Some helps to read the Bible better

These are my notes from a conference talk given by Gordon Fee. He is the co-author of How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book. The talk is far more coherent than these notes. 🙂

Fee identifies two main problems with Bible reading: flattening and fragmenting.

  • By flattening he means reading different kinds of genres the same way. Just in the same way you don’t read a novel and a news article in the same way, you don’t read an epistle and prophecy in the same way.
  • By fragmenting he means losing sight of the overarching storyline of the Bible, not understanding how all the stories fit together and not reading books in their entirety.

Following are a few tips, by no means exhaustive:

How to overcome the problem of flattening

1)       Get rid of the numbers. They are convenient, but they can get in the way of the author’s own structures. See examples of this from Malachi and Philippians below.

A leaf from Papyrus 46 which contains a number of Paul's letters
Paul didn't insert the chapters, verses and paragraph headings (image via http://www.bible-researcher.com)

2)      Read a Bible that distinguishes between prose and poetry. Hebrew poetry, unlike English poetry which is based on metre and rhyme, is characterised by parallelism. The bulk of the book of Job is in poetic form. Proverbs contains short pithy sayings that employ both synonymous and anthithetic parallelism. Naturally, we’re most familiar with the Psalms.  The book of Genesis is an example of Hebrew narrative, of which there are various kinds. Genesis is held together by 10 headings of somewhat independent stories. These headings are found in Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1&32, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1&9, 37:2.

How to overcome the problem of fragmenting

After encouraging his listeners to read an entire book out aloud, Fee gives two examples from How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

Malachi

The book contains two well-known verses that are often used in a legalistic way:

  • Malachi 2:16, on divorce.
  • Malachi 3:10, the tithe.

But what about the context of these verses? The core of Malachi is a series of complaints that post-exilic Israel had with God, about 100 years after the return from the exile. In Malachi’s day, men were deliberately divorcing their Jewish wives to marry pagans, thus breaking covenant. The non-paying of the tithe was a lack of covenant loyalty. Incidentally, tithing is mentioned only once in the NT (Matt 23:23). Giving in the NT is more about generosity and meeting the needs of others.

The six disputes in Malachi arise because the people didn’t think the covenant was worth it. Here they are:

  • 1:1-2:5: Does Yahweh love them or not?
  • 1:6-2:9: The priests’ contempt for Yahweh  by offering blemished animals
  • 2:10-16: Breaking covenant by marrying foreign wives
  • 2:17-3:5: Injustice of several kinds
  • 3:6-12: Withholding the tithe
  • 3:13-18: Speaking harsh words against Yahweh

The first two are complaints by the people while the middle four are disputes God has with them.

Philippians

The best-known verses in Philippians (4:13 and 19) are often taken out of context. Philippians is a fine blend of two kinds of letters known in antiquity: the friendship letter and the moral exhortation. These two parts are clear in the Greek, distinguishable by the pronouns used (‘I’ and ‘you’).

  • 1:1-11: Salutation
  • 1:12-26: Paul’s own circumstances and how he’s responding to them. He uses himself as an example of how Christians should respond in adverse circumstances
  • 1:27-2:18: the Philippians’ present circumstances—problems from without and from within. Christ is presented as an exemplary paradigm for them in 2:5-11
  • 2:19-30: Paul’s and their circumstances in light of what’s next. Timothy and Epaphroditus, whom Paul is sending back to Philippi, serve as examples of humble servitude
  • 3:1-4:3: The Philippians’ circumstances—they shouldn’t yield to Judaism. Paul uses his own story as an example
  • 4:4-9: Closing exhortations. But the letter isn’t finished…
  • 4:10-20: Acknowledging their gift. He puts their gift in divine perspective. Reflecting on his need, Paul recounts how he’s learned to live in plenty and to live in want. It is in this context that he writes 4:13—through Christ he can live both with much and with little. Culture dictated that Paul reciprocate their gift which, being imprisoned, he couldn’t. In verse 18, he switches metaphors from commercial to sacrificial, saying that their gift to him was in reality a gift to God. Since Paul cannot reciprocate, he turns his end over to God in verse 19.

Doesn’t that make Philippians 4:13 and 19 even more significant than we normally take them to be?

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