What in the Word?

Have you ever been reading through the Bible when, all of a sudden, you are like, “Whoa! What in the world!? What does this mean?” Sometimes the Bible can seem a little strange. Perhaps you even get a little embarrassed sometimes about what Scripture seems to state. Like why does the Bible seem to condone slavery and the oppression of women (Exodus 21:2-11)? Or why did God strike Uzzah dead for simply touching the Ark of the Covenant when he was trying to keep it from falling (2 Samuel 6:2-10)? And how about the story where Jesus calls a Gentile woman a dog (Matthew 15:21-28)!? The Bible can definitely seem weird sometimes!

Obviously, when you just pick up the Bible and start reading randomly, there can be many confusing stories. The barriers of time and culture keep many from even trying. But there are some practical tips that can help in interpreting strange scripture.

What a weird word
The key to remember is context. Context means everything! Context can be literary or historical-cultural, and it includes the author, audience, setting, background and language. To understand the context of Scripture better, we turn to hermeneutics—Hermen who? No, hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation. It is a theoretical practice that is closely tied to exegesis (from a Greek word meaning “to lead out”) which focuses on the critical explanation of a biblical text. In hermeneutics and exegesis, you critically look at several factors including: origins of the text, historical-cultural backgrounds of the author and the intended audience, classification of literary genres, and analysis of grammatical and syntactical features. Keep in mind, this is important because our theology ultimately derives from our interpretations of scripture. Therefore, “Inerrancy of scripture is meaningless without correct interpretation” (Dr. Don Fowler). Consider these five steps from a college hermeneutics course which illustrates interpretation as crossing a bridge from one town into another:

Grasp the text in their town
Again, here is where we really think about context—meaning within (“con”) and the whole text. First, what did the text mean to the original audience? Also, what is the genre/style: narrative, poetry, prophecy? Compare the passage within the book itself and then with the rest of scripture. Analyze the history such as the author, date and location. This will help you understand how the original audience would have understood what was being communicated.

Then look for other literary clues. Repetition is one of the most important techniques used in scripture to communicate an important principle. Look for words or phrases that are repeated. Also, consider the point of view—God or people. Try re-phrasing the text into your own words and see if it makes sense.

This is the longest and most difficult step in the process because our understanding of the world is so different than those of biblical times. For example, God does not condone slavery and the mistreatment of women. Actually, the Bible is very counter-cultural to the days in which it was written. When God gave the Hebrew people laws on how to treat slaves and women, there is an important fact to remember: the Hebrews were themselves slaves who had just fled from Egypt. At this time, people sold themselves into slavery for financial reasons, not because they were forcibly captured. God’s laws were made to protect the slaves and women from injustice.

Measure the width of the river to cross
Think about the differences and similarities between the original audience and today. Are there covenant, cultural, language, and geographical differences? Understanding the degree to which we are separated from the time and location of the biblical characters will enlighten us to what the overall message and bigger picture is. Bible commentaries, theological journals, and Bible dictionaries are very helpful tools in understanding scripture. Look for works that are scholarly and relatively recent to aid you in studying the Bible. It may also be helpful to compare various Bible translations. Different translations give different insight. For example the NASB is a very literal, word-for-word translation while the NLT is a very practical, thought-for-thought translation.

Cross the principilizing bridge
One of the most important things about us is how we think of God. When reading scripture, think about what God is like and what He is trying to communicate to you. What is the primary theological principle in the text? Do not get too tied up in cultural details and definitions. The principle needs to be general and universal across cultures, time, and location. Consider what the main point is. What is the central and eternal underlying concept? Recall the story of Jesus and the Gentile woman mentioned earlier. At this time, Jesus had withdrawn with his disciples to rest because they had experienced a long and difficult ministry thus far. Jesus’ focus was to minster to his disciples first. This does not mean that others were excluded; it just means Jesus had a focus. When the woman found them (despite their hiding), Jesus did not send her away, but instead tested her faith. The principle of this story is that Jesus’ love is available for all who have faith.

While reading a Bible passage think about how other parts of scripture correlate with and impact your theology. What does the passage address specifically, and are there any other passages that coincide with the topic? For example: Is a prophecy fulfilled? Is scripture quoted or referenced by the author? An important illustration to note here is the story of David and the Ark of the Covenant. In Exodus 25:10-22, God gave his people very specific rules for handling the Ark and warned them that to disobey the laws would result in death. The Ark was meant to be carried by the priests and definitely not by cattle. But David disregarded the mandates and it resulted in Uzzah’s death.

Grasp the text in our town
Lastly, think about the meaning of the passage for today. How should individual Christians today apply the theological principle in their lives? The key to this step is application and relevancy. There should be a hypothetical example of how we can use this principle in today’s world.

Now, of course, pray and seek the Holy Spirit when reading the Bible. Remember, he is ultimately the one who inspires and illuminates. God is the main character of every story. He has the lead role. He is always the hero. The Word of God is living and breathing. It is not just words penned thousands of years ago. It is being spoken to us today, right now, by the lips of God himself.

Got a weird Word question? Let us know! Finley can be reached at: [email protected]

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