Bible interpretation

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Description is not Prescription: A tale of interpretation

Imagine someone, let’s call him Jim, reading a chapter from a typical history book written on World War 2. In said chapter, one page says “Hitler was intent upon exterminating the Jews. The Nazis proposed a ‘final solution’ intended to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth.”

Jim stands up, indignant, and reacts to this text, “I can’t believe whoever wrote this book! They actually endorse the ‘final solution’! What evil person would dare to recommend such atrocities!?”

We would obviously be puzzled by Jim’s reaction. We would probably correct him by saying something like “Jim, the author isn’t recommending that course of action, they’re merely reporting what happened. It’s a history book. The author’s intent is not to tell you what to do, but to tell you what happened.”

Now imagine a similar scenario. This time, it’s Jessica reading the Bible. She reads that “Jephthah promised God that if he beat the Ammonites in battle he’d sacrifice the first living thing he saw at his house… He beat the ammonites and the first thing he saw was his daughter, whom he sacrificed after giving her time to grieve.” (A paraphrase of Judges 11. See my discussion of this passage here.)

Jessica immediately stands and shouts “How dare the Bible condone human sacrifice! God Himself told Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter!”

Our answer to Jessica is the same as it was to Jim: “Jessica, the Bible is reporting what happened, the author of Judges reports many horrific incidents and sins that God’s people committed, but that doesn’t mean the author is commending what happened or urging others to do likewise.”

Such reactions are similar to those of many who read the Bible. They read a passage which describes something that happened and jump to the conclusion that the Bible–or the God portrayed therein–is evil. The Bible is a collection of genres and writings from various authors, a point often overlooked by those unable–or unwilling–to fully engage the text. Yet often the Bible is merely describing what happened as opposed to prescribing something for God’s people.

Another problem is that people too often think of the Bible as being exclusively a “rulebook.” I think this really plays into the description/prescription fallacy because if the Bible were just a big rulebook, then everything in it would be taken prescriptively. Such people seem to think that every verse can be taken out of context and genre and used as a command. There isn’t much to say in answer to such people except to point out the obvious: there are different genres in the Bible, not all of it is a rulebook.

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