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Review #1: Context and Genre December 17, 2009

Posted by TJ Friend in General Principles.
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Hello again. Today I would like to give a review of the two most important aspects of studying the Bible. A lack of understanding of these two areas causes most errors in interpretation. On the other hand, and understanding of these two areas will bring a significant amount of understanding to a text. I have already talked a lot about both of these aspects, but because of their importance I wanted to review and summarize them.

Context

First off, let me say that the chapter and verse numbers in the Bible were added in long after the Bible was actually written. (The chapters were added in 1227, and the verses in 1555.) These were added to aid readers in finding their place in the text. Although these are helpful in locating portions of scripture, their addition has inadvertently caused a misunderstanding of the text. Because each verse is numbered individually it is tempting to take each verse as a unique statement of truth. The numbering system is so powerful that some people will take a verse as a unit of thought even if it only contains half a sentence. At the very least, we should read a verse in light of the context of the sentence it is in. But reading in context is much more than just reading whole sentences at a time. When we read scripture, we need to think in units of thought. We need to take each verse in light of the paragraph it is found in,  and we need to take the groupings of paragraphs, not in light of the chapter they are in, but in light of the section they are in (remembering that the paragraphs were not their originally either). Let me make this clear: Never try and draw meaning from a verse without reading at least the paragraph it is in. A verse on its own does not even have meaning apart from its context. The meaning is in the block of text, not the individual verses or sentences.

An Example

“My shadow was following me.” Think about this sentence. What does it mean? If this was a verse in the Bible could you interpret it? Now, read this paragraph:

I had just put Adam down for his nap and quietly made my way down the hallway. I slowly opened the closet door and reached way back to pull out the parcel I had hid there a few weeks ago. I turned around and what did I see? My shadow was following me. He grinned and shyly asked for a cup of water. I quickly stuffed the package back in the closet, hiding it behind some boxes.

As you can see, without the context a sentence does not have its full meaning. In fact, if you read any of the sentences in the story alone without the whole paragraph you will have an incomplete understanding of what is going on. And, on a broader level, this paragraph is also incomplete. This could be a story about a present being hid or the parcel could contain some illegal/immoral stuff that the narrator does not want the child to see. Without the greater context this story is incomplete.

Genre

While context is the primary concern we should have when interpreting the text, proper interpretation is impossible without a proper understanding of genre. Even if we read a verse in the context of the entire book which it is written, if we interpret it as a different genre then it is, then we could end up missing the whole point. It is vital to understand what genre a text is and how to properly understand it in light of that genre. The Bible is written in many different genres and sub-genres and we cannot read every part the same way. I spent a lot of time going over the different genres, so that hopefully whatever passage of scripture you come to, you will at least have a starting point in understanding it.

I see two main mistakes that people make with regards to genre. By reading this I hope you will avoid them. The first is taking poetic or figurative language as literal. I have already spent an entire blog on this issue, (Figurative Language)  so I don’t want to say too much about this. I will simply warn you to be careful when you are reading the poetic and prophetic books not to form theological ideas based on metaphors or similes. There are many examples I could give, but I will just give you one. In Isaiah 66:13 it says, “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you”. This is speaking of God, but it is not saying that God is a mother. God is spoken of throughout scripture as masculine and even Jesus’ prayer that he taught his disciples referred to God as “Our Father”. This passage is using the metaphor of a mother and child to show the comfort God wants to bring to Israel.

The second issue I need to address is the descriptive/prescriptive distinction. Again I have already written a post on this, but just to reiterate: Prescriptive texts tell us what to do and how to behave. Descriptive texts simply describe what is going on and are not meant to be laws or commands we are to follow. Should we go around building altars, just because people in the Old Testament did so? Should we put on sackcloth and ashes when we are really sad? A lot of the OT laws and customs were culturally based and were not meant for us today. Our only concern is finding out what God wants us to do and doing that.

Reflection

1. When Jesus says “turn the other” cheek, is this figurative or literal and what message is he trying to convey?

2. Read John 3:1-21. What questions does Nicodemus ask and what is Jesus’ answer to them?

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