Interpreting the Bible

When I work on interpreting Scriptural texts, I work through these layers:

  • The probable meaning of the writer, which has to fit in with the writer’s environment.
  • If it is an Old Testament text, the way the passage has been used and interpreted historically in Judaism.
  • The way the passage has been used and interpreted in historic, mainstream Christianity.
  • How the passage is generally viewed by people today
  • The interpretation and proposed application in view of the preceding three.

For example, let’s take the example of the Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3.

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
—Exodus 3:1-4, NIV

First: The Original Writer

Whoever the writer was probably intended the story at face value. Moses saw a bush that was on fire, but not consumed by the fire, and God spoke to him out of the bush.

Second: Ancient Jewish Interpretation

At the time of the New Testament, Jewish scholars reasoned that since the Lord does not have human form, any theophanies (that is, personal appearances of the Lord) in the Old Testament as the Angel of the Lord. Acts 7:30 reflects this. It is also important to trace how Jewish interpretation has changed over the years in reaction to Christian interpretation, but that doesn’t apply to this example. However, it does apply to Messianic passages that were considered Messianic by Jews until Christians made strong use of them.

Third: The Ancient Church’s Interpretation

Since the church of the first four centuries believed that Jesus is God in human form, they reasoned that all theophanies—all of the ‘angels of the Lord’ in the Old Testament—are preincarnate Christophanies. Thus for them it was Jesus who spoke to Moses from the bush. We can corroborate that this was their view by looking at both historic and contemporary Orthodox interpretations of the Transfiguration, in which the disciples saw Jesus talking to Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets). They see Jesus, the Word of God, inspiring the Scriptures.

Fourth: Modern Interpretation

Who spoke to Moses?

As modern people, we have a problem with the idea that it was Jesus speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, because we live in the shadow of the holocaust and we are eager not to be anti-Semitic. We become almost temporary Jews when we read the Old Testament, even calling it the Hebrew Scriptures, which has the unintended side effect of making our congregations think that the Old Testament is in some way disconnected from Christianity. So I must ask myself: are modern efforts not to be anti-Semitic backfiring, in effect facilitating anti-Semitism by inadvertently encouraging people to think that the Jews have nothing to do with Christianity? I am in a dilemma: Failing to appropriate the passage defers to modern Jewish sensitivities, but breaks the link between Christian and Jew. Appropriating the passage affirms the link between Christian and Jew, but offends modern Jewish sensitivities.

Was there an objective voice?

I live, not just in the shadow of the holocaust, but of the Enlightenment, so I not only have a problem determining whose voice it is, I also have a problem believing that there was a voice at all. So the isssue is not only who spoke to Moses, but whether anyone spoke at all. If there was no voice, was Moses aware that he was mistaking his thoughts for a voice, or was he using a figure of speech?

Was there a bush, let alone a burning one?

I can even have a problem with the bush, since the account says it was on fire, but wasn’t consumed by the fire. Was there a bush, was it really on fire, or was it all a vision?

Did this really happen?

We are all familiar with campfire ghost stories that end with everyone dead. While most of us shiver with the thrill of the horror, some smart-aleck speaks up and observes that the story cannot possibly be true, because none of the witnesses survived. Are we in that sort of situation here? According to the narrative, there was no third party to witness this event; only Moses knew about it. So there are three possibilities: First, that Moses experienced it and wrote about it. Second, that Moses had the experience, related it orally or in writing, and someone else put it in the Torah. Third, that someone other than Moses made it up and put it in the Torah.

Is the interpreter standing in the way of the interpretation?

In science, there is a principle that you cannot observe an event without having an effect on it. It is similarly true that you can’t interpret a text without reading something of yourself into it. So I have to critique myself. Am I under undue influence from the Enlightenment, bowing before the idol of empiricism in a situation where it might not apply? Am I motivated by the desire to look respectable to professionals in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, and if so, is that a valid consideration?

Of course, I am not without my own personal context. There are controversial political and social issues that bedevil me at the moment—issues I wasn’t aware of ten years ago, and probably even won’t care about ten years from now, even though I feel strongly about them today. If I am all worked up about a controversial issue, no matter how urgent and important I think it is, and if I feel that the passage I’m reading addresses it, I have to step back and seriously consider that I might be the victim of my own preoccupations. I might be projecting an issue into the text where neither God nor the ancient writer put it. For instance, when I was in grade school, some people claimed there were a lot of passages in the Bible that opposed racial integration in the school system. Today no one says that. A decade later, a lot of people found verses in the Bible that gave the Soviet Union an important role in end-times events. Today, there is no Soviet Union. The difference is not in the Bible, it is in the obsessions of the intepreters.

Ten years from now, when I reread my interpretation, I don’t want discover that I was blind to the truth of God because I was obsessed with the cares of this world.

Fifth: My Interpretation

Now if I were to exegete the passage by jumping from step one to this step, my interpretation wouldn’t be as good, not just because I didn’t show my work (as in long division on a fourth-grade math test), but because I rob myself of the benefits of thinking through steps two through four.

I conclude that it is proper to appropriate Old Testament texts in view of Jesus’ claims, since Christianity began as a Jewish sect. However, I must do that in a way that that affirms our Jewish origins with respect, but without condescension.

I conclude that it really doesn’t matter if a voice spoke from the burning bush, or if Moses just thought a voice spoke to him from a burning bush, or if Moses was speaking in a metaphor, or even if there really was a burning bush! All those dips and bows to empiricism and modern psychology are not necessary, because no matter which of those explanations is correct, it all comes out to be the same thing—which is that Moses had this experience and it led him to take certain actions, whose consequences spill out into later events.

I conclude that the event is real, not fabricated. If it is a fictional story, it contains too much gratuitous detail. This is the only time that Moses sees a burning bush or communicates to God through one. It doesn’t seem to begin or continue any symbolism, theme, or literary device. Even if the story were fictional, it has the impact of a real event, so for interpretive purposes the difference is moot.

I’m not going to interpret the passage here; that is not my purpose. My purpose is only to show you the information-gathering process that I put into interpreting biblical passages.

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