Reading the Bible: The Interpretative Journey (Part 1) can be found here.
I want you to imagine a large map, with (1) an ancient village on the left, (2) a river in the middle, (3) a bridge over the river, (4) a signpost just past the bridge and (5) a modern village on the right.
Step 1: Get into their town
When you start reading a part of the Bible try to take yourself back to the ancient village (i.e. the time it was written). Ask yourself questions like: Who wrote this and why? Who were they writing to? What did this mean to the original audience? When you get a text or a forwarded e-mail, these kind of questions go through your mind. Without asking them, you’d get in a right mess. When it comes to thinking about the Bible, you may be able to draw on things you already know. If you’re a new Christian you might need a study bible, internet tool or a Christian friend to help, but these questions are pretty simple. And they stop us from misunderstanding the bible, which is really important. Contrary to popular opinion, there is actual truth in there. God’s truth.
It is so important to do this with others, as God promises his presence is particularly with us when we meet with other Christians. There may even be people in your life group or in church whose cultures are actually closer to the Bible’s original culture. They could really help you here. But first we’ve got to lose our ‘shame’ that says ‘I don’t know the Bible well enough’. You know, those awkward silences from life group when everyone’s pretending that they know more than they do. If we can study together and be honest about what we don’t know then we can start asking really important questions.
Step 2: Measure the river
Try to think about the differences between people ‘back then’ and us now. What important differences are there between their culture and ours? Why is this important? Well, reading Deuteronomy 24, for example, you could think that some of the verses about women are really unfair. Perhaps these laws about marriage and divorce seem really harsh to you. But when you realise how ground-breaking these laws were for protecting women, compared to other nations at that time, it puts things in context. The divorce laws, for example, meant that women and children couldn’t be abandoned by men. God was protecting the vulnerable. If we jump straight to ‘applying’ the Bible and bypass the context, we can really misunderstand what was going on. God wasn’t trying to trap people then and He isn’t today. He isn’t ‘controlling’, he was protecting the vulnerable. He’s a God of compassion. Measuring the width of the cultural differences is important.
Step 3: Cross the bridge
Do you notice that we haven’t tried to ‘apply’ anything yet? We’re still exploring and asking questions. Once you’ve started to understand the author and audience and worked out what was different about their culture, then you can consider this question: What timeless, eternal truths from the passage transcend both cultures? This means that we’re often asking questions about what we learn about God, not just us: His faithfulness, His glory, His love and His power. It’s a great antidote to the consumerist individualism that most of us struggle with (i.e. ‘Where am I in the passage?’). Just as importantly, it helps us to avoid legalism. When we approach passages without looking at context or culture and start applying it, we can easily start making rules for ourselves and others: Joshua marched and sang so we should or women covered their hair so we should. Such a shallow approach is at least unhelpful, if not downright dangerous! Finding the timeless truths helps us lean into grace and get lost in the wonder of God and his plan. After all, it’s not all about us!
Step 4: consult the map
This step involves considering what the rest of the bible says about the theme or topic you’re looking at. This is so important! If we’re looking at Old Testament passages that involve laws or tribal battles we should consider what Jesus and Paul say about laws and violence. If we’re looking at the love described in Song of Songs, we should also consider how Jesus demonstrated His love for us or the ‘wedding’ described in the book of Revelation. If we somehow missed that the book of Proverbs is a specific type of wisdom genre and start thinking it tells us how to get rich – seeing the physical poverty of Jesus and Paul would stop us from straying into dodgy territory. Again, the best way to do this is to read, or at least discuss, the Bible with others. Other people will have knowledge and experience that you and I don’t.
Step 5: Come back to our town
Finally, consider what we’ve learnt about God and his people and think about how to walk this out. If God is totally faithful, how can I demonstrate my trust in him today? If Jesus’ really is God, how can I show others this? If God gives his people courage to overcome fear and trials, what do I need to ask him for? If that character was in danger of compromising his relationship with God, am I?
Having done the work of asking questions, now we can apply it deeply into our lives, instead of using the Bible as a kind of shallow pop psychology textbook! So often we are happy with just looking at the Bible to try and find ourselves. Asking these questions and going through these steps, along with the help of God the Holy Spirit and other Christians, helps us switch our brains back on and find deep riches in His Word.