Archives For The Bible

With this series of blog posts, I want to help you better understand the way in which the Bible was written so that you can get more out of your Bible reading. Specifically, I will be exploring the different literary genres in which the Bible was written.

Perhaps that sounds startling: “I thought the Bible was the Word of God. Why are we considering literary genres?” The simple answer is: because that’s the way God chose to record his inerrant, infallible Word. Leland Ryken explains:

“The Bible is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) a work of literature. The one thing that the Bible is not is what Christians so often picture it as being—a theological outline with proof texts attached. The characteristic way of expressing religious truth in the Bible is through story, poem, vision, and letter. By comparison, expository essays, theological discourses and sermons are a relative rarity.”[1]

So if God chose to use literary genres in communicating with us, we need to understand those genres so that we can better understand what he is saying to us. (Note to overachievers: If you want to go more in depth, Grasping God’s Word by Duvall & Hays has clear and helpful discussions of each of these genres.)

 

Tips for Reading Narrative

NarrativeHere’s how narrative passages tend to function: they tell stories. Mind blowing, I know. But it’s important to recognize this simple fact. (Keep in mind that when I call them stories, I’m not implying that they’re fictional.)

Narrative passages aren’t written about us. They’re relaying past events. Narrative passages describe more than they prescribe. They show more than they tell. These stories describe what happened. They’re not prescribing a course of action for us. They’re showing us what God and his people have done. They’re not directly telling us what to do.

Now, there is much that we can learn from narrative passages about God, his truth, and his will for our lives. But we have to first examine the stories as they have been recorded, and then we can wrestle with how these passages might or might not relate to us today. Here are some tips for doing that:

 

1. Read theologically, not moralistically.

I stole this concept from Preston Sprinkle. So often, we read narratives to find moral examples to follow. We want to imitate Joseph or David or Abraham. But we shouldn’t do what they did in every case. For one thing, these characters are flawed, so we need to ask which aspects of their lives are worthy of imitation. For another thing, God has plans for us that probably don’t involve ruling Egypt, slaying literal giants, or fathering nations. I suggest that we read not primarily to find out what the narrative tells us about David, but to find out what the narrative tells us about God. The passage tells us about God by telling us about David, but the hero in every biblical story is ultimately God, and we would do well to always keep that at the front of our minds.

 

2. Identify the setting.

While Greek mythology takes place in an imaginary world, biblical narratives are set against a real life backdrop. These events took place in real history, in real nations, in the midst of real cultures. So identifying the setting of the story will help us better understand what is going on. Sometimes you can figure this out from the passage itself, other times consulting a good Study Bible will be helpful in learning more about the setting.

 

3. Identify and assess the important characters.

Gandalf vs. SarumanWho is being set up as the hero? Who comes out looking like a villain? Does the narrator provide any clues as to who is “good” and who is “bad”? What makes the difference between a good and bad character in this story? (E.g., Is Jonah a good character because he’s a prophet of God? Are the Ninevites bad characters because they were a godless nation at the beginning of the story?) Are certain characters contrasted? How do we learn more about a given character by the comparison that is made to another character? (E.g., in The Lord of the Rings, we learn more about Gandalf the Grey by contrasting him with Saruman the White. Or looking at the Bible, what do we learn about David by comparing him to Saul when Goliath confronts the Israelites? What do we learn about David by comparing him to Uriah when David steals his wife?)

 

4. Trace the Plot

What is the setting at the beginning of the story? What conflict arises that needs to be addressed? How is that conflict addressed, and what is the outcome? If we don’t understand the plot line, we don’t understand the story.

 

5. Look for repetition.

Is the narrator repeating any phrases in the story? If so, these can be significant for understanding what he wants us to see in the story. For example, the entire book of Genesis is structured by the phrase “these are the generations of…” which turns up 12 times in the book. The book of Judges tells us four times that “in those days, there was no king in Israel” and twice that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Acknowledging these features can help us see what the narrator wants us to see.

 

6. Assess the story as a whole and ask why God wanted you to hear it.

God recorded each story in the Bible for a reason. Analyze the story as a whole, and then consider why God put that in the Bible. How should it affect you? The story isn’t about you, and you’re not meant to go out and directly repeat it. But God wanted you to have the story. What do you learn about God by reading the story? What do you gain by seeing the ways that God has worked in history? What do you learn about the nature of bravery and fear and hope and faith by reading this story?

And perhaps most importantly, what do we gain by having this story as opposed to a simple statement? (E.g., Why is it beneficial to have the story of God leading his people miraculously out of slavery in Egypt, rather than a simple statement that “God cares for his people”?)



[1] Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1989) 41.

Battling Our Bibles

Mark Beuving —  January 15, 2014 — Leave a comment

Last night, the Bible study group my wife and I are privileged to be a part of took a sinister turn. We were discussing the benefits of reading the Bible, and we examined a familiar passage:

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:12–13)

The Bible is living and active, we said. It hits us in ever fresh ways and always challenges us with a healthy dose of the unexpected.

Then we began to explore the sword imagery. That’s a bit more aggressive. A bit darker. And then there’s the part about standing naked before the all-seeing and all-deciding Judge of all things. You can’t hide from him. That’s heavy.

While I’ve often taken comfort from this passage (and rightfully so), it struck me how violent this passage is. Here’s what it amounts to. We sit down with a cup of coffee in our comfy armchairs. We open our stylishly leather-bound Bibles, open them up, and flip to our decorative bookmarks. And as soon as we begin to pass our eyes over the words printed on the page, the Bible begins stabbing us.

We sat down to read a book, but the book is a breathing thing. It’s a weapon of warfare. And as we sit there and move our eyes from left to right and top to bottom, our souls are being hacked open. Our deepest secrets are being exposed. We are being stripped bare and held in the open courtroom of the only authoritative Judge in the universe. As we casually turn pages, a bloody battle is being fought.

And if our hearts are in the right place, if we approach the Judge in loving faith rather than defiant terror, then this battle that tears our souls open is also bringing us the victory. The Bible that is stabbing us is also healing us. It lays bare our secrets and our sordid intentions and rebuilds us from the inside out.

A casual onlooker would never recognize the battle taking place. When I read my Bible in a coffee shop, the eyes that scan the room would mistake my brutal attack for the peaceful flipping of pages and look away without calling for help. And when I close the book, stand up, and calmly walk away, they may not notice that I am a different person than the one who sat in that chair and opened that book. I don’t always recognize it myself.

Yet every encounter with the word of God is a bout with a warrior, an appointment with a skilled surgeon. The knife’s edge will cut deep, and we will lose much. But what we lose will always be those things we ought never to have held in the first place. And we will always walk away more like the people we truly are, more like the people God has designed and called us to be.

 

Constant Practice

Mark Beuving —  November 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

“Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12–14)

At the end of Hebrews 5, the author of Hebrews wants to dig into the deep stuff (about Melchizedek, specifically) with his readers, but he can’t. Why? Because they are immature in their faith.

That’s understandable, really. Lots of people in this world are immature Christians. For some, that’s because they’re physically young. How deep into the mysteries of God were you delving at age five? For others, it’s because they’re relatively new converts. If you’ve just submitted your life to Jesus after hearing a message on John 3:16, are you ready to start leading Bible studies on the sovereignty of God?

Immaturity is understandable. It’s a healthy part of growing up. But the author of Hebrews doesn’t hide his irritation. It’s one thing for a child to be immature. It’s another thing for a middle aged man to act immaturely. And the author of Hebrews was writing to people who had been in the faith long enough to have matured naturally, yet they had remained in a state of immaturity—of arrested development, if you will. He describes them as “unskilled in the word of righteousness.”

Unfortunately, our churches are often filled with the wrong kind of immaturity. We have people who have been church members for years and years, and yet remain unskilled in the word. They can’t handle difficult doctrinal discussions because they’ve never gone deeper than the main points of a Sunday morning sermon can take them. When the sermon does dive deeper, they check out. Shallowness is a hallmark of their faith.

One of the greatest tragedies of this situation is how easily it could be remedied. What does the author of Hebrews want from his readers in terms of maturity? He wants them to be able to train their powers of discernment to distinguish good from evil. Know what is good. Know what is evil. That’s maturity. Be able to dig deeper and tell the true from the false. And how is this accomplished? It’s simple: constant practice.

Pianists don’t become accomplished on accident. Engineers don’t casually create bridges or iPhones. Michael Jordan didn’t lazy his way into total league domination. Skill—maturity—is developed through constant practice. And our faith is no exception. If you are “unskilled in the word of righteousness,” there’s a solution. Constant practice.

You may feel like you aren’t enough of a scholar to pick up your Bible, read it, and understand it. But the reality is that you won’t gain this ability apart from picking up your Bible and reading it. The understanding will come through constant practice.

If you want to remain immature and “unskilled,” neglect is the perfect strategy. It will work wonders! But if you want to press on toward maturity, if you want to train your powers of discernment so that you will recognize the difference between good and evil, there’s a simple (yet taxing) solution: constant practice. Beware of substitutes.

The Lion Roars

Chris Hay —  July 2, 2013 — Leave a comment

I love the Minor Prophets. And I hate the designation ‘minor.’ There is nothing minor about these 12 fairly short books that park at the end of the Old Testament. They were given that unfortunate moniker because they are shorter than the ‘major’ prophets. But these short books pack a punch that is far greater than their designation as ‘minor’ might indicate. The unfortunate thing is that since they are considered ‘minor,’ and since they are so short, and since they are often considered hard to understand and confusing, we have largely ignored them. I mean when was the last time you had a delightful time with God basking in the text of Nahum?

I believe that it is imperative we get to know God as best we can. Learn all we can about him, his character, the way he works in the world and with mankind, and turn that knowledge into a personal relationship. After all, we cannot have a very good relationship with a person we do not know very well.

I further believe that all scripture is God-breathed, and all scripture is necessary to know God as best we can. So it stands to reason that if there are significant sections of scripture we neglect, such as the Minor Prophets, our view of God will be skewed. And I would argue, our view of God is too small, too soft, too uninvolved, too uncaring, too focused on his love and grace as opposed to his wrath and justice. The view that God is soft and gushy is too prevalent.

Amos is one of the Minor Prophets who packs a major punch. Amos was a farmer in Israel about 760 B.C. His agricultural expertise included sheep that were known for a high quality wool, and producing sycamore figs. He was not seminary or Bible college trained. His father was not a prophet. He was common, ordinary farmer. But God called him to a task, and he obeyed and went.

At this point in history Israel was in control of the major trade routes. Money was pouring into their cities. A rich, hedonistic upper class was emerging. Expensive homes were built with rare and expensive materials. These indulgent Israelites felt entitled to their snobbish, self-serving lifestyle. Homes and families were disintegrating. Sounds a bit like America, maybe?

roaring-lionAmos stepped into this pit of opulent wealth and called it for what it was. He was sarcastic. He was blunt. He was bold. He called the rich women ‘fat cows.’ He painted a terrifying picture of God as a roaring lion. In fact, the opening words of his sermon are “The LORD roars from Zion…” He tells us that when this Lion roars, the mountains wither, the pastures mourn, the earth melts.

And as we might expect, his message was rejected. The local priest told him to go preach somewhere else. But Israel was on the fast track to destruction and God called Amos to warn them. History tells us that about 35 years after Amos ministered, the Assyrians would invade Israel. They would murder, rape, and pillage. Any survivors would be chained and marched across 600 miles of desert, where many more would die. The opulent lifestyle would come crashing down. The Lion roared, and bodies fell. Not very soft and gushy.

Amos gives us a picture of God that may not be very comfortable, or popular. But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, completely accurate. A necessary part of the whole counsel of God. Part of ‘all scripture’ that we dare not neglect.

So, yea. Lets have some great quality time with God in Amos. And Nahum. And Obadiah. Read these books in a Study Bible or with some Bible study helps so you do understand the context and background, because they can be confusing. But read them. Study them. Expand your understanding of our great God.

The Lion has roared.

The western church, as you know, wades around in a thick sludge of individualism. We admit it. We bemoan it. But sometimes we don’t realize just how deep our individualism ancient mss1runs. As I peel back the many unforeseen layers of my presuppositions, I often see individualistic tendencies governing my beliefs and behaviors. A few posts ago, I wrote about the individualism that colors our buzzphrase “feeling called to…” For this post I want to look at the individualism that has given rise to the idea that you can understand the Bible by yourself.

Put frankly, you can’t understand the Bible by yourself. You need the community of God to rightly interpret the text.

You may think this is heresy—or Catholic—but hear me out. I don’t want to deconstruct a presupposition for deconstruction’s sake. My aim is to bring us back to a more biblical view of the Bible. I want us to study the Bible in community because that’s how the Bible was meant to be read, studied, and lived.

Can we really not understand the Bible by ourselves?

No, we can’t. In fact, we need several things to happen before we can even read the Bible.

First, we need textual critics to plow through all the manuscripts and determine what’s the most accurate version of the Bible. There are currently over 5,000 different manuscripts (or portions of manuscripts) of the New Testament with over 300,000 differences. It takes a lot of work—a lifetime of painstaking education and laborious study—to be able to sort through the pile of parchment to come up with a New Testament that best reflects the original words of Jesus, Paul, Luke, and Peter. But do not fret. This can be done with remarkable accuracy, though I’ll save you the details. My point is: you need other believers (or some non-believers!) to do this work before you open your translation and read. You cannot just read the words of Jesus and Paul without some human mediation.

Second, you need someone to translate these manuscripts from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic into the version(s) that you read. Some of our English translations come from a single scholar (e.g. Eugene Peterson’s The Message). Others ancient mss 2come from more than 50 or 60 different scholars (e.g. the NASB, ESV, NLT). In other words, you need a community of believers to translate the original languages of the 5,000 manuscripts, compile and edited by many textual critics, before you can read the Bible. Again, you cannot just read the words of Jesus and Paul without many human mediators.

Third, you also need a publisher. Before the 15th century, when the printing press was invented, your “publisher” would have been a scribe whom you would pay big bucks to hand-write a copy of the Bible. Today, there are many publishers who have taken this scribal role to edit, print, and bind your Bible. Again, many people are involved in this process—a process that ultimately ends with an ESV Bible at your nightstand.

Once you’ve received your copy of the Bible and are ready to read, you still need help to rightly interpret it. Now, there is a layer of truth that most every believer can understand by simply reading by themselves. But I don’t think we fully appreciate how much of our understanding of the Bible comes from history, tradition, and our current leaders and pastors (i.e. community) without even knowing it. Most of our crucial Christian beliefs were formed through a community of believers wrestling with God’s word. The trinity, the atonement, your view of baptism, and the end times were all shaped, in part, by the community of God’s people led by thinkers such as Tertullian, Anselm, Zwingli, Luther, Ryrie, and others. Even our doctrine of salvation by grace through faith was heavily influenced by the fact that Martin Luther was hyper-attracted to Romans and Galatians instead of James and Revelation—both of which he despised. If Luther and his community emphasized James, Revelation, and, say, Matthew (none of which mention justification by faith alone), what would be the center of our view of salvation?

Now, none of this should be disturbing, because God works through community. God worked through Luther and the Reformers to rightly correct the church’s view of salvation by opening his eyes to Paul’s words in Romans and Galatians. To bible studysay we need the community to rightly understands the Bible only means that God works through community. He raises up gifted teachers who have the ability to study, synthesize, and articulate God’s truth better than others.

This is why Paul says that God has given “pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Or in the words of that castrated African: “How can I [understand what I’m reading] unless someone guides me” (Acts 8:31). If we could just study the Bible on an island, or on a chariot, and build ourselves up, why would God feel the need to gift teachers to guide us?

Community: you can’t live without it; you can read without it.