Why Do We Need to Interpret the Bible?
Often, the subject of bible interpretation raises a set of somewhat defensive side questions. They go something like this:
- Why must reading the Bible become so complicated
- Why do we have to “interpret” anything?
- Can’t we simply read the Bible and do what it says?
While I can sympathize with not wanting to make the Bible too complicated (as in the first question), the second question fails to take into account various factors:
- We approach the Bible with many biases which can often color our “interpretation” of Scripture.
- There are many deeper level meanings in even the most simplistic sounding commands or Bible passages.
- Bible history and culture is so far removed from our own reality that we may misunderstand customs or traditions that are portrayed there and thus misinterpret a passage’s meaning.
Betrays a Simplistic Approach to the Bible
But beyond these additional complexities, I believe the questions betrays something about the way we approach the Scriptures.
Let’s face it, we often don’t want to spend time reading the Bible on its own terms. We don’t want to read about its history, culture or language.
Instead, we want the Bible to give us answers…now, without doing the hard work of reading! Thus we sometimes flippantly (no pun intended) turn to a page of the Bible hoping that we will magically land on a Bible verse that can speak to our particular life situation.
That reminds me of the man who took this approach to divine guidance. As he flipped open the Bible he landed on, “Go and hang yourself.” Unsatisfied, he tried again this time landing on, “What you must do go do quickly!”
This is silly on its face, and yet many people fall into this wishful thinking of wanting to hear directly from God. Yet they are unwilling to put in the time to see how God has spoken in the past.
A Case Study on the Need for Bible Interpretation
It is possible to derive meaning from a text without delving too deeply into the history, culture and language of the Bible.
For example, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength…” seems fairly straightforward.
What could be simpler than that, right? This doesn’t seem too hard to interpret.
And yet, even a fairly straightforward text like this yields a treasure of insight and application to our lives when we delve a little deeper with the tools of interpretation.
The Context of Mark 12:30
The text above, about loving God, actually comes from Deut 6:5. It is a quote by Jesus.
The Book of Deuteronomy is essentially a covenant between God and the second generation of God’s people just prior to their entering the promised land (you’ll remember that Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years because of their lack of faith.)
The verse that Jesus quotes actually begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is one, and you shall love the Lord thy God with all of thy strength…” and all the rest.
A Deeper Meaning of Mark 12:30
This quote by Jesus that he gives in Mark is actually a covenant statement, about what God promises to do for his people in exchange for their obedience.
It is at once a statement of God’s identity (the Lord is one), about obedience to God, and about how love is tied into obedience. (Jesus stated this another way when he said, “If you love me you’ll obey my commandments.”)
So this seemingly straightforward passage, has 2,000 years of rich Exodus and Deuteronomic history behind it.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of mileage from one text simply by taking it and studying it and interpreting it on more than a superficial level.
Why We Need Bible Interpretation
As you can see, even simple sounding passages yield much richer meaning, theology and life applications with the tools of Bible interpretation.
There are a great many texts, however, that do require someone to interpret them. What does it mean to not cook a goat in its mother’s milk? Why does God command his people to exterminate entire nations?
Interpretation is also necessary to determine if a biblical principle has a universal or only a culturally specific application.
Many churches, for example, still don’t permit women to wear pants, make-up or jewelry based on a misinterpretation of the Bible (and many more prohibited that even just a few decades ago).
Bible Interpretation needn’t be looked at with suspicion. Often, the tools of biblical interpretation will allow us to see much more than is apparent on the surface of a passage.
At other times, there is simply no way to understand the culture and the customs of the Bible (and thus apply a passage to our modern context) without going through the biblical interpretation process.
Finally, good Bible Interpretation allows us to understand and to test the multitude of practices within our churches.