Biblical Interpretation
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Biblical Interpretation

An Integrated Approach

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📖 eBook - ePub

Biblical Interpretation

An Integrated Approach

About This Book

This comprehensive exploration of the interpretive process, now available in paperback, has served as a successful textbook. It focuses on the three "worlds" of biblical interpretation--the world of the author, the world of the text, and the world of the reader--to help students develop an integrated hermeneutical strategy. The book offers clear explanations of interpretive approaches, which are supported by helpful biblical examples, and succinct synopses of various interpretive methods. Pedagogical aids include end-of-chapter review and study sections with key terms, study questions, and suggestions for further reading.

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When a hermeneutic includes in part or whole the text as a locus of meaning, the hermeneutic is literary in nature. Central to our integrated approach is the text as a literary creation. The mainspring of any literary approach is the view that the Bible is literature; thus, the Bible as literature is the basic presupposition for literary criticism. But, as McKnight questions, “are the nature and content of the Bible consistent with a literary approach or orientation? Is the Bible as sacred scripture compromised by a literary approach?”[1] McKnight thinks not, and I concur. While God might be the author of sacred poetry and narrative, he used the verse and prose forms native to Hebrew and Hellenistic cultures. While the Bible may be part of God’s revelation and self-disclosure to humanity, it is a revelation expressed in human language. In one sense the authors of the biblical texts employ the finiteness of written discourse to say something about an infinite God. Further, the written discourse is a special case of language—literary. By literary I mean creative and imaginative language, language adorned with artistic devices that transform and intensify ordinary language or everyday speech. This literary quality requires interpretation, and of central importance in interpretation are the concepts of genre and sub-genre.
The natural languages of the biblical texts, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, are governed by grammatical, syntactical, and lexical codes. Literature also uses secondary languages called literary languages. These languages also have codes. These literary languages with their codes enable a reader to move beyond what the text says in its natural language to what the text is about. This distinction is the mimetic character of literature. In other words, literature has a referential quality and a mimetic quality. The referential quality is the relationship between the language of the text and the world projected by that language. The mimetic quality is the relationship between the real world and the world within the text. On the one hand, by means of the referential quality of literature, an author is able to use language to create the world within the text. This world may or may not be similar to the real world of the author (e.g., science fiction). In this textual world, words refer to objects which may or may not be recognizable in the real world. The referential quality enables the world within the text to have a story line and plot. On the other hand, the mimetic function enables the author to challenge the reader to discover some truth, message, or insight to which the textual world points. The following chart should make the distinction between the referential quality and mimetic quality more clear.
Any hermeneutic that takes the text seriously must give attention to both of these qualities. Traditionally, the field of hermeneutics (primarily the historical-critical and historical-grammatical approaches) has demonstrated a remarkable tenacity in its unwillingness to place as much importance upon the mimetic function of biblical literature as upon the referential function. Characteristic of this hermeneutic has been the persistent tendency to divert attention away from the text itself to the world which produced the text. This tendency has perpetuated an attitude towards the biblical texts which views them as distorted historical records at best and poor substitutes for more veritable originals at worst. One has only to recall the hypothetical Aramaic original for Matthew’s Gospel, the sayings source “Q” used by Luke and Matthew, and the original documents from which Genesis was redacted. Recent literary approaches have come a long way in demonstrating that the biblical texts in their final forms are works of tremendous literary power and aesthetic quality. These approaches have not only shown that the biblical texts employ the syntactical, grammatical, and linguistic codes of the natural languages in creatively pleasing ways; they have also succeeded in spotlighting the Bible’s equally creative use of the literary languages of the different genres and sub-genres. These may include a whole range of literary devices, such as style, point of view, characterization, plot, thematic organization, and dynamics of reticence. Hermeneutics can no longer be content only with the historical-critical attempts at a reconstruction of the original document, oral traditions, and Sitz im Leben. Nor can it be completely satisfied with the historical-grammatical method’s parsing of the natural languages. While each of these approaches offers valuable heuristic background information often indispensable for interpretation (as we saw in unit I), hermeneutics must be equally, if not more, concerned with parsing the literary languages of a document’s generic systems. Meaning is conveyed through both the natural and literary languages. Grammatical content cannot be separated from the form through which it is communicated. Inattention to genre ultimately precipitates an inattention to meaning. This means that a consideration of genre is an absolute must for hermeneutics.
We are constantly faced with the necessity of distinguishing between literary genres. Within a single week many students will read a short story, a poem, a tragic play, labels on food containers, a newspaper, a letter, a telephone directory, or a recipe. All of these “forms” communicate differently and represent different literary types or genres. When a reader approaches a text, a conscious or unconscious identification of genre is made. Even the casual reader knows that a poem must be read and interpreted differently from a recipe. John Hayes and Carl R. Holladay describe the issue as follows:
The required effort and means necessary for the exegesis and interpretation of texts thus vary greatly, depending upon the nature of the texts and their relationship to normal communication. Some texts merely need to be read to be understood. Others require very detailed analysis. Some use normal, everyday language, grammar, and sentence structure. Others use a very specialized vocabulary, involved grammatical and sentence structure and distinctive forms of expression. Some texts employ symbolic and metaphoric language. Others seek to employ language and words so as to limit severely the range of meaning and the potential to persuade. Others seek to merely inform. Some texts are produced to entertain. Others seek to produce some particular response and action.[2]
There is an intimate relationship and interconnectedness between form and content. Hermeneutics must concern itself not only with the content, but also with the form of the text. This concern entails understanding the conventions of the generic systems. This is true because different genres involve different literary codes and conventions. Perhaps a couple of illustrations will clarify this. In most cultures, unspoken rules govern what is worn and when it is worn. Rules of dress dictate that a person should not wear a ski suit to a formal wedding. Also, within a given society, rules or principles dictate family relationships. On the basis of these rules, persons within a particular social group will relate to other members of the group, making decisions such as whom they can or cannot marry.
Similarly, in language, rules of grammatical construction and syntax govern the way we group words or symbols. This ensures communication. Furthermore, rules govern or identify literary genres and subgenres. Consequently, we read different genres with different expectations and interpret them differently by recognizing the relationship between what is said (content) and how it is said (genre, form). Different kinds of genres are capable of different kinds of meaning and offer different kinds of information to a reader. Knowing the genre of a text or the sub-genre of a literary unit allows us to know what types of questions can sensibly be asked of the material.[3]
The most plausible understanding of a text and its subsequent explication is best actualized when the reader has an adequate grasp of the literary genres and sub-genres by which the author operates. Robert Alter puts it well:
A coherent reading of any art work, whatever the medium, requires some detailed awareness of the grid of conventions upon which, and against which, the individual work operates. . . . Through our awareness of convention we can recognize significant or simply pleasing patterns of repetition, symmetry, contrast; we can discriminate between the verisimilar and the fabulous, pick up directional clues in a narrative and see what is innovative and what is deliberately traditional at each nexus of the artistic creation.[4]
Biblical texts are not simply conglomerates of disjointed and unsophisticated religious tradition, but carefully crafted works of great artistic accomplishment which we should study as unified wholes.
In the Bible, poetry has its own set of codes centered in the concept of parallelism, in which “the poet makes a statement and arouses expectation. To meet that expectation, the poet goes back to the beginning and says the same thing or follows a line of thought parallel to that already laid down.”[5] Like narrative in general, biblical narrative utilizes plot; in plot, events are arranged so that the action is a unified whole. The fodder for narrative consists of characters, settings, and conflicts. Embedded within the two Hebrew genres of poetry and narrative are literary forms (which we will call sub-genres) such as simile, metaphor, symbol, personification, hyperbole, type-scenes, archetypes, fables, miracle stories, pronouncement stories, riddles, speeches, and prophetic utterances.
By creatively blending and arranging these sub-genres through the medium of the natural language, the author superimposes a literary language (or languages) upon the natural one. Consequently, literary meaning surpasses that conveyed by the codes of the natural language. Literary meaning results from an interaction of the codes of the natural language and the literary ones. I will have more to say about this in unit III, where we consider the dynamics of reading.
In the remainder of this chapter I examine literary sub-genres that are present in virtually all literary traditions. While some of the sub-genres in the Hebrew Bible are quite strange to those who have been nurtured in the Western literary traditions, the reader should find the following common forms familiar. The final two chapters of this unit concentrate on the major genres and sub-genres of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament respectively.
Common Literary Sub-Genres

Briefly defined, hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration for effect. An example is 1 Kgs 1:40: “And all the people went up after him, playing flutes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound” (NIV). Did the ground actually shake? That’s not the point! The point is that the rejoicing was extremely great. Another well-known example is Yahweh’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be “as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (Gen 22:17). The New Testament also contains many examples. For instance: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29a).
When authors make use of euphemism, they substitute a less direct or less distasteful word or phrase for a more direct or shocking one. A euphemism is in one sense the opposite of hyperbole; i.e., euphemism is intentional understatement.[6] Modern translators of the Bible usually supply equivalent euphemisms for the target language. In the third chapter of Judges, Eglon’s guards hesitate to enter the king’s chambers because they think that he “covereth his feet” (KJV), euphemistically referring to a bowel movement. The translators of the NIV supply an equivalent euphemism with “He must be relieving himself.” In Leviticus, the phrase “uncover the nakedness” (Lev 18:6–8, etc.) is a euphemism for sexual relations, including incest. Mickelsen suggests that there is an intrinsic delicacy involved in the use of euphemism which modern translators should imitate.[7]
John Gabel defines metaphor simply as “a word that is literal in the contexts within which it is usually found and is taken out of those contexts and used in a context of some other kind.”[8] In Ps 119:105 the psalmist says that God’s word is “a lamp to my feet.” Taken at face value, this statement is false; i.e., obviously a word cannot really be a lamp. Nevertheless, in another sense it is true, for God’s word and a lamp to light one’s path are similar. These two concepts share an area of commonality or intersection: They both give guidance, keep one from stumbling, and dispel darkness. Ordinarily a metaphor illuminates, clarifies, or completes an abstract idea by replacing it with something observable, familiar, concrete. The effect of the metaphor may vary according to how much commonality there is between the abstract idea and the object.
A simile compares two objects, actions, or ideas by using words such as “like” and “as.” The meaning of a simile is the comparison itself. In most instances, the two objects of the simile are familiar within the experiences of the audience. Some property of the second half of the simile serves to illuminate an aspect of the first half. When Job says, “A mortal . . . comes up like a flower and withers” (14:1–2a), he is comparing the brevity of a person’s earthly existence to that of the field flower. The author is obviously not concerned with other properties of the flower such as color, fragrance, or shape. The comparison is direct and clear within the context. When the suitor in the Song of Solomon says that his beloved’s “hair is like a flock of goats descending from Mount Gilead” (Song 4:1), he is not hinting that she should wash he...

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APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2008). Biblical Interpretation (3rd ed.). Baker Publishing Group. Retrieved from (Original work published 2008)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2008) 2008. Biblical Interpretation. 3rd ed. Baker Publishing Group.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2008) Biblical Interpretation. 3rd edn. Baker Publishing Group. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Biblical Interpretation. 3rd ed. Baker Publishing Group, 2008. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.