No, that’s not today’s headline. But it will be familiar if you follow AFL (Australian football).
On 15 August 2021, Fremantle Dockers defeated West Coast Eagles (70-64). It was the first time Freo won in 12 derbies (clashes of the local teams). In one of the 2019 derbies, the Eagles almost quadruples the Dockers’ score after Fremantle went on a spree of kicking behinds: 2.19 (31) to 19.8 (122).
This language is so familiar to us that we don’t even consider that “kicking behinds” could have other meanings. But imagine a researcher in 2000 years trying to make sense of our history. Our news headlines have been preserved in a database, but they know nothing of AFL.
So, they read the headline, and consult their English lexicon for the meaning of the words. It tells them that an “eagle” is a large predatory bird, and a “docker” is someone who works on the docks loading and unloading ships. They wonder if “Derby” is a port. And there it is on their maps — on the northwest coast of Australia. Can you imagine the picture forming in their minds of what the headline means?
This is exactly the kind of problem we face when reading the Bible. The Bible is not some kind of encyclopaedic wiki on spiritual truth. It’s a record of God interacting with humans in various times and places, so it’s a revelation of God: his faithful character and unswerving purposes for us. But since it’s rooted in particular people struggling in particular settings, we cannot understand what it means if we misunderstand what it meant for them.
A text cannot mean what it never meant. Or to put it in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken. This is the starting point.
— Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Zondervan, 1993), 30.
Language assumes shared meaning. In everyday life, we say things like “Chloe, could you pick up something to feed Jess?” Chloe doesn’t struggle to figure out whether you meant “Get a spoon to feed the baby” or “Buy some food for the dog.”
For Chloe, the meaning is clear because she knows who Jess is. But an outsider needs to learn about the family dynamics, the setting where the statement made sense. That’s our first step in understanding Scripture.
And even when we share a setting, we still misunderstand each other. Whenever my assumptions don’t match yours, we have a misunderstanding.
That happens as we read Scripture too. Different interpretations come from different assumptions we bring to the text. We filter it through different religious traditions and different cultural norms, so what it means for us doesn’t match what it meant to the community who first received it.
To understand what Scripture means to us in our world, our first step is always to ask what it meant to them in their world. This insight comes from missionaries who spent years in another culture:
The most powerful cultural values are those that go without being said. It is very hard to know what goes without being said in another culture. But often we are not even aware of what goes without being said in our own culture. This is why misunderstanding and misinterpretation happen. When a passage of Scripture appears to leave out a piece of the puzzle because something went without being said, we instinctively fill in the gap with a piece from our own culture — usually a piece that goes without being said. When we miss what went without being said for them and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture.
— E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP, 2012), 12–13.
How to start
So, you want to read Scripture in its original context, but you’re not sure where to begin? Study bibles provide a little information, but you need a paperback with a few pages of orienting data for each book of the Bible. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart wrote one for you: How to read the Bible Book by Book, around $20 on paper or as an ebook. This makes it so easy to take that first step of considering the setting so you understand the meaning.
It also helps to be aware of the genres within Scripture. What did the Old Testament Law mean to Israel? How did they understand history as revelation? How did Hebrew poetry (like Psalms) work? What were the prophets? What were the gospels? What was going on in the places that received letters from Paul and others in the New Testament. And what is an apocalypse? For a basic introduction to the different genres in Scripture, you can’t go past Fee and Stuart’s classic paperback: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.
If you have never lived in other cultures, you may not be aware of how differently other places see the world. Richards and O’Brien’s book could be a real eye-opener: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.
A good Bible dictionary can also provide background information on people, places, and things from the ancient world of the Middle East. Some are available online, e.g. Bible Gateway or the older version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE).
For serious Bible study, commentaries help. Good commentaries explain the background for a Bible book. They survey how that book has been understood over the last 2000 years (longer for OT books), and how it’s understood today. Commentaries are conversation partners when you’re ready to invite others to challenge and enhance your own perceptions.
Reading together is crucial. It’s not just about helping me overcome my biases and limited understanding. God’s goal is to restore us as his global, unified community in Christ. God’s goal is not a bunch of individuals, each having their own spiritual experiences. The Bible is the story of a community where we belong, the revelation of the faithful Father saving his family from oppression under evil, into the kingdom of his Son. The goal of salvation is a Christ-led community, brought to life in the resurrecting power of his Spirit.
That’s the Bible’s story, our story, the story we’re living in.