Thanks to a number of pastors and professors, including those teaching in seminaries, many of us have been reading the Bible incorrectly. The books of Holy Scripture are not completely allegorical or symbolic. Yet, not everything is to be taken literally. Keener introduces us to the types of genre in the Bible as part of interpreting it correctly.
Emphases below are mine. As the chapters are lengthy, please refer back to Keener’s link to read what he has to say in full. His course has really opened my eyes to the Holy Bible and I hope that you, too, have derived benefit from it.
Chapters 7 – 10: Context of Genre
Although we have surveyed and illustrated many of the most important general rules for interpretation, we must now note that some interpretation skills depend on the kinds of writing in the Bible one is studying. For example, Revelation is prophetic (and probably apocalyptic) literature, which is full of symbols; if interpreters today debate how literal some of Revelation’s images are, no one doubts that much of Revelation (for instance, the prostitute and the bride) are each symbols representing something other than what they would mean literally (Babylon and New Jerusalem versus two literal women). The Psalms are poetry, and also often employ graphic images. Poetry involved poetic license; when Job claims that his steps were “bathed in butter” (Job 29:6), he means that he was prosperous, not that his hallways were packed with butter up to his ankles. One could provide hundreds of examples; those who deny the use of symbolism in some parts of the Bible (especially poetic portions) have simply not read the Bible very thoroughly.
On the other hand, narratives are not full of symbols. One should not read the story of David and Goliath and think, “What does Goliath stand for? What do the smooth stones stand for?” These accounts are intended as literal historical stories, and we seek to learn morals from these accounts the same way we would seek to learn them from our experiences or accounts of others’ experiences today. (The difference between biblical experiences and modern experiences is that the biblical ones more often come with clues to the proper interpretation from God’s perfect perspective.) We may apply what we learn from Goliath to other challenges that we face, but Goliath does not “symbolize” those challenges; he is simply one example of a challenge.
Even our most important rule, context, functions differently for different kinds of writings. Most proverbs, for instance, are not recorded in any noteworthy sequence providing a flow of thought; they are isolated, general sayings, and were simply collected (Prov 25:1). This is not to suppose, however, that we lack a larger context in which to read specific proverbs. By reading these proverbs in light of the entire collection of proverbs, and especially in light of other proverbs addressing the same topic, we have a general context available for most individual proverbs.
Scholars use the term “genre” for kinds of writings. Poetry, prophecy, history and wisdom saying are some of the genres represented in the Bible … Let us survey some of the most common “genres” in the Bible, and some important interpretation principles for each.
Narrative is the most common genre in the Bible. Narrative simply means a “story,” whether a true story like history or biography (most of the Bible’s narratives) or a story meant to communicate truth by fictional analogy, like a parable. A basic rule of interpretation for a story is that we should ask, “What is the moral of this story?” Or to put it differently, “What lessons can we learn from this story?”
Some principles help us draw lessons from stories accurately. The first principle is a warning, especially for historical narratives in the Bible: Do not allegorize the story. That is, do not turn it into a series of symbols as if it did not happen. If we turn a narrative into symbols, anyone can interpret the narrative to say whatever they want; people can read the same narrative and come up with opposite religions! When we read into a text in this way, we read into it what we already think–which means that we act like we do not need the text to teach us anything new!
For example, when David prepares to fight Goliath, he gathers five smooth stones. One allegorist might claim that David’s five stones represent love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, and goodness. Another might claim that he picked five stones to represent five particular spiritual gifts; or perhaps five pieces of spiritual armor listed by Paul in the New Testament. But such interpretations are utterly unhelpful. First, they are unhelpful because anyone can come up with any interpretation, and there is no objective way for everyone to find the same point in the text. Second, they are unhelpful because it is really the allegorist and his views, rather than the text itself, which supplies its meaning and teaches something. Third, it is unhelpful because it obscures the real point of the text. Why did David pick smooth stones? They were easier to aim. Why did David pick five of them instead of one? Presumably in case he missed the first time; the lesson we learn from this example is that faith is not presumption: David knew God would use him to kill Goliath, but he did not know if he would kill him with the first stone.
Where did allegory come from? Some Greek philosophers grew embarrassed about the myths of their gods committing adultery, robbery, and murder, so they turned the myths into a series of symbols rather than taking them as true teachings about their gods. Some Jewish philosophers, trying to defend the Bible against accusations by Greeks, explained away uncomfortable portions of the Bible by taking them as mere symbols … Gnostics like Valentinus, condemned by the orthodox Christians, mixed some Christian ideas with pagan philosophy. They often used the allegorical method to justify blurring distinction between Christianity and other thought systems. Many later Christian thinkers borrowed the allegorical method, which became quite common especially in Europe in the Middle Ages.
Many people practice allegory because they want to discover some hidden meaning in every word or phrase of Scripture. The problem with this approach is that it defies the way Scripture was actually given to us, hence disrespects rather than respects Scripture. The level of meaning is often the story as a whole, and individual words and phrases normally simply contribute to that larger contextual meaning. To read into the story meaning that is not there is in essence to attempt to add inspiration to Scripture, as if it were inadequate by itself …
Read the Story as a Whole
Sometimes we cannot draw a correct moral from a story because we have picked too narrow a text. Earlier in this book I mentioned my friend who doubted the usefulness of the passage where Abishag lies in bed with David to keep him warm. What moral would we draw from such a story? We would be wrong if we supposed that the moral was that young people should lie with older people to keep them warm. True as it might be that we should look out for the health of our kings or other leaders, that is also not the moral. Nor is the moral that live humans work better than blankets? Some might wish to draw from it a lesson that contradicts other moral teachings in the Bible. But all these interpretations miss the point, because the writer did not intend us to read one paragraph of the story and then stop. We should read the entire story, and in the flow of the entire story, this paragraph identifies that David is dying and prepares us for why Solomon must later execute his treacherous brother Adonijah. It helps us understand the rest of the story, and the point comes from the larger story, not always all of its individual parts.
How much do we need to read to get the whole picture? As a general rule, the more context you read, the better … Because it was difficult to get a very long document on a single scroll, longer works were often divided into smaller “books.” Thus 1 Samuel through 2 Kings represents one continuous story (with smaller parts); 1 and 2 Chronicles represents anothert story; Luke and Acts together comprise a single, united work (although our Bibles place John between them; read Acts 1:1 with Lk 1:3).
There is also a sense in which larger stories may contain smaller ones. For example, many of the stories in Mark can be read on their own as self-contained units with their own morals; some scholars have argued that the early church used those stories as units for preaching the way they used many Old Testament readings. But while this observation is true, modern scholars recognize that we should also recognize these smaller stories in their larger context to get the most out of them; one can follow the development of and suspense in Mark’s “plot” and trace the themes of the Gospel from start to finish. This prevents us from drawing the wrong applications. For instance, one might read Mark 1:45 and assume that if one is sent from God and fulfills God’s mission like Jesus does, one will be popular with the masses. But if one reads the whole Gospel, one recognizes that the crowds later clamor for Jesus’ execution (Mk 15:11-15). The moral is not that obedience to God always leads to popularity; the moral is that we cannot trust popularity to last, for the crowds are often easily swayed. Jesus thus focused on making disciples more than on drawing crowds (Mk 4:9-20).
Identify the Lessons in the Story
Reading a biblical story as a true account and then learning principles by analogy (the way we would learn lessons from hearing, say, our parents’ stories of lessons they learned in life) is not allegorizing; it is reading these stories the way they were meant to be read. As best as possible, we should put ourselves in the place of the original audience of the story, read it in the context of the whole book it which it appears, and try to learn from it what the first audience would have. Only then are we ready to think how to reapply the story to our situations and needs today. At the same time, if we stop we the ancient meaning, we will miss the story’s original impact. Once we understood what it meant in its first setting, we must think how to apply the passage with a comparable impact for our settings today.
Most narratives involve characters. One can try to determine whether the examples of the characters were good or bad ones in any given case by several methods: (1) When the writer and readers shared the same culture and it assumed an act was bad or good, the writer could assume that the readers knew which was which, unless he disagreed with the views of the culture. (2) If you read through the entire book, you may notice patterns of behavior; an evaluation of the behavior in one case would apply to similar cases of the behavior in that book. (3) By deliberately highlighting the differences among characters, one could usually see which were good and which were bad examples.
Sometimes we learn from a story by looking at positive and negative characters in the story and contrasting them. We can do this frequently in 1 Samuel; in chapters 1 and 2, we learn that humble Hannah, who was looked down on by many of the few people who knew her, was godly, whereas Eli the high priest had compromised his calling. Hannah offered to give up her son for God; Eli, refusing to give up his sons for God, ultimately lost them and everything else as well. After this the story compares the boy Samuel, who hears God and delivers his message, with Eli’s ungodly sons, who abuse their ministry to make themselves rich and have sexual relations with many women. God ultimately exalts Samuel but kills the hypocritical ministers. Later 1 Samuel contrasts David and Saul; by examining the differences between them, we can learn principles for fulfilling God’s call and also dangers to avoid …
Of course, distinguishing positive from negative examples is not always simple, and most characters in the Bible, just like most characters in Greek histories and biography, included a mixture of positive and negative traits. The Bible tells us about real people, and we learn from that pattern as well not to idolize as perfect or demonize as wholly evil people today. John the Baptist was the greatest prophet before Jesus (Matt 11:11-14), but he was unsure whether Jesus was fulfilling his prophecy (Matt 11:2-3) because Jesus was healing sick people but not pouring out fiery judgment (Matt 3:11-12). John was a man of God, but he did not know that the kingdom would come in two stages because its king would come twice. Distinguishing positive from negative examples takes much work, but is rewarding. It requires us to immerse ourselves in the entire story over and over until we can see the patterns in the story which give us the inspired author’s perspectives. But how better to learn God’s heart than to bathe ourselves in his word?
We can often make lists of positive attributes we can learn from characters in the Bible, especially if the text specifically calls them righteous. One example of learning lessons from a character’s behavior is Joseph in Matthew 1:18-25. The text specifically says that Joseph was a “righteous” person (1:19). Before listing lessons, we need to provide some background. Given the average ages of marriage among first-century Jews, Joseph was probably less than twenty and Mary was probably younger, perhaps in her mid-teens. Joseph probably did not know Mary well; sources suggest that parents did not allow Galilean couples to spend much time together before their wedding night. Also, Jewish “betrothal” was as binding legally as a marriage, hence could be ended only by divorce or the death of one partner. If the woman were charged with unfaithfulness in a court, her father would have to return to the groom the brideprice he had paid; also the groom would keep any dowry the bride had brought or was bringing into the marriage. By divorcing her privately the groom would probably forfeit such financial remuneration.
The narrative implies first of all something about commitment: Joseph was righteous even though he planned to divorce Mary, because he thought she had been unfaithful, and unfaithfulness is a very serious offense. The text also teaches us about compassion: even though Joseph believed (wrongly) that Mary had been unfaithful to him, he planned to divorce her privately to minimize her shame, thereby forgoing any monetary repayment for her misdeed and any revenge. Here Joseph’s “righteousness” (1:19) includes compassion on others. The passage further emphasizes consecration: Joseph was willing to bear shame to obey God. Mary’s pregnancy would bring her shame, perhaps for the rest of her life. If Joseph married her, people would assume either that he got her pregnant or, less likely, that he was a moral weakling who refused to punish her properly; in either case, Joseph was embracing Mary’s long-term shame in obedience to God’s will. Finally, we learn about control. In their culture, everyone assumed that a man and woman alone together could not control themselves sexually. But in their obedience to God, Joseph and Mary remained celibate even once they were married until Jesus was born, to fulfill the Scripture which promised not only a virgin conception but a virgin birth (1:23, 25). There are other morals in this paragraph, too (for instance, about the importance of Scripture in 1:22-23), but these are the clearest from Joseph’s own life.
Now is a good opportunity to practice on one’s own. One could take a passage like Mark 2:1-12 and list the sorts of morals one might draw from it. For example, one critical lesson is that the four men who brought their friend recognized that Jesus was the only answer to their need and refused to let anything deter them from getting to Jesus (2:4). Mark calls this determination on their part “faith” (2:5). Sometimes faith is refusing to let anything or anyone keep us from seeking Jesus for ourselves or (as in this case) for the need of a friend. Another important lesson is that Jesus responds to their faith first of all by forgiveness (2:5), because that is Christ’s first priority. We may also note in passing that Jesus’ true teaching generates opposition from religious professionals (2:6-7). Not everyone in religious leadership is always open to God! But while forgiveness is Christ’s priority, he also is ready to grant the miracle these men sought and to demonstrate his power with signs (2:8-12). He was not a western rationalist who doubted the reality of supernatural phenomena!
One could subdivide some of these lessons and perhaps find other lessons. But one should always be careful, as noted above, to draw the right lessons in light of the larger context. As noted before, Jesus’ popularity in the text (2:1-2) does not imply that such ministry always produces popularity, for many people ultimately asked for Jesus to be crucified (15:11-14). Nor should we read into the text something that is not clear in it; for example, we should not read into Jesus’ response to “their faith” in 2:5 that the Lord will forgive others’ sins because of our faith; the text nowhere indicates clearly that the man lacked faith himself …
Can We Learn “Teaching” from Narratives?
Some modern theologians have been skeptical about learning “doctrine,” or (literally) “teaching,” from narratives. 2 Timothy 3:16 explicitly declares that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, so to rule out a teaching function for narratives altogether these theologians would have to deny that narratives are part of Scripture! But narrative makes up more of the Bible than any other genre does, and Jesus and Paul both teach from Old Testament narratives (e.g., Mk 2:25-26; 10:6-9; 1 Cor 10:1-11)
If narratives did not teach, there would be no reason for different Gospels. Because Jesus did and taught so much, no one Gospel writer could have told us everything that he said or did (as Jn 21:25 explicitly points out). Rather, each Gospel writer emphasized certain points about Jesus, the way we do when we read or preach from a text in the Bible. This means that when we read Bible stories, we not only learn the historical facts about what happened, but listen to the inspired writer’s perspective on what happened, i.e., the lessons to be drawn from the story. When the writer “preaches” to us from the stories he tells us, he often gives us clues for recognizing the lessons; for example, he often selects stories with a basic theme or themes that repeatedly emphasize particular lessons.
Yet despite considerable historical precedent for using biblical historical precedent, many theologians suggest that one should feel free to find in narrative only what is plainly taught in “clearer,” “didactic” portions of Scripture … I freely admit that I do not understand some portions of Scripture myself (what is the eternal function of the genealogies in Chronicles?); but other obscure parts came to make sense to me after I understood the cultural context they addressed (for instance, the design of the Tabernacle in Exodus). Some given texts are more useful for addressing common situations today than others, but all biblical texts have a useful function for some circumstances.
One of the most basic principles of Bible interpretation is that we should ask what the writer wanted to convey to his contemporary audience. This principle applies to narratives like the Gospels as much as to epistles like Romans … The way God chose to give us the Bible is more important than the way we wish He would have given it to us.
More importantly, we must be able to read each book first of all as a self-contained unit, because that was how God originally inspired these books …
Most cultures in the world teach lessons through stories. Most theologians who question the use of narrative, by contrast, are westerners or those trained by them, children of Enlightenment thought. In fact, not even all westerners find Bible stories inaccessible. Even in the United States, Black churches have for generations specialized in narrative preaching. In most churches children grow up loving Bible stories until they become adults and we teach them that they must now think abstractly rather than learning from concrete illustrations. Just because our traditional method of extracting doctrine from Scripture does not work well on narrative does not mean that Bible stories do not send some clear messages of their own. Instead it suggests the inadequacy of our traditional method of interpretation the way we apply it, because we are ignoring too much of God’s Word.
When Jesus’ followers were writing the New Testament, everyone in their culture already understood that narrative conveyed moral principles; biographers and historians expected readers to draw lessons from their examples, whether these lessons were positive or negative. Students recited such stories in regular elementary school exercises, and in more advanced levels of education learned how to apply these examples to drive home moral points.
Demanding the use of non-narrative portions of the Bible to interpret narrative is not only disrespectful to the narrative portions; it implies a thoroughly misguided way of reading non-narrative portions of Scripture as well …
Not only is the traditional “doctrinal” approach inadequate for interpreting the Gospels; it is inappropriate for interpreting the epistles as well. The “narrative” way of interpreting Bible stories in fact shows us how to read the epistles properly. Paul wrote to address specific needs of churches (rarely just to send greetings); while the principles Paul employs are eternal and apply to a variety of situations, Paul expresses those principles concretely to grapple with specific situations … Paul’s letters presuppose a sort of background story–he is responding to events and situations among his audience. In other words, we must read even Paul’s letters as examples. This is how Paul read the Old Testament–drawing theology (especially moral teaching) from its examples (1 Cor. 10:11).
I suspect that many scholars–including myself in earlier years–have felt so uncomfortable with finding theology in narrative largely because of our western academic training …
One warning we need to keep in mind is that not all human actions recorded in Scripture are intended as positive examples, even when performed by generally positive characters. Scripture is realistic about human nature and openly reveals our frailties so that we can be realistic about our weaknesses and our need to depend always on God … Jesus alone exhibits no moral weaknesses, and even he identified with our being tempted (Mk 1:12-13; 14:34-42). Scripture shows the weaknesses of men and women of God so we will recognize that there are no spiritual superhumans among us–just, at best, men and women who depend on the power of God’s perfect Spirit to give us victory.
Tomorrow: More on genre