An In-Depth Look At How To Effectively Study The Bible—an avid learner’s take

One of the barriers to getting to the heart of the Bible and appreciating the truth stated in it is the way we approach to not only learning it but by how we are holding others to accept it.

In our attempt to study the Bible, we tend to use a theologian’s lens or a pastor’s preaching perspective, and then we apologize and excuse the practice by stating a caveat that we’re not a theologian or a pastor by trade, but just a person who’s attempting to understand the Bible’s text. The opposite of that would be us being only an occasional or leisure Bible reader. When we are this type of reader, we tend to draw out a passage or a verse and apply it as a universal reality.

I had a Bible Study conversation with my daughters the other day. The topic question was, ”Is there a right or a wrong way to interpret the passages in the Bible or look at the Bible as a whole?” My long-story-short answer is, YES. The follow-up question and the answers to it are as follows: ”Can we raise questions and be skeptical about the stories told in the book and if so, will that affect our individual salvation?” YES, YES, and NO. Trust me when I say that I am beyond happy that I am having this conversation with my kids especially the older ones. Conversations such as this help spark learning and trust. We need open discussions where we journey in the truth together rather than have debates where both parties are intent on proving the other wrong.

Personally, I always encourage others to look and check into the veracity of Biblical understanding, including my own. Being a woman or a man of the church does not exclude a person from being wrong, sometimes fundamentally wrong on the interpretation of passages or of how the Bible is taken.

In terms of reading, especially if you’re just starting or had been handling the study of it in a questionable manner, how do you approach the Bible? I probably will receive a flack saying this, but I’ll say it anyway. The litmus test in rightfully understanding the context of the stories told in the Bible is not love. Positing that as long as you see it from a viewpoint of love it should be okay is not just being overly simplistic, but it’s also encouraging the reader to ignore the important elements of the book. Doing so, it prevents the reader from getting the total picture. You can’t be encouraging critical and mindful thinking and also be endorsing a narrow perspective. Truth be known, the Bible also has the most horrific violent stories and narratives of all literature combined.

It’s true, some misunderstood verses are benign or have resulted in inspired life-changing changes maybe. The thing is, there are also misguided interpretations that have catastrophic repercussions.

And so I say, first thing’s first. Understand that the Bible is a collection of narratives of different genres meant to be understood as a unified literary piece of work. There’s no arguing that the Bible is literature. The easy part is that it reads like a long novel.

Although personal experience and emotional connection to a passage vary, it is imperative to note that the truth of the Scripture is never dependent on the individual’s subjective take on the verse. Hence, the premise that there is no right or wrong interpretation of the Bible’s text is flawed at best and a danger at worst. Think of the slave owners of modern history and the Westboro Baptist Church when you start justifying the merits of individual interpretations. The truth of the Bible is found within its context and it has nothing to do with any of our opinions.

Map Source: Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, & Timelines

What do we need to know or do to understand the Bible?

1. First, make time to read the Bible. And when you read, don’t rush. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the ethical or moral lesson of the passage.

2. The Bible begins and reflects the time and culture it came about. Expect to do an adjunct reading. Consider looking into linguistic and language translations—acquire basic philological appreciation.

3. When studying each book, understand the text of the literature in terms of the history, timeline, and the places that the stories took place. The truth of the Bible is narrated through this backdrop.

4. Fight the compulsion to engage the storylines in your own terms. Learn about the characters and the protocol of the time. Keep in close check the urge to engage or apply the passages in the context of the present times.

5. The task of the reader is to get into the narrative of the book in its own context, mindful that the Bible which is composed of 66 books, with over 40 authors, written in three continents in a span of nearly two thousand years, redacted and translated many times over is a unified literary unit. Consider also the rationale behind the gathering and compilation of which writings to preserve and include in the Bible.

Here Are Just A Few Important Literary Devises To Know While Studying The Stories Of The Bible:

1. Foreshadowing—an advance hint of what’s going to happen later in the story. The plan of redemption, for instance, was foreshadowed first in Genesis 22 during the Test Of Abraham.

2. Figures of Speech

3. Parallelism is the use of components in a sentence that is grammatically the same; or similar in their construction, sound, meaning, or meter.

Consider Matthew 5:13-14, ”You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world.” The second point amplifies the first point. When you get the literary structure right, you’ll understand that salt and light share a parallel perspective. The context in which salt is used in this passage has nothing to do with flavor or being a preservative. Be a preservative of the earth (or the flavor of the earth) does not make sense in the storyline. This is the area where knowledge of culture, topography, and geography also play an important role in understanding the text. Salt in Jesus’ time and in the location he was preaching was used as a catalyst for starting a fire or producing sparks specifically for outside ovens. This was a type of salt gathered in the Dead Sea. The parallel resonated to Jesus’ audience and was effectively received because it speaks to the practical reality of the people in the area.

4. Recapitulation includes the repetition or restatement and a summary of main points. In the Book of Matthew, Matthew recapitulates the history of Israel in his writing of the genealogy of Jesus. Check page 1 of the summary I prepared for the study of Chapters 1-5.

5. Paradoxical Technique refers to the use of concepts or ideas that are contradictory to one another, yet, when placed together hold significant value on several levels. The uniqueness of paradoxes lies in the fact that a deeper level of meaning and significance is not revealed at first glance, but when it does crystallize, it provides astonishing insight (source: In the Book of Matthew, The Beatitudes is a great example of this technique.

6. Symmetrical Form. The themes or main points are characterized by balance and harmony. In Genesis 1, Moses wrote about creation in a symmetrical fashion, e.g., “God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.” Genesis‬ ‭1:8‬.

7. Inclusio is a rhetorical device where the narrative ends where it begins. Bracketing is also a form of inclusio wherein sections are grouped together to convey a single thought. It’s a literary strategy to alert the reader of the important theme in the story or for the reader to examine the theme within a theme. The other significance of inclusio is to discourage us from individually handling or treating in isolation any small part of the inclusive grouping.

Example. Matthew 5-7 are an inclusio. The entire three chapters talk about the teaching of Christ on the mount. The message within the narrative is about The Way of the Kingdom—not to be interpreted as The Way to the Kingdom.

8. Understanding a literary technique whereby the author creatively distinguishes the narrative relevance of the main and the peripheral characters from the overall theme. This technique is consistent in the entire Bible. Although they are important players, you will observe that the peripheral characters are picked up and discussed in the storyline and then dropped off on the side by the author. The main characters, however, are not only important but they are highlighted as relevant and central to the narrative and main point of the Bible—the overall theme that pertains to the Plan of Salvation. For instance, in writing the stories on Abraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, and Essau and Jacob, Moses will pick up significant accounts in the lives of Lot, Ishmael, and Essau and then he will drop them off to the side while he proceeds with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob deftly unveiling their character’s relevance to the main narrative.

This literary technique of understanding the main and peripheral characters is consistent in the entire Bible. Sometimes, the reference isn’t about a person but other things or concept. Take the Sermon on the Mount for instance in the Gospel According to Matthew. Instead of teaching about the Ten Principles of the Law, Jesus in Chapter 5 focused on the commandments that had to do with human being’s relationship with other human beings. Why focus on this though? Because the transformational result of Salvation is lived through the person’s love and service of others.

When we start engaging the text on its own terms and understanding that the 66 books in the Bible written in a span of maybe two thousand years in three continents by over 40 authors are a unified literary unit, we begin learning TOGETHER and searching the truth TOGETHER. Woefully, when we insist on learning the Bible based on our own interpretation, we begin seeing each of us on the opposite side of the debate. With that, the conversation transforms into a difficult and divisive confrontation whereby you see each faction defending a doctrinal or hardline belief at a devastating cost to relationships and communal compassion.

Empirically studying the Bible encourages a joint pedagogical journey of opportunity for and between us (who most likely claim some kind of biblical expertise) and the skeptics, including the disenfranchised individuals.

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