I have a confession. Pulling water is not one of my spiritual gifts. For those of you too pampered to have ever experienced this, “pulling water” is the euphemism applied to dragging buckets of water up a rope and out of a 50ft-deep well.
Pulling water, that sounds easy. At least I thought so when I first heard this would be part of my daily routine in the village. That was one of many stupid assumptions I would make adjusting to life in the bush.
Before I ever tried this activity for myself, I watched as the women and little kids would go casually over to the well, throw the bucket down into the chasm and effortlessly lift the water out of the hole and pour it into their own containers. It appeared to be a cinch, and the concept was simple. Drop in bucket, pull out water. Anybody could do that.
However, my first trip to the well to pull water turned out to be quite a different reality. I carried my little containers out to the well and set them down, grabbed the rope and bucket and chunked it off into the well. As I pulled the bucket out of the dark hole, I thought to myself that this was not as hard as it had been made out to be. The bucket rose effortlessly out of the well, and I soon realized why. It was empty.
Realizing how poorly I had performed, I quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching so I could play it off if need be. Perceiving no laughter or mockery, I pretended it never happened and tried again. Off the bucket went into the water. This time, I used a slightly different strategy… I jiggled the rope a little, feeling this would increase my odds of water entering the bucket. I began to lift, and yet again it was far too light. Apparently, the bucket was floating on top of the water.
I sat there perplexed, looking like a monkey trying to solve a math problem. Finally, one of the little girls was sent over by the people who had indeed been watching me the entire time. She took the rope from my hand and began to teach me the technique of pulling water. After I watched someone else do it from up close, I realized much of it was truly common sense. For instance, if you turn the bucket upside down before you drop it, it sinks.
I am by no means an all-star in the water pulling department, but I am getting better with continued practice.
Bible study has technique too, and just like pulling water, when you see someone do it up close, you begin to realize that much of it is common sense.
If there is one presupposition that the student of God’s Word must keep in mind, it is this: God’s Word was written a long time ago to people very different than us; nonetheless, it applies to us today as much as it did to the original audience.
So how do we make sense of texts that were written to a completely foreign culture? This is the basic question of biblical interpretation. Everyone who reads scripture interprets scripture, whether they realize it or not. Everyone is an interpreter. The real consideration is whether or not you are interpreting it correctly.
Most people will read a passage and assign it some meaning they have determined. From that point, most will apply this meaning in some way to their life, maybe without ever realizing that is what they are doing. How do we now we are being honest with the text though?
The first step is to realize you are reading a document that was not originally written to you, but certainly applies to you. Think of a journey into scripture as a trip through time. To see what it means now, you must do your best to understand what it meant then. It is often said that, “It can not mean now what it did not mean then.” Scripture’s truths are timeless. They apply to all generations and cultures for all of time. A passage may not apply exactly today as it did to its original intended audience, but the truth will certainly be the same. Therefore, it is imperative to go back to its original setting as best as possible and find the truth. It is this truth you will bring back with you to your own time to apply today.
Practically, this means the student of the Bible must take into consideration the historical context of whatever passage they are reading. Remember back to when we spoke about the Bible’s authorship. The Bible was not written in one sitting and the events in scripture took place over thousands of years. We cannot simply assume it all happened at the same time in the same way.
What time in history did this story take place? Where is the setting? Who are the main players and what is their significance in history? What are the things about their culture that are necessary to understand the point of this passage? These are questions to ask about every passage you read. By answering these, you begin to place yourself in the shoes of the original audience.
It is possible to find out added historical information like this from outside sources such as a good Bible dictionary or background commentaries, but it is not essential to search through these to understand scripture. Much of this information is available right in the text itself. Read the Bible with these questions in mind. Try reading around your passage to get a fuller understanding of it. Read the whole book of the Bible where it is located, after all, the author originally wrote it as one piece of literature. Should we not take it that way?
Historical context and background is not the only consideration when reading the Bible for interpretation, but it is a good place to start.
The problem with understanding the Bible is not insufficient knowledge, or its own incompleteness. In all honesty, it is simply the fact that people do not take enough time to answer these kinds of questions about the passage they are reading. We want immediate understanding without the work of pulling out the truth. We want the “TV dinner” version of scripture, and so often, we turn to little devotionals and quick fix books (read gimmicks) to get the meaning without looking for ourselves. And like a TV dinner, we wind up with something that is far less fulfilling than the original.
Just like pulling water out of a well takes work, so does appropriate study of God’s Word. At first, you may not get much in your bucket, but with practice, you pull out more and more. When the bucket is full, it is really heavy. Often times, it is hard to bear. When you get it to the surface though, you realize it is worth the work.
Next we will look at literary context and genre…
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