Lazy reading will yield shallow results.
Once when I was beginning to pastor a church, I spoke about my hopes for my ministry with the church’s governing body. I mentioned that I hoped to start an adult Bible study session, as teaching the Bible is my passion.
A woman on that governing board responded, “Pastor, I can’t think of anything more boring.” I’ve learned she spoke exactly how many people, both inside and outside the church, feel about Bible study.
Why is that? I find the Bible a deeply engaging and ever fascinating book to read. Why don’t others? I have come to believe that one source of their attitude is that they have not been taught to read the Bible with skills that open up its depth. Instead they engage in light, lazy reading that yields shallow results.
As a result, I’ve made it a point to teach adult classes my four-step method for reading the Bible. I’m going to share that method in this posting and the next. Maybe this method can help some of you my readers to enrich your Bible study.
Step 1: Read the Text
I am constantly amazed at how many people authoritatively proclaim what the Bible says and yet have never opened the book to read it. So when I start a Bible study class, I always insist that we read the text out loud before we ever begin to discuss it.
This is essential. We must expose ourselves to the actual text before we start to talk about what it may mean. We need to have that actual text at the very center of our attention.
I insist we do this out loud for two reasons. One, because that is how millions of people through the centuries who did not have access to a written Bible came to hear the Bible text. It entered into their lives through their ears, not their eyes.
And two, even for us today who have access to numerous printed Bibles, when we read the text aloud, we absorb it into our bodies as well as into our minds. For Bible reading to release its power, it must become something more than just a mental exercise.
Step 2: Observe the Text
After we hear the text read aloud, I teach my students to try not to immediately make sense of the text, but rather to take time simply to observe what the text is saying. We want to note carefully what is there in the text. What is the text saying or not saying? Questions like these can help us do that:
- Who are the characters in the story, if it is a narrative?
- Who is speaking? Who is addressed? Who acts?
- What happens in the text? What is said?
- Are there any key words that get repeated?
- Do peculiar words, phrases, actions stand out in the text?
- How does the text unfold? Does the text make an unexpected shift in its thought or tone at one point?
- What strange juxtapositions do we find in the text?
- What is omitted that we would expect to be there?
In this step, as I said, we do not try to understand what we are seeing. Instead we want to just note what the text is saying.
Step 3: Interpret the Text within Its Context
After we have spent some time observing the text, then we are ready to try to understand it. The overarching question in this step is: What is the author of the text trying to say and why?
When we try to interpret the text, I consider one rule as the most important: Interpret the text within its context. The meaning of the text depends upon the context in which it is placed.
A passage, however, may belong to several different contexts, all of which may be important to its meaning.
- The literary placement of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Where does the passage we are reading fit within the Biblical book to which it belongs? What precedes it? What follows it? What precedes or follows may affect how we read the passage we are focusing on. For example, the story of the healing of the blind beggar Bartimaeus recounted in Mark 10:46-52. This can seem like a simple healing story, until we notice it follows a story of James and John asking Jesus to sit on his right and left when Jesus enters his glory. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asks James and John: What do you want me to do for you? This signals, I believe, that we are to read the two stories together. For the question the story of Bartimaeus raises is: Who is the really blind one?
- The context of literary genre. Literary genre refers to the kind of literary work that the passage is. Is it a fictional story, a historical narrative, poetry, a sermon, a letter, a legal document, a parable, a teaching lecture, etc.? Knowing what literary genre the passage belongs to helps us determine how to read it.
For example, the book of Jonah. Is it a historical narrative or a didactic short story? For various reasons, I believe it is the latter. If we read it as historical narrative, we will miss the important spiritual insight the author is trying to convey.
- The literary context formed by the whole canon of the Bible. When we read a passage in one book of the Bible, we need to pay attention to what other books in the Bible may say about the same theme. Individual books may be in dialogue with one another.
For example, the books of Ezra/Nehemiah tell us of the rigorous requirement the scribe Ezra lays down that Jewish men who have married non-Jewish wives must divorce and dismiss them. This is necessary to maintain the integrity of the fragile community in Jerusalem. Yet the book of Ruth tells the striking story of a foreign woman married to a Jewish man who ultimately proves the spiritual equal of Leah and Rachel, the revered wives of Jacob. Both books are in the canon. The canon forces us to hear the two books in dialogue with each other.
- The context of the Hebrew and Greek languages that the books of the Bible were written in. How does the vocabulary or grammar of the passage in English translation reflect something peculiar to the Hebrew or Greek language?
As an example, let’s take an important Bible word: peace. In John 20:19 the risen Jesus greets his disciples with Peace be with you. To fully appreciate what Jesus is saying, it is important to recognize that Jesus uses the word peace in its Hebrew meaning that we find in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word is shalom.
In English peace means primarily a calmness or lack of conflict. But in Hebrew shalom is much richer in meaning. It can mean calmness or lack of conflict, but also well being, wholeness, prosperity, social harmony, prosperity, and a healthy relationship with God. In many ways, the word shalom is a synonym for salvation in all of its many dimensions. When you read Jesus’ blessing in this context, it becomes a rich blessing indeed.
Now obviously if one is not fluent in ancient Hebrew or Greek, one will not capture these subtleties in English. One may find it necessary then to rely on commentaries from Bible scholars to help illumine some of these dimensions of the text.
- The cultural context of ancient Israel and the early church. How does the history and culture of the period when the text was written affect its meaning?
For example, in John 15:14-15 Jesus at the Last Supper calls his disciples his friends. This remark takes on far deeper significance when we realize that in the ancient Greco-Roman world of the New Testament, friendship was regarded as the highest and most intimate relationship among human beings. In fact, a higher and more intimate relationship than marriage.
Once again, it requires some additional background reading to familiarize ourselves with ancient Israelite and Greco-Roman culture. But the more we do, the more elements of the Bible’s text will begin to take on richer meaning.
What we strive for in Step 3 is to understand the text as the author spoke to his original, intended audience. This is important grounding for our next step, which explores how the text may speak to us today. Any application to today should grow out of what the text actually says, not what we want it to say.
Two Words of Caution
I have two final comments. One is that I believe no individual person alone can ever come to a fully unbiased, objective understanding of the Biblical text. Every one of us approaches our reading of the Bible with conscious, and more often unconscious, assumptions and biases that affect what we see in the text and more importantly, what we do not see. We all have blind spots when we come to reading the Bible. So no one can aspire to an infallible interpretation of the Biblical text.
We correct against our assumptions and biases by reading the Bible in dialogue with other people. As we listen to other interpretations, we as a community of believers stand a better chance of perceiving the Bible’s meaning. So there are times when liberal Protestants need to pay attention to what their fundamentalist brothers are saying, and vice versa. Catholics must listen to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostals, and so must each of the others as well.
This is what can make Bible study so exciting. It can be an energizing group activity. But it is what makes Bible study sometimes frustrating as well. If we are looking for certitude in interpreting the Bible, we are not going to find it. But if we take joy in the journey of debate, we are more likely to find something deeply satisfying.
And second, what I am advocating means that we must put some serious work into our reading of the Bible. As I said earlier, lazy reading will yield shallow insight. If we want to tap into the riches of the Bible, we must be prepared to dig deep into the text to find the insights we seek.
And Now on to Step Four: Applying the Text to Our Lives
The last step in my method for reading the Bible is one that only believers, whether they are Jewish or Christian, will take. That is because we seek from the Biblical text words that may speak to us today, in our life challenges. This is what we mean when as believers we talk about the Bible as the Word of God. We believe that through the Bible, God continues to speak to humanity.
This is the step I call reflection and application. In this step the ancient text ceases to be ancient and becomes contemporary in speaking to us today. It is why most people continue to read the Bible as a religious discipline. I will talk about how we can exercise this step in my next posting. Stay tuned.
Note to Readers:
The steps I describe in this posting are what Biblical scholars call the process of exegesis. Exegesis is a Greek-derived word that implies that what we are doing is trying to extract the meaning that lies embedded in the text. This contrasts with eisegesis, in which we read our own meaning back into the text. In eisegesis we make the author say what we want him to say; in exegesis we strive to listen to the author as accurately as we can.
Exegesis is a tool not only for reading the Bible, but any work of literature. I first learned the principles of this tool in a college class in poetry writing.