How to Read the Bible: By Understanding the Biblical Genres and Rhetorical Devices Used In the Bible

Posted on Apr 29, 2015 in Theology blog | 0 comments

by Roland Wrinkle  – HERE’S THE KEY: Look for the Intended Meaning -We All Know What the Words (Translated from Ancient Languages by Others) SAY, But What Do They MEAN?

            “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16. God chose, for what I assume to be pretty good reasons, to use humans to express His eternal truths through scripture. Therefore, we need to figure out where the human author was coming from. (See? Right there. If someone was reading that last sentence a hundred years from now and failed to appreciate the 21st century American idiom, “was coming from,” she’d think I was referring to the hometown of the author instead of gleaning intent.) In order to understand any particular passage in scripture, we first need to appreciate the genre of literature, rhetorical device or idiom being used. To read all of scripture literally, while ignoring the genre or rhetorical device, will lead to missing the author’s intent, i.e. what he was trying to say. (None of our bibles can be read literally anyway because the bible was not written in English and someone besides us has to translate it all for us unless we can read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.) For example, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away….” from Matt 5 is to be taken very seriously but not literally—it is an example of the use of hyperbole. The meaning: It is sinful and destructive to lust.

Would you read a poem the same way you would read the account of a historical event? Or read a prophecy as you would a proverb? A song as a gospel?

Now, here’s a sampling of some of the various genres used by the authors of the Old and New Testaments:

  • Idioms or Figures Of Speech: This refers to a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers of a language. Here’s some modern idioms we use: A hot potato (Speak of an issue which many people are talking about and which is usually disputed); A penny for your thoughts (A way of asking what someone is thinking [unless we’re referring to Bill’s mother whose name is Penny.]); An arm and a leg (Very expensive or costly.); Ball is in your court (It is up to you to make the next decision or step); To hear something straight from the horse’s mouth (To hear something from the authoritative source.) ; or Whole nine yards (Everything. All of it.)

You confidently know what the speaker SAYS but you’ll never figure out what he or she MEANS without first understanding the idioms used. Get it? Meaning versus saying.

Now here’s some idioms used in the bible which will lead to misunderstanding if we don’t know they are idioms: Flowing with milk and honey (Fertile); Soul (Person); Close hand (Selfish); Heart (Mind); Covered his feet (Relieved himself); House (Nation); Knew no quiet in their bellies (Greedy); Hearts and kidneys (Thoughts and emotions); Right hand (Might); Son of Man (this one’s very controversial and I have my thoughts, but , as usual, I stay away from controversy). That last wise crack by me is an example of Irony.

  • Hyperbole: An exaggeration to make or reinforce a point. Jesus loved to get some of His points across by hyperbole:  “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (The camel ain’t never going to make it but a rich man can. It’s just that it’s really, really difficult for anyone who has made an idol out of treasure to bow to King Jesus, give up his advantages and serve the poor); “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” (This is clearly not to be taken literally, as Jesus Himself spoke of responsibility to obey the 6th commandment (Mark 7:9-13), and cared for his own mother. Rather, Jesus is emphasizing some uncomfortable priorities. Do you really put God and his Kingdom above, and give priority to Him over and above, your own family? I struggle with this. Do you?).
  • Narrative: This is the most basic genre. It is where the author is describing events. This is the genre of books like Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Ruth, Esther, Acts and other passages where there is a story being told. Treat it as a story. Find out what is going on, who the main characters are and why things are happening the way they are. What message is the author trying to get to us? Treat the entire bible (66 books) as one great big story composed of a whole bunch of smaller stories that all fit together. One part of scripture should never be understood without reference to the entire sweep and scope of all of scripture. I can prove any point I want to make by pointing to some isolated phrase from the bible taken out of context:After he left Hebron, David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem.” 2 Samuel 5:13 and “God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart.” Acts 13:22. You think that’s gonna cut it with my wife of 41 years? Or, more importantly, with God? “But God, you said…..” Passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Psalms, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus, and 1 Peter have all been used (abused) by proof-texters to justify human bondage.   (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Ephesians 6:5 Slave owners and pro-slavery pastors used this passage to justify the African slave trade up until the 19th century. Titus 2:9 was similarly popular, proclaiming, “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them.”) Other carefully selected verses have been wrenched out of their proper context within the greater story of God’s great plan to restore all of creation and have Love wipe away every tear (Revelation 21) to justify bans on inter-racial marriage, the subjugation of women, murder, genocide, (Adolf Hitler, on 26 June 1934, said to Catholic bishops: “The National Socialist State professes its allegiance to positive Christianity.  It will be its honest endeavor to protect the great Christian Confessions….”) and child abuse (““Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.” Proverbs 13:24)—among others. The bible is never wrong. Our interpretations often are.



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