The Old Testament narratives: Their proper use

These are my notes on Chapter 5 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

Over 40% of the OT is narrative. The OT makes up roughly ¾ of the Bible. In the NT we find narrative in the gospels and Acts. Hence, narrative is the Bible’s dominant genre.

The nature of narratives

Narratives are stories with a plot and characters. In the OT narratives, the most special character is God.

OT narratives have three levels. The top level is that of the whole universal plan of God worked out through His creation. This is the story of redemption. The middle level centres on OT Israel as a nation in covenant with God. In the bottom level we find all the individual narratives that make up the other two levels.

The top-level narrative goes beyond the OT into the NT. So when Jesus taught that the scriptures “…bear witness to me” (John 5:27-29) he wasn’t speaking about every individual passage but of the ultimate top level of the narrative in which His atonement was the central act.

What narratives are not:

  1. OT narratives aren’t just stories about people who lived long ago. They’re first and foremost stories about what God did to and through those people. If it is in the Bible, God is the hero of the story.
  2. OT narratives aren’t allegories or stories filled with hidden meaning. Some aspects may be hard to understand; nor do they answer all our questions on a given issue. They have a limited focus, giving us one part of the overall picture of what God is doing in history.
  3. OT narratives don’t always teach directly. They often illustrate what is taught directly and categorically elsewhere. 2 Samuel 11 nowhere contains the statement, “David did wrong by committing adultery.” You’re expected to know Exodus 20:14.
  4. Each individual narrative or episode within a narrative does not necessarily have a moral all on its own. Many individual elements combine to constitute the narrative and to provide God’s revelation via the entire unit.

Principles for interpreting narratives

  1. An OT narrative usually doesn’t directly teach doctrine.
  2. An OT narrative usually illustrates a doctrine or doctrines taught propositionally elsewhere
  3. Narrative records what happened—not necessarily what should have happened or what ought to happen every time. Therefore, not every narrative has an identifiable moral of the story.
  4. What people do in narratives isn’t necessarily a good example for us.
  5. Most of the characters in OT narratives are far from perfect. The same goes for their actions.
  6. We’re not always told whether what happened was good or bad. We’re expected to be able to judge that on the basis of what God has taught elsewhere in scripture.
  7. All narratives are selective and incomplete. Not all the relevant details are always given.
  8. Narratives aren’t written to answer our theological questions. They have particular, specific and limited purposes.
  9. Narrative may teach either explicitly (by clearly stating something) or implicitly (by clearly implying something without stating it). Implicit doesn’t mean secret. Implicit means that the message is capable of being understood from what is said, though it isn’t said in so many words.
  10. In the final analysis, God is the hero of all biblical narrative

Some final cautions

Why is it that people often find things in biblical narratives that aren’t really there? One, they’re desperate for something that’ll help them personally. Two, they want answers now, from this passage. Three, they wrongly expect that everything in the Bible applies directly as specific instruction for their individual lives.

Here are common errors to avoid:

  1. Allegorising – ignoring the clear meaning to get to the one behind it.
  2. Decontextualizing – ignoring the historical and literary contexts.
  3. Selectivity – picking and choosing specific words and phrases to concentrate on, ignoring the overall sweep of the passage
  4. False combination – combining elements from here and there and making a point out of the combination, even though the elements aren’t directly connected.
  5. Redefinition – when the plain meaning doesn’t produce immediate spiritual delight, some tend to redefine terms, sometimes in such a way as to no longer be a threat to the person doing the redefining.
  6. Extracanonical authority – unlocking the mysteries of the Bible using some sort of special key to the scriptures.
  7. Moralising – the assumption that principles for living can be derived from all passages. This approach ignores the fact that the narratives were written to show the progress of God’s history of redemption, not to illustrate principles.
  8. Personalising – Reading scripture in such a way that supposes that any or all parts apply to you or your group in a way that they don’t apply to everyone else. For example, “Balaam’s donkey reminds me that I talk too much.” No Bible narrative was written specifically about you. You can learn from them, but you can never assume that God expects you to do exactly what the Bible characters did, or have the same things happen to you as happened to them.
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The epistles: The hermeneutical questions

These are my notes on Chapter 4 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. This is a book on common-sense guidelines on interpreting and applying the Bible.

The big issue with the epistles is cultural relativity: what is cultural and belongs to the 1st century and what transcends culture and is a word from God for all season?

The problem is generated by those texts which some think we should obey exactly and others aren’t quite as sure. No one believes 2 Timothy 4:13 to be a word for us today, while 2 Timothy 2:3 is, though both are addressed specifically to Timothy. Well, how about 1 Timothy 5:23, also addressed to Timothy?

The basic rule is that a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his/her readers. This rule helps set limits on our interpretation.

The second rule is that whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e. similar specific life situations) with the 1st century setting, God’s word to us is the same as His word to them. We need to do our exegesis well to have confidence that our situations and particulars are genuinely comparable to theirs.

Some problems may arise when seeking to apply a certain text to ourselves:

The problem of extended application

Is it legitimate to extend the application to a context totally foreign to its 1st century context? No, it is advisable to limit application to its original intent.

The problem of particulars that aren’t comparable

This refers to those issues that are without contemporary counterparts, or are highly unlikely to come up today. An example would be 1 Corinthians 8-10 (attending idol feasts, questioning Paul’s apostolic authority and food sacrificed to idols).

First, you need to do sound exegesis and determine what God’s word to them was. In most cases, you’ll find a principle that transcends historical particularity. Second, the principle is to be applied to genuinely comparable situations.

What about matters of indifference? The following guidelines may be helpful:

  1. What the apostles specifically indicate as matters of indifference may still be regarded as such (food, drink, observance of days, etc.)
  2. Matters of indifference aren’t inherently moral, but cultural (even if they come from religious culture)
  3. The sins lists in the epistles never include 1st century matters of indifference (Romans 1:29-30; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 6:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:2-4)

The problem of cultural relativity

Is it not possible that some texts need to be translated into new settings or left in the 1st century? For example, many Christians don’t practise the “holy kiss”.

Here are some guidelines for distinguishing between the items that are culturally relative and those that transcend their original setting:

  1. Distinguish between the central core of the message of the Bible and what is dependent upon or peripheral to it. Doctrines such as the fallenness of mankind and redemption through Christ are part of that central core. The holy kiss, women’s head coverings and the like are peripheral.
  2. Distinguish between what the NT sees as inherently moral (and therefore absolute and abiding for every culture) and what isn’t. Paul’s sin lists never contain cultural items.
  3. Take note of items where the NT has a uniform and consistent witness and where it reflects differences. It is consistent on the wrongness of strife, hatred, murder, stealing, practising sexual immorality of all kinds, etc. It isn’t consistent on the political evaluation of the Roman empire (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Revelation 13-18), the retention of one’s wealth (Luke 12:33, 18:22; 1 Timothy 6:17-19), etc.
  4. Distinguish within the NT between principle and specific application. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul appeals to the divine order of creation (v. 3) and establishes the principle that one should do nothing to distract from the glory of God when the community is at worship. (vv. 7, 10). The specific application seems to be relative, since Paul appeals to “custom” or “nature” (vv. 6, 13-14, 16). In some churches today, a woman covering her head would be so out of place as to cause a disruption in worship.
  5.  Determine the cultural options available to the NT writer. The degree to which the NT writer agrees with a cultural situation in which there’s only one option increases the possibility of the cultural relativity of such a position. On the other hand, homosexuality was both affirmed and condemned in antiquity, yet the NT takes a singular position against it.
  6. Keep alert to possible cultural differences between the 1st and 21st centuries that aren’t immediately obvious. For example, Paul wasn’t speaking of a participatory democracy in Romans 13:1-7 .
  7. Exercise Christian charity. Recognise the difficulties and be willing to ask for forgiveness when necessary.

The problem of task theology

Much of the theology in the epistles is task-oriented and not presented systematically. For this reason, some caution needs to be observed:

  1. Because of their occasional nature, we must be content with limitation to our theological understanding of the epistles. For example, what does it mean that we will judge the angels (1 Corinthians 6:2-3)? We’re not told.
  2. Sometimes our theological problems with the epistles derive from the fact that we’re asking our questions of the text while they are answering their questions. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses issues that Jesus said nothing about because they were outside His Jewish context.

The equinox is for doxology!

Today the sun rose due east and shall set due west on all points of the globe, and day and night shall be exactly the same length. At 1449 Universal Time (sort of the same as GMT), the sun shall be straight overhead the equator. For folks in the northern hemisphere, today means summer’s over. For those in the southern hemisphere, winter’s over. And for those at the equator (like me), it means the rains are on their way (hopefully).

So what?

Today offers a special incitation to praise the God of the Bible. Consider the following scripture passages:

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, and day and night
will not cease.

—Genesis 8:22 (HCSB)

So, until the day this earth is destroyed by fire (2 Peter 3:10-12), Yahweh has promised to keep the cycles of nature rolling. Praise Him for His providence!

“This is what the Lord says: If you can break My covenant with the day and My covenant with the night so that day and night cease to come at their regular time, then also My covenant with My servant David may be broken so that he will not have a son reigning on his throne, and the Levitical priests will not be My ministers. The hosts of heaven cannot be counted; the sand of the sea cannot be measured. So, too, I will make the descendants of My servant David and the Levites who minister to Me innumerable.”

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: “Have you not noticed what these people have said? They say, ‘The Lord has rejected the two families He had chosen.’ My people are treated with contempt and no longer regarded as a nation among them. This is what the Lord says: If I do not keep My covenant with the day and with the night and fail to establish the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I might also reject the seed of Jacob and of My servant David—not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.”

–Jeremiah 33:20-26 (HCSB)

This one hurts my brain. Yahweh ties His covenant with the day and the night to His covenant with David. He connects the daily mundane cycles with His choosing of the covenant community. He couples sunrise and sunset with the eternal salvation promised through Messiah. Praise Him for His salvation!

So, get your praise on with this classic hymn:

The epistles: Learning to think contextually

These are my notes on Chapter 3 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

Most of the NT epistles follow the form of the ancient letter:

  1. The name of the writer (e.g. Paul)
  2. The name of the recipient (e.g. to the church of God at Corinth)
  3. Greeting (e.g. grace and peace to you from God our Father…)
  4. Prayer wish or thanksgiving (e.g. I always thank God for you…)
  5. Body
  6. Final greeting and farewell (e.g. the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you…)

Some of the NT epistles lack some of these elements. What they all have in common is that they are occasional documents (i.e. arising out of and intended for a specific occasion). They were written out of the 1st century context of the author to the context of the original recipients. It is these two factors that most complicate their interpretation.

That they were occasional means we have the answers but don’t always know what the questions or problems were. Their occasional nature also means that they weren’t primarily written to expound Christian theology.

Historical context

In order to understand the historical context, consult a Bible dictionary or commentary for background information. Second, read the whole letter through in one sitting. As you read, jot down brief notes with references, along these lines:

  1. What you notice about the recipients themselves – whether Jew or Greek, wealthy or slave, their problems and attitudes, etc;
  2. The author’s attitudes;
  3. Anything mentioned as to the specific occasion of the letter;
  4. The letter’s natural, logical divisions.

You can also read through first and go back with a skim reading to pick up these items.

Using 1 Corinthians, the answers to the above are:

  1. The Corinthian believers are largely Gentile (12:2) and are arrogant (4:18, 5:2)
  2. Paul rebukes (4:8-21, 5:2, 6:1-8), appeals (4:14-17, 16:10-11), and exhorts (6:18-20, 16:12-14)
  3. Paul mentions reported information (1:10-12, 5:1), and likely also received a letter from them (7:1).
  4. 7:1 is an obvious major division. The first six chapters can be divided as follows:
    1. The problem of division in the church (1:10-4:21)
    2. The problem of the incestuous man (5:1-13)
    3. The problem of lawsuits (6:1-11)
    4. The problem of fornication (6:12-20)

Chapters 7-16 can be divided on the basis of the introductory formula “now about”:

  1. About behaviour within marriage (7:1-24)
  2. About virgins (7:25-40)
  3. About food sacrificed to idols (8:1-11:1)
  4. The covering of women’s heads in church (11:2-16)
  5. The problem of the abuse of the Lord’s table (11:17-34)
  6. About spiritual gifts (12-14)
  7. The bodily resurrection of believers (15:1-58)
  8. About the collection (16:1-11)
  9. About the return of Apollos (16:12)
  10. Concluding exhortations and greetings (16:13-24)

The literary context

Think paragraphs, not verses. In a concise manner, state the content of each paragraph. In another sentence or two, say how this content contributes to the argument.

Guidelines for problem passages (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:10, 15:29; 1 Peter 3:18, etc.):

  1. They are difficult because they weren’t written to us. The author and readers were on the same wavelength that allowed them to understand each other. We shouldn’t be dogmatic about these issues.
  2. Nonetheless, very often the point of the whole passage is still within one’s grasp.
  3. One needs to learn to ask what can be said for certain about a text and what is possible but not certain.
  4. Consult a good commentary which discusses all possible options. Keep in mind that even scholars don’t have all the answers.

The basic tool: A good translation

These are my notes on Chapter 2 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Do check out the links at the end!

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic (half of Daniel and 2 passages in Ezra) and Greek.

It is good practice to use mainly one translation, provided it is a good one. This aids memorisation and consistency. For study, it is advisable to use several translations that tend to differ. This will highlight difficult passages that you can then consult a commentary on.

But which translation should you use?

The science of translation

The translator needs to be sure that the Hebrew or Greek text he or she is using is as close to the original as possible. This is the goal of the discipline of textual criticism.

The theory of translation used (literal, free or dynamic equivalence) will determine the language (formal or contemporary) of the translation.

Problems with literal translations:

  • The Greek or Hebrew is rendered into English in awkward ways
  • They can make the English ambiguous

Free translations on the other hand often come too close to being commentaries.

The major problems involved in translation are:

  1. Weights, measures and money – do you transliterate or convert? Marginal notes may be helpful here.
  2. Euphemisms – do you translate literally, translate a literal equivalent, or translate with an equivalent euphemism?
  3. Vocabulary – Some Greek and Hebrew words have wide ranges of meaning, so what is the right word to translate them?
  4. Grammar and syntax – Greek is fond of genitive constructs (‘the book of me’ instead of ‘my book’). So should it be ‘God’s grace’ or ‘the grace of God’? (Consider that it doesn’t mean so much that God owns it as that He gives it, and it comes from Him.)

Extra: Links!

3 professors of New Testament crammed into one blog post

Just some links to stuff I’ve come across, in no particular order:

The need to interpret

These are my notes on Chapter 1 (of 13) of “How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth” (2nd edition) by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

The aim of interpretation isn’t trying to discover what no one has ever seen before. This tendency to uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (“I’m so clever!”), a false understanding of spirituality (“only the really spiritual can get this”), or vested interests (looking to support a theological bias).

The aim of good interpretation is to get at the plain meaning of the text.

We invariably bring to the text our experiences, culture, etc., and assume that our understanding is the same as the Holy Spirit’s or the human author’s. Additionally, the fact of reading the Bible in translation influences your understanding. What’s more, not all ‘plain meanings’ are plain to all Bible-believing Christians, e.g. proponents of both infant baptism and believer’s baptism find support in scripture.

The corrective to bad interpretation is good interpretation based on common-sense guidelines.

Scripture is both human and divine. Because it is God’s word it speaks to all humankind in every age and culture with eternal relevance. Because God chose to speak through human words in history, each document is conditioned by the time, language and culture in which it was written. The tension between eternal relevance and historical particularity demands the need for interpretation.

To interpret properly what it meant to them then, one must learn the special rules that apply to each of the literary genres in the Bible.

Exegesis

This is defined as the careful, systematic study of the scriptures to discover the original, intended meaning. Everyone is an exegete. The only question is whether or not you’re a good one.

The key to good exegesis is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask of it the right questions, in particular those relating to context (historical and literary) and those relating to content.

  1. Historical context: This has to do with the time and culture of the author and readers, and the occasion of the book (i.e. what prompted its writing). It helps to know that Isaiah wrote before the exile and Haggai after it. A good Bible dictionary can help here. As to occasion and purpose, this can usually be found within the book itself. Consult Bible dictionaries and commentaries only after making your own observations!
  2. Literary context: Words have meaning in sentences. For the most part, biblical sentences have meaning in relation to the sentences before and after them.
  3. Content: This has to do with meanings of words, grammatical relationships in sentences, etc. Ordinarily, outside help is needed.

Useful tools for doing exegesis are a good translation, a good Bible dictionary, a good Bible handbook and good commentaries.

Hermeneutics

For the purposes of this book (How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth), this is understood in the narrower sense of seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts.

We don’t begin with the here and now because the only proper control against making the Bible mean whatever we want is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text. A text cannot mean what it never meant.