Many people begin reading the Bible with the idea that it is simply a timeless “how to” manual on the world’s major religions. This is simply not so. The Bible is a story, and while it is ancient in its history, it is a continuous story. It is God’s account of His creation and intervention into the world He created from its inception until His return; at which time He will fully redeem it from its lost condition. However, it is not an exposition on the subject of religion, as some who really have not read it claim that it is. As in any story, it is important to know the “who, what, when, where, why, and how”, to understand the point the author is making. This is also true of the Bible. In order to understand what the author “means,” we cannot just make up what we think it means in our situation. Doing that is revision, and can be way off base. By adding in elements that were not available or relevant to the author’s experience, we change the story significantly, and therefore, change the meaning. Here are six things to consider in order to a better understand God’s message to us about His world.
1. Time- while there are elements of the Bible’s story that directly relate to today, often we extract meaning from a text, as stated above, that was not available to the author. One example of that in our time is saying that abortion was an ancient tolerated normal practice in biblical times. When you understand what a life meant in Jewish history, the idea that people would throw away something they saw as extremely valuable and coveted becomes ridiculous. The time, or times, therefore, is relevant to knowing what kind of ideas were normative and understood at the time.
2. Place – tied to time, the place, or setting of the story plays and enormous part of what the author is talking about. For example, the Middle East, has a completely different way of life than the West. With that considered, an idea about family, or the role of women, cannot be extrapolated from one place to another without an understanding of the meaning within the place it was written. Telling western women to wear burqas to cover their heads is inappropriate here unless one’s religion dictates that across cultural lines. It is not so of Christianity.
3. Culture or “the way things are done” is very important in how one interprets scripture for today. Just as place and time, the culture of a particular area is not universally true. It cannot be picked up and applied anywhere. Cultures, influenced by local activity and local people, change constantly and are not universal.
4. Contextual Message- considering the three categories above leads one to look at the message of the text contextually. The author is speaking to a particular people, in a particular time, within a particular culture. Those three things clarify that particular message. Once that message is clarified, one can look at the possible correlations in today’s world. It is interesting to note that many people with a progressive mindset, and who wish to dismiss the Bible, will say there are no applications, but this is simply wrong. All persons have common thoughts feelings and actions that, even as seen through another world, can apply today. Of course, there are fundamentalists on the other side of the coin who try to extrapolate legalist rules in order to exact some kind of personal power out of following those rules. That is also a bad reading of text. The importance of the contextual message will lead to the final tip, the relevant message for today.
5. Application- This is where I take what I have learned, by reading the story within its natural limits, and look at the common as well as the uncommon aspects of the story. These details give me a fresh look at my situation. They give me new ways to apply that message to my life today. The reason that it gives me a fresh look is due to its specific distance from my story. As cultures change, we forget what happened in the past. We assume that people were always thinking like us, and living in the same world. This is not so. As explained above, cultural meaning changes from time to time and place to place. While their ideas might be the same, they can be in reaction to something we have not experienced. It could be that they based their conclusions on different criterion. These five things can significantly enhance your understanding of the Biblical story. It is not right to say that God only wrote things that He wanted all people to do in all time and space. There are cultural word pictures and ideas within Scripture, that when taken out of context, completely loses their rich and wisdom-filled meaning. Don’t miss out, let the story tell itself, don’t impose your ideas on the text and you just might enjoy it more.