Michael Shank in his book Muscle and a Shovel recounts his biographical experience of learning from a co-worker that he should “let the Bible interpret itself.” For most members of a church of Christ, this sentiment is one that makes us feel comfortable and at home, but is this idea a reality? Can the Bible speak for and interpret itself, or is interpretation required on the part of the reader? In truth, Shank has it wrong; Biblical interpretation is essential every time anyone reads the Bible, even with seemingly simple and straightforward texts. Since much of this happens on an intuitive and unconscious level some even decry the need for Biblical interpretation altogether. But to do so is a grave error indeed, as the meaning of a text can be completely changed by several literary factors that must be considered. The impact of such literary features as structure and genre on a few example passages from the Old and New Testaments can sufficiently demonstrate the case that Biblical interpretation is absolutely necessary to understand the meaning of any Biblical text.
The literary structure refers to the organization of thoughts and phrase within a work that serves as the framework which an author uses to organize the flow of his work. We take for granted that authors intended something to be understood from their writing and deliberately structured their work to get their points across. Even though the author may not have created an outline before writing his own work, as we analyze it we will often outline it to help us discover his intended meaning. Changes in topic and even speaker during the dialogue of a text have tremendous affect on the interpretation of any verse. Meaning is not just conveyed by words and sentences, but by how words and sentences relate to one another as they occur in a passage. Any word or verse on its own might appear to have a “simple meaning” but no verse of the Bible is meant to be understood in such a way that it ignores all of the surrounding structure! This is my biggest complaint against Shank's book, and he is just as guilty of this as those he attacks in the book.
Consider the example of the apparent meaning of the message of Amos 2:4-5, while ignoring the structure of the book and surrounding chapters and verses. Without this structure, these verses in Amos appear to be a striking pronouncement of judgement against Judah and Jerusalem. But when the structure of the book as a whole is taken into consideration, the focus of these verses actually changes from Judah to Israel. Amos 1:1 reveals that the prophecy is concerning not the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Further study reveals that Amos begins his prophesy about Israel by repetitious condemnation of six of the nations surrounding Israel in 1:3-2:3 and then condemning Judah in 2:4-5 before finally turning to Israel in 2:6 through the end of the book. The structure reveals that the condemnation of Judah is not necessarily meant to be a prediction of the fall of Jerusalem so much as it is a warm up before the rebuke begins against his audience in Israel. In light of the structure of 1:3-2:5, Amos 2:4-5 is less about condemning Judah and more about “buttering-up” his audience to pay attention to the Lord’s word before he turns to give them a message calling for their repentance. So, even though Judah appears to be the subject of 2:5-6, the meaning of these verses actually becomes more about Israel when interpreted within the structure of the text.
The book of Ephesians provides another example of the importance of structure in Biblical interpretation. The book is clearly divided into two sections with the break occurring with Paul’s “therefore” in Ephesians 4:1. Before 4:1 Paul uses almost exclusively the indicative mood (with only one imperative mood exception), but from 4:1 through the end of the letter the imperative is used forty-one times. The impact that this structural division has on the text drives home a theological point. From Paul’s introduction until 4:1 he employs the indicative mood to teach the truths of who God is and what He has done, summarizing all that preceded 4:1 as “the calling of which you have been called.” Paul then makes a theological turn from the nature of God’s gracious call to the human response expressed in obedience to the various imperatives which constitute a “a life worthy of the calling.” Theologically this structure says something important, namely that the goodness of God calls for a human response, and not the other way around. So the structure of a book, such as Ephesians, influences not only the meaning of the book, but can also have an effect upon the whole of New Testament Theology.
Just as the structure influences the meaning of a text, the genre does also. Genre has been pictured as an unspoken contract between author and reader that guarantees the message will be understood as intended. The genre of a Biblical text is about comparing it with contemporary works to see if it was composed concordantly within an ancient genre. Letters, biographies, and wisdom literature and apocalyptic are some of the genres that appear in the Bible. Assuming a text is within a genre when it should not be of vis-a-versa can have disastrous results. The book of Proverbs in the genre of ancient wisdom literature provides a solid example.
Many believe that all of Proverbs was written or dictated by Solomon, before even examining the internal evidence of the book for itself to find its literary genre. While several passages, such as 25:1 do suggest Solomon was a source, others parts, such as 24:23 suggest no particular source and rather appear to suggest that various sources were compiled together. This might trouble some people to think any Bible book contained quotations from other sources, but this would make perfect sense if the book of Proverbs was properly interpreted as being in the genre of ancient wisdom literature. Such works were not meant to be read like history or law, but rather as sagely advice, being something like the modern equivalent of self-help books or even Oprah. Evidence that Proverbs was written in this genre abounds.
Transitional language found in passages such as Proverbs 24:23 and 25:1 suggest the compilation of various sources, as does also the repetition of identical phrases in different sections such 14:12 and 16:25. Direct evidence of parallels passages in other ancient wisdom sources is also now available. An example is seen in the translation of a curious word that appears in Proverbs 22:20 that English translations do not bear out. While the ASV reads “Have not I written unto thee excellent things of counsels and knowledge [emphasis mine),” the word here rendered “excellent” is actually the word “captain.” Translators tried to make sense of this word this way until Instruction of Amenemope an Egyptian work dating near 1200 BC was discovered. It parallels Proverbs 22 and 23 to such a degree that it is hard to deny a connection between the two. Modern translators, realizing that Instruction of Amenemope is probably the source for this section, render the word “captain” as “thirty” in reference to the 30 sayings of Amenemope. The genre of wisdom literature copied all useful sources and so if Proverbs did use Amenemope as a source, this would be totally appropriate. These clues are understandable and predictable if the genre of Proverbs is understood to be that of ancient wisdom literature. However, if the genre is ignored or misunderstood, these facts could trouble the faith of some when such is clearly unnecessary. Pinpointing the genre of a Biblical text ensures that the ground rules are in place to allow it to be understood in the manner that the original author intended.
Probably the most striking example of the necessity of genre in Biblical interpretation is the book of Revelation. People of just about every generation have looked to this book as though it was written to predict the world and events of their time before Christ’s second coming. The wild popularity of the Left Behind series, as well as the hesitancy and superstition with which most the book of Revelation is due to incorrect interpretation stemming from failure to recognize the literary genre. Revelation is not the only contemporary book written in apocalyptic style, in fact, there are 14 Jewish and 23 Christian apocalypses outside of the Bible. Apocalyptic literature was characterized by a presupposition that the natural and the supernatural worlds of spirits interact and influence one another and that the destiny of these two is intertwined. If that doesn’t sound like a dead ringer description of Revelation, what does? While most think the term apocalyptic refers to end times it actually means uncovering. This genre of books is always about revealing something, just as Revelation declares itself to be doing in 1:1. John reveals a supernatural conflict that is occurring between Christians, the Roman State, and unseen spiritual forces battling behind the scenes. The book uses figures to illustrate this truth in many ways to show encourage the church in their resistance against what may seem to be just a small physical thing of engaging in emperor worship, but is actually a spiritual war against the forces of Satan.
Taking the scenes of the book as literal leads to some of the most absurd interpretations imaginable, and misses strongly the point John was making to his readers of revealing this spiritual conflict. The story of the woman and the dragon from Revelation 12 illustrates John’s usage of apocalyptic style to reveal the spiritual conflict. The text explains in verse 9 that the dragon is clearly identified with Satan. The background for this particular story comes from the greco-roman story of the woman Leto, pregnant with twins Artemis and Apollo, being pursued by the red dragon Python who, being sent by Hera, knows that Apollo would one day kill him if he did not kill her. Zeus comes along, however, to save Leto, who was pregnant with his children. This story was well known to represent the struggle between good and evil to a first century audience. The obvious parallels between these stories could not be more obvious, and John appears to have simply reformatted this mythical story to fit his own purpose and needs to represent the struggle of Christ and his church against Satan. This does not mean the story in Revelation is uninspired, but rather this parallel reinforces strongly the reality that the book of Revelation should not be understood literally, but rather according to the genre of apocalyptic language. This and other evidence jumps off the page to say that Revelation should be understood as other apocalyptic books, not literal, but symbolic. These symbols would be things known to the original recipients, and so any interpretation requires thought to be given to the symbols used in the book as the first century audience would have understood them.
Returning to Michael Shank’s book, does the Bible interpret itself? Perhaps not in the way that many assume. No, the Bible does not tell us directly what the author’s intentions were. No, the Bible will not tell the reader if he has ignored the structure or genre of the author’s work. However, the structure and genre are already within the text, it just takes some work to dig it out. There is work to be done, and it is not as easy as simply opening the Bible and reading it from our own 21st century perspective. A correct interpretation does come from the Bible itself, and in that way does allow the Bible to interpret itself, but not without the church’s hard work to reach a correct interpretation. As Michael Shank observes, muscle and a shovel are needed to discover these literary elements in order to arrive at a correct understanding of any Biblical text, not by putting verses together which support your case, but rather by entering a much slower process of actually studying the Bible one book at a time to correctly understand what the author originally intended.