Many years ago when I was completing a School of Biblical Studies with the missionary organization YWAM we were recommended to read the book by Gordon D Fee and Dounglas Stuart entitled “How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth”. This is an excellent book which helps readers identify the types of literature contained in the bible and how to interpret each one appropriately. Two of the main principals stated is the importance of :-
1. Interpreting each passage in it’s context and in relation to the book as a whole
2. To examine the historical context and discover what the passage meant to it’s original readers.
To derive the original meaning of the text to it’s historical readers is known as “Exegesis”. This process can be facilitated by asking questions like :-
1. Who is the author of the book?
2. Who was the audience the author was writing to ?
3. Where was the book written?
4. When was the book written?
5. Why was the book written?
The process of interpretation of the text is known as “Hermeneutics”.
The following are some points from the book about the different genres in the bible and how they can be used to interpret each book correctly.
1. Narratives : eg. 1 & 2 Kings from the Old Testament and Acts in the New Testament.
– They are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings as some have interpreted them ; for instance the account of Moses going up and down Mount Sinai in Exodus
19-34 is not an allegory of the ascent and descent of the soul to God.
– These are historical accounts only
– However through these narratives we can see how God subtly worked in situations. We can also see the pitfalls or what not to do eg. the strife that favoritism can cause in a family is shown in the rivalry between Jacob and Esau.
2. Epistles: refer to the letters written for instance by the apostle Paul such as Romans, and 1 & 2 Timothy.
– these must be read in context to understand the culture and background of the readers and what the letters meant to them.
– there is a need to distinguish between the cultural customs of the readers at the time and moral universal laws for all people.
– a general guideline that has been used is that a certain command must be supported elsewhere in scripture for it to apply to us today.
3. Psalms & Proverbs:
– these were written as songs or poems so they could be easier for the hearers to memorise
– Many sayings in Proverbs are meant to be guidelines only and are not to be read as iron clad promises. Eg. Proverbs 16:3 which says “Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed”. This is meant to be a principal only not a lifetime guarantee. It must also be remembered that God’s view of success is not always equivalent to the world’s view of success.
4. Ecclesiastes: part of the genre of “Wisdom” literature.
– This is a difficult book to read since it includes passages which seem to be self contradictory.
– One interpretation by Professor Longman is to see the book as a form of irony depicting an attitude to life that should be avoided.
– The other interpretation by Professor Provan (his friend) understands the book more positively, expressing how one should enjoy life under God in a world which is fleeting and will soon end.
5. Job : also part of Wisdom literature
– when Job endures his suffering his friends try to comfort him but end up giving him a lot of wrong and erroneous counsel. For instance one of his friends states that Job’s suffering is due to his owns sins which is theologically incorrect. Another of Job’s friends assumes that worldly success is a sign of righteousness in God’s eyes which is also theologically incorrect. Hence it is important to read these speeches as what not to say to friends when they are suffering.
– an important theme in this book is to show the reader that at times what happens in life is not necessarily what God desires or because it is fair.
– Job establishes that everything in life is not always fair. However he also points out that God’s ways are much higher than our ways. When God allows suffering it is not because he does not know what he is doing or that his right to do so should be questioned. God’s choices are always superior to ours.
6. Revelation: Apocalyptic literature which means it is concerned about coming judgement and salvation.
– the book describes a many images of fantasy rather than reality. These serve to embellish many of the end time events eg. the earthquake that will occur.
– there is no guarantee that these images will occur but it gives us an idea of how it will be
– the focus on end times and the coming judgement was to encourage Christians who were undergoing extreme persecution at the time.
– also classified as prophetic and epistle literature.
7. Minor Prophets: Prophetic literature
– the word “minor” means it is a shorter book not less important
– only a small part of the book is about predicting the future
– the minor prophet also spoke words of truth and often provided visual illustration as well
eg. God told the prophet Jeremiah to preach in his underwear
– the main message of the the prophets was to call Israel to repentance.
8. Major Prophets: Prophetic literature
– is an expanded version of the minor prophets
– the message again is a call for Israel to repent of her sins before God
– the plot in these longer books is sometimes hard to discern because they are often a collection of oracles which are not meant to be read in one sitting
8. Gospels: are in a genre of their own
– each gospel speaks to a different audience
– they were not written separately from each other eg approximately 50% of the gospels have common sentences and phrases
9. Laws : eg. Leviticus
– many of these laws were put in place to protect the Israelite people from infection, contamination and other health reasons at that time
– Many of the cultural norms and rules that existed back then are not relevant to us today eg. Gideon putting out a fleece
– the 10 commandments are repeated in the New Testament. Hence they are still relevant for us today.
– it is helpful to find out the historical context of the book
– common sense must be used to discern which laws were cultural and which ones are universal laws for all people that are still relevant for us today
10. Song of Songs: wisdom literature
– about the love between a man and a woman which is God ordained
These are only brief snippets about the main literary types in the bible. It is best to read the book itself for a more in depth instruction and analysis on reading and interpreting God’s Word correctly. In this way one can better avoid the pitfalls of misinterpretation that can be found in many Christian circles today.
“How to Read the Bible for All it’s Worth” by Gordon D Fee & Douglas Stuart
“ A practical approach to Bible study in an easy-to-understand style” – Bookstore Journal.
The last time I checked there were 74 copies available at Koorong West Ryde so I gather it must be a very popular and respected book to read for any serious reader or student of God’s Word.