The Scriptures, which we believe are the Old and New Testaments, make up a single book. The Bible is the most influential book in the history of mankind. After all, the foundations of the estern world are based on this book. But how can we understand and interpret the Scriptures? Are we dependent on others, such as a rabbi or a priest to interpret it for us? Maybe there’s some mystical, hidden, orally-transmitted teaching that we need in order to properly understand the text?
Throughout history, especially when ordinary people had limited access to the Bible (if any at all) the religious elite would often take verses out of context just to promote their personal agendas, in God’s name. This ultimately resulted in many people rejecting the Scriptures all together, as well as rejecting God Himself.
A good example of this is the slave trade – slavery which was based on race. Many used the Scriptures to defend and even encourage this trade. Ironically, however, those that fought to abolish the slave trade also based their arguments and actions on the Bible, and this time, their interpretation was correct. In other words, the way we approach the biblical text, the way we view the content of the Bible, and the way we interpret the text directly affects the way we understand God: His will and His plans, and, as a result, the way we perceive the world.
For thousands of years, the Jewish people as well as millions of people around the world have perceived the Scriptures as God’s word. In other words, that the Scriptures were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Bible presents itself as such.
King David calls the Torah: “the precepts of the Lord.” – Psalms 19:8
Daniel the prophet calls it: “the word of the Lord.” – Daniel 9:2
and the Apostle Paul writes in the New Testament that: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17
On the one hand, this is such a special book which came to be the most popular book in the world. But on the other hand people don’t always understand it or even want to understand it. So how can we interpret and understand the Scriptures?
To be honest, it’s not easy to interpret any text that was written three thousand years ago. How much more when we’re talking about something that was written by forty different authors over a period of one thousand five hundred years.
This means that, while the Scriptures are very much at hand to us, they’re also very much removed.
- Firstly, there’s the chronological gap: So much time has passed, and we can no longer have direct communication with the author… we can’t ask, “Hey Moses, what did you mean by ‘triangular heifer’?” (referring to Genesis 15:9 in Biblical Hebrew)
- Second, there’s a cultural gap: Expressions and meanings have changed. For example, who are the “Pharisees”? How much is a “talent” worth? And what did animals, such as sheep, crocodiles, lions, or serpents, symbolize in ancient times? Many times, the cultural context changes the entire picture. For example, the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians that the ability to do supernatural acts but without love is like the sound of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. You need to be familiar with the pagan temple rituals that took place in Corinth as well as those of the Roman theatre, to fully understand what Paul is talking about in this passage.
- Thirdly, there’s a geographic gap: So did we finally decide which mountain is the true Mt. Sinai? And where did we say Mesopotamia was?
- Fourthly, there’s a semantic gap: The Old and New Testament were written in Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Although we know how to speak modern Hebrew, it’s different from Biblical Hebrew which has grammatical and syntactic rules that aren’t always easy to understand. Furthermore, over the course of thousands of years the meanings of many different words have changed.
- Fifthly, there’s a literary gap: While skimming through a text, we’re not always able to recognise different literary types, such as parables, riddles, and parallelisms, and of course wording subtleties such as irony, sarcasm, cynicism, a quotation, and so forth. In addition to all this, there are other gaps and challenges in understanding the biblical texts. We’ll now go over a couple basic principles of biblical hermeneutics (interpretation) that will help us understand the Scriptures and interpret them properly.
Principle #1: The Scriptures interpret themselves
In most cases, the greatest exegetical source for the Scriptures are the Scriptures themselves.
In other words, as opposed to the rabbinic view, there’s no need for some mystical, oral Halacha (Jewish law or ritual) that holds the true and hidden meaning of the written Torah. No, the Scriptures are capable of interpreting themselves. This principle is called “inner-biblical interpretation”.
An example of inner-biblical interpretation is when one book relates to and interprets another book. For instance, the New Testament has over a thousand references and citations straight from the Old Testament. But this concept works within the Old Testament as well. The Old Testament also interprets itself. For example, in Genesis, God says to the serpent:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Genesis 3:15
The New Testament interprets this verse as a messianic prophecy about the Messiah’s victory over the serpent, who represents Satan. However, Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator, argued that this verse is about the enmity that exists between man and snakes. So how do we know who is right?
Let’s let the Old Testament interpret itself! Let’s take a look at the book of Isaiah. In his vision of the last days and the final victory of the Messiah, Isaiah refers to this exact verse in Genesis:
“‘The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.” Isaiah 65:25
In his description of peace between mankind and animals, Isaiah describes the way things were originally for man in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. And when he writes: “and dust shall be the serpent’s food” it’s clear that he’s referring to the serpent’s curse from Genesis:
“On your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.” Genesis 3:14
The prophet Isaiah doesn’t refer to the serpent’s curse from Genesis chapter 3 as a description of enmity between humans and snakes, but as a messianic prophecy that describes the ultimate defeat of the serpent by the Messiah. If so, Isaiah is supporting the interpretation of the New Testament, and not Rashi’s.
Another example of inner-biblical interpretation is a “repeated” story. For instance, in the prophecy of Isaac’s birth in Genesis in chapter 17, Isaac’s name, (“he will laugh” in Hebrew) is derived from Abraham’s laughter. However, in chapter 18, his name is derived from Sarah’s laughter. We need to ask ourselves, what’s the point in two stories about the same name? Placing these two chapters side by side creates a picture of symmetry between Abraham and Sarah, and chapter 21 ties the two stories together.
Another example of inner-biblical interpretation is a “reflection story.” In other words, when there is clear similarity between the plots of different stories and when stories share rare expressions that aren’t found in other stories. For example, the stories of David and Joseph share fifteen plot similarities. Furthermore, in the entire Bible, only Joseph and David are described as “handsome in form and appearance.”. In other words, there is a thematic as well as a linguistic resonance between the two stories. This means that the text begs us to make a comparison between these two characters, in order to answer the question, will David meet the expectations as a Joseph-like figure, who is a prototype of the Messiah? David, as we all know, does not rise up to these standards, since he committed adultery and murder. Whoever reads the New Testament will notice that the comparison between David and Joseph is applied to Jesus as well. Read more about this fascinating parallel in the following link:
Parallels between Joseph and David that Point to the Messiah
Further examples of inner-biblical interpretations are:
- key words
- chiastic structures
- filling the gaps
- the relation between two adjacent stories
- the law of retaliation …and so forth.
Thanks to inner-biblical interpretation we can let the Bible interpret itself for us.
Principle #2: Interpreting the text according to the author’s intention and according to its literal meaning
Every text has one meaning, the one the author intended when he wrote it. Therefore, the right to determine the meaning of a text does not belong to the readers, but to the author. Our job is to get as close as we can to the author’s original intention. The interpretation should be done in accordance with the literal meaning; in other words, in accordance with the grammar and syntactic rules of that language.
The Scriptures, which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, were not written for angels or aliens, but for human beings. When we try to interpret the Bible, we need to remember first and foremost that while the Scriptures are relevant, applicable, and have import for all of us, they were not written directly to us, but rather to certain people of a certain time and language and in certain contexts that were known to the original readers, whom we must study about. Therefore, to correctly understand and interpret the Scriptures, we need to know how the biblical languages work, things such as semantics, grammar, syntax, analogies, genre types, and wordplays which were used at the time the books were written.
When we recognise that the original author had a specific message to a certain audience, we’ll understand that God didn’t try to confuse us or hide mysterious secrets in hidden meanings of the text. In other words, we can eliminate the rabbinic approach to interpretation, which claims that there are “seventy faces to the Torah.” According to this approach, you can take a verse and interpret it in seventy different ways, even if some of these interpretations contradict one another. The problem with the rabbinic approach to interpretation is that, unlike the academic approach, we reach so many different interpretations, some of them so bizarre, with no consideration of the historical author’s original intention, who wrote the text in accordance to the rules of the biblical language, in a certain context, and for a specific audience.
Take for example Genesis chapter 2:
“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:19-20
Now it’s clear to anyone who reads this passage that the point the author was trying to make had nothing to do with sexuality. However the Jewish sages argued that based on this verse, Adam had sexual intercourse with all the animals!
“This teaches that Adam had intercourse with each animal and beast in his search for his mate, and his mind was not at ease, in accordance with the verse: ‘And for Adam, there was not found a helpmate for him’ (Genesis 2:20), until he had intercourse with Eve.” Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 63a
The attempts to find or to force all sorts of secret and hidden meanings into the biblical texts, by using Gematria, allegories, and Drash (secret interpretations of the text) is actually belittling the authors of the text, who worked hard in order to reveal God’s word in clear and understandable language to the original readers.
The prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New Testament wrote in clear language, according to the grammatical rules of those languages and according to the rules of textual communication so that the readers would read, understand, and apply those words accordingly. So when we approach the Scriptures as the Word of God, we must also approach the Scriptures as we do any other historical document. In other words, with the premise that through methodical reading of the text, and with the help of other useful tools, such as: a lexicon, grammar and syntax book, atlases, and other reference books, we can come so much closer to the original intention of the author, and as a result, be able to “hear” the Word of God.
Principle #3: Every biblical text needs to be interpreted according to its literary genre
At the end of a news broadcast, when the weather forecaster says that tomorrow the sun will set at 8:20 PM this of course is a figure of speech. It’s an expression which metaphorically describes the way people see the world. After all, scientifically speaking, the sun doesn’t really “set,” but it’s still ok to use this expression. Why? Because we recognise and understand this as a figure of speech.
When we listen to a song in which the singer speaks of his “burning love,” we know that this is just a poetic way of speaking. However, when we read a cookbook and we’re instructed to “burn” the meat, we know that in this case, the word does have a literal meaning. Similarly, in the Scriptures, there is use of different literary types and different ways of speech, because God communicated with people through other people through the language of those people. Therefore, we need to try and recognise the literary genre at hand.
In other words, we need to recognise if the verse or sentence that we’re trying to understand is part of a narrative, a set of commandments, a song, a prophecy, a parable and so forth.
That is, the meaning of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter and even of the whole book has direct correlation with the specific literary genre in which it was written. Unfortunately, due to the influence of religion, we’re all accustomed to see the Scriptures as a long list of laws, rituals, and commandments. But the truth is, the Law takes up only a small part whereas narrative for instance takes up 43% of the entire Scriptures. If we don’t know how to recognise the literary genre of a text, we won’t be able to properly interpret that text, whether it’s an entire book or a few verses.
For example, in Genesis it says:
“Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” Genesis 49:9
This verse appears in a song. A song is a literary genre which uses flowery language, metaphors, and rhythm. To understand this verse, we need to interpret the expression “Judah is a lion’s cub” as a poetic metaphor and not as a realistic description in a narrative. That is, the King of the tribe of Judah isn’t actually a lion’s cub.
Let’s look at another example from the book of Genesis, where it says:
“for the intention of man’s heart is evil (bad) from his youth.” – Genesis 8:21
If this was taken from a science textbook, we might have thought that during adolescence, the cardiac muscles become bad, that is diseased. But we know that this isn’t a science textbook, and the phrase is a metaphor which means that the motivations of a man’s heart are selfish.
In the book of Exodus, it says that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger” (‘long-nosed’ in Hebrew). Of course, Moses didn’t mean the literal meaning of the phrase, but that God has a really long nose rather this is symbolic language, meaning “patience.”
Likewise in the New Testament, when Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches” in John 15:5, he’s not saying that he and his disciples are plants.
In the book of Hosea, God warns the children of Israel:
“lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born,” – Hosea 2:3
does this mean that God will strip the children of Israel as if they were babies? Of course, this is an allegory, meant as a warning to the children of Israel of future punishment. However, when God commanded Gideon:
“And the Lord said to Gideon, ‘Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps,’ ” Judges 7:5
it’s clear from the context that God’s command was not a figure of speech or a metaphor, but a command to be taken in its literal meaning.
Principle #4: Almost every word has a wider semantic field than a single meaning
One of the most important principles of any form of communication is the specific context in which that communication takes place. Context can change the meaning of a word, a verse, and even an entire chapter.
After all, every text is contingent on and is made up of single words
whose context is the whole sentence,
whose context is the whole paragraph,
whose context is the entire chapter,
whose context is a group of chapters,
whose context is the entire book.
The bottom line is, the meaning of every text, from a single word to an entire book, must be interpreted according to the context.
For example, take the phrase “big shot.” If I ask you to define the phrase “big shot” you’ll tell me that it depends on context. “Big shot” could refer to a shot from a weapon, but in a different context “big shot” could also describe Christiano Ronaldo in soccer. So how do we know what the meaning of “big shot” is in a given sentence? Only according to the context.
Context determines whether we’re talking about weapons or about an important person, or even both meanings at the same time, as in a double meaning. Likewise in the Old Testament. For instance, sometimes a lion is used to describe Satan, who roars and seeks someone to devour. In other instances, a lion is used to describe the Messiah, “The Lion of Judah.” Likewise in the rest of Scripture. For example, the word “day” has a wide semantic field in the Torah, and we can understand its specific meaning only by looking at the specific context in which the word appears.
The word “day” appears many times in the beginning of Genesis, but it takes on at least three different meanings in just one and a half chapters.
In chapter one verse five, it says:
“God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Genesis 1:5
In the first part of the verse, “day” is interpreted as “light”. In other words, the hours in which we have light. However the second time this word appears in this verse, “day” is interpreted as a period of time, a period of twenty four hours, and even this interpretation is debated. And in Genesis chapter 2 verse 4, the word “day” is interpreted as an undefined period of time:
“These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Genesis 2:4
Despite the fact that a word has several meanings in the Old Testament, the specific meaning of a word is defined by its context.
This same principle applies of course to the New Testament. For example, the Greek word “Sozo” can mean “salvation” or “preservation.” Normally, the word implies a spiritual meaning, and indeed it often takes a more spiritual meaning. For example:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” – Ephesians 2:8
However, in many other instances this same word, “sozo,” doesn’t imply spiritual salvation, but implies a different definition of salvation, such as not losing your reward in the next world, or a physical meaning such as being saved from danger, from death, from enemies, from peril, from sickness, and so forth. For instance, when Jesus’ disciples started to panic because of the great storm, when they went out in the boat into the middle of the Galilee, they cried out to Jesus:
“Save us, Lord; we are perishing’.” – Matthew 8:25
Not only do words imply more than one meaning, but sometimes, the meanings of words change with time. Words can have various meanings in different periods, especially in various cultures. Furthermore, typically an author will use a certain word in a completely different manner than another author would.
For example, today we all know what the meaning of “electricity” is: a physical phenomenon that has to do with the presence and movement of a negative charge. But what exactly was the prophet Ezekiel trying to say when he used the word “electricity” (חשמל) in chapter 1 verse 4?
Another example is the name “Elohim” (“god” in Hebrew), “Eloah” in its plural form.
In the Torah, we can find the word “Elohim” describing the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But we also find this word in reference to idols:
“You shall not go after other gods (‘Elohim’), the gods (‘Elohim’) of the peoples who are around you.” – Deuteronomy 6:14
So when it says that the heavens and the earth were created by “Elohim,” what god are we referring to? Is it a number of idols, or the one God? We can find the answer in the context:
“In the beginning, God (‘Elohim’) created the heavens and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1
The verb for “created,” “bara'” which refers to the word “Elohim,” is in the singular masculine form. If we were talking about many gods, and not one, the word would have been in its plural form, “bare’u,” and not “bara’,”, its singular form. Ok, so that was pretty clear, but which god are we talking about? The Babylonian creation account is very similar to the creation account in the Old Testament. Maybe Moses was referring to one of the Babylonian gods? The thing is, the character of “Elohim” is clearly defined in this chapter as well as in the entire book of the Torah.
Therefore, when we interpret one verse we need to take into consideration not just the chapter, but also the entire book in which it is found. Whoever reads the book of the Torah will know exactly which “Elohim” Moses was referring to. Therefore, we cannot interpret a small part of the book, or even a single word or a single verse, without taking into consideration the entire book as well.
This brings us to the next principle.
Principle #5: Context – we need to understand the part in light of the whole, and the whole in light of the part
In biblical interpretation, it’s important to interpret the parts in light of the entire book, and the entire book in light of its parts.
Sound confusing? Think about a movie, for instance. In order to understand a certain scene in the movie, we need to see the entire movie, and sometimes more than once. The most common mistake in biblical interpretation is to interpret a verse while disregarding the way in which it relates to the message of the entire book; that is, to disregard its context.
Or, in other words, a verse never stands alone.
Taking verses out of context might be a common thing to do in the Drash (rabbinic biblical exegesis), but it is not acceptable in the world of biblical research. Therefore, when we study a passage we must always remember to see it in light of its entire context, in light of the passages that came before and after it. For example, when the Apostle Paul writes:
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
We can mistakenly think he’s saying we can just go out and fly like Superman or pick up an entire truck. But when we understand the general narrative of the epistle, we understand what Paul meant.
Paul wrote the epistle while he was a prisoner in jail. His goal was to thank the people in the Church in Philippi for the help they provided him when they heard of his arrest. In other words, Paul’s “I can do all things” is referring to his ability to stand strong even in hard times, in times of hunger and need, and that’s because his ability and strength comes not from physical food, but from spiritual motivation that God provides.
Therefore, in order to avoid misunderstanding a passage, or a certain verse in the book, we need to remember that every book has a main plot, message, or idea that joins all the different parts of the book.
The main question of the interpreter must be, to whom and why was the book written?
So how do we find the main idea of the book? Just like a movie, books are also generally divided into three parts: “introduction,” “body,” and “conclusion.” Normally, in the beginning of a book we find the introduction and the background to the story. In the introduction, we can find the theme or main themes, the main characters, and the conflict which requires a solution. For instance, take the book of the Torah. Genesis chapters one through eleven comprise the introduction to the body of the Torah, and the body starts in chapter twelve, with God’s calling on Abraham. In this introduction, in chapters one through eleven, the main themes are introduced: “blessing,” “seed,” and “conquering the land.”
We also find the main conflict in the introduction: as a result of Adam and Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit, the blessing of creation turns into a curse which affects all of man’s relationships – with God, with one another, and even with the land itself. In place of blessing, “cursed is the ground” (3:17), “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:18). Instead of an abundant seed, “in pain you shall bring forth children.” (3:16) And instead of conquering the land – they are exiled. Adam and Eve are kicked out from the Garden of Eden. And of course, instead of eternal life – there is death.
The rest of the book of the Torah will guide us to the solution of this problem, and to God’s plan to restore the world. In the conclusion of the book, we expect to find the same main themes that we first found in the introduction.
For example, the Torah, which begins with “blessing,” “fertility,” and “conquest,” ends in Deuteronomy 33 with the blessing of Moses, in which the words “to bless” and “blessing” appear seven times. And in Deuteronomy 34, Moses has a vision of the children of Israel, fruitful and multiplying after having conquered the Promised Land.
The Torah begins with blessing, seed, and conquest and ends with blessing, seed, and conquest, and this framework gives us the general narrative of the entire biblical story and the context by which we can continue to interpret the smaller details.
And this is just a small taste of biblical interpretation.
Principle #6: We need to understand every story in light of its context in the entire Scripture
The Scriptures are not a random compilation of unrelated books that were put together. Rather, a unified storyline is interwoven into every single book. That’s why we must interpret every verse, chapter, and book in light of the entire Bible. For example, the Torah ends with Moses’ death in the book of Deuteronomy. How does the following book begin – the book of Joshua?
“After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant,” – Joshua 1:1
In other words, there is continuity and correlation between the books. Also the following book after Joshua, the book of Judges, begins in a similar manner – the former leader has just died, and the story goes on…
“After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?'” – Judges 1:1
But this time, a new leader is not to be found,
“In those days there was no king in Israel.”
“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
In the meantime, however, the tribe of Judah takes the reins and goes up to fight. The answer to the question, “Who shall go up first for us?” in Judges 1:1, is found in the following book – 1 Samuel. In this book, finally someone stands up to represent the children of Israel, in one of the most known stories of the Bible – David and Goliath. Although David’s last words and his decisions regarding the location of the Temple appear at the end of Samuel, the next book – the book of Kings – is where his death and the building of the Temple are told. In other words, there is no doubt that in a literary sense, the Old Testament presents one continuous story; an entire history told in a unified historical compilation of books. A story in which everyone longs for that same perfect leader, who will turn the curse back into blessing. Despite having many different callings, the prophets first and foremost envisioned through the Spirit this same Leader and prophesied about Him.
Even Chazal, the Jewish sages, were able to perceive and summed up the role of the prophets:
“All the prophets prophesied only about the messianic era,” Sanhedrin 99a, Babylonian Talmud
If the Old Testament prophesied about, anticipated, and longed for this messianic leader, the New Testament, as the continuation of the Old Testament, presents to us this same promised messianic leader – Jesus.
Principle #7: We must interpret the unclear in light of the clear
Because all of Scripture is one continuous story, it goes without saying that the larger context of every verse in biblical interpretation is of course the entire Bible.
This basic knowledge leads us to an important principle: if we find ourselves face to face with a confusing or an unclear passage or verse, we need to interpret it in light of the clearer passages which deal with the same issue. This principle prevents us from reaching far-fetched exegetical conclusions, or absurd conclusions based on one unclear verse. This principle forces us to look at the other passages in Scripture that speak more clearly on the subject.
In conclusion, while it’s always good to learn from others or to get help from others, we do not need to depend on one religious person or another to interpret the text for us. Rather, the Scriptures interpret themselves.
The basic principles that we’ve just gone through will help us to start studying the biblical text on our own. We can interpret the passage according to the author’s intent, refer to the literal (direct) meaning of a text, interpret every text with regard to its literary genre, and of course take into consideration that almost every word has a wide semantic range that extends beyond a single meaning. We must always make sense of a passage in light of its context: the part in light of the whole and the whole in light of the part. We must also strive to understand every story in its context in light of the entire Bible, and to always interpret the unclear in light of the clear.