|Series Theme: Bible Study Approaches|
Title: 3. Gaps in Understanding
A page that explains a variety of approaches to Studying the Bible
In this page we consider the culture of the Bible, different styles of writing & speech forms.
This is necessary because the Bible was written at least two thousand years ago, about Middle Eastern people with different languages and a different culture from our own.
2. The Gaps to be Bridged
When we read the Bible we need to bridge the following gaps in understanding:
As we have said, the Bible is spread over possibly two thousand years of history, the nearest part being nearly two thousand years away from us.
Life has changed considerably in that time and therefore, if we are to understand the Bible, we need to try to put ourselves into a variety of historical periods, covered by the Bible.
The customs of Middle Eastern people are very different from people in the West. Add to that the time differences noted above, and we may find a variety of practices recorded in the Bible that are quite different from anything we might know.
e.g. 1 In Gen 15:9-11 we find Abram performing a ritual of laying down two rows of halved carcasses in the making of a solemn covenant or agreement. The idea was probably that both parties to the covenant would walk down the path to invoke on themselves a similar fate should they break the covenant. Slightly different from our signing a contract, but the same intent behind it!
e.g. 2 In Ruth 4:1-12 we find a legal transaction taking place that would appear completely alien to a Western mind in the twenty first century. Ruth is a widow and Boaz is a distant male relative.
Note the cultural differences:
i) When a woman was widowed the next male unmarried relative (brother of dead man) was invited to marry her.
ii) Civil transactions took place at the city gate which was the meeting place for the city leaders (verses1 & 2).
iii) If the man who had the next option to marry the woman declined to do so, the next in line had the right to marry her (Boaz and Ruth have already shown signs of affection for one another and both want this).
iv) As a sign of transfer of property one party took off his shoe or sandal and passed it over to the other who formally received it (verses 7 & 8). Verse 7 seems to indicate that this was a practice which had gone out of use by the time of recording these events.
[NB. The whole story of the short book called Ruth, is a mixture of tragedy and a beautiful, caring and gentle establishing of a marriage of a Jew and a Gentile. The reason that it is included in the Bible is that Ruth and Boaz are part of the family tree that eventually included David, and even later Jesus, on Joseph's side, i.e. they are part of the Messianic family line.]
The ways of speaking in a different part of the world, in different languages, at different times in history, are also very different from ours today. Thus we may find certain ways of speaking and writing a little strange.
e.g. Proverbs 6:16 where it seems to say, "Six, well no, seven" and then Proverbs 30:15 where it seems to say, "Three, well no, four". The addition of one is simply a way of catching our attention to the list.
In what follows, in the main section below, we'll consider how language is used in different ways in different styles of writing and in different forms within the writing.
The action of the Bible takes place over an area from Egypt to modern-day Iraq . It therefore includes many countries (some of which don't exist today), and many towns and cities (some of which either don't exist today or have changed their names). It also includes geographical features such as rivers, lakes, seas and mountains.
To appreciate just WHERE the action is taking place, it is helpful to have a Bible that has maps in the back of it, and to refer to them regularly. Only in this way will we understand the full significance of what is happening sometimes.
3. Different Styles of Writing?
Very often people talk foolishly about whether certain groups interpret the Bible literally or not. This is foolish because by the nature of the different sorts of writing in the Bible, it is clear that it is impossible to take parts of it literally and it's not meant to be taken literally!
On the pages of Scripture before us, it may be:
1. History (Narrative)
If we are reading straight forward history, then we should be taking the literal meaning of the words.
Some Scripture is poetry and in some Bibles the layout indicates that this is so, by laying it out in verse form. Where it is poetry, we need to look carefully to see whether it was intended to be read literally or whether figures of speech (see below) are used which are intended to convey meaning through picture language.
3. Allegory (where a deeper meaning is being conveyed)
If picture language is clearly and obviously being used, then we do not interpret it literally, but see the sense of the picture being conveyed.
e.g. Judges 9:7-15 where Jotham uses a picture of various trees to convey a message.
A parable is a short story, true to life, to convey a truth. Usually it has one main truth, but there may be secondary truths in the detail of the story. In the Gospels, Jesus told many parables and we should see them as made up stories with a meaning, and not literal accounts.
The letters of the New Testament are good examples of teaching, although there is also much teaching in the accounts of the Gospels. In the teaching of the Letters, for example, we can see that there is usually a mixture of 'doctrine' (explanation of why things are as they are) and 'instruction' (practical application to everyday life).
For the believer it is good to recognise the distinction so that you can understand the reasoning behind Christian behaviour.
Large parts of the Old Testament especially, are prophecy - words spoken by God through human beings. Some of the books of the Old Testament are called "The Prophets" simply because they are mostly prophecy.
Understanding prophecy is the subject of one of the later pages in this series. Essentially, with prophecy, ask the basic questions, to WHOM was it spoken, and WHY was it spoken. Within it there may be picture language that should not be literally interpreted.
4. "Indirect Forms of Speech"
This may appear a little like a grammar lesson, but for full understanding it is helpful to realise the nature of the language that is sometimes used. In particular observe:
A simile is simply a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, by the use of such words as 'like'.
In virtually every revelation of heaven in the Bible the word 'like' is used again and again, as the prophet sees something that is so incredible and different that he cannot explain it, and so had to resort to comparisons with which we would be familiar.
A metaphor is simply a figure of speech in which a name or quality of something is attributed to something to which it is not literally applicable, i.e. it compares two things by saying one thing IS the other thing.
Personification is simply treating an abstract quality or thing as if it had human qualities.