Some Pitfalls in Reading the Bible

Updated: 26 February 2012

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Some Pitfalls in Reading the Bible

Author: Tardus

Go ask Alice! (or rather, the Cheshire Cat)

"`Cheshire Puss,' (Alice) began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. `Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

`I don't much care where--' said Alice.

`Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

`--so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.

`Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'" (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

Sometimes we feel like this when it comes to reading the Bible. Like Alice we get confused and don't know which way to take, but we sure want to get SOMEWHERE!

What are the pitfalls, and how can we avoid them?

Humpty Dumpty's Bad Example

"and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents -'

`Certainly,' said Alice.

`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't - till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

(Alice Through the Looking Glass)

The Bible, like all books, is made up of words. They are the bricks that build up the rows of sentences, the walls of paragraphs and the buildings of books. The real question is not `what does Humpty Dumpty mean by the words?', nor 'what to I want them to mean?' but 'what does God mean by them?'

Quick-Quiz Time

  1. in ancient Israel, Jephthah the Judge (Judges 11) vowed that if God gave him victory over his enemies he would sacrifice the first thing that came to meet him on his return home. His daughter, his only child, ran to meet him, and he kept his vow. This shows that human sacrifice was approved by a cruel God. Agree or disagree? Why or why not? Note: 1
  2. Jesus met a Samaritan woman at the village well (John 4). She had had 5 husbands, and now had a defacto. The early church leader Augustine thought the 5 husbands signified the 5 senses of the body (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch) by which the soul of the natural man is ruled. Valid? Why or why not? Note: 2
  3. Psalm 50:1 speaks of `the rising of the sun to its setting'. This proves that the earth is indeed the centre of the universe, as Aristotle taught, and people believed until the time of Galileo. Valid? Why or why not? Note: 3
  4. Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). The real meaning of this parable is that formal religion and works (represented by the priest and the Levite) will never help a wretched sinner (represented by the beaten up man left for dead), but only Jesus Christ, who like the Samaritan had pity on the man, and stopped to help him. A valid interpretation? Why or why not? Note: 4
  5. Jesus said "if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off" (Matthew 5:30), teaching us that amputation is a good way to build character. Hands up all who agree (oops, you can't!) Valid? Why or why not? Note: 5
  6. Revelation 9 describes fierce locust-like creatures let loose on the Earth. They had breastplates like iron and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. These are in fact Apache helicopter gun-ships, with their gaunt, insect-like appearance and the noise of their rotors, launching into a great end of time battle. Valid interpretation? Why or why not? Note: 6
  7. I heard a man say that the word for `day' in Hebrew is almost always used to mean a 24 hour period, being one rotation of the Earth. Therefore, he went on, it must mean that in Genesis 1, when it speaks of the days of creation. This proves that the Earth was created in six literal, 24 hour, days. Valid interpretation? Why or why not? Note: 7

How did you go? The answer is that all 7 are mistaken interpretations, even when the conclusion is true, as with the Good Samaritan example. If you come up with a truth by a bad interpretation, how do you know you won't come up with an error next time, and still believe it?

Pitfall Number 1 - Forgetting the GENRE

"Genre" is a technical term meaning "type". You don't get out a street directory when you want to know how to cook a cake, nor a dictionary to make alphabet soup! Just so, we need to ask "What type of writing is this particular passage of the Bible?" if we are to make sense of it.

The Bible is God's Word, in which He reveals Himself in a library of books, containing 66 books written down by dozens of human authors over a period of about 1500 years. It contains books of:-

Beware the "literal" bugbear! Yes, the Bible is all true, but not all literally true. We must ask ourselves "what type of literature is this part of the Bible?" Only then can we safely extract the truth it contains.

Pitfall Number 2 - Forgetting what the neighbours think

Real Estate agents say there are 3 things to look for in buying a house; "LOCATION, LOCATION & LOCATION". Same with understanding a passage from the Bible (and indeed just about any book). The 3 things are "CONTEXT, CONTEXT & CONTEXT!" What light do the neighbouring verses and chapters throw on to the text. Ignore the context and you can make the Bible appear to say almost anything (as you can with just about any other book).

In Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10, see the quiz above) the neighbouring verses tell us what the parable is all about. A lawyer asked Jesus how to get eternal life. Jesus turned the question back to him, and the lawyer (correctly) said "Love God ... and love your neighbour as yourself". Jesus said to him "Good, do it!" Verse 29 then gives us the first strong clue "But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, 'And who is my neighbour?'". It was then that Jesus told the parable. At the end Jesus asked the lawyer "Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." And Jesus said to him, "You go, and do likewise." (Luke 10:36-37 ESV). This gives us the second strong clue. The meaning of the parable is plainly that we are to do good to everyone we are in a position to help, regardless of nationality, social standing or our own likes and dislikes.

Another trap under the heading of Context is this. Beware of too much word study! Yes, words are the building blocks, the bricks with which we build ideas. But we can easily go wrong by focussing too much on mere words, and not on their neighbours, their context. A pile of bricks is not much use if left as a pile. Only when built into a wall does each brick take on its meaning and purpose. Here's the example from the quiz.

An example: The meaning of the word "day" in Genesis 1; is it a 24 hour rotation-of-the-earth period as many Christians believe, or some indefinite period of time as many other Christians believe? We could look at all the occurrences of the word "day" (Hebrew "yom") throughout the Old Testament, see what the most common use is, and then use that in Genesis 1. I heard a man use that argument once. Is that a reasonable way of getting at the true meaning? The answer is no. We cannot get at the meaning like that, by a democratic vote of the word population. Even in English we can't do that. We use the word "day" with many meanings:-

What does someone mean when they use the word "day"? The answer is, I have no idea until I look at the context in which the word was used, that is, the sentence in which it appears.

So, what does "day" mean in Genesis 1? Scholars who believe the whole Bible to be God's inspired word come to different conclusions. Here is some food for thought:-

[Dickson's article is here []

Dickson says "The artistry of the chapter is stunning and, to ancient readers, unmistakable. It casts the creation as a work of art, sharing in the perfection of God and deriving from him. My point is obvious: short of including a prescript for the benefit of modern readers the original author could hardly have made it clearer that his message is being conveyed through literary rather than prosaic means. What we find in Genesis 1 is not exactly poetry of the type we find in the biblical book of Psalms but nor is it recognisable as simple prose. It is a rhythmic, symbolically- charged inventory of divine commands."

You must form your own conclusion, but make sure you arrive by correct means. A wrong method may get you the right answer sometimes, but be sure you'll get the wrong answer other times.

Pitfall Number 3 - Forgetting the BIG PICTURE

The Bible is not a collection of loosely connected fragments. God is revealing to us the great cosmic story from creation to restoration, from the beginning to the end of this age, when His new creation will flower in all it's glory.

The story begins with perfect man soon falling into rebellion and misery. God promises a rescuer will come, and many do throughout the ups and down of the story, but always there are clearer and clearer promises of a better rescuer, the Messiah the Jewish people are still waiting for, but Christians rejoice in because He has come. Jesus, son of David and Son of God became the King Who died on a cross, promises forgiveness and everlasting joy to all who will have it, was raised from the dead as proof of this, and will at last come to judge all mankind and to make all things new.

If we keep in mind this central thread of the whole Bible, and ask ourselves what a passage means in the light of this, we will not often get lost.

Take the case of the Samaritan "woman at the well" in John 4. You won't get Augustine's offbeat interpretation (of the 5 husband's being the 5 senses which rule the natural man) from the big picture storyline. What you can get from this simple and powerful narrative passage from the Gospels is that it shows us Jesus speaking gently but searchingly to a woman who is a social outcast because of her husband hopping and defacto relationship. We see Him willingly forgoing His weariness and thirst to awaken in her a thirst for a better life, to lead her to repentance and faith (and many other Samaritans too). In short, we see a willing rescuer giving himself out of love for fallen people.

Pitfall Number 4 - (and the last) Don't put the cart before the horse

Don't get the cart in front of the horse, or both will end up in a ditch.

Beware of systems and theories about the Bible and its meaning. Yes, God made us reasoning creatures, and we are right to try and set ideas in order, so long as we never let the ideas we have get their hands on the steering wheel of Scripture. Scripture must shape our ideas, rather than our systems shape the Scripture.

What theories, what systems? Here are some:-

"For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." 1 Corinthians 13:12

Summing up

No doubt there is a lot more, more than I know, and more than there is time for now. Still, the journey through the Bible has to begin with some steps. Think about these pitfalls, write them out as brief reminders in the flyleaf of your Bible, practice avoiding them as you read and study this priceless book.

PDF file of the memory jogger

May God Himself reward you

Quick Quiz Notes

Note: 1 Jephthah's Rash Vow

God had strictly forbidden human sacrifice when He gave the Law to Moses, Deuteronomy 12:31. Jephthah's vow was rash and ignorant, and opposed to the mind of God. Jephthah should have broken his bad vow rather than commit such a horror.

Note: 2 The Woman at the Well's Husbands

quoted as a bad example of interpretation by Bishop J.C. Ryle in his 'Expository Thoughts on John'. There is nothing in this passage, its context, nor anywhere else in the Bible, to justify this fanciful interpretation. It seems to come rather from the common idea that there is hidden meaning in every text of scripture, imposed on the scripture, rather than drawn out of it. This is a simple and powerful narrative passage from the Gospels. It shows us Jesus' speaking gently but searchingly to a woman who seems to be a social outcast because of her husband hopping and defacto relationship, leading her to repentance and faith.

Note: 3 Earth-centred Solar System

The Bible here speaks as all men speak, including astronomers and astro-physicists when they are not at their work. When we say the sun has risen we only mean that is how it appears to us, even though we know it is caused not by the Sun's movement but rather by the Earth's daily rotation. We are not making a scientifically accurate statement, did not intend to, and everyone else understands this. It is the same with the Bible. It is a mistake to read precise scientific statements from everyday speech. Further, this passage, like all the Psalms, is poetry, and therefore full of metaphors.

Note: 4 Good Samaritan

There is absolutely nothing in this parable, its context, or the rest of Scripture to justify such an interpretation. The true context is the question of the lawyer, 'Who is my neighbour? (whom I am to love)'. The true meaning of the parable is in verses 36 and 37, that my neighbour is anyone in distress who I am able to help. Note that here the conclusion of this false interpretation is in fact true, but not from this passage! Bad interpretation is still bad even when it leads to a true conclusion. It could just as easily led to a false conclusion, because it is not drawing it from the Scripture text, but rather from the brain of the interpreter.

Note: 5 Hands and Eyes

Derek Flood's article This is an example of hyperbole, that is, greatly exaggerated speech designed to make an unforgettable impact. Jesus often used such language. It is definitely not wise to insist that all Jesus' words are to be taken literally. We often say the same sort of things, eg, 'I'm so thirsty I could drink bucket-loads!' Really?

Note: 6 Locusts and Helicopters

I'm (almost ;) speechless at this one. How anyone can read this out of the passage, rather than imposing it on the passage, is beyond me. Also, I never yet saw a helicopter with 'hair like women's hair'!

Note: 7 Genesis 1 Days

the word is 'yom', and in fact is used with many meanings in the Old Testament, the same way we do ourselves. We say 'at the end of the day' meaning the daylight hours, 'I was at work all day' meaning about 8 hours, 'yesterday' meaning sometime in the previous 24 hour period, 'Back in my grandfather's day' meaning an time period of about a generation, a couple of generations ago, and 'in this day and age' meaning the last year or two. How do we know what the speaker means? Context, context and context! In Genesis 1 and 2, 'day' is used to mean daylight (1:5,14,16), a period including evening and morning (the 6 days), a period of time covering all of the Creation (2:4, ESV and other translations that keep close to the Hebrew words rather than expressing the same meaning in other words, as the NIV does. That's not a criticism of the NIV Bible, just a different approach to translation.) So, what are the 6 days of Creation? They may indeed be 24 hour periods, as many Christians believe, but keep in mind that Genesis 1 is in fact poetry (plain when viewed in the Hebrew), and that Christian scholars are divided in their opinions. Whether they are or not, the argument that they must be 24 hours because the Bible uses the word 'yom' that way in other places is not valid. The context must tell us, and if we can't work it out, we must leave it with God, Who will reveal it when the time is right.

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