe a sexual or intimate act. And the Jewish culture's interpretation of Ruth's actions are different from Christian's... they know their own euphemism.
12. Be aware of your own agenda will cause mis-interpretation. For example: the bible speaks against homosexuality. Some homosexual priests and theologians have said that Sodom's sin was 'inhospitality.' They also say that the biblical definition of homosexuality is 'idolatry.' There may be a little truth in these assertions. But the major truth is that the bible says quite plainly in many places that the act of homosexuality is wrong. That does not mean that we should hurt consider homosexuality worse than other sins or set out to hurt the feelings of someone else.
13. Know the difference between a symbol and something literal. The bible says that when Lot and his family fled the sulfur-burned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Many people have questioned this verse and tried to explain it. Some say that she actually, literally turned into a pillar of salt. Some say she was covered up with sulfuric salts. Some say she was radiated and burned and her remains was salt. Those who know ancient middle eastern slang, know that the phrase 'to be turned to a pillar of salt' is a middle eastern slang which means something like our 'petrified.' (We use the word 'petrified' to mean shocked or afraid. But it literally means 'turned to stone.') In that case, Lot's wife might simply have died of fright. As a poet and writer, I much prefer the literal actual turning into salt business. But my faith does not fall or rise with this interpretation. Think of the phrase, 'The Love of Money is the root of all evil.' In the same way, the Greek phrase 'love of money' means covetousness. But because the King James translators translated the word literally, its primary meaning of covetousness is changed. Think what would happen if someone translated strawberry as 'berries of straw.'
14. Don't assume that a bible Story is too small to have a spiritual meaning. The smallness of a story doesn't make it unimportant. The story of Lamech is small but it tells a lot about how humans can be deluded about their own spirituality and even use religion and God's grace selfishly.
15. Don't try to take the supernatural out of a story. Many people question the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. Others dislike the idea of God creating the world. Some unimaginative, faithless people get uptight when Christians say that the bible is a supernatural book that has been supernaturally preserved by God. The very idea that God could actually be alive and working in history and in everyone's life is something others find offensive.
16. Know the basic rules of Reading comprehension. Sad but true, many people in the western world do not read well. Some read well but don't know the basics of reading comprehension. Know how to read and building our vocabulary will help us to understand our bibles. Many of the well-established Christian cults were created, not because someone read the original Greek, but because someone simply misread, mistranslated and misunderstood the King James Version of the bible. The Book of Mormon, for instance, was supposedly translated by 18th century Americans but its word choices and styles are Shakespearean, as if copied from King James. It even uses the word 'oxen' which was a KJV word meaning a castrated cow, but castrated cows were unheard of in the Americas.
17. Remember that some words, names or slangs can have many different meaning and different translations of these words can affect interpretation. For instance, in Hebrew, the word 'wind' can mean God, breath or wind. Translators use one or the either in describing the wind or God's spirit moving over the waters. The name Adam means: man and soil and red. Do you see how these names are related? The first man came from the soil and his skin was colored red like the soil. Translators often translate Adam as a personal name. Slangs are often hard to translate. When Jesus' mother told him to do something about the wine shortage at the wedding reception, he answered her with a slang. The King James translates the slang as 'Woman, what do I have to do with you?' This is a literal translation of the slang. But the phrase could also be translated as 'Woman, what is that to you and me?' This is a very friendly phrase. A Jewish believer with a knowledge of Hebrew words and speaking styles would readily understand that Jesus was being friendly to his mother and agreeing to do whatever she asked, but the view of the typical Christian depends on the translation he reads. Some wonderful sermons have been written and spoken about Jesus dismissing his mother and -the opposite- about Jesus being friendly to his mother. God uses these sermons, but a Jewish reader would know what Jesus actually said and actually meant. We have the same problem translating many English words. In our time, someone might say, 'What's up?' This could be translated as "What is up?" "What is happening?" Depending on the skill of the translator, the reader might think someone is asking 1) where something is 2) what the meaning of the word 'up' is 3) what thing is up there or 4) what is happening? It is the same with bible translation.
18. Know the rest of the bible. The bible continually refers to itself. One bible writer will mention another bible writer or another bible person. If you don't know who Jacob or Elias is, you will find yourself at a loss when a bible writer mentions these names. We aren't confused when someone mentions Madonna or Homer Simpson or Snoopy and Charlie Brown because we know who these people are. Knowing the people and places in the bible can help you keep your bearings.
19. Know your own personal psychological history and hang-ups. Your own family history can make you understand some bible stories better than other people understand it. But it can also get in the way. If you find yourself becoming unreasonably angry with a bible character or a bible story, examine yourself prayerfully. If you can't do that, ignore the story and move on. I remember a woman who really hated Leah -and God- for allowing Leah to steal Rachel's husband. There was no talking to her, but the story had hit a raw nerve. Other people try their best to say that Moses' wife was NOT black or Ethiopian.
Of course sometimes a reader cannot ignore the story. I remember being at an episcopalian church in New York City. A statue of a male Jesus had been taken down from a cruxifix and replaced by a female statue named Christa. Many women-nuns, priests, laity- said they felt closer to this female depiction of the female side of God because of their bad sexual histories and because men had made such a mess of the culture. The women felt the crucifix was 'spiritually' true. But I was not impressed by Christa; I felt Jesus as a female was literally and spiritually untrue. Plain and simple, Jesus was a man. But this is how many people deal with aspects of the bible they find personally bothersome.
20. Don't assume that new interpretations of bible passages are better than old interpretations. NEW does not mean TRUE. Many modern people believe that everything old is useless, bad, and inapplicable to modern life. They strive to create 'modern' twists on Scripture which they consider more culturally applicable. A friend once told me that African-Americans are really the true Jews. She got this interpretation from a bible study she read on Deuteronomy, chapter 27. Many people also believe that a new philosophy is true and that the bible is old fashioned. They don't realize these philosophies are challenged in the bible. Moreover, there is no new philosophy under the sun. Seemingly new theologies can usually found to be as old as the hills. If someone looks hard enough, challenges to these 'newer' religions can be found in old religious books.
21. Beware of media-created dichotomies. For instance, in movies and modern books, very good women are often innocent, almost ignorant and bad women are always wise and savvy. Another example: modern movies show people who believe in the bible as judgmental, hypocritical, repressed and rigid while at the same time, they show non-religious people as open-minded, happy and honest. But religion doesn't make people are sexually uptight, chauvinistic, or dumb. You will see how interesting, real, and fun most characters are. Religious people also have their stereotypes. But life -and the bible- is more complicated than this.
22. The bible we have is not the only bible in the world. The Eastern Church has its bible, as does the French Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore we must be aware that what might be a big problem in our bible might not exist if we had another bible. The King James translation is old and many words were unknown to the translators. For instance, the phrase, 'A camel through the eye of a needle' is only found in English translations because the eastern church -which lives more with the old Aramic language than Elizabethan translators- translated the Arabic word 'gamla' correctly as "rope" instead of camel. So we must be aware that we might very well be reading a verse that has been mistranslated.
The important thing to remember is that God has given us our own minds. It is not a good idea to have a Second-God and a second-hand knowledge of Scripture.