Thursday, November 8, 2007

Interpretation is Everything

Two days ago I was driving in my van while listening to National Public Radio (NPR). One of their various interview programs came on the air discussing the biblical Jezebel. According to the bible, Jezebel was the wife of wicked King Ahab. Her account falls mainly in the book of I Kings.

Author Lesley Hazleton, who was the guest on NPR, recently wrote the book “Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen.” Hazleton proceeded to tell us why Jezebel has been unfairly treated over the past 3000 years. According to this author, Jezebel was actually a tolerant woman who stood up for the right to worship various religions. It was intolerant, fundamentalist Elijah who was the real villain. She went on and on about how misunderstood, brave, and basically wonderful Jezebel was.

One statement this author made in particular stood out to me. She said that most people are “dismayingly literal” when interpreting the bible. She had to say this because any straightforward reading of the account of Jezebel shows her to be wicked.

Her statement got me thinking about how I interpret scripture. This is exceedingly important because many, many people who say that the bible is true come to many, many different conclusions about what different passages mean. If method of interpretation does not matter, then we might as well toss the bible to the wayside and just come to whatever conclusions about life that we want to.

I have been taught to interpret the bible in a literal manner whenever possible. I try to determine what the original author meant. I assume that he only meant one thing. I try to be fair to the historical setting, and to the grammar he uses. I remember that context is very important to the overall meaning. Also, real meaning often comes in paragraph form rather than in a single verse.

But why do I interpret scripture in this manner? Why not just bring my own meaning to the text? Why not look for what passages seem to be true, while discounting supernatural occurrences such as miracles? Why not just look for passages that confirm what I believe, and ignore passages that make me uncomfortable? Why not just treat most of the bible as some sort of extended allegory?

A critical key for all of us is to see how people in the bible interpret scripture. Did they look for the literal meaning, or did they just seek the spiritual or allegorical significance? Did they even think the bible was true? Let’s take a look at six examples:

Jesus Christ, in Matthew 12:38-40, deals with Pharisees. Jesus treats the Jonah account as literal. The story reads: Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Matthew, throughout his gospel account, treats Old Testament prophecies as if they were literally being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Here are three examples: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (Matt. 1:23); “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (2:6); "Out of Egypt I called my son." (2:15)

Luke, in chapter 24, tells about Jesus, after his resurrection, talking to some of his followers on the Emmaus Road. Verse 27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” We see Luke writing about Jesus believing that the OT literally tells of him.

John, in discussing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, writes in 12:12-15: The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!" And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written, "Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" John writes about Jesus literally fulfilling this OT prophecy from Zechariah.

Peter, in Acts 2:16-21, quotes Joel chapter 2 while at Pentecost. Peter sees a literal fulfillment of what is occurring when he states the following: But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Paul discusses the significance of the OT in II Timothy 3:14-15. He tells Timothy that the OT is literally referring to Jesus. Verses 14-15 say, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

So what can we learn from Jesus, Matthew, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul? When they interpret scripture (which for them was the OT), they view it literally. They all read it as meaning what it says it means, giving it a fair, straightforward view. They do not add their own meaning, but look for the meaning that the original author intended. They realize that words have real meaning.

If these men interpreted the bible in a literal manner, then I’ll choose to follow their leading and do the same.


Aussie John said...


I love what you have written. I just commented on Alan's page re "What if we met to Edify?"

Your words more fully express what I tried to say in few words regarding the use of Scripture.

Eric said...


Thank you.

I really think that churches need to spend much more time teaching their folks how to go about interpreting scripture. Even in the evangelical community, we probably have many different methods of interpretation floating around our churches. If we can't agree on how to interpret the text, then how can we come to any sort of agreement?


tenjuices said...

well done. Thoroughly enjoyed it. but are you sure Jez was all that bad?

Eric said...


I'm pretty sure Elijah thought so.

Joe Blackmon said...

It is "plum scary" as we say in meck of the woods how much biblical illiteracy there is today in churches. It is rare to find churches where the bible is being taught as the clear, infalible Word of God. I think this has a direct bering on evangelisim because people who don't know the truth certainly can't share the truth.

Eric said...


You are "right on" about the biblical illiteracy. It's sad how little many Christians know about the whole counsel of the Word of God.