Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Studying the Bible: Interpretation - Historical Narrative

Yes! Interpretation! This is what we’ve all been waiting for. Interpretation is what most people envision when they think of what it means to study the bible – that is, answering the question, “what does it mean?”

But hopefully I’ve made it clear that this cannot be the place where responsible bible study starts. First, we did an overview of the book. We needed to get that bird’s eye view road map so that we could see the big picture of the author’s purpose and main theme or message. Without that, bible study will begin to look much like my trip into any metropolitan area – you’ll have no clue where you are no matter how confident you may be that the opposite is true! You must have that map.

Second, we did our detailed observation of the book, where we focused in on the details. And actually, I mentioned that it is better to take one chapter at a time, doing all your observation on that one chapter, then immediately doing the interpretation phase on that chapter. Then you can move to the second chapter, doing observation and then interpretation there. So if you haven’t done your observation on the whole book, yet, that’s a good thing. Hopefully, you’ve observed that first chapter in detail and are ready to move on to interpretation.

One key idea that we must keep in mind when interpreting the bible is that we cannot use the same rules of interpretation on every page of Scripture. Why? Because although the Bible is one unified document, it consists of 66 different books. Those 66 books employ several different genres of literature: historical narrative, law, parables, poetry, proverbs, prophecy, apocalypse, epistles, etc. The type of literature we are studying will determine which principles of interpretation we use. For example, we wouldn’t use the same rules to interpret historical narrative that we use to interpret poetry. Historical narrative will employ little, if any, figurative language, as opposed to poetry, which will be filled with figurative language.

Because there are a number of different genres in the bible, it will probably take several posts for me to address the interpretive principles for each.

We’ll start with historical narrative. Over 40% of the Old Testament and 60% of the New Testament consist of this genre, so it is very important to be familiar with how to treat these types of the texts. And although the Bible consists largely of historical narrative, this genre is one of the more easily misinterpreted types of literature. This may be because unlike epistles or legal writings, the meaning of narrative is taught implicitly, rather than explicitly. Proper interpretation therefore requires a very, very clear understanding of the overview.

Robert H. Stein writes in his hermeneutics textbook, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible, “The meaning of a biblical narrative is to be found in what the author willed to teach his reader by recalling this incident.” Stein goes on to say that the meaning of a narrative text can be found by filling in the following sentence, “I, Mark, have told you how one day Jesus was crossing the Sea of Galilee with his disciples when a great storm arose…because______________.” You can’t answer this question just by reciting the story of Mark 4:35-41. You have to find out what he wanted to teach us by telling this story.

Here are several principles that will help us to arrive at the place where we can fill in that statement from the previous paragraph.

1. An author's meaning is always consistent with the CONTEXT.
Contest is king!! That is why our overview was so crucial. Any individual narrative should be interpreted in light of the whole account. The whole account should also be interpreted in light of the individual narrative. It is a constant process of looking at the big picture then zooming in on the details then back out to the big picture, etc. In assessing the context of a particular narrative, we want to discern how that passage fits into the overall structure of the book. What does it accomplish in the flow of the book? When you believe you have arrived at the author's intended meaning, go back and ask the question, "Does that makes sense in the context?"

2. The author gives us clues about his meaning via AUTHORIAL/ EDITORIAL/ NARRATOR COMMENTS.
The author or narrator gives clues to his reader of how to interpret a text. Sometimes these are almost parenthetical, but very important. These comments do nothing to move the narrative along. In other words, they don’t usually tell what happened next. Rather, they give information, sometimes in the form of a summary, about the significance of what happened. One good example is in the creation account in Gen 1:31, And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.

3. The author may use REPETITION to make his point.
Anytime an author uses a phrase or theme over and over, it is important and must be taken seriously. For example in the book of Judges, we see a phrase used repeatedly, And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. In conjunction with this phrase, we see over and over that when the Israelites disobeyed, God brought judgment upon them. Each time they repented, God sent a deliverer. It should be obvious that the author of Judges wants to teach us that sin brings judgment, but repentance brings salvation.

4. Careful attention should be paid to AUTHORITATIVE SPEAKERS.
The author places important interpretive clues in the mouths of various speakers. Authoritative speakers can be good or evil. In Mark, the demons know what they are talking about when they identify Jesus as the Son of God - thus what they say about him is important.

5. DIALOGUE OR DIRECT DISCOURSE often centers on the author's intended meaning.
When indirect discourse turns to direct discourse this is a clue that careful attention should be paid to what is being said. In other words, pay close attention to the words found between quotation marks. In John chapter 4, we find the Samaritans saying to the woman at the well, “It is no longer because of what you said that we have believed. For we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.” This is a huge clue as to why John included this account in his gospel.

6. OT QUOTATIONS are significant.
These are not always used to prove a point but to add emotive punch. One thing is certain - they are not there for no reason. Pay close attention to them. There are a number of Old Testament citations in Matthew 2. Each of them are used to show how Jesus fulfilled OT prophecy. That is a huge reason why Matthew wrote what he wrote in his second chapter.

Remember, we want to be able to complete the statement, “I, (author), wrote this account about _________________, because ______________.” Pay close attention to the 6 things above. It will also help to read and reread the text and to go over your observation notes and overview notes. Also, don’t forget to pray before you study. It will make all the difference.

Next time: interpreting parables.

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