As a biblical scholar, I’m often asked for advice on how to interpret the Bible. I could refer people to tools (like Logos Bible Software) and techniques for analyzing the original languages, even for people dependent on English. But neither of those are my go-to answer. My own journey has convinced me there’s one fundamental insight that, if faithfully observed, will help more than anything. It’s the best piece of advice I can give you:
Let the Bible be what it is.
Sound biblical interpretation
What do I mean? I’m suggesting that the path to real biblical understanding requires that we don’t make the Bible conform to our traditions, our prejudices, our personal crises, or our culture’s intellectual battles. Yes, you’ll find material in Scripture that will help you resolve personal difficulties and questions. But you must remember that, while the Bible was written for us, it wasn’t written to us. What they wrote is still vital for our lives today, but we can only accurately discern the message if we let them speak as they spoke.
This advice, of course, dovetails with my previous post about getting serious and being honest about the oft-repeated mantra “the Bible needs to be interpreted in context.” That article was about recognizing all contexts—including the history of Christianity—that post-date the biblical world are foreign to the Bible. The right contexts for interpreting the Bible are those in which the Bible was written. You can’t let the Bible be what it is if you’re filtering it through a set of experiences and ideas (a “cognitive framework”) that would have been incomprehensible to the biblical writers.
A firm grasp of the obvious
I know that, on the surface, what I’m saying amounts to having a firm grasp of the obvious. But if it were easy to do—and if it was the norm—I’d be writing about something else. It isn’t and it hasn’t been. But it certainly needs to be, at least if we don’t want to be pretenders when it comes to respecting God’s decision to produce Scripture when he did and through whom he chose.
Many illustrations come to mind of the importance of letting the Bible be what it is. The supernaturalist worldview I talked about before, which is the focus of my books The Unseen Realm and Supernatural, is one example. I’ll return to that illustration later. I want to offer two others.
What about the prescientific cosmology of the Bible? I’ve written about the ancient Hebrew conception of the universe in the Faithlife Study Bible. For the biblical writers, the earth was flat and round, supported by pillars (2 Sam 22:8) and surrounded by water (Gen 1:10); the water was held in place by the edges of the solid dome (“expanse”; “firmament”) that covered the earth (Gen 1:6; Prov 8:27–28). The people God chose to write about the fact that he created everything were not writing science because they couldn’t—and God, of course, knew that.
Instead of pressing Genesis into a debate with Darwin or making it cryptically convey the truths of quantum physics, we should let it be what it is so it can accomplish the goals for which God inspired it—to assert the fact of a Creator and our accountability to him. Rather than fight the critics on grounds they choose, we ought to insist that they explain why it makes any sense to criticize the Bible for not being what it wasn’t intended to be. Following such absurd logic, perhaps we should expect them to criticize their dog for not being a cat or their son for not being a daughter. Their attack is patently absurd. But we endorse it when we make the Bible a modern science book instead of letting it be what it is—what God intended.
Truth that transcends culture
The same problem persists when we try to deny that the Old Testament is patriarchal, or that parts of the Mosaic Law are biased against women. Some are because that was their culture. God didn’t hand down a new culture for particular use in Scripture. He didn’t demand that the writers he chose change their worldview before he’d use them. The biblical material simply reflects the cultural attitudes of the people who wrote it.
Again, all this is obvious—but so many students of Scripture seem to approach such issues with the assumption that the Bible endorses a culture. God wasn’t trying to endorse a culture from the first millennium BC or the first century AD for all time and in all places among all peoples. The reason ought to be apparent: God knew that the truths he wanted to get across through the biblical writers would transcend all cultures. Endorsing the prejudices the writers grew up with wasn’t what God had in mind. Some parts of Scripture reveal culture simply as part of Israel’s history. Others focus on behavior. With respect to the latter, God let the writers be who they were (i.e., he knew what he was getting when he chose them for their task), knowing they were capable of communicating timeless principles of conduct by means of their culture.
The point is that letting the Bible be what it is not only helps us interpret Scripture accurately but has unexpected apologetic value. Taking Scripture on its own terms helps our focus and fends off distractions. When Scripture is rightly understood, its relevance will also be clear.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered, and was lightly edited for readability.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.
His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.
He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.