Understanding Your Bible Better: Identifying What You’re Reading

Consider the following lines from various “texts”:

1. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

2. DALLAS – American Airlines grounded 595 more flights Friday as the inspection-related mess frustrated passengers and hurt an industry already bleeding cash thanks to high fuel costs.

3. Look before you leap.

4. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…

5. Three men walk into a bar: a doctor, a lawyer, and a priest….

6. Dear Elizabeth,
I really enjoyed the recent pictures. Your trip looked fantastic. Have you gotten used to be being back at home yet? Things are great here, though a bit crazy with school starting in a few days….

Having read this list, here’s an interesting question to ponder: how does each selection inform your expectations of how to read and understand them and (if applicable), the larger body of material to which they belong?

The truth is that, everyday and often without thinking, you and I take the kind of communication we’re experiencing into account as we seek to understand it effectively. As a result, when someone tells us a joke, we hopefully won’t take it too seriously. Likewise, we don’t (usually!) treat a newspaper story as a fictional account.

That same skill, used even more consciously, is also necessary when we read the Bible. After all, it’s a book made up of several smaller books, which in turn can have more than one genre of literature within them. History, poetry, prophetic visions, parables, law codes, letters, proverbs—all of these can be found within the Bible’s pages. And it makes a big difference to know which type of material you’re reading. Perhaps a couple of examples will demonstrate the point.

The first is fairly straightforward: consider the opening verses of Luke’s gospel:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron…

Here, Luke tells us right of the bat that he’s been careful to write down what he’s received from eyewitness accounts, with the purpose of allowing Theophilus to be confident in the truth of what he’s been taught. This, coupled with the fact that Luke dates his material (“In the time of Herod king of Judea”) and mentions people who’s existence could be verified gives us a strong indication that Luke is claiming to relate real historical events—not just an inspiring fictional story—when he tells us of Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection.

The second example, from Daniel 7, might be a bit less obvious:

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying on his bed. He wrote down the substance of his dream. 2 Daniel said: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.…”

The text clearly tells us that it is relating the contents of Daniel’s dream/vision. And if we’re familiar with similar accounts in the Bible, we know that while God often uses dreams and visions to communicate important truth, he often does so with symbolic or imagistic language (see Genesis 41:14-36, Acts 10:1-11:18 for good examples). With that fact in mind, we won’t necessarily expect the beast described as a lion with eagle’s wings (v. 4) to represent a “real life” creature. Instead, we might look for it to reveal something about our historical reality (a person, kingdom, set of events, etc), but to be doing so in a particularly vivid and memorable way. In this case, Daniel 7:17 and the surrounding verses specifically tell us this instinct is correct: the four beasts are meant to represent four kings in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan throughout history.

There’s certainly much more that could be said on this subject, but hopefully the major point is clear: if you want to understand your Bible better, make sure to take note of the kind of literature you’re reading.

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