In February, I led a study on the Bible itself—how it came to be and how we read and understand it as the Word of God. The Bible is rich in meaning with the power to inform and transform us as God’s people. Sometimes, however, the Bible can seem intimidating, dense, and hard to navigate through—some parts seem clear, while others seem incomprehensible, and still others are simply strange. And Christians can disagree greatly even on those parts that seem easy to understand. So how do we make sense of it all? Praying for God’s help and guidance in interpreting what we read is always a good start. Here are some other things to keep in mind when reading the Bible.
Most of the Bible is made up of stories. Now, by “stories” I don’t mean “fiction.” Describing an event in narrative form—telling it as a story—is one of the most powerful ways to make people remember it. Stories also teach and entertain. For example, when I was a child my Dad sometimes told me a story of when he was hurt while sledding as a child and tried to hide a deep cut from his parents because he didn’t want to get in trouble. He told the story with a lot of humor, partly to be fun and partly so that if I was injured I would learn from his mistake and tell my parents. Like the stories my Dad told, the stories in the Bible have a point. God inspired the people who wrote them down and collected them together over the centuries because they had important lessons to teach.
There are many stories in the Bible, which join together to form the larger story of God’s saving work in the world from the beginning of time to the end. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Abraham and Sarah leaving their home to follow God, of God leading the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, David killing Goliath, Daniel and Esther staying faithful to God while in exile in Baabylon, God’s Son Jesus coming to teach and heal and save us, Paul travelling and spreading God’s word, and many more. All of these stories were gathered together and told and re-told over thousands of years because they meant something, because they had something to tell us about God, and how God works in the lives of his people. Even the parts of the Bible that aren’t stories—laws, poetry, prophecy, letters—refer back to the stories around them often.
As you read the Bible, by yourself or with others, ask yourself why this story was chosen to include in the Bible. (After all, God has done a great many more things than are included in the Bible’s pages—no book, however divinely inspired, could ever hope to record all the many things God has done for us and for our ancestors in the faith!) Why was this story important to the people who originally told it? Why did God inspire the storytellers to write this particular story down and consider it holy? What does God want us to learn from this story? If you’re reading a part of the Bible that isn’t in story form, what stories in the Bible is it referring to? What event in the history of God’s people stands “behind the text” and led the writer to put pen to paper? What Bible stories does it remind you of? (A good study Bible can help with this stage. It will give you a short summary and some background at the beginning of each book and list what other Bible passages are referred to in the text, and give you other pieces of information that may help you understand the world and situation the text comes from.)
Remember also as you read that God is just as active today as he was during the centuries the Bible was being written. How is your own life experience reflected or illuminated in the story? Have you seen God doing things like this in your own life? Does this story make you re-think your reaction to certain experiences? This is an important time to be open and honest with yourself and with God—after all, if you come to the Bible with a preconceived notion of what you’ll find there, you may miss other things God is trying to tell you. Talk with others—both those who agree with you and those who don’t—about what you read and how you interpret it. Talking with those who agree with you helps affirm and nurture your faith experience. Talking with those who don’t agree with you, and really listening to what they have to say, might give you an insight you would never have thought up on your own even if you never agree with them. We worship a God who is so much greater than any one person or group of people could hope to fully understand, who guides us and makes himself known in many ways, including through the stories of the Bible and the people around us.
I hope that this helps you read and interpret the Bible, and to see God’s presence in your life and in the lives of the people around you.