How do I study the Bible? (part two): Principles for interpreting the various parts of the Old Testament

A few years ago I was privileged to visit St. Petersburg, Russia, and the world-famous Hermitage Museum.  We were told that so many artifacts are on display there, if a person were to view one each minute it would take seven years to see them all.  The vast array of paintings, sculpture, and historical materials was indeed staggering.  But one item surpassed them all to me.

Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son is on permanent display at the museum.  Standing before this massive canvas, I felt myself drawn into the scene portrayed so masterfully.  The prodigal has fallen to his knees before his elderly father, his tattered clothes silent witness to the recent depravity of his life.  The father's warm hands gently caress his son.  The older father and (presumably) a religious official stand to the side, their scowls revealing their joyless souls.  I would have stayed at the painting all afternoon, if our tour guide had permitted such a luxury.

Part of the reason the painting was so impressive to me was that I knew something of the painter's intention for his work.  Historians speculate with good reason that Rembrandt has portrayed himself in each of the figures on his canvas.  I saw his personal failures in the prodigal's weeping shoulders; his periods of spiritual hardness in the judging spectators; his mature faith in the father's forgiveness.  Interpreting the painting according to the artist's own story and intention brings the figures to life.

We view such a remarkably realistic portrait very differently than a work of modern abstraction.  Picasso's cubism is not meant to be interpreted literally.  Jackson Pollack's wild smatters of paint are intended to convey an intuitive, emotional reaction, not a considered theological meditation.  We listen to a symphony with different expectations than we bring to a contemporary rock song or hymn.

So it is with interpreting literature.  Poetry is not meant to be read as narrative.  The newspaper is read differently from The Canterbury Tales.  The Book of Acts is not intended to be read in the same way as the Song of Solomon.  While general hermeneutical principles apply to every section of Scripture, there are also rules which apply specifically to the various genre within the canon of God's word.  Scholars call these principles "special hermeneutics."  They are the subject of this final chapter of our study.

Old Testament narratives

The Bible contains more "narrative" than any other literary type.  Over 40% of the Old Testament (OT) is narrative literature.  Books which are primarily written in this genre include Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.  Sections of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jonah, Haggai, and Job are also written in narrative style.

In the New Testament (NT), we find that the gospels are primarily narrative, as is almost all of the Book of Acts.

The nature of narrative stories

The Old Testament narratives may be defined as God's stories, designed to show his work in his creation and among his people.  As the rabbis put it, God made people because he loves stories.

There are three levels of OT narrative stories:

Universal plan of God (creation, fall, sin, redemption, the coming Messiah).

God's dealings with Israel.

Individual narratives.

Each individual is a part of God's dealings with Israel, which is in turn part of God's universal plan.  And so we must see the individual narrative within its larger context.

Characteristics of narrative stories:

They are centered in the action of God, not of men; God is the hero.

They are limited in focus to God's actions; thus they do not relate all the details or methods of an occurrence.

They are often illustrative rather than directly didactic.  For example, Jonah never states the moral of the book, but illustrates the need for obedience to God's commands.

They must often be interpreted as units rather than individual truths; seldom are the details of crucial interpretive significance.

Principles of interpretation

First, OT narratives serve an indirect teaching function.  They usually do not teach a doctrine directly, but illustrate doctrinal truth which is taught propositionally elsewhere.  They record events, not necessarily ideals, and do not always relate a specific moral.  Morals are often implied in the action of the narrative.

Second, OT narratives do not necessarily endorse the examples they portray.  They record actions and events accurately, but do not always prescribe these actions for us.  For instance, David's adultery with Bathsheba is given in Scripture as an example of what not to do, not as an endorsement of such sin.

Third, OT narratives are selective and incomplete.  They do not give all the details of a specific event, but only those we need to know to understand the spiritual truth being communicated.  They do not answer all our theological questions, but address those issues intended by the Spirit through the author.

Fourth, the purpose of OT narratives is simple: to relate God as the creator and divine agent in human life.  God is the hero of every narrative story.

Errors in interpretation

Avoid allegorizing, seeking a "deeper" meaning beyond the stated content of the story.  Beware of decontextualizing, ignoring or deemphasizing the historical and literary contexts.  And refuse false combinations, using elements within the story to teach a combined truth they would not intend to communicate.

The law

More than 600 commandments are found in the OT, located in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  No section of the OT poses more difficulties for NT interpretation than this.

Categories of law

"Apodictic" laws are direct commands.  They begin with "do" or "do not," and imply that it is impossible to please God with our own efforts (cf. Ro 3:20).

"Casuistic" laws are conditional, case-by-case in intention.  They imply the kind of standards God intends for us today.  Not every law in the OT era is intended to retain the force of law for us today, as we will see shortly.

Law and Christianity

The OT law is a "suzerainty" covenant--promises from God to his people, conditional upon their obedience to him.  A "suzerain" was an overlord; the "vassal" was the servant.  In "suzerainty" law God relates to us as his servants, and makes promises which are kept when we obey his precepts.

The OT covenant is preparatory to the New Covenant in Christ.  Thus we must interpret the OT in the light of the NT (the "analogy of faith").

Some of the OT covenant is not renewed in the NT.  Israelite civil laws were applied to citizens of ancient Israel, but are not mentioned or applied to life in the NT.  Israelite ritual laws were applied to ancient worship, not NT worship practices.

Part of the OT covenant is renewed in the New Covenant, and is therefore part of the NT "law of Christ" (Gal 6:2).  For instance, the ethical laws (Deut 6:5) are repeated in the Two Great Commandments (Mt 22:34-40).

Guidelines for interpretation

View the OT laws as God's fully inspired word, but not always his direct command to his church in Christ today.  See them as revealing both his holy justice and his gracious mercy.

Know that the laws are repeated in their essence by the prophets and renewed as such in the NT.  See them as God's gift to Israel, providing the basis for their covenant relation with him.  And view them as preparation for the New Covenant and thus crucial to our understanding of the Christian faith.  They are binding on us, however, only within the New Covenant.

To interpret OT law, determine whether or not it is repeated in the NT.  Each of the Ten Commandments are endorsed within Jesus' teachings, for instance.  Such laws retain the force of precept for us today.  They do not earn our salvation, but express the principles by which our salvation is to be lived.

When OT laws are not repeated in the NT, view them as principles.  For instance, kosher dietary laws teach us that God cares about the stewardship of our health.  The festivals of the Jewish calendar show us that life should contain ritual and celebration.  The Sabbath work laws demonstrate that we should set aside a day for worship and rest.

Understand that every word of Scripture is God's revealed truth to us, and interpret the laws within their intention: as guideposts for living by the grace of our Father.

The prophets

OT prophets were covenant enforcement mediators, as we see with Amos (Am 9:11-15).  They were declarers of the message of God (cf. Ex 3:1, Is 6).  And they were conveyers of a message already disclosed through the Pentateuch.  In this sense they were "unoriginal."

Several forms of utterance are clear within this genre:

Lawsuit (Is 3:13-26)--demonstrates the punishment coming to Israel because of her disobedience.

Woe (Hab 2:6-8)--announces woe and predicts disaster.

Promise (Am 9:11-15)--describes future blessings.

Poetry (much of Isaiah)--relates God's revelation in symbolic forms.

The prophets were more often forth-tellers than foretellers.  We must seek the intended meaning of their declarations first within their original context and audience.

The "sensus plenior" (fuller meaning) of prophetic texts relates to those which have an apparent later application as well as their original relevance.  For instance, Hosea's description of Israel's exodus from Egypt (Hos 11:1) was later used by Matthew to describe Jesus' return from that nation to Israel (Mt 2:15).  The biblical writers worked under a degree of inspiration which is not ours today.  They were sometimes led to a fuller meaning within OT passages, but we must confine ourselves to their inspiration.  We do not have their supernatural insight, and should interpret the OT prophets within their intended context and relevance.

Guidelines for interpretation:

Consider the historical context (760-460 B.C.), with its social upheaval, religious apostasy, and shifts in population and geographic boundaries.

Locate the specific context of the prophetic declaration.

Isolate individual oracles and interpret them within their specific contexts and intentions (cf. Amos 5).

Remember always: the text cannot mean what it never meant.

The Psalms

The Psalms were the hymnbook of ancient Israel.  They are characterized by their forms and function in the life of the nation.

Several types are identified by interpreters:

Laments--express struggles, suffering, or disappointment to the Lord.  They are individual (3, 22, 31, etc.) and corporate (12, 44, 80, 94, 137).

Thanksgiving--express joy in the Lord.

Hymns of praise

Salvation history psalms--review God's saving works for Israel (78, 105, 106, 135, 136)

Celebration and affirmation--covenant renewal liturgies (50, 81), renewing the covenant made on Mt. Sinai; royal psalms, celebrating God's work through the kings (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 144); and songs of Zion/Jerusalem (46, 48, 76, 84, 87, 122)

Wisdom psalms--show the merits of wisdom and the wise life (36, 37, 49, 73, 112, 127, 128, 133)

Songs of trust--affirm that God may be trusted even in hardship (11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131)

Psalms serve as a guide to worship, show us how to relate honestly to God, and demonstrate the need for reflection on God's blessings.

Wisdom literature

The nature of wisdom literature

Wisdom literature (WL) originates with Solomon, the traditional source of wisdom; to him Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes are attributed by the book's superscriptions.  See 1 Kings 4:29-34 for a description of his role as a wisdom teacher.

"Wisdom" includes Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes; also Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon.  Later rabbinic tradition included the Song of Songs as well.

The meaning of "wisdom":

"Hokma" (the most common term for wisdom in the OT) refers predominantly to an educated discipline or skillful performance in the world.  The term can denote almost any acquired skill or learned craft, including an ability to wage war (Is. 10:13), tailor (Ex. 28:3), make cloth (Ex. 35:26), or perform political administration (Deut. 34:9).  It may also concern one's level of intelligence (Job. 39:17).

Wisdom is an attribute of God (Job. 38:36), the acquisition of some famous persons, and a distinguishing asset of some nations.

Wisdom could be learned by those outside Israel, and was apparently taught outside the home as well as inside it (2 Chr 17:7-9).

WL is practical, not speculative.  Its aim: to provide sound advice on how to act sensibly, how to succeed in life, how to avoid difficulties, and how to behave toward other people, especially high officials.  It begins with the "fear of the Lord" (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7).

Interpreting wisdom literature

WL is one part of OT biblical theology, and as such is subject to the various issues of this discipline, including its lack of a basic definition and methodology.  Nonetheless, several issues have been raised by applying these issues to the texts of WL.

Methods for studying WL:

Organizing it into the topics of systematic theology (the dogmatic-didactic method).

Locating it in the larger unfolding of God's revelation (the genetic-progressive method).

Focusing on its teachings regarding God's covenant with his people (the cross-section method).

Organizing it by topics inherent in the OT or in the WL itself (the topical method).

Seeking its place within Israel's confessions of faith (the diachronic method).

Focusing on the faith traditions it imparted to the people of God (the "formation of tradition" method).

Unfolding the various didactics within its teachings (the thematic-dialectic method).

Developing the unique theology of the WL itself (the "new" biblical theology method).

Seeks its part in the dynamic unity of OT theology (the multiplex canonical method).

The historical setting of WL: late 19th, early 20th century theologians considered WL to be post-exilic and peripheral; since the 1930s a great change has taken place in orientation.  Gerstenberger argues for an early clan wisdom, though without complete evidence.  Wisdom was nurtured in the royal court in the early monarchy.  Proverbs 10-24 appear to be pre-exilic sayings of practical wisdom out of different spheres in Israel's life.

The growth of WL within Israel: earlier traditions are often called "old wisdom" (cf. Proverbs chs. 10ff); "late wisdom" is best represented in the highly theological, didactic poems of Prov. 8, Job. 28, etc.  Some have tried to distinguish between secular wisdom and later religious traditions (cf. W. McKane), but most resist this distinction as foreign to WL.

Earlier scholarship saw late wisdom as the personification of divine attributes, but now we see the traditions as striving to discern a divine order which is built into the very structure of reality.  The great wisdom hymns probe the ontological question of universal rationality (cf. the Greeks with their logos).  Prov. 8 goes so far as to see wisdom as a mediator of God's self- revelation in the world.

Some have seen wisdom as deriving from groups disillusioned with the failure of prophecy and committed to an alternative "creation humanism," but others see this position as highly speculative.  Conclusion: there is a lack of agreement regarding both the definition and the role of wisdom in ancient Israelite society.

The relation of wisdom to law:

Early wisdom is characterized by the international, universal quality of wisdom reflected in general human experience, with no attention paid to Israel's special role in the divine economy.

Later wisdom focuses particularly on Israel's redemptive history (cf. Ecclesiasticus and Baruch).

The debate here: whether or not wisdom was absorbed into an all-embracing concept of law.  G. T. Sheppard (Wisdom as a Construct) argues that the effect is the reverse.  Wisdom became the means by which Israel's very different approaches to divine reality (through divine revelation and human experience) could be brought into profound harmony.

Thus wisdom becomes a fresh means of relating the human spirit with the divine (Job 32:8).

Ecclesiastes: negative wisdom

Its central surface teaching: life has no ultimate value (cf. 1:2).

Its central point: description of life without God; thus 12:13-14 expresses the need for God.

Its value for us: negative apologetic for faith in God.

Job: positive wisdom

Contrasts worldly and divine wisdom.

Central value for us: need for trust not in man but in God.

Proverbs: practical wisdom

Definition: a brief, particular expression of a truth.  Proverbs are seldom inclusive of general truth.  They are intended to provide practical advice for daily living.

Hermeneutical guidelines:

Not legal guarantees from God (cf. Prov 15:15).

Must be read as a collection--the overall context is crucial.

Are worded to be memorable, not theologically precise.

Some need to be "translated" to be appreciated in our culture (cf. 25:24).


The following discussion follows closely the excellent work of Fee and Stewart.  Mickelson is also an excellent guide in this area; Ramm and Virkner also provide good surveys.