You Can Read the Bible

Biblical Meanings

Matt Carter

Progressive Revelation

One of the big reasons we are often reluctant to read many Old Testament books like Exodus, Joshua, or 2 Samuel is that these books usually strike us as boring and devoid of significant meaning. We might even have a little fear of encountering one of those "eye for an eye" texts that we are not sure what to do with. We then either stubbornly plow through them or leave them for some distant and undefined future. 

If we take the first route, we probably don't get much out of our reading. This is understandable. We should not expect much spiritual insight when we struggle with ordinary insight. If we take the second route, we miss a lot of the meaning embedded within our favorite New Testament passages. In either case, we are often left frustrated and even a little guilty. We need a way forward.

Our first step should be to simply admit that this is our usual reaction, because this acknowledgement actually tells us the nature of our problem. Our problem is less drastic but still very similar to the problem most Christians faced when they only had access to the Bible in Latin. Not only could an ordinary French peasant not read Latin, she probably could not read French either. Reformers knew that they faced a literacy problem that was a stumbling block to spiritual growth. If the Bible were translated into French, even if she could not read it herself, she could at least have it read to her. So, massive Bible translation efforts were begun. Yet even then, our French peasant would still need help understanding what she had heard. In other words, to get at biblical meaning, she would have to rely on the know-how of other people to first translate the text into her language, and then also on their know-how of making sense of the text. So, Reformers began massive efforts at building literacy as well as beginning a new heavy emphasis on the sermon by a well-educated minister during worship to help with that sense-making.

Within this literacy stage, we recognize that there is the initial step of matching a printed word to a word she already knows when she hears it. We also recognize that there is more to this sense-making stage than just matching or decoding printed words to spoken words. We often refer to this as reading comprehension. When we teach children how to read English language literature, our goal for their fluency includes reading comprehension. More than just introducing new vocabulary words to them, we teach them how to understand everything from identifying settings to overall themes. Nobody has the know-how for reading comprehension unless they have first been taught how to do it.

Before children have the know-how to do this on their own, they often ask parents and teachers what a text means. We can usually explain a book's meaning to them so long as the book is short enough that we can refer to things within the book that they still remember. If the book is longer than will fit within their memory, then they will struggle with grasping this meaning even though we are trying to explain it to them. 

I am suggesting that much of our problem with these Old Testament books stems from some combination of not having the requisite know-how to comprehend ancient Hebrew texts and not having enough of them within our memory to catch the explanatory references. We Protestants have historically tried to address the first part of this problem by translations, sermons, and Sunday School. We have relied on Bible memory work, private devotions, sermons, Sunday School, and  Bible studies to address the second part of this problem. 

So, the first step is to acknowledge our problem and work to address it. The second is to recognize that the Bible is unified yet diverse. Given these, we should stop expecting every biblical text to speak meaningfully to us without our growing in our ability to understand and be receptive to its meaning.  

Combine that personal directive with the recognition that the Bible as God's revelation is progressive not static. Jesus is the center of history and revelation, and both of these progress towards Jesus as their center. The biblical revelation of God's story does not smoothly or uniformly progress towards Christ and the restoration of all things in him, but it does get there. It gets there, because that is God's goal in revealing himself to us through the diverse stories of the Bible. Remember, the goal of God's revelation is Christ not personal messages or instructions directly to us.

When we read the Bible statically, we not only flatten out its diversity, but we also miss this trajectory. This Christ-centered trajectory is part of why the New Testament is easier for us to get, but this same trajectory also tells us how to read the Old Testament. The New Testament fulfills what was already present within the Old Testament. Whenever we read an Old Testament passage, we can come away with any of several possible reasonable interpretations for what it means. Because the Bible is unified in its centering on Christ, we know that the only valid interpretations are those that are in sync with what the New Testament also tells us. We also know that we can legitimately go looking for Christ and God's redemption plan as we read within the Old Testament.   

Three Layers of Meaning in Biblical Narratives

Narratives are stories. They are trying to tell us something. Historical narratives are ways of retelling the past to make sense of the present in a specific intentional way. When we read these stories in the Bible, they are actually operating on three layers. There are three layers of meaning being communicated. There is not some secret, hidden, or uniquely personal meaning. Nor is there a moral lesson to be learned. Instead, there are three distinct but deeply related layers of meaning present within biblical narratives. 

The first layer concerns the immediate stories of the individual characters. Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain with a stack of wood but no ram. I will refer to this as the immediate layer.

The second layer is about how later and especially New Testament texts interact with and interpret these immediate layer stories. For example, Matthew 2:15 interacts with and interprets Hosea 11. This concerns the interaction with and fulfillment of the old covenant by the new covenant. I will refer to this layer as the covenantal layer.

The third and deepest layer of meaning that biblical narratives are telling us is God's plan for restoring all of creation to its intended glory. This plan was not fully revealed to Abraham, for example, who believed and had faith that God would faithfully keep his promises, because revelation and history progress towards Christ at their center. I will refer to this layer as the metanarrative layer. 

Immediate Layer

The immediate layer is the many smaller narratives of individuals and groups. These narratives are the material that are used by the covenantal and metanarrative layers. The immediate layer can be a simple story about a single individual or a compound narrative of a string of people like that of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph found in Genesis.

To make sense of this layer, there are five features to which we should pay attention. In trying to make sense of these stories, we need to first flesh out each of these five features.

The first of these is the narrator. The narrator, although unmentioned in the text, is the person who chooses what to tell us. In biblical narratives, the narrator is 'omniscient,' knowing everything about the story. The narrator does not share all of that or even usually comment on the unfolding story. He often wants to draw you into the story so that you see things for yourself. 

The narrator also provides the story's divine point of view. We can learn about God's point of view directly as when the phrase "the LORD was with Joseph" gets repeated fourteen times in the Genesis 39. More often, however, this point of view is disclosed through one of the characters. For example, at the end of the narrative in Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells the reader through his reply to his brothers "You [brothers] intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

The second of these features are the scenes. Biblical narratives work through scene changes not character development per se. In this way, biblical narratives are a lot like movies or plays. The story gets told through a succession of scenes. Each scene is its own, but it is the action that happens through successive scenes that tells the story. Consider the way the scenes of Genesis 37 work:

Scene 1: Joseph tells on his brothers who hate him because he is their father's favorite son.

Scenes 2 & 3: Joseph has two outrageously tactless dreams that setup the next scene.

Scene 4: Joseph looks for his brothers but does not find them. This pauses the action to create a dramatic entrance in pivotal Scene 5 and to let us know that the timings of Scene 5 are divinely planned. If we miss the connection between the dramatic pause and divine plan the first time through the story, when we remember the oft-repeated "the LORD was with Joseph" phrase in Genesis 39 or the aforementioned conclusion in 50:20 the next time we read through the story, we will get it then.

Scene 5: This is a composite scene in which Joseph enters. His brothers plot to kill him. The Midianites arrive. Interwoven is Reuben and Judah's guilt and plan to sell him.

Scene 6: Joseph ends up in Egypt as the servant of a well-to-do royal official.

Each scene is its own, but they really need to be read in sequential order and all the way through in order to get the story's plotline.

Because these stories are told through scenes, there are not usually many characters involved. So, each character usually counts, but as in Orwell's Animal Farm, some count for more than others. The protagonist or main character often faces an antagonist who is working against him. The agonists are the benchwarmers who come in and out of the story to interact with these two.

Unlike movies, biblical narratives do not dwell on external appearances. When you do run across a physical description, it is almost always important. Instead, these stories use status, profession, and group membership to flesh out characters. Consequently, character development does not occur through the narrator's descriptions but through the actions and words of the characters themselves especially the protagonist. Think about how we learn about the character development of our protagonist Joesph in Genesis 37-50. In the opening scene, Joseph is a spoiled brat. By the end of the story, he is wise, faithful, humble, and loving. We hear that from his words and see that from his actions not the narrator's descriptions.

Secondly, characters are often presented in parallel or by contrast. When they are in parallel, one is usually a reenactment or fulfillment of the other. These instances like John the Baptist being a reenacting of Elijah tell us a lot at the covenantal layer of meaning. You can see a great example of this if you read the first two chapters of 1 Samuel and then the first two chapters of Luke. Hannah is reenacted by Mary.

More often, however, biblical characters are often contrasted with each other. Sometimes this happens by contrasting one group with another group. So, Joseph is contrasted with his brothers right at the start of the story. Then, the character development of both Joseph and Judah draw them closer together by the end of the story.

The fourth feature is the dialogue, because that is where characterization happens. There are three features of dialogue to keep in mind. First, the first chunk of dialogue is often the most important. Consider the opening dialogue of Genesis 37 again. Protagonist Joseph arrogantly and tactlessly tells his dream to his brothers and father. His antagonist brothers set the plot in motion with their hate. Agonist Jacob "kept the matter in mind," which is a frequent narrative clue from the agonist to the reader to do the same. Second, one dialogue is often contrasted with another to get us to pay attention to the difference. Third, important dialogue is emphasized by the storyteller using repetition or long monologues. Given this, resist the temptation to skim dialogue repetitions.

The fifth feature is the repetitive structure of the narrative. These stories were initially not written but told. So, they are designed for a hearer to get meaning from them, which requires repetition. Key words and phrases are repeated as when "the LORD was with Joseph" is repeated fourteen times in Genesis 39. It's almost as if Moses was implicitly asking "Can you hear me now?" Figuring out which words are repeated and why is important to getting what these stories are telling us.

One important structural way repetition occurs in these narratives is through inclusion, which means that the story begins and ends in the same way. Joseph's brothers bow to him both at the beginning and ending of the story. A common and distinct form of inclusion in biblical narrative is the chiasm, in which narratives follow the pattern A B C B A. Another common way this happens is through the use of foreshadowing, in which a brief mention is initially made that is fleshed out later on. Foreshadowing is often used in the covenantal layer to tell the story. Picking up on foreshadowing usually requires multiple subsequent readings of the Bible because the detailed fleshing out usually requires you to remember something you would have easily forgotten from before. 

Immediate Layer Notables

So when we want to understand the immediate layer of a biblical narrative, we should ask questions about and take note of the following things. 

  1. Narrator: Who is narrating? What is the divine point of view in this story?
  2. Scenes: What are the scenes? How do the scenes and their ordering tell the action and plot of the story? 
  3. Characters: Who are the characters? Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Who are the agonists? What character development occurs? Are there parallel or contrasting characters?
  4. Dialogue: What is the first dialogue? Are there repeating dialogues? Are there long monologues or speeches? Are there contrasting dialogues?
  5. Repetitive structure: What is being repeated in this narrative? Any key words? Is there a chiasm (ABCBA)? Is there foreshadowing?

Covenantal Layer

Even though the Bible was written by a diverse group of writers across a long time span, the primary author of the Bible was the Holy Spirit. There is an essential underlying unity to it. How it interacts with itself is important to understanding this second layer of meaning. 

The first and primary way this occurs is discussed in the next section about Ruth and Judges. These books speak indirectly to each other. When we read between the lines, we get this.

The second and more dramatic way this happens is when we see how the New Testament fulfills the Old Testament, showing us how to read and see Old Testament passages in light of their New Testament fulfillment. A clear example of this is seen in the parallel passages of Exodus 24:8 and Luke 22:20.

"Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.'" (Ex 24:8)

"Likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.'" (Lk 22:20)

We read the sacrifices of the Old Testament with the light of the ultimate sacrifice shown to us in the New Testament. This follows the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura that Scripture interprets Scripture. 

This principle also applies to less clear and more difficult passages like Matthew's use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: "Out of Egypt I called my son." The primary question we should ask ourselves is 'How is the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament continuous with its original intent and meaning?' If we see it as discontinuous, then we know we are interpreting some part or all of these passages incorrectly. 

This can lead into more technical discussions about typology and the like, but without going into any of that, suffice it to say that the New Testament's usage of the Old Testament shows us how to properly understand it. The Old Testament contains a real grasp of God's messianic plan even if that is otherwise murky to its original writers. 

Moses and Hosea trusted that God would faithfully fulfill his promises even though Jesus would not be born until well into their future and they could not specify an exact description of that. This parallels our own faith and hope that Jesus will one day somehow reconcile all things to himself and restore all of creation. We cannot specify an exact description of this, and yet we know enough to trust in his promises and believe that salvation comes only by faith in him. 

So, the primary way we get at the covenantal layer is by asking how the text we are currently reading interacts with and interprets the other biblical texts we have already read. This is an unending cycle and presupposes that we are actively and continually reading the Bible. In order for the biblical story to become our story, we must read enough of it frequently enough that it fills our memory with its stories.

Implicit Reading

Just as foreshadowing often requires multiple readings before you start to get it, so also will your ability to read implicitly improve with multiple readings of the Bible. Implicit reading is the reading between the lines reading that enables you to see what was always embedded within the story but is easily overlooked during a casual reading. This has nothing to do with hidden or secret meanings or any of that nonsense. Instead, this is about seeing the stuff that the narrator and his initial or implied audience would have simply assumed to be present in the story. In other words, when you read between the lines, you are looking for what the narrator is implying to his audience without directly saying so. 

The story of Ruth illustrates this. The central theme of this story is about God's loving kindness to the three primary characters of this story. Once we are very familiar with biblical geography, history, and customs, we will then begin to hear what else it is telling us. This is decidedly not some sort of secret message. In fact, this was the obvious stuff that was so obvious to its original audience it did not need to be said directly.

To get what Ruth says implicitly, you need to know that this story's setting is the same as that of the book of Judges. That is explicitly mentioned in Ruth 1:1. You will need to remember from your prior readings of Judges that during this time Israel had widespread idolatry, deep systemic social injustice, sexual immorality, and just lots and lots of unfaithfulness to God. 

Against this backdrop setting, we read in Ruth that Ruth was a convert to faith in the God of Israel. The text never says this directly, but we pick it up in her opening dialogue. She swears an oath by Israel's God (1:17). We then read that Boaz was righteous. Again, this is not explicitly written, but we see it through his actions and words. He is faithful to the commands of Leviticus about gleaning  (Lev 19:9-10) and the law of redemption (Lev 25:23-24), for example. 

We also learn that this foreign convert woman Ruth is part of the ancestry of King David and therefore also of Jesus. In fact, from the genealogy of chapter 4 we see that Ruth is the great grandmother of King David. This is important in both the immediate and covenantal layers. These genealogies tell us that David and Jesus' ancestry is not about some sort of racial or moral purity. They are about God's faithfulness to his promises.

We can also read between the lines to learn that Bethlehem was an exceptionally faithful little town.  Again, this is never explicitly stated, but the faithfulness to God of almost all of the characters of this story shows us this. They are all from Bethlehem. Consider Naomi, Boaz, the town elders, and even the ordinary people whose greetings in 2:4 show their faithfulness to God. Implicitly and especially against the backdrop setting of Judges, we are told that Bethlehem is a special place.  This is part of both the immediate and covenantal layers of meaning in Ruth.

Metanarrative Layer

In an important way, the metanarrative layer is the simplest layer to understand. This is the grand cosmic story of God restoring creation. It occurs in four acts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. There are nuances. There is progression, but this cosmic story is simple and simply beautiful.

The primary problem we have with the metanarrative layer is not one of understanding, but of only understanding it. For the metanarrative layer to be real, it must be lived out as our story. It has to shape our way of seeing and making sense of the world. It has to form us.

The problem for us is that we have already been shaped by the world's metanarrative. We have already been taught to take what we want and see ourselves as the most important and relevant actors of the story. We know that victims get what they deserve and that the strong dominate the weak.

As a result, we really need to interact with the world's metanarrative. We need first to see how we get shaped by it by understanding what its influential stories are really telling us. A key part of this first stage is to see what the world's metanarrative imagines as possible. We really start to get a sense of this whenever we start evangelizing. Secondly, we need to see how those stories get saturated into our bones through habits and practices that we unconsciously adopt. These actions shape our desires for the things the world tells us we should crave. Thirdly, we need to identify ways that we can counterform ourselves along biblical lines to shape our desires for the beauty of God and shalom. Then we should adopt these practices intentionally as a way of habituating ourselves to a counterformative way of making our way in the world. 

But this all begins with starting to see how the stories we tell and encounter either reinforce or subvert these metanarratives. To do that, we need to become familiar with these stories. This class hopes to begin that process.

Avoiding Potholes

  1. Don't look for an allegorical, hidden, or secret meaning in the text.
  2. Don't decontextualize. Each story needs to be read within its historical and literary context.
  3. Pay attention to the entire story not just to a few select words or phrases.
  4. Don't look for moral lessons within historical narratives.
  5. Don't personalize by seeking an individual meaning specific to you personally.
  6. Don't redefine the clear meaning of a story to make it fit within your own context.
  7. Don't assume that you should become more or less like a certain character within a narrative.

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