5 Interpretation Mistakes You Can’t Afford to MakeHave you ever heard someone quote the Bible and think “you totally missed the point?” Actually, this “missing the point” business happens more often than you think. It is so easy to misunderstand Scripture, and I think it is especially easy to misinterpret Old Testament stories. They are so far removed from our time and our culture that sometimes we read them and pull out things that just aren’t there.
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5 Ways We Misinterpret Old Testament StoriesThe good news is that you don’t have to misinterpret Old Testament stories just because you were born in a different time and place. The Bible was written for you, for YOUR real life, and that means it is possible for you to (mostly) understand it. I say “mostly” because there are some things in Scripture that are true (because they’re in the Bible) but we don’t really understand what they mean yet. And there are other things that might just take more work or more time and maturity and even life experience to understand. But most of the Bible we can understand – correctly – and these Old Testament stories can have a tremendous impact on our life with God if we can learn how to read them. So here are 5 ways we misinterpret Old Testament stories.
#1 Assuming Every Word in Scripture is a Direct Word to YOUThe Bible was written for our real lives, right? It’s God’s love letter to us, so it’s easy to think that everything written in the Bible is something we should do. Right? Right but wrong. One of the easiest ways to misinterpret Old Testament stories is to assume that because it was said or done in Scripture, that means we should do it, too.
Wait, wait! Don’t go! This isn’t heresy I’m talking here. Just hear me out.Especially when it comes to Old Testament stories, some of the things that the Bible says are the bad guy talking. It’s an important part of the story, it’s part of the story God is telling us (and the story is for us), but if Scar from The Lion King told the hyenas something, would you think that was a good thing? Of course not! This seems really obvious to us, but so often people misinterpret Old Testament stories by taking certain verses out of context – out of the stories they are placed in – and totally miss the meaning because they lose track of who is talking. [click_to_tweet tweet=”This seems really obvious, but so often people misinterpret Old Testament stories by taking certain verses out of context – out of the stories they are placed in – and totally miss the meaning because they lose track of who is talking. – @RealWorldBible” quote=”This seems really obvious to us, but so often people misinterpret Old Testament stories by taking certain verses out of context – out of the stories they are placed in – and totally miss the meaning because they lose track of who is talking.”] Check out this example from the book of Job: As Job loses everything – children, wealth, health, friends, Job’s friends assume that he has somehow sinned and is being punished for that sin. If we read the whole story, we know that isn’t true; God considered Job a righteous man! Scripture testifies that God “makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 CEB). But if we read the words of Job’s friends, we might come to the (false) conclusion that if someone is going through a tough time, it must be because they have sinned. In fact, I bet you’ve had someone say that to you when you were going through a hard time.
Stuart and Fee call this a “monkey-see-monkey-do” reading of the Bible.They remind us that “you can always learn a great deal from [Old Testament] narratives, and from all the Bible’s narratives, but you can never assume that God expects you to do exactly the same thing that Bible characters did or to have the same things happen to you that happened to them,” unless it is something that Christian believers are commanded to do. (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth 105). (Read more here about how to know if you should follow Old Testament laws). [click_to_tweet tweet=”Do you have a ‘monkey-see-monkey-do’ view of the Bible? If so, you’re missing out on so much of what God’s Word has to offer! – @RealWorldBible” quote=”Do you have a ‘monkey-see-monkey-do’ view of the Bible? If so, you’re missing out on so much of what God’s Word has to offer! “] So how do you test it out? Know the context. What do you have in common with the person or people in question? If you’re dealing with a comparable situation to the one in the story, AND the rest of Scripture supports what you found, then it is probably something you should follow. For example, the way Ruth takes care of her mother-in-law Naomi is consistent with what the rest of the Bible teaches about honoring your parents. On the other hand, the way Ruth reaches out to Boaz wouldn’t be an appropriate dating practice in a different culture, and nowhere are we instructed to do what she did in that situation.
#2 Searching for the Hidden Meaning or AllegorizingWhile Scripture is not always plain or easy to understand, it isn’t secret, and you are not going to find something that no one else has found before. Ouch. I know. Sometimes we don’t like the plain meaning of the text, so we treat it like an allegory or otherwise try to look for the hidden meaning behind the text, so we don’t have to deal with the tough stuff.
allegory noun, a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurativetreatment of one subject under the guise of another. a symbolical narrative. Dictionary.comThe truth is that the Bible is a real world book (or 66 of them…), full of real messy real world stuff. There are allegories in the Bible, but they are not in the historical narratives (historical stories). It can’t be both. Don’t misinterpret Old Testament stories by assuming they mean something other than what they say. Instead of searching for a “hidden” meaning, use good rules of interpretation to understand what it meant for the original audience, and what it means for us today.
#3 The Moral of the Story Is…Another way to misinterpret Old Testament stories is to moralize them – to look for “the moral” of every story. This happens when we assume “that principles for living can be derived from all passages” (Stuart & Fee 103). Stuart and Fee give this example: “What can we learning about handling adversity from how the Israelites endured their years as slaves in Egypt?”
moral noun the moral teaching or practical lesson contained in a fable, tale, experience, etc. Dictionary.comThere are two problems with this approach. 1) Sometimes we read something into the story that just isn’t there, in search for the moral. In the example above, we don’t know diddly-squat about how the Israelites handled adversity. 2) These narratives are in the Bible to show God’s work of redemption played out over time. Their primary purpose is not usually to tell us “this is why you shouldn’t lie.” Some of these stories make great illustrations for morals taught elsewhere in Scripture, and it’s awesome to use them this way. But if we are just looking for the moral, we miss the big picture.
Very sound, helpful, practical principles for reading, studying, and applying the Bible!
Thank you, Bill! I hope to equip believers to know the truth (and to be able to tell when something is “off”)!