Interpreting Different Kinds of Writing
The books of the Bible contain a wide variety of literary genres. Genres is just a fancy word for kinds. Each one of these literary genres must be interpreted according to its own rules. As you go through the process of COMA, these rules will be especially helpful in when you get to “M,” the step when you take one of your observations and determine the message behind it.
In this journal, whenever we start a new book of the Bible, the Context page will highlight which genres show up in that book and prompt you to review the rules for those genres.
For more on these literary genres, see chapter 2 (pages 47-86) in Context: How to Understand the Bible in the Bible Savvy series by James L. Nicodem.
HOW TO INTERPRET NARRATIVES (STORIES)
Narratives are stories. Over one-third of the Bible comes to us in this form. As you read the stories in the Bible, keep in mind these rules:
Summarize the theme (or major lesson) of the story. The Bible’s stories never come right out and tell us the moral, the theme, or the major lesson of the story. It is our job to figure that out. It’s a good idea to try figuring it out because this exercise keeps us from getting lost in the details of the story. You can get some pretty whacked-out interpretations by reading way too much into a minor detail or two. What is the theme of the whole story? Why do you think God included this story?
The real hero of every narrative in the Bible is God. A lot of times, the main character in a Bible story is not the good guy. Even if they are, there is always a more important character: God. Even if he is behind the scenes in a story, pay attention to what God is up to.
Decide what’s descriptive and what’s prescriptive. Some details of Bible stories are merely descriptive. They give us the particulars of what happened. They are not meant to be a pattern for our lives. But other details of Bible stories are prescriptive. God is indeed saying to us readers today: “This is how I want you to respond in similar situations.” Prescriptive parts of a story will always be backed up by non-narrative, directive passages in other parts of the Bible.
HOW TO INTERPRET LAWS
There are over 600 laws in the Bible, and all of them are found in books two through five of the Old Testament (Exodus through Deuteronomy). These laws were given to Israel—the nation God chose to be his people in the Old Testament. How do we understand these laws today?
Determine whether a law is moral, ceremonial, or civil. Biblical laws fall into three major categories. There are moral laws that help God’s people of every era determine right from wrong. Moral laws are timeless and directly applicable to our lives. There are ceremonial laws that enabled Old Testament believers to maintain a proper relationship with God. (Many of these laws had to do with priests, sacrifices, and the Temple.) Ceremonial laws have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ and are indirectly applicable to our lives. And, finally, there are civil laws that were used to govern the nation of Israel and are indirectly applicable to our lives today.
Look for the principle behind the law. Most moral laws are pretty straightforward. The principle is obvious. It’s clear what God wants you to do—or not do. But sometimes the principle is buried beneath the cultural trappings of Bible times and you’ll have to dig it out in order to apply it to contemporary life.
HOW TO INTERPRET POETRY
Poetry makes up over one-third of the Bible. There are entire Bible books that come to us in this form. Even books that are predominantly another genre often contain some poetic portions.
Note the historical background. Most of the Bible’s poems address or respond to specific situations. Without knowing those situations, the point of the poem can be hard to figure out. In Psalms, pay attention to the headers or “superscriptions” that come at the beginning of many psalms. If the poem comes up in the flow of a narrative book, then the story will provide this background. In prophetic books, the details of the prophecy will often give you clues to the situation it addresses.
Unpack the figurative language. The language of poetry is colorful and highly emotional. Many of the words and expressions are meant to be understood figuratively, not literally. The poet is painting word pictures. Bible poetry uses colorful, highly emotional, figurative language. Sometimes it’s dark. Sometimes it’s rich and inspiring. Savor it. Meditate on what it’s saying.
Look for truths about God. Look for God’s names, titles, or attributes. When you do, take a moment to praise God for what that particular word or expression tells you about him.
HOW TO INTERPRET PROVERBS
Proverbs are short, pithy statements of wisdom. When you come across a proverb, here is the main thing to keep in mind:
Proverbs are not absolute promises but statements about how life usually works. Many proverbs can come across as definitive, universal statements. But they actually express general truths about life that typically apply, but there can be exceptions.
HOW TO INTERPRET PROPHECY
Most prophecy is not about predicting the future. It is about communicating a message from God, usually confronting sin in people’s lives and urging them (and us) to turn back to God. These portions of Bible prophecy are fairly straightforward, as long as you keep the historical context in mind. However, some prophecies also are about predicting the future. When that is the case, the following rules help a lot.
Distinguish between what has already been fulfilled and what—as yet—is unfulfilled. Most predictions in the Bible came to pass within the timeline of the Bible. In these cases, you and I are not looking forward for their fulfillment; we are looking back at how God already brought them about. This is why knowing the big story of the Bible is so important. Also, a good study bible can help with this.
Distinguish between figurative descriptions and literal descriptions. Much of the imagery in prophecy is symbolic and poetic. It tells the truth about the future, but it is not literal. It is more like a political cartoon (using animals and objects to represent nations and people) than a news report. This rule is especially important to keep in mind when you’re reading the New Testament book of Revelation.
HOW TO INTERPRET PARABLES
Parables are short stories that Jesus tells to explain how things work in the Kingdom of God. The Gospels—the four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament—contain dozens of them.
Not every detail is symbolic. Jesus’ stories are full of imagery drawn from the everyday life of 1st century Israel. Often, this imagery is symbolic of deeper realities. But, not every detail has a one-to-one connection to something else. It is better to look for the one main point the parable communicates, rather than trying to find a hidden meaning in every detail.
Ask why Jesus told this parable in this situation. Most of the parables Jesus told address specific people and situations. Who was Jesus talking to? The disciples? The Pharisees? The crowds? What was Jesus responding to when he told the story? What kind of reaction was he trying to get from his hearers?
HOW TO INTERPRET EPISTLES (LETTERS)
Most of the books of the New Testament are letters. Many readers find these letters to be among the easiest portions of the Bible to interpret and apply because their teaching is so direct and because they’re written to fellow Christ followers (not citizens of ancient Israel). Even so, a few rules can help us understand these letters better.
Discover the historical background. Letters are written to address particular people and situations. Knowing those circumstances makes it easier to know why the author said the things he did and how he expected them to be applied.
Understand each part of the letter in light of the whole letter. Letters are written to be read all at once, not chopped up into tiny pieces. That is why reading the New Testament epistles once through at the start can be really helpful. You don’t have to get all the details the first time through, just get a quick overview.
Summarize the main point of the passage. The reason people often misinterpret the Bible is because they tend to pull out minor details and then blow them out of proportion. The easiest way to avoid making this mistake is to evaluate each passage as a whole.