Knowing that the Bible was written to a specific audience in a specific time and place, and that we are different from that original audience changes how we do the work of interpretation. We can’t be lazy when it comes to interpreting scripture. We must acknowledge the cultural and temporal barriers we face in understanding the word of God. This does not mean that Scripture is not accessible to the average reader. Not at all. I will never stop reminding people that a deep knowledge of scripture really is possible for the average Joe or Jane in the pew.
In order to grow in our knowledge of the Bible, we must know how to do it. Part of this is recognizing that our initial understanding will differ from the original reader’s understanding of scripture. So how do we bridge that cultural divide? How do we read scripture with an eye toward understanding it the way the original audience would have?
Identify our Own Assumptions
We must question the way we have always read the passage. If you are like me and grew up hearing the Bible taught and preached, then this may be hard for you. I find it nearly impossible for me to read one of the more commonly known passages of scripture without bringing a certain lens to the text. Almost invariably, that lens is more shaped by Southern, White, Conservative, Middle-Class, Baptist, Texan culture than by the content of the passage. And because of the culture and church I grew up in, the overwhelming majority of the teaching I heard came from men. So I can have rather a narrow lens through which I view the most commonly taught passages. To be fair, frequently it’s not an inaccurate lens; it’s just limited.
However, when I’ve been able to step back from that and try to get a wider angle on a passage, I’ve been blessed to see more of God and what he communicates to his people. This begins with reading the text closely with a willingness to be surprised. For instance, I am familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and can give a rough retelling with little effort. However, a few months ago I was surprised when I reread it. The sin the Sodomites are condemned for is not only sodomy, but also being unwelcoming to the foreigner. But I had never seen it because of the lens through which I’ve always heard it taught.
Let Scripture Interpret Scripture
We must use scripture to interpret scripture. This applies to both a passage’s immediate context as well as the broader context of the rest of scripture. The story of Christ killing the fig tree has long baffled me. But when read in the context of the surrounding narratives it becomes clear that Christ is addressing hypocrisy within the way that people worship. Likewise, many parts of the Old Testament are only fully understood in light of the New Testament. We can know that God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and that God is a rescuer. But the New Testament reveals that even the Exodus was a foreshadowing of the ultimate rescue through the cross of Christ. Scripture can remove some of our cultural blinders when we let it interpret itself.
Assume Scripture Makes Sense
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in studying scripture is to assume that the writer is smarter than myself. When I come from that assumption, I ask different questions and tend to look harder for the answers to things I don’t understand.
If something in scripture seems utterly nonsensical, assume it’s not. Scripture makes sense, but sometimes we don’t have all the information we need to make sense of scripture. That is the time to do some digging. For example, a literal reading of Revelation will only serve to confuse or confound. As modern readers, we need to learn some of the background knowledge that the original audience had. A good study Bible will help us get started. Revelation began to be illuminated to me when I learned that it was written in the form of Jewish prophetic literature. Reading the introduction to my study Bible taught me some of the literary devices of that genre. With that base of knowledge careful reading along with books, sermons and commentaries help shed light on scripture. All of these tools help us to make sense of scripture despite the cultural distance we face in understanding it.
Interpreting scripture outside of our own cultural assumptions takes work, but its work worth doing. When we peel off our own cultural lenses and challenge our own assumptions, we get to know God more. That is the best work we can do.