The Bible requires study. Any Christian who doesn’t agree with this is missing the complexity of the biblical text. The Bible is filled with multiple genres of writing. It was written by different authors at different times. To fully comprehend the text, random, superficial “jump ins,” where someone decides to breeze through a particular part of the Bible or read the Bible on a particular topic isn’t enough. Understanding the Bible requires systematically and methodically reading through it. I am going to use an example from Genesis 3, commonly described as “The Fall of Man.” I’m not going to interpret the text at this point. I am just going to set up the questions and analysis needed to interpret the story correctly. Description is different than interpretation.
Description says, “Adam did this. Eve did that. God used these words.” Interpretation says, “This is the deeper theological meanings and lessons of the story. This is what God meant with the words He used.” If you are not used to digging in this deep, don’t fear. It takes practice, and many people around you may find it strange, so you may also have to work through a little bit of social pressure. Some Christians believe too much “study” is not relying on the Holy Spirit.
The simplest way to understand a biblical narrative is to ask the 6 journalist questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The process here is based on the book “The Joy of Discovery in Bible Study.” There’s many other books that are a little more advanced, but beginning with this one is helpful.
Genesis 3 is commonly described as “The Fall.” Human beings fell from a perfect relationship with God and were banished from paradise. It’s an origin story to explain the beginning of all reality as we know it and why human beings are where they are. Even my description here likely contains a little bit of interpretation.
For anyone who hasn’t read the story before, I would recommend reading through it 3 or 4 times to get a general sense for how it flows.
Now, there are many ways to set up the questions for Bible study. You can use a flow chart, a list, use lines to break parts of a page into thirds or fourths. Whatever method you use just needs to work for you. Do what helps you understand the biblical text.
Begin with the who. Who are the “characters” in this story?
Then, for each of these characters, you want to give a brief description of each character. This may seem a little strange, but analyzing the story as a story doesn’t mean the story isn’t true, just that you are trying to go through and understand all the different parts of the story. Lawyers and detectives often use a similar process when trying to understand how a crime happened and who is responsible.
Here’s my brief description of these 4 characters:
- God is the creator of all of the universe and communicates with humanity.
- The serpent is crafty. It can communicate with humans.
- Adam is the first person ever created.
- Eve is the second person ever created, out of Adam’s rib.
Where is the story happening? Is there a geographic location? Here, the where seems to be the garden of Eden. There’s dispute about whether the garden of Eden still exists somewhere on earth. At this point in the study, you aren’t diving into disputable questions or interpretation differences. You’re just trying to gain basic information about the text.
When did the story happen? Probably the beginning of human history. Again, there is a debate here about whether Genesis is more metaphor or literal history. Don’t get too tied up into this debate at this stage, however interesting it may be. Look at the story as a story. Even if you believe in metaphor, stories still have a certain logic to them.
What happened in the story? I am not going to completely answer this question. Here, you want to track what each character does. As “The Joy of Discovery” states, “Note the exact order and details of the events, actions, and conversations of the characters.” Pay close attention to sequence. Who did what first? What, exactly, did a character say? For example, the first quote in Genesis 3 comes from the serpent to Eve, questioning whether God was really telling the truth. On a side note, how relevant is that to today’s world? On another side note, don’t jump into who you think the serpent is. The first steps should be focused on gaining information, not interpreting the text. Some questions may not be answerable right now, but they can be answered later, perhaps by a word study or looking to other biblical texts.
Here’s my rough outline of the big parts of the story.
- Serpent deceives Eve.
- Eve eats fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
- Adam eats fruit.
- They both see they’re naked.
- They hide from God.
- God talks to Adam and Eve about eating the fruit.
- God talks to the serpent, Adam, and Eve, all with different punishments.
- Eve gets her name (Genesis 3:20).
- God makes clothes for Adam and Eve.
- God sends Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden.
- A cherubim and flaming sword guard the garden of Eden.
I suggest outlining the story in some methodical way, even if you don’t do it quite like I did.
How does the story end, and how did the characters shape the ending? How did the characters actions lead to the development of the story? How do characters respond to each other? So, the serpent sets things in motion when it talks to Eve. Eve is then deceived, and she passes her deception on to Adam. Once they are both deceived, God then discovers what they have done and takes action.
Why did the story go down as it did? Why did the characters do what they did? This is a great place to try to imagine what the characters were thinking and feeling in the context of the story. With this question, keep the characters actual personalities (as much as we can glean) in mind. So, you wouldn’t say a cowardly character was suddenly courageous. Answers need to be consistent with how characters are portrayed. A detailed why would also go into detail about each character in the story and try to imagine why they acted the way they did.
This is just a rough outline on how to go about beginning to interpret a biblical narrative. I don’t claim to be an expert (as I have no theology degree), but this sort of methodology has helped me deepen my understanding of the text. As a side benefit, it’s also helped me see movies and books in a deeper light.
For those who think in literary terms, feel free to adapt this advice to plot, climax, resolution, and the like. The point at this stage is simply to understand the story in as objective a way as possible. There will be subjective reactions to different parts of the text, and that’s okay. We all have subjective reactions, and often God uses those reactions to speak to us.
When it comes to description and interpretation though, there are objective answers to the general questions about what is happening in a story, why a story unfolded the way it did, and what a story means. Try not to confuse the subjective and the objective. Stick to the method. Method helps ensure accuracy and objectivity.