Digging Deeper into the Bible

A Brief Introduction to Deeper Textual Engagement

A question I am frequently asked is, ‘how should I read the Bible?’ My glib answer is, ‘I don’t care, just as long as you are reading your Bible!’ However, that question is really getting at how should one approach the Biblical text? I think we have all heard sermons or someone talk about a Bible passage and thought, ‘how on Earth did they get that from the passage??’ So, I thought I would share some of the steps and considerations I take when approaching a Biblical text. Now, this is part of my personal process. It is by no means the best or only way to approach the text. This is just part of what I do. Try it out and see if any elements of it work for you. When I sit down to read a text, I have 5 things in mind: genre/form, context, text criticism, important words/themes, and structure/development of the text.

Genre/form Recognizing the genre of a text may have an impact on how we understand it. For example, we read a textbook differently than we read a recipe differently than we read a letter from our Gram. Perhaps the best example of this is the satire news website ‘The Onion.’ The Onion is a satire newspaper (both print and digital) that publishes made up ‘news’ stories. The intent is to make people laugh. Now, if you pick up a copy of The Onion and know it is a work of satire then you know how to read it. You know that what you are reading is not true but is poking fun at something. However, if you don’t know that The Onion is a satire work (if you don’t know its genre) then you will probably misread it and could take what it says as true.

The same is true of the Biblical text. Parables are a common example of this in the Bible. Jesus frequently used parables when teaching. Take the parable of the Prodigal Son: we understand that this story is not referring to a real family. There was no rich father, no son who wasted his inheritance, and no brother who was angry. We understand that parables are made up stories, intended to teach some lesson. The Bible is full of a wide variety of genres: creation stories, family histories, laws codes, courtroom scenes, prophecy, apocalyptic literature, gospel accounts, epistles, personal letters, and so many more! Understanding the genre of a text you are about to read can greatly change how you understand it. 

Context. The central aim of looking at context is to establish the bounds of the text. Is what I am reading self-contained? Or is it part of a larger discussion/tradition? When looking at context, I have three levels I explore. The first level is what I call local context (or literary context). This is reading a passage together with what has happened directly before it and sometimes what happens after it. For example, we are currently preaching through Matthew chapter 8. In this chapter, Jesus is performing various miracles and has interactions with various people. These stories are great to read by themselves. But they take on a different light when we realize that they are happening right after the Sermon on the Mount (on the same day with the same crowd of people). Now, we can almost view them as a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount, or object lessons of the things Jesus said in that sermon. This adds new meaning and depth to these stories.

The second level of context is canonical context (the text’s place within the larger biblical story). Our Bible is amazing. It is a work that is composed of 1000s of stories, told by 100s of authors, spanning 1000s of years. Yet, all of this comes together to tell one cohesive story: the story of God’s relationship to humanity. Because of this, sometimes a passage can reference an event, person, or story from elsewhere in the Bible. Picking up on this reference can impact how we understand the text we are currently reading. For example: in John chapter 1, Jesus speaks of angels ascending and descending from Heaven. There are some interesting things we could take from this illustration on its own. However, if we catch that this is a reference to Jacob’s dream of a ladder going up into Heaven (Gen. 28), then this statement of Jesus takes on a larger idea of promised hope and blessing.

The last level of context is social/historical context. The stories we read about in the Bible did not take place in a vacuumed environment. They happened to real people, living in a real time. That time was different than today. It can be easy for us to forget that and to impart our own personal context onto a text. For example, we read about taking ‘an eye for an eye’ and think it sounds barbaric. In our context today, that is not how things should work. That leaves little room for mercy! However, understanding the context of that text sheds some new light on it. Human nature is bent on taking revenge. If someone hits you, you are probably going to want to hit them back. And not only hit them but hit them hard, so they don’t hit you again. This is called escalation. Over time, a small harm can grow and grow to become a large crime (all because of continued escalation). Therefore, various law codes of the time (and before) put limits on how a person could retaliate to a wrong committed against them. ‘An eye for an eye’ now becomes the prime limit on how retaliation is doled out. It is to prevent a small offense to escalate to the point of murder. Rather than lacking mercy this law is extremely merciful! Something like that could be lost on us without proper historical context.

Important words or themes.  Identifying key words or themes in a text can give real insight into what the author wants us to get out of the text. These could be repeated words, the continuation of an earlier metaphor, or a concept that is important to the Biblical story as a whole. Sometimes looking at the passage in its original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek can help, but it is by no means absolutely necessary to identify many key words or themes.

Once you have identified an important word or theme, the next question you should ask is ‘why is this important?’ Being able to pick out important words or themes is great, but they are only able to provide meaningful insight if you can figure out why they are important. Asking probing questions can be a great way to start digging into their meaning.

Take I Corinthians 3:16-17 for example. In these two verses, Paul uses the word ‘temple’ a number of times. He tells us that we are a temple of God. Some questions we could ask include: why this particular word (why not palace or shrine or tabernacle)? Does Paul use this word in other places in I Corinthians? What role did temples play in the environment into which Paul wrote these words? How are temples presented or talked about in the Old Testament? What element of temples do we think the text is wanting us to focus on? You see how quickly you can start to build up a lot of (hopefully relevant) information that could relate to a particular passage.

Structure/Development of the Text. This textual aspect will be closely related to genre. Knowing the genre of the text can give us some idea of how it should be structured. For example, if you are looking at a parable, then most likely the text is building up to a one or two verse pithy conclusion that will act as the ‘elevator pitch’ for the entire passage. However, even if you do not know a text’s genre you can still notice elements of its structure. There are many formal writing styles and techniques Biblical writers used to convey meaning. One common example is called inclusios. The easiest way to think of an inclusio is to think of a sandwich. You have the bread (two similar- if not identical lines) surrounding the delicious peanut butter and pickles[1] (the main idea of the passage). This is a common technique seen in Hebrew Poetry.

Those are just a few examples of how the structure of a passage can help unlock some of its meaning. But do not think that you need to have a full encyclopedia of biblical writing styles to understand the text (although that would be awesome!).  A great way to engage with the development of a passage is to notice anytime you find yourself saying, ‘wait what?’ Often a question like this can lead you to find something important in the passage. The more you engage with the Bible the more you will notice patterns in how things are written. You will start to become familiar with how certain books are written and that will lead you to start identifying differences between books and that will lead you to ask questions about those differences, and before you know it you will be reading the Bible on a deeper level than you ever thought you could!

What is the Text About? Wow! You have done a lot of work on the text so far. You have engaged the text on its level by identifying its genre. You have determined the bounds of the text by looking at it in three different context levels. You have noticed important words and themes in the text. Not only that, but you have tried to figure out why they are important and what the author’s purpose was in using them. Lastly, you have looked at the structure of the text itself to see if that reveals any meaning. Now it’s time to put all of that together and summarize the main point of the passage. It is entirely possible that there will not be a single simple point to the passage. One of the amazing things about our Bible is that it speaks to us on many different levels. But a great practice to have when reading a passage is to see if you can summarize what that passage is saying to you at that time in one simple sentence. If you can distill the passage down to one central simple message, then you can use that as a springboard for reading the text as a whole.

This is what I do when I prepare sermons. I go through the steps above and try to come up with what the main take home message of this sermon is going to be. I think, “If people only remembered one sentence I said today, what would I want that sentence to be?” Then I take that sentence and work backwards constructing an argument that builds up to that one sentence conclusion. Obviously, most of you are not reading the Bible to prepare sermons all the time. But this practice of finding a one sentence ‘point’ of a passage can be a great way to remember key themes and ideas you read about in the Bible.


Now, I don’t expect everyone to do all of these steps each time you sit down to read the Bible (that would be so overwhelming!). I don’t do this entire process every time I sit down to read. Sometimes I do a few of these, sometimes I add in other elements of interpretation (we did not even talk about text criticism—that is a super fun topic!), and sometimes I do none of them and simply read the text as I would any novel. I don’t want you to feel like you should run down this checklist each and every time you crack open your Bible or fire up your Bible app. But I would encourage you to from time to time engage with some of these steps and see what they do for you. If you come across an especially difficult passage, or read something that does not feel quite right, or if you hear someone talk about a passage and you are not sure how they got that meaning out of the text, take time and follow some of these steps. See how your engagement with the text grows or changes. This is not a simple thing to just jump right into. It will be difficult at first. Ask questions. Seek out people’s help. Have a reference book or two. All of these things will get you walking down a path to amazing, insightful, and life-giving reading of God’s word.

[1] Don’t judge me! This is an amazing sandwich. Try it and you will see!