Interpreting the Bible

Good biblical interpretation is essential if for no other reason than bad biblical interpretation exists. One of my favorite New Testament scholars, Ben Witherington III, tells a humorous story that illustrates my point.

Decades ago, Ben and a friend were driving through the desert when their car broke down. They were fortunate enough to be picked up by an elderly couple. The year was 1969 and Apollo 11 had just landed on the moon. Ben’s friend, tried to break the ice in conversing with the couple by bringing up the recent moon landing.

The man scoffed at the moon landing and said it was faked. He then proceeded to quote a Bible verse from the book of Revelation which said the earth has four corners (Revelation 7:1). He went on to say that the pictures of the earth from the Apollo 11 mission ‘must’ have been faked because the earth was not a sphere. See the problem?

The man’s misunderstanding of the book made him distrust pictures of the earth from space. The problem with viewing the Bible in such wooden  or stiff way, is that it confuses the Bible. In our quest to be ‘literal,’ and take God at his word, we sometimes miss what is actually being communicated. It is very clear that Revelation 7 is not talking about a literal spherical earth, but this man took it that way. There are many other examples in Scripture to show this, but one will do for now. In the Gospel of John 10:7, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Jesus was not saying he had hinges and handle. He was pointing to a greater truth with the image of a gate.  Not only do we see the variety of language types in the Bible, we also see this in our everyday speech.     

A few weeks ago my daughter and I came home from a basketball game. My son was sleeping so we were trying to keep quiet. However, as my daughter walked down the hallway, I could hear the steady thumps of her feet.  

Slightly annoyed, I sighed and thought to myself, “She has the same feet as I do.” She reminded me of my own ‘heavy feet.’ This statement about having the “same feet” was a literal statement. Namely, it was pointing to a literal truth. However, the literal truth that it was pointing to had nothing to do with actual feet other than the noise one was making with them.

What is my point in bringing this up? Let me begin by saying I in no way want to deter anyone from reading the Bible. Instead, I want to encourage a fresh and deeper reading of the Bible in our modern world. Christians need to be faithful in their reading of God’s word, and sometimes that means reading larger chunks of the Bible to get a bird’s eye view. It also means grabbing a basic commentary from time to time which will enlighten a passage. Moreover, knowing what the Bible is actually saying will bless your life