By Paul Potter
Imagine the anxiety of traveling to a distant land. Everything is different from the way it was back home. The people you encounter have plenty to say to you, but they are speaking a language you have never heard. The language isn’t the only thing you don’t understand. Almost nothing is familiar to you. The architecture, clothing, foods, and customs are all strange and intimidating.
Like tour guides, Christian educators introduce their students to a foreign land very different from their own. The goal of Christian education, however, is not to make tourists, but residents.
Residents are comfortable in their surroundings. They are able to navigate. They know when the trains are changing their routes, whether the bus is usually late, and where the traffic snarls. Creating “residents” means more than teaching the Bible, it means teaching our students how to study the Bible for themselves. It means helping them become comfortable navigating the complex world of the Bible. We shouldn’t just teach the Bible; we should teach our students to be students of the Bible.
It is no secret that studying the Bible can sometimes be intimidating. This is partially because the Bible was written in a distant and ancient land very far from our own. In our biblically illiterate world, the distance has only become greater. Part of the difficulty of studying the Bible is placing ourselves in the shoes of ancient authors. What were they trying to say? What did they believe God was doing through their words?
Biblical scholars spend lifetimes working to become experts at history, biblical languages, ancient customs, and much more. The ambition of all their study is to pull meaning from the pages of the Bible in order to understand what the Bible first meant. This process is called exegesis.
The task of exegesis can seem so daunting that many people are afraid to give it a try. As a result, many Christians rely on others to do their Bible study for them. Helping your students become “residents” of the biblical world means teaching them to do exegesis.
The Bible Says It, I Believe It
A church in my community once had on its sign, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” I commend the church’s commitment to God’s Word, but I would caution them to be careful. Everything in the Bible is not good advice! Consider the bad advice that Mrs. Job gave to her husband, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). Consider also what the serpent said to Eve: if you eat the fruit, “you will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4). As my friend says, the serpent’s words prompted Adam and Eve to eat themselves out of house and home!
Sometimes a passage of Scripture can be understood only when it is read within its larger context. In other words, there are often circumstances and facts surrounding a passage that may impact its meaning. In biblical studies, we normally think of two kinds of context: literary and historical.
Literary context describes the impact of what was written before or after the passage. It may also describe the impact of the author and his audience on the passage. For example, knowing that the serpent gave the advice is a clue that it may be bad advice. When looking for literary context you might ask, “What was written in the verses and chapters that surround the passage?” “Who is speaking in the passage?” “Did the author talk about this subject in another place?” “To whom was the passage written?”
Historical context describes the impact of the intended purpose of the passage. This intended purpose is often clear only after we understand the people, phrases, places, and practices of those writing and reading the passage. For example, it becomes clear why Mrs. Job would give such bad advice to her husband when we understand her circumstance. Job wasn’t the only person suffering. She had lost all of her wealth and children, too! Her advice was spoken out of pain. When looking for literary context you might ask, “Are there any words, names, or phrases I don’t understand?” “Are there any people, places, or practices I don’t recognize?”
The Bible Isn’t Bologna
I sometimes bring a big tube of bologna into my class. I cut a slice from one end and then ask a student to tell me what I have cut from the tube. After a little prodding, I get the obvious answer, “bologna.” I then cut a few more slices from different sections of the tube. Each time I ask what I cut. Each time I get the same reply, “bologna.”
The Bible is not bologna. When you cut a slice from the beginning of the Bible you are likely to get something very different from when you take a slice from the middle. Taking a slice from one end may produce a short story. Another slice may produce a law code. From one place you might find poetry and from another an epistle.
These different types of writing are called genres. Each genre was written for a specific purpose. Think of surfing television channels. Within seconds of landing on each channel we can tell whether we have landed on a talk show, sitcom, or drama. We also know if the purpose of the show is to make us laugh, cry, or just better informed. Ancient readers could do the same with the genres of the Bible. Within seconds of hearing a passage, they knew what to expect. Identifying the genre of a biblical passage can help us know what to expect.
The Here and Now
I once heard a preacher say, “If you want to know about the Bible, don’t read other books; read the Bible.” It was his way of saying what I have heard so many students say before, “I don’t care about Greek, history, and exegesis. I just want to know what the Bible is saying to me, here and now.” I understand their frustration. We all want to know what God has to say to us today.
In How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Douglas Stuart and Gordon D. Fee warn that the only way to be certain what the Bible means here and now is to first understand what it meant then and there.1 It is important to remember that what a passage meant in its original context is all that we can be certain it means today. In other words, skipping the then and there for the here and now can be a dangerous move.
I think the most tragic story in the Old Testament is that of Jepthah’s daughter. Foolishly, Jepthah vowed that in exchange for a military victory he would sacrifice the first thing that walked out the door of his tent (Judges 11). His only daughter was the first to exit the tent. He sacrificed her as he had vowed to do.
By skipping too quickly to the here and now, someone might conclude that sacrificing a child is an appropriate way to secure a personal victory at work. When we consider the then and there—especially what the rest of the Bible has to say— it becomes clear that child sacrifice is a very non-Christian thing to do! You might think common sense should tell a person this. As you look at evil in the world, however, you find that common sense isn’t so common.
So how do we help our students to become students of the Bible? How can we empower them to study on their own? I have three suggestions:
• Don’t assume your students know how to use the Bible. In a biblically illiterate world, students often have no idea how to look up a Bible verse. Many are unaware there is both an Old and New Testament. Be patient as you walk them through tasks that you probably take for granted.
• Teach them to use the tools. Your students may not be experts in biblical studies, but they can benefit from the work of experts. Teach them to use Bible dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries. Your students probably don’t know these resources exist, and that they can help get to the bottom of the then and there. The websites www.biblegateway.com and www.biblehub.com offer these and many other tools online for free!
• Share the workload. Just because you are the teacher doesn’t mean you should be doing all the work. Give the students a chance to use tools together to discover what the Bible meant and means. As one of my students recently said, “No one ever told me I could do all this on my own.” With you there to guide them, there is a greater chance they will be successful!
1Douglas Stuart and Gordon D. Fee, How to Read the Bible for all Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).
Paul Potter serves as minister with Vansant (Virginia) Church of Christ.