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How Should We Read?

How Should We Read?

The Method of Interpreting the Bible

By Douglas Hamp

December 2007

A frequent accusation against the Bible is that one can make it say whatever one wants.  Unquestionably there are people that take such liberty and try to make the Bible fit into their philosophies. However, is it true that the Bible allows for such liberties?  Is God’s Word really so ambiguous?  Or is there a method to properly understand and capture the message that He intended for us to receive?  The importance of this question is staggering because where one begins will often determine where one ends up.  If our method of interpretation is so fluid that the Bible can say anything, then it generally will.  However, if our method assumes that what is said is what is meant, then we will arrive at trustworthy conclusions not based on how clever we are in our interpretation, but on our simply reading and believing what the text says.

This type of interpretation is known as the grammatical-historical method.  It assumes that the words and thoughts that are conveyed in the Bible are used in the same way that normal speech, writing, and conversation occur in everyday life.  Basically stated, we don’t have to read between the lines of the Bible to understand what it means.  The greatest advantage of interpreting the Bible in a straightforward manner is that we are able to test our conclusions regarding what it says against archeology, historical documents, and examination of the Hebrew and Greek grammar of the particular passage.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

The wonder of the Bible is that we use Scripture to interpret Scripture based on the words of Jesus in John 10:35, where he said “…and Scripture cannot be broken.”  The apostles Paul and Peter reiterate this:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. (1 Timothy 3:16)

[…] as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.  (2 Peter 3:15, 16, emphasis mine)

Notice that Peter equates the writings of Paul with “the rest of the Scriptures”, that is, the Old Testament.  Since Peter considers the writings of Paul to be inspired by God as those of the Old Testament, which were obviously considered authoritative, we can confidently use one book of the Bible to help interpret other books.

Using the Bible to interpret itself is not circular reasoning.  The Bible is not just one single document written by one author at one time.  Rather, it is a collection of sixty-six books written by forty authors over a period of about 1,500 years.  As a teacher of the Bible trained at the secular, humanistic Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I am well aware of its critics.  Therefore, I take great interest in making sure that our approach to interpreting Scripture be consistent.  The fact that the Bible is a compilation of many books by many authors over the period of 1500 years and that its message is unified permits us to cross-reference its various books.  Thus, when we use one portion of Scripture to interpret another, we are not just performing a tautological exercise.  Rather we are referencing ancient documents and comparing those to other ancient documents.

Hermeneutics

This discipline of interpretation is formally called hermeneutics, which is how we decide what the Bible, or any text for that matter, actually means.  Many people take a very relaxed view of interpreting the Bible; they subscribe to a type of moral relativism.  However, they would fight tooth and nail when it comes to something like their portion of an inheritance as defined in a will, or how much money is owed according to a legal contract.

In the above cases, no one would be looking for a hidden meaning but would look at the plain meaning of the text.  No competent judge would try to “read between the lines” in order to make a will, contract, insurance claim, or our bank balance say something that it really doesn’t say – and if a judge did such a thing, we would all cry “injustice!!”

What Do We Mean By Literal?

Just as the normal method of understanding everyday letters, contracts, and documents is literal, straightforward, and uses the historical-grammatical approach rather than the allegorical approach, this is also the method we use to interpret the Bible.  This does not mean that the biblical authors did not occasionally use metaphors, similes, analogies, and once in a while even allegory to teach a point.

John, in the book of Revelation, sees a vision in heaven where Jesus is referred to as a lamb and also as a lion (Rev 5:5, 6).  Other times Jesus Himself states that He is the Bread of Heaven (John 6:51), the Door (John 10:7), the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), etc.  Does this mean that we cannot understand the text or that everything is to be taken allegorically?  By no means!  Jesus is making illustrations about Himself in order to teach an important lesson.  They are all true in the context of what He was teaching.  We would never assume that Jesus is actually flour, salt, and water, the ingredients in literal bread, nor would we think that He is a piece of wood as a door, nor even a four-footed creature as John saw in Revelation.  We understand that He is speaking figuratively.  However, there are real truths behind what He was saying.  Jesus frequently used parables, a type of allegory to teach certain truths, yet there was no question that it was a story.  There was no thought that Jesus was actually communicating a real, historical event.  Telling stories (parables) was a very Jewish way of teaching employed by many Rabbis of Jesus’ day.

What is Allegory?

We have spoken of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation and have suggested that it is the normal method to be employed.  What is the allegorical method and why should we avoid interpreting the Bible in such a manner?  J. Dwight Pentecost addresses this manner of interpreting Scripture in great detail in his classic work Things to Come.  “In this method the historical import is either denied or ignored and the emphasis is placed entirely on a secondary sense so that the original words or events have little or no significance” (Pentecost 1958: 4).  He also cites Ramm who defines allegory as “…the method of interpreting a literary text that regards the literal sense as the vehicle for a secondary, more spiritual and more profound sense” (Ramm 1950: 1).  Pentecost summarizes this by saying that “it would seem that the purpose of the allegorical method is not to interpret Scripture, but to pervert the true meaning of Scripture, albeit under the guise of seeking a deeper or more spiritual meaning” (Pentecost 1958: 5).

Dr. Pentecost points out three dangers of the allegorical method:

1.       The first great danger of the allegorical method is that it does not interpret Scripture.

2.       The basic authority in interpretation ceases to be the Scriptures, but the mind of the interpreter. The interpretation may then be twisted by the interpreter’s doctrinal positions, the authority of the church to which the interpreter adheres, his social or educational background, or a host of other factors.

3.       […] one is left without any means by which the conclusions of the interpreter may be tested.  (Pentecost 1958: 5,6)

An example of allegory is found in Galatians 4:24-26 where Paul plainly tells us that he is using an allegory and he then gives us the meaning behind those symbols.  We are not left to dig for a deeper hidden meaning, nor are we to address every Old Testament passage looking for the “real” truth behind the text.  Paul is taking real, historical events significant in their own right and is simply drawing out a typology to teach a spiritual truth.

[…] which things are symbolic [ἀλληγορούμενα – allegory]. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar – for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children – but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.

The above example is not truly the employment of the allegorical method, but rather the explanation of an allegory (Pentecost 1958: 7).  We can be sure that Paul is not using the allegorical method of interpretation because he did not deny the historicity of the Old Testament account, but merely employed the story as an illustration.

The real issue between a literal and an allegorical method of interpretation is in essentially knowing how God communicated with His people in Scripture.  Did He communicate in such a way that one had to read between the lines to truly get at what He was saying?  Or did He generally use plain language that was easy for mankind to understand?  What was God’s normal method of communication?

There are numerous examples of where the Bible interprets itself in very clear language leaving no doubt whatsoever as to its intent.  An example is found in Genesis where God declares that man may eat from any tree except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Regardless of which method of interpretation we use, we see that behind God’s words was a very real consequence.  According to Genesis and the rest of the Bible, man’s decision to eat of the tree had very real consequences not to be undone until the end of time when the tree of life is restored (Revelation 22:2).  At least from the Bible’s standpoint, God’s words were to be taken literally; to understand otherwise would confuse the entire message of the Bible (see: Romans 5:12, 6:23 and I Corinthians 15:21).  Let’s consider in detail the accounts of Moses and Daniel to see which method of interpretation they employed.

Striking the Rock

The Children of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness offers an example of where several biblical writers interpret in a literal fashion.  After fleeing from Egypt through the wilderness, they came to a place where they had no water.  God commanded Moses to strike the rock so that water would come out of it (Exodus 17:6).  Moses did so, and as a result, water gushed forth from the rock providing life-giving water to the thirsty Israelites.  This episode is recounted hundreds of years later as a historical fact by the Psalmist Asaph in Psalm 78 where he declares:

Give ear, O my people, to my law; Incline your ears to the words of my mouth. […] we have heard and known […] our fathers have told us. For He […] appointed a law in Israel, Which He commanded our fathers, That they should make them known to their children […] And His wonders that He had shown them. Marvelous things He did in the sight of their fathers, In the land of Egypt […] He divided the sea and caused them to pass through; And He made the waters stand up like a heap. In the daytime also He led them with the cloud, And all the night with a light of fire. He split the rocks in the wilderness, And gave them drink in abundance like the depths. He also brought streams out of the rock, And caused waters to run down like rivers.  (Psalm 78:1, 3, 5, 7, and 11-16, emphasis mine)

Asaph uses very concrete words to describe the historical fact of the rock being struck and water coming out, such as: “we have heard”, “our fathers have told us”, “(God) appointed a law…to make known”.  He makes it abundantly clear, that he, at least, believed that the striking of the rock was a very real, historical event and that the events occurred as stated.  There is no sense of allegory whatsoever in his language.  The striking of the rock and water coming forth is reiterated in Psalm 105:41 where another Psalmist states: “He opened the rock, and water gushed out; It ran in the dry places like a river.”  Both of these writers have interpreted the events in Exodus literally and straightforwardly.

Years later, in the Exodus story, they encountered another place where there was no water.  God then told Moses to speak to the rock, rather than hit it.  Moses, extremely frustrated with these people who seemed to never stop complaining, struck the rock, rather than speaking to it as God commanded.  As a result of Moses’ moment of wrath, he was not allowed to enter into the Promised Land.  God’s reasoning for doing so was that Moses had not represented God accurately to the people.  God was not angry with the people, although Moses had communicated just the opposite through his actions.  God’s words were given plainly, “Speak to the rock” (Numbers 20:8).  Moses disobeyed and so there was a real consequence.  “Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them’” (Numbers 20:12).

We later find in the New Testament that Paul uses this real, historical event to teach a spiritual truth.  He claims the Rock to be Christ – that is Christ is He who satisfies our true spiritual thirst.  In fact, according to ancient Jewish sources, the rock was believed to have physically traveled with the Children of Israel. [1] Nevertheless he never questions the original account’s historicity:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.  But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.  Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted.  (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, emphasis mine)

Paul obviously thought that these events actually did occur and were not just metaphors or allegories because he says that the fathers truly were under the cloud and did pass through the sea, but God was not happy with them and, consequently, their dead bodies were all over the desert.  He says that they became examples so that we should not do as they did.  Thus Paul discusses Jesus as the Rock to teach a truth, but he in no way questions the historicity of the actual events.  He rather confirms that those things indeed happened and exhorts the Corinthians not to follow suit.

Daniel’s Interpretation of Jeremiah’s 70 Years

In 606 B.C., the Neo-Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar the Second, came to Jerusalem and took away a portion of its inhabitants captive to Babylon for failure to pay the necessary tribute.  This first deportation in 606 B.C. was followed by another in 597 B.C. and then a third, which culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C..  During this time, the prophet Jeremiah was acting as the voice of the Lord toward a rebellious people.  In spite of the tremendous castigation falling on His people, God gave Jeremiah a word of encouragement.

And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years.  “Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity,” says the LORD; “and I will make it a perpetual desolation.  So I will bring on that land all My words which I have pronounced against it, all that is written in this book, which Jeremiah has prophesied concerning all the nations.” (Jeremiah 25:11-13, emphasis mine)

God Himself says that He would set them free after seventy years.  There are two important things to notice here.  There is absolutely no question that the Judeans went into captivity – that is established historical fact.  There is also no question that in 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and then three years later, in 536 B.C. the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding the Temple – both are historical facts.

Daniel’s Understanding of the 70 Years

In Daniel chapter nine, we see that Daniel, a biblical writer, interprets Jeremiah’s prophecy for us.  He sets the stage by telling when in history this chapter occurs: “In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the lineage of the Medes, who was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans” (Daniel 9:1).  It is established historical fact that Darius the Mede existed and was governor over Babylon.  Daniel then tells us that he was reading the prophet Jeremiah, who had written approximately seventy years earlier:  “in the first year of his reign I, Daniel, understood by the books the number of the years specified by the word of the LORD through Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem” (Daniel 9:2, emphasis mine).  Here we have Daniel interpreting the prophecy of Jeremiah in unmistakable terms – he understood from the prophet Jeremiah that God would keep His people in Babylon for seventy literal years.  Daniel does not try to look for a hidden message as to what God meant by seventy years or punishing Babylon, he assumes it to be literal.  And judging from history, we can conclude that was indeed the case.  Exactly seventy years after the first deportation, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem.

Moved by the nearness of the fulfillment of prophecy, Daniel sets his face “toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.  And I prayed to the LORD my God, and made confession…” (Daniel 9:3) Daniel confesses the sins of his people to the Lord, acknowledging that they have not sought God’s face and have received exactly what they deserved although God would be gracious enough to restore them after seventy years.  He then confirms that the curse given in Deuteronomy was 100% literally fulfilled through the destruction of Jerusalem.

“But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you […] The LORD will send on you cursing, confusion, and rebuke in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, because of the wickedness of your doings in which you have forsaken Me.” (Deuteronomy 28:15, 20)

It was not just true in a spiritual sense, but came to pass in a very real and literal sense, at least as far as Daniel was concerned.  He in no way intimated that the curses were mere spiritual consequences of not following God, but that they were specific to the nation of Israel exclusively and that they had been completely fulfilled.

“Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us; yet we have not made our prayer before the LORD our God, that we might turn from our iniquities and understand Your truth.”  (Daniel 9:11, 13)

The Chronicler Agreed

Daniel’s comments are extremely important for the question of our method of interpretation.  Daniel was much closer to and was a part of the writing of the Old Testament – less than seventy years after Jeremiah, less than two hundred from the time of Isaiah.  His own writings are also considered canonical, inspired, and authoritative.  If he took such writings as literal and straightforward, how much more should we?  The literal interpretation of Daniel regarding Jeremiah’s prophecy is also shared by the writer of 2 Chronicles in extremely plain language:

And those who escaped from the sword he [Nebuchadnezzar] carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.  Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:  All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!  (2 Chronicles 36:20-23, emphasis mine)

The author of Chronicles emphatically stresses the point that after seventy years God freed his people just as Jeremiah predicted.  There obviously was no question in the mind of the writer that this prophecy was fulfilled completely and literally.  What we have here is merely one of countless examples of where numbers in the Bible are not given just to draw out a spiritual truth, which one would do using the allegorical method but rather they are used literally.

Undoubtedly, many clever meanings could be assigned to the number seventy.  For example, certain Bible commentators have suggested that seven is the perfect number and ten represents completeness.  Therefore, we could say that seventy is the perfect number of completion.  This interpretation sounds rather erudite and sophisticated.  It might even “minister” to people’s hearts.  In fact, there is no way to argue that the number seventy doesn’t mean that.  Maybe it is the number of “perfect completion”.  This interpretation, however, is nothing more than the product of my imagination.  The problem with applying the allegorical method of interpretation to the Bible is that it leaves interpretation up to the imagination of the Bible commentator rather than the interpretation being drawn out of the Bible through the textual, historical, and linguistic constraints.

Interpreting Literary Genre

The above examples certainly provide weighty evidence in favor of a literal method of interpreting the Bible. However, there are passages in Scripture, which should not be taken literally.  Consider Isaiah’s beautiful line, “For you shall go out with joy, and be led out with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (55:12).  Isaiah is using a literary form known as personification because I doubt that he, or God, intended to mean that the literal mountains would start singing or that the trees would actually take their branches and start clapping.  Nevertheless, although he is using poetic language, the truth that he is telling is going to be very real.  And when it happens, even creation, in a sense, will rejoice just as Paul alluded to in Romans 8:22.  Thus, we recognize the literary genre, but still understand the real and accurate message it is conveying.

What is Meant By Literary Genre?

There are, broadly speaking, two literary genres (classes) in the Bible: prose and poetry.  Prose simply means that the author is speaking in normal every-day language and is not attempting to speak poetically.  Newspapers, history books and even most emails employ prose, also known as narrative.  Prose, however, contains many figures of speech, metaphors, similes and the like.  We can talk about the sun going down or hungry as a horse – both figures of speech that communicate a simple message; it is getting dark and I am hungry, respectively.  In English there exist at least 440 animal sayings that we employ in our every-day language. [i] Expressions such as you’re barking up the wrong tree or it’s raining cats and dogs are certainly metaphors since my conversation partner is not truly outside barking at a tree in the park!  Rather, I am using the metaphor to convey a real message: you have got the wrong idea.  Likewise none of us has actually seen cats and dogs fall from the sky, it simply means that it is raining very hard.  These expressions are considered prose and not poetry, which is defined as speaking or writing in such a manner where a particular rhyme, rhythm, cadence or some other form of dramatic language is used to communicate.

Poetry in the Bible is occasionally marked making it easy to identify. Exodus 15:1 unmistakably states that a song (poetry) to the Lord is going to follow:  “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and spoke, saying…”  Interestingly, Exodus 15 is the poetic form of chapter 14 which was written in prose – that is, a plain straightforward kind of language.  What we must not miss, however, is that both the prose account in chapter 14 and the poetic in 15 tell a true and historic account of what happened immediately prior in the departure from Egypt.  Just because something is poetic does not mean that it is not also an accurate and historic account of what truly happened.

Final Thoughts Concerning Biblical Interpretation

We have seen that the biblical writers took God’s words at face value.  The author of Genesis took God’s words about the eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as an event that had literal consequences.  Moses was barred from entering into the Promised Land due to not obeying carefully, in every detail, God’s instructions – evidence that God spoke literally and not figuratively.  Furthermore, both Daniel and the writer of Chronicles demonstrated their literal understanding of several Scriptures.  Essentially, we have seen from just a few examples that the normal method of biblical writers (when reading other Scripture passages) was to take them literally.

There are many other examples that could be examined such as the prophecies regarding the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Every believer fully accepts those passages as being literally fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  Even if one were to reject Jesus as Lord, one could not reject that the New Testament writers understood Jesus to be the literal fulfillment of hundreds of passages.  The literal understanding of a coming messianic, divine, supernatural figure was shared by numerous Jews during the period of the Second Temple in addition to the disciples of Jesus and was later affirmed by all of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers.  They were looking forward to a figure that would come and bring salvation from sins through his righteousness and then usher in a new era of peace under his divine rule on earth.  If the prophecies regarding the first coming of Christ were and are taken literally, what is different when it comes to any other topic in the Bible?  In fact Basil, a church father of the fourth century to whom we owe the correct understanding of the Trinity in contrast to the Arian heresy, boldly declares that the literal is the only right method of interpretation of Scripture.

Those who do not accept the Scriptures in their ordinary, common meaning, say that “water” is not water but something else; plants and fishes they interpret as they please; the creation of reptiles and wild beasts they explain in their own way, twisting it from the obvious sense as do the interpreters of dreams — who give whatever meaning they choose to the images seen in sleep. As for me, when I hear the word “grass” I think of grass, and the same with plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal. I take everything in the literal sense, for “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” (Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily IX)

Bibliography

Basil. Catholic Information Network Retrieved August 12, 2006, from www.cin.org/saints/basilgre.html

Leedy, Loreen and Street, Pat, There’s a Frog in My Throat. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Pentecost, J. Dwight (1958). Things To Come. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Ramm, Bernard (1950). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


[1] The Targumim, cf. John Gill Commentary on I Cor 10:4 speak of the belief that the rock physically traveled with the Israelites: “that it again ascended with them to the highest mountains, and from the highest mountains it descended with them to the hills, and encompassed the whole camp of Israel, and gave drink to everyone at the gate of his own dwelling place; and from the high mountains it descended with them into the deep valleys” (Targum of Jonathan ben Uzziel).

[i] See: Leedy, Loreen and Street, Pat, There’s a Frog in My Throat.


About Douglas

3 comments

  1. Thank you, Doug, for a concise explanation of historical-grammatical hermeneutics. God bless you! Rich Easton

  2. Hi Tim,

    I am currently working on a new book and I deal with that passage. However, very quickly – the interpretation of the women is literal in that she is Israel (see Genesis 37:9) – she will be chased by the dragon which we have clear identification (Revelation 12:9) – that she will flee into the wilderness – (see Isaiah 16:1) – the key to Revelation is the Old Testament – especially Isaiah. It is not to say that there is no symbolism in Revelation (or the Bible) but there are definitions to the symbols and they are not just random and unidentifiable – it just takes time in the OT to learn them. Blessings, Doug

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