Matters of interpretation

Discussions concerning certain passages of the Bible are difficult. How do you explore dispassionately the accounts of judgement and destruction? How do we examine a passage concerning slavery in light of prevailing social attitudes?

Let’s focus the discussion for now on the Old Testament, particularly the passages of biblical law. I won’t go into too much detail – if you have a working knowledge of the Bible you’ll be familiar with the sort of thing I mean, and I don’t intend to attempt a verse-by-verse breakdown in a single blog post. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, I can strongly recommend that you take a look – it’s a great read! (Although I’d recommend starting with Matthew or John and reading the New Testament first – it will make more sense that way).

Let’s start with the simple stuff: the passages of law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are literal. When it says “Don’t eat camels”, it means not to eat camels; when it says “Cancel all debts at the end of every seventh year”, that’s what it means, too.

But they are also instructions made to a specific people who lived in a particular cultural context. That is not to imply that they have nothing to offer us today: just that we need to understand the context in order to understand the intent behind the instructions, rather than simply focussing on the letter. The people to whom the Law was given were surrounded by all sides by barbarous and cruel peoples. Come to that, they were pretty barbarous and cruel too. The Law was given to teach them how to transcend that state and become a people fit for God. Some of it is practical, and has obvious health or social benefits. Some of it is ceremonial, and seems more arbitrary to us, but these customs may have had important psychological motivations. Some of the customs may have been simply to differentiate God’s people from the surrounding nations. But the context is the key.

The oft-quoted passage of “an eye for an eye”, for instance, is not saying “revenge is good”. It was said in a cultural context of escalating blood feuds (which, come to think of it, still describes large portions of the world), and the intent was to stem that escalation. “Don’t exact vengeance beyond what is dictated by justice” may be a better way of understanding that passage. That is to say, that if someone wrongs you and you are justly recompensed for that crime, do not take further revenge on him.

Likewise, I believe that many of the historical passages of instruction and law must be understood in a historically and culturally contextual way if they are to impart meaning that we can relate to today.

Here’s the problem, though: How do we interpret today, in our cultural contexts, what the “intent” of the law was? How do we avoid mis-using scripture to inappropriately justify our own ideas and prejudices, given that we have so little understanding of ancient Hebrew culture?

I suggest that the correct “filter” (and I use the word cautiously) through which we should interpret scripture is trying to understand how it relates to Jesus’ teachings and to the Epistles.

A recurring theme in the Gospels is Jesus correcting pious Jews who have followed the letter but missed the intent of the law. His teachings and actions, as recorded in the Gospels, reveal to us the character and person of God at work in human society. As such, they provide the “author’s perspective” when trying to understand some of the more confusing and difficult passages in the OT.

I would suggest the writers of the epistles as more appropriate guides than the Old Testament prophets, too. This is not to say that I consider Paul or Timothy or James to have been more “spiritually enlightened” or “in tune with the mind of God” than the great prophets of the OT were, but because the epistles were written within the context of the New Covenant in which we also live. The epistles were also mostly written for Christians living and worshipping in communities and churches which were at least conceptually similar to our own.

The death and resurrection of Jesus changed many things about the law and the way in which it relates to our interaction with God. It did not change the intent of God’s will for our lives, but it did change how we are able to live our lives in God’s favour and following His will.

Paul gives us some indication of what that would look like in his epistle to the church at Colossae:

“… you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” (Col. 3:12-15, NLT)



Related posts:

On reading both books

All in agreement…


12 thoughts on “Matters of interpretation

  1. There are passages – like the “eye for an eye” one – that are morally progressive in their context, but used in morally regressive ways by people coming later. This is similar for the passages on slavery and women – “treat your slaves humanely” and “educate your wives.” In each case, morally progressive, but used regressively by later people’s most oft disconnected from a relationship with Godde.

    I personally like your hermeneutic, your focus of interpreting the Law through its relation to Christ.

  2. There are a few thoughts that come to mind.
    1. I am a big believer in understanding a historical and cultural context as much as we tend to do with a linguistic context. Vital in interpreting OT texts and necessary to avoid misapplication.
    2. I would love to have some examples of what you mean by interpreting through lens of the NT because there is something about interpreting OT legal texts through the lens of narrative and epistle that I’m not sure is completely hermeneutically sound.
    3. The exception of course is when a NT text explicitly interprets an OT text for us.
    4. Determining the NT use of the “law” is vital here. It is used in sundry ways in the NT. The gospels tell us that Jesus came to fulfill the law not to abolish it, Galatians tells us that the law was to serve as a tutor to lead us to Christ, and Hebrews tells us the old covenant is obsolete.
    Interesting post and great topic.

    • I’m not so much proposing a verse-by-verse comparison of laws between the OT and NT, although as you point out that can be very instructive (particularly where the writers comment specifically on OT scriptures). I’m rather suggesting that we need to appreciate the distinction between the paradigms of the Old and New Covenant, and interpret OT laws based on that understanding. Not sure if I’m making myself any clearer.

      For example, I think the the ceremonial laws were concerned with setting God’s people apart from the neighbouring nations, and also guiding their thoughts and behaviour towards God. But membership of the Jewish nation was largely determined by bloodlines (as indeed it still is). Under the New Covenant, belonging to the people of God requires an acceptance of Christ as your saviour (with all that entails), and thus the accessibility to Gentiles is much greater.

      “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us.” (Col. 3:11, NLT)

      But this also means that the importance of purely ceremonial observations of ritual may be different. Christians are not required to belong to a single culture: rather, Paul adapts the forms (though not the substance) of his teachings to suit the particular cultural context in which he finds himself. His message is that we must focus on Christ, and let our behaviour be informed by Christ.

      “So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality.” (Col. 2:16-17, NLT)

      As for what that might look like in the real world, I’ve ammended the original post with an extra passage from Colossians to try and illustrate that… 🙂

      Not sure if that really answers all your questions – I admit I’m still kinda working out my own thoughts on this subject, which is mostly why I wrote the piece and why I appreciate the feedback so much!

  3. Thanks for posting the essay.

    So my question is, based on your essay, is it fair to take any verse out of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and apply it to today’s culture as absolute, literal truth?

    My concern is when people quote Lev to condemn homosexuality today but claim the rest of the verses only applied to a certain culture in history. Logic would dictate that if Lev, for example, was written to be literal truth for a particular culture and history, then we cannot just pick and choose which verses we think apply today and which verses do not, at least from the specific texts within the Bible.

    What do you think?

    • Hi Joe,

      It’s a tricky issue to tackle. I think that “taking a verse and applying it as absolute truth” is a limited and potentially misleading approach. Your example of cherry-picking Leviticus passages is a great example of why.

      I would suggest that determining whether something is right or wrong is not a word-search game of whether we can find a supporting passage in Scripture, but rather to understand how God views it. The Bible is our best source of understanding God’s perspective, but it’s a very complex collection of books, written for many different audiences across about 1500 years of history.

      So it’s not a simple question of, “Can we find a passage which says homosexuality is wrong and hold it to be absolute truth for today?” Rather, if we feel that a particular passage supports a view, do we understand why that passage was written? Was it directed at a specific group of people who had particular social challenges (as is often the case with the epistles of Paul), or does it reflect a more general and deeper truth?

      I believe strongly that the Bible is internally consistent, but only if each book is understood in context of its cultural and historical setting and the theological issues which it is written to illustrate.

      Thus the question is not really: “Can we find a passage of Scripture to support this view?”, but rather: “What does God think of this?” These two questions are closely related, but not identical.

  4. I really like your thoughts on this, especially your points about being aware of the cultural context of passages and interpreting the OT in the context of the epistles. Very wise and well-put.

  5. I like your thoughts on this. One observation I’d add is that the “law” of the Pharisees was often not the law as stated in the Old Testament. Instead, they were interpreting the stated law to try to make it more precise (legalistic) and less interpretive (heart based). Honoring the Sabath is somewhat vague. Not traveling more than 5 miles (or whatever distance) on the Sabath is precise.

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