Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
A major hurdle for many Christians these days in both their personal lives and evangelizing is the question of how accurate the Bible actually is. For one, the newest books of the Bible are around 2000 years old. The oldest writings could date much further back. Secondly, you’ve probably noticed that the Bible has a very strong bias towards God; I mean, there are hundreds of passages like this, “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psalms 147:5). Plus we have no way of proving who the authors of the Bible were (as they are all very long dead). Not only that, but many of the stories in the Bible are way too extraordinary, from the dead coming back to life to a river being held back so Israel could leave Egypt (“He turned the sea into dry land, they passed through the waters on foot- come, let us rejoice in him” (Psalms 66:6)). Are we really expected to believe all of this? Yes, we are. But how can we? Today I’d like to show you that the Word of God is trustworthy, and believing it isn’t has big of a stretch as it may seem.
First, I would like to suggest that the Bible is basically historically accurate. You can say what you want about creation and dates and figures, but when you compare people, groups, and events mentioned in the Bible with outside sources, often the Bible is proven to be correct.
Take, for example, the Hittites. For a very long time there had been no non-Biblical record of such a group existing, but the Bible says they did. We can see in Judges 3:5-6 that Israel not only know of their existence, but actually interacted with this mysterious people,
The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.
Now, with no evidence for these people for a long time, people assumed that they had never existed (and thus the Bible was inaccurate). However, eventually, ruins were found of a people distinctly different from the others in the area around Israel. Recalling what the Bible had said, researchers marked them “Hittites” until their language could be decoded and their real name figured out. Well, after finally translating the language, it turned out that this new people group was…actually called the Hittites (or in their pronunciation something very similar). As it turned out, the Bible had them recorded before archeology could catch up.
One of the greatest kings of Israel, David, was once thought to be more of an ideal than an actual person. Why? There was no record of his existence outside of the Bible. This is a pretty big deal considering three books of the Bible are about his life and almost half of the Psalms are credited to him. But in 1993, the Tel-Dan Stele was discovered. It is a stone which features the term “House of David.” It seems then, that in his speech to the people of Pisidian Antioch, Paul was speaking of history, not just of legends. He explains,
After removing Saul, he made David their king. He testified concerning him: “I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.”
From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised (Acts 13:22-23).
Now although the Hittites and David are only two examples, if you look around yourself, you can find other records outside of the Bible recording Biblical events and peoples.
Another proof that the Bible has going for itself is its over-honesty. Very often we will find that the heroes in the Bible are noted to make mistakes that are not glossed over. Some examples include Noah getting drunk and naked, David making God angry by initiating a census, and Hezekiah being oddly uncaring that one day Jerusalem would be gutted. One of the most confusing as to its place in the Word is the story of Jephthah. Jephthah was a judge (non-king leader) of Israel. He gets a few pages of ink for his adventures, but one story in particular steals the spotlight- unfortunately it does little more than make him look foolish. Jephthah was fighting the Ammonites, and knowing that only God could help the struggling Israelites he made a choice,
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-31).
Those of you who think more logically can probably already sense that the odds of this ending well are not good. Well, god held up his end of the deal and helped Israel put down Ammon. So, Jephthah returned home a hero,
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break” (Judges 11:34-35).
Whenever I read this I wonder what he expected to happen. Did he have a dog that was really loyal? Maybe a cat he was hoping to knock off? Why would have he made such an oddly-worded promise when the chances were that someone he loved would end up as a sacrifice? Anyway, the story ends as you might imagine,
After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Judges 11:39-40).
Now I know the writer tries to give the story some meaning, but come on, really? Why is this story even in the Bible? There are other, better stories about fulfilling vows and this one neither glorifies God nor edifies Jephthah. God’s Word is filled with stuff like this.
And the Bible’s truth problem isn’t confined to the Old Testament. The Word tells us that after traveling with and learning from Jesus for three years, his disciples totally didn’t expect to see him again after he was crucified. We learn about Jesus’ return in John 20:19, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’” These guys had locked themselves up in fear, not even considering that Jesus might have been telling the truth that he would rise in three days. They were so scared that they had backed the wrong guy that Jesus had to perform a miracle just to get inside! Now, to be fair, not all of the apostles were hiding. Thomas was out and about during this appearance. Surely he was confident about Jesus’ predicted resurrection, right? Let’s find out,
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “WE have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:24-25).
That’s right; Thomas thought the other disciples were pulling a candid camera stunt on him. He was probably waiting for John to jump out yelling that he was being punk’d. This story doesn’t really glorify God, in fact, I’d be a little embarrassed about it if I were Jesus. Even how, it is in every Bible, just waiting to be read.
What about the genealogies and chronologies? Genesis makes a point of listing names and ages in order to develop time, but 1 Chronicles features nine chapters of names. Most of the names listed in 1 Chronicles never appear outside of the genealogical records in the Bible, like the sons of Naphtali, “The sons of Naphtali: Jahziel, Guni, Jezer and Shillem-n the descendants of Bilhah” (1 Chronicles 7:13). Why would anyone go to the trouble of making all of those names and families up? Nobody would, because the Bible is a record of real people and real events.
One of the more interesting stories about the Bible comes from the establishment of the New Testament canon. Now, since maybe 300ad-ish, there had been some generally accepted writing with connections to the gospel. However, it was not until 1546 that the Catholic Church officially canonized the books of the New Testament during the council of Trent. This was a major moment in history for both the Church and the Bible. It was decision made through much prayer and research. What is fascinating though is what had happened shortly before that. Using the generally accepted books, members of the Catholic clergy (most notably Luther) started to notice that what they were reading didn’t match up with what the Catholic doctrine was saying. This discovery ended with the great divide in the church between Protestants and Catholics. But even after all of this had started, after much prayer, the people at the Council of Trent still could not deny the books of our New Testament- even though they didn’t match up completely with their doctrine. This disunity between the cannon and doctrine has caused several reformations to the Catholic Church as it has tried to better follow the cannon it chose. However, even today there are concepts in the Catholic doctrine that Protestant theologians still take issue with. How could this be? How could a church not only use but also endorse a book that doesn’t line up exactly with their teachings? Jesus explains that, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law” (Luke 16:17). The Word of God is protected by God, and as such, anyone who prays and really seeks God cannot deny the Scripture he has chosen to speak to us through.
The Bible is repetitive. That is to say the Bible repeats itself- a lot. Most passages are referred to elsewhere, even lines of speech are reproduced in completely different situations. Going even further, often things are written at least twice. The Gospels are a prime example of this with most of Mark appearing in Matthew and Luke (and Matthew and Luke sharing stories too). What’s more, there is a fourth book of the Gospel, John, which also contains some of the same stories from the first three. Most of Leviticus also appears in Exodus or Deuteronomy, so even the Law of Moses is repeated. The two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings are later summarized in the two books of Chronicles. Most of the prophecies agree on varied points, usually only with differing styles. Why is this? Well, as we know from Jesus having to die his sacrificial death in order to free us from the Law, God follows his own rules. In Deuteronomy 19:15 God says, “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” God tells us that one witness is never enough to believe. So, the Lord sets up that any case must be proven by at least two or three witnesses. Since the Bible is a legal document (as far as God is concerned) it too must be ratified by multiple witnesses. So we find this law proposed by God (through Moses), then it is seconded by Jesus, “But if he will not listen, take one of two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matthew 18:16), and Paul comes in as the third, “This will be my third visit to you. ‘Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (1 Corinthians 13:1). Aside from these direct references, there are also a few indirect ones as well. The Bible, in its complete form is a sealed and stamped document, following its own rules for being considered as admissible under the Laws set down by God (through Moses).
For a Christian, maybe one of the most convincing arguments for trusting the Bible is that God actually endorses it. God says in Isaiah 46:10,
I make known the end from the beginning,
From ancient times, what is still to come.
I said: My purpose will stand,
And I will do all that I please.
God is very confident in his ability to relate the future before it happens via his Word. Why? Through his prophecies, the Lord is able to establish is dominion over everything. He writes,
Do not tremble, do not be afraid.
Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?
You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me?
No, there is no other Rock; I know not one (Isaiah 44:8).
In fact, if you read Matthew, the writer repeatedly references the Old Testament passages to establish that Jesus is the prophesied Messiah, the son of God. Only God can predict with 100% accuracy what will happen, for he already knows what will happen. The Lord even challenges non-believers to do the same,
“Present your case,” says the Lord.
“Set forth you arguments,” says Jacob’s King.
“Bring in your idols to tell us
What is going to happen.
Tell us what the former things were,
So that we may consider them
And know their final outcome.
Or declare to us the things to come,
Tell us what the future holds,
So we may know that you are gods.
Do something, whether good or bad,
So that we will be dismayed and filled with fear (Isaiah 41:21-23).
This challenge still stands after thousands of years of being on the books. One may not like God, but our Lord makes it clear that he will not be denied.
Although I have only glossed the surface of this topic, I hope it has been enough for you to understand that the Bible is trustworthy. We have an enduring faith that is backed by an enduring Word. Since we can trust the Bible, we too can trust that Jesus died to save us from our sins, and if we believe in him we will be made clean. Not only that, but we can be confident of his return. Read your Bible, for it is the living Word of God.
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and the attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).