By Michael Shepherd, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Louisiana College
Throughout the history of biblical interpretation, readers of the Bible have struggled to come to the text on its own terms.
Theologians want the Bible to address doctrinal issues.
Preachers want the Bible to speak to “practical” matters. Scientists, ethicists, et cetera all have an agenda for the Bible. They all claim to be “biblical” because they have found texts to prove the particular point they want to make.
But if the word “biblical” is to retain any distinctive meaning at all, it must describe something specific to the given shape of Scripture apart from the plethora of questions its readers bring to the table.
There are basically two types of readers of the Bible: (1) those who want to see what the Bible says about something and (2) those who want to see what the Bible says. It almost goes without saying that the first type represents the vast majority of Bible readers.
People have their own concerns, and they want the Bible to provide insight into what they consider to be important in life.
Relatively few readers reach the point where they are content to let the Bible raise its own set of questions.
Few are willing to set aside what they think is relevant in order to allow their reading of the Bible to reorient their minds to what is central to the biblical authors.
The books of the Bible have a particular arrangement to their composition, yet readers of the Bible are all too willing to rearrange the text into more manageable categories.
The common chronological rearrangement of Hosea–Malachi in the commentaries is a good example.
It is quite foreign to many commentators to think that the present arrangement of the Twelve Prophets has a theological purpose that supersedes the presentation of a mere timetable of prophecies.
If the author/composer had wanted to provide a simple chronology or documentary of events, he could have done so. But he did not.
What the biblical authors do offer is a mosaic of narratives, poems, laws, letters, and more.
This mosaic paints a textual portrait of the world from creation to new creation. It is a theological representation of the world.
The authors also provide a model for their readers in the way they read and interpret the biblical narrative (e.g., Deuteronomy 26:5–9; Joshua 24:1–15; Ezekial 20; Psalms 78; 105; 106; 136; Nehemiah 9:6–31; Acts 7:1–53; 13:13–41; Hebrew 11). They do not bypass the arrangement of the biblical text in favor of their own plans.
Rather, their interpretations of the biblical narrative are based on the form and sequence of the biblical text itself.
The specific shape of Scripture invites questions such as: Why does Jesus understand the Bible in the order of “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and Psalms” (Luke 24:44)?
Why are the collections of laws in the book of Moses framed by narrative units?
Why do major poetic units (e.g., Genesis 49:1–27) follow the large blocks of narrative in the book of Moses?
Are the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings simply character studies, or do they develop something more central to the theological message of the Bible?
Are the Prophets, Psalms, and wisdom literature merely collections or anthologies of sayings and songs?
Is there some overarching purpose to their composition?
Why are there four Gospels?
These are the questions of bookmaking.
How do the parts fit into the whole? What does it all mean? What is the author’s strategy?
Reorientation in the local church to the specific shape of the biblical books must take place on two levels: the individual and the corporate.
Individual readers of the Bible need to take up the task of reading the Bible for its own sake (Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:2).
The average reader can find help in this task from scholarly resources made for the general public, resources such as commentaries and guides to biblical interpretation.
Unfortunately the most readily available resources in local bookstores are very often the least helpful.
They are written by unqualified authors who have little or no expertise in working with the original text of Scripture.
This requires the reader to do some fairly extensive research before purchasing resources.
On the corporate level, the local church needs a regular teaching setting in which someone with expertise in the original text of Scripture leads an interactive discussion about the composition of the biblical books (Nehemiah 8).
The common sermon setting is not conducive to this type of instruction. It lacks interaction and depends upon illustrations and minimal detail to sustain the audience’s attention.
Sunday school is also inappropriate, given the fact that the average Sunday school teacher lacks sufficient training in biblical languages.
If the pastoral staff also lacks this education, then they should acquire it, if possible.
Otherwise the staff may be able to contact a local institution of higher education for assistance from biblical studies professors. (Of course, it will be necessary to make sure the professor is qualified.)
Whatever the case may be, the congregation as a whole needs the opportunity for exposure to this kind of teaching to complement their personal reading of the Bible.
This combination of individual and corporate Bible reading will likely result in more textually- oriented church members.
Michael B. Shepherd is a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew in Louisiana College’s Division of Christian Studies.