Apologia on Reading the Bible, 2

This is the second portion of a three-part essay.

Learning to Read

Learning to read the Bible is easier said than done, of course. There are several reasons for this, and they all have to do with the art of reading. Reading is an art and not a science, and there is no quick formula for learning it. I can, though, give some pointers. First, not everybody is gifted as a reader. By now it should be clear that by “reader” I mean someone who is able to distinguish important from secondary themes, make relevant connections, not get lost in details, etc. In the ordinary sense of reading, anybody who has been taught to read can read the Bible. And they should! The Spirit ministers to us through and with the Word. But not everybody has been called or gifted to read. The single best book I know of on this subject of reading is C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge U. Press). We shall return to this matter later in this essay.

To take an analogy, everyone can enjoy hearing a live performance of the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor on a big organ in a good hall, but not everyone can play it. Just so, everyone can benefit from sound Biblical exposition, but not everyone can do it.

Second, by no means are all pastors, teachers, and preachers gifted as exegetes or expositors. Pastors are cu­rates of souls primarily. Teachers often are called to pass on the heritage of the faith, not re-work it for modern times. One of the errors I encountered in seminary was the notion that all pastors should develop their sermons out of an in-depth exegesis from the original Hebrew and Greek. Virtually nobody ever does this, of course, but it was held out as an ideal. There is nothing ideal about it, however. Preachers need to pass on the heritage of the church to their people, with a pastoral eye to their psychological and spiritual situation. If they get their homilies by borrowing from Spurgeon, or from other people’s outlines – what’s wrong with that?

So, not everybody is gifted to expound the text of Scripture theologically. God gives gifts to His church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Not everyone is the same gift. Some people have felt that I have a gift for the kind of theological and practical exegesis I have done. Enough people have said this to me that I feel secure doing it, in the belief that I am not offending Christ and that I am making some small contribution to the ongoing discussion. As a postmillennialist, I believe the exegetical discussion has many millennia ahead for it, and I hardly think I am saying the last word. I hope only to say a helpful word.

Third, I don’t believe helpful or profound insights into the text ever come to people who are questing for them. Though some people have accused or praised me for being “original,” I have never sought to be. That is why, whenever I have come up with something that seems to be a new insight, I usually send it out to men more learned then myself for comment, and I always try to say that I am putting forth this interpretation as a possibility. I made this clear in my Preface to The Law of the Covenant, and even did my critics a favor by pointing out the places in the book where I had been compelled to posit “new views.”

On the other hand, I have watched men over the years seek to come up with new insights, and only come up with confusion. So I say this, when you read and study the Bible, never look for something new. If the passage presents a problem, then work it out as best you can, but only go into “new territory” if you are forced to it. I don’t believe God blesses men who are on a quest for fame or for novelty.

Many times I have been forced to make a connection that seemed new (since I have been working with passages that are relatively untouched), only to find later that my insight was not new at all, only new to me.

Along these lines of “new insights,” one other comment. The ascended Christ has given to His Church gifts, as I mentioned above. The tradition of the faith handed down by these men through the ages is the legacy of the Spirit, and is not to be despised. That tradition is subordinate to the Bible, but not to any individual hothead who thinks he has come up with a new theological insight. A deep acquaintance with systematic theology and with church history is a must for sound Scriptural exposition. I don’t mean the evangelical tradition since World War II. I mean the whole Christian tradition, East and West. Men of good will can differ on how the goring ox relates to Christ. They should not differ over the dogma that God is Three and One (though the precise language used to formulate this may vary marginally).

Speculation concerning the meaning of a particular text of Scripture can be very valuable, but it must not be confused with speculation concerning the received doctrines of the faith, summarized in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. We can debate over whether the parables in Matthew 25 refer to the destruction of Jerusalem or the Second Coming. We do not debate over the doctrine that one day Christ will return to transfigure this present cosmos into a physical new heavens and earth (as Max King and his followers do). We can debate over the meaning of some verses in Revelation 19 and 20. We do not debate over the doctrine of eternal conscious punishment (as Fudge and his Adventist followers do).

Finally, to learn to read, read good books. Read commentaries that do good theological exegesis. Read literature. Read books on how to read literature.

Getting Started

The Bible is literature. The books of the Bible are each literary masterpieces, self-consciously conceived and written according to form and style. But they are ancient literature, employing ancient literary forms and devices unfamiliar to us today. Too many people today unthinking­ly assume that the Bible was written by modern men. But let’s think about the differences.

Since Gutenberg, literacy has increased to the point where most people read. A huge amount of writing is produced for such people. 99-99999% of this literature is written relatively rapidly, for rapid consumption. Virtually none of it is written in such a way as to compel the reader to re-read it for additional depths. (Examples: newspapers, advertising circulars, magazines, Harlequin-type novels. This throwaway literature comes up to 99-9999% by itself.) For convenience, we can say that literature exists on three levels. The first is the narrative. The second is the philosophical, that is, the significant idea content. The third is the symbolic. 90% of modern narrative literature has only the first dimension. Only about 9% has the second dimension as well. That leaves about 1% that has all three levels. (I won’t die for these figures, so don’t press me.)

In the ancient world, the reverse was the case. Few people could read, and there was no easy way to write very much. Reproduction was by hand copying. Thus, writers were constrained by make every jot and tittle count. They did this by the use of literary structures such as chiasms (ABCBA) and palistrophes (huge chiasms that cover vast reaches of text). They did this by the use of symbolic numbers and numerical structures. They did this by the use of symbolic names. Particularly in the Bible, since it is a cumulative book, they did it by means of allusions to pre-existing literature. In this way, they could say a lot in a small compass, for the alert reader (the only kind there was back then) knew to pore over the text for additional depths. Nowadays we rarely encounter this kind of writing. Two exceptions are Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

Now, as evangelicals we believe that God, the Divine Superintendent of history, actually caused things to fall out so that the numerical patterns, for example, arose naturally. If, as Barnouin contends (with Wenham’s hesitant advocacy), the lifespans of the pre-deluvian patri­archs correspond to various astral cycles, we still believe that these men really lived these years, even though we see an added theological depth in the number patterns of Genesis 5.8

Another example is found in Genesis 14:14, where Abram took 318 of his “homeborn” servants to rescue Lot. It happens (?) that 318 is the numerical value of the name of the chief of the company of “homeborn” servants, Eliezer (Gen. 15:2). In my opinion, this ties to the overall theme of this passage. Who will be Abram’s heir? Who will be the new priest-guardian of the land? “Homeborn” means adopted, and homeborn servants are adopted sons, second class.9 In Genesis 14 and 15:1-3, Abram’s heir is Eliezer, chief of the adopted sons, and it is the adopted sons who are acting as priests and defending the holy land. God informs Abram in Genesis 15 that he will have a physical son, and that the adopted sons will not be the special heirs.

Please note that I am not deriving from this inter­pretation any such idea as that the commander of an army should imitate Eliezer and take into battle only the number of men that match the numerical value of his name. Rather, I am taking note of a curiosity in the text, showing a possible symbolic meaning for it. This interpretation can be referred to Christ as follows: Abram and the Captain of his host (Eliezer) led an army to rescue a wayward son. Just so, God and the Greater Eliezer, Jesus Christ, lead the Church to save the world. True, Eliezer was set aside for Isaac, but Isaac was set aside for Jacob, and so on and on.

Each typified Christ at a particular stage of history.

Well, I could be wrong. Let the reader try his hand at interpreting this passage. Until I see an interpretation that seems to do better justice to the details and the theme of this passage, I’ll stick with this. But I won’t burn at the stake for it.

For another example, I have given belowan example of a palistrophe, from Genesis 25-36. I did not come up with this by myself. The middle part of the palistrophe was no­ticed by Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Gene­sis. I took the cue from him and looked to see if perhaps this entire “toledhoth” section of Genesis was organized this way. The chart shows the results of my inquiry. The ancient reader, sensitive to such structures, would notice right away that the heart of the literary unit is the birth of the seed. The pivot of the palistrophe is the miracle of opening the barren womb. The outer edges of the palistro­phe are concerned with the labor of the bride-mothers. All of this goes back to Genesis 3. Of course, the theme of the mother laboring to give birth to righteous seed is not the only theme of this passage, but the palistrophe highlights it for us, and encourages us to regard it as the overall and most important theme.

Now we would not see this if we treated the Bible as modern literature. How many novels or short stories today are organized from start to finish as palistrophes? The only modern work that I know of that is is the film Excalibur. How many writers would bother to take the time to organize their narratives this way? (How many could afford the time?) But in the ancient world, things were different, as we saw above. If we are going to understand and expound the Bible at more than a superficial level, we shall have to take into account its literary organizations.

On reading ancient literature, I was privileged to start with Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Westport, CT-. Greenwood Press, reprint 1973). Strauss points out that most ancient and medieval writers lived under the threat of persecution, and learned to conceal their more controversial thoughts in order to avoid the authorities. While the Bible is not written in such a context, reading Strauss does show how to read and study carefully, and especially alerts the reader to structural devices. The student will find it helpful to peruse Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago, reprint 1984), both to find out how wicked Machiavelli really was, and also again to acquire insight into literary structure. A disciple of Strauss, Allan Bloom, noted for his book The Closing of the American Mind, has a fine commentary on The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968), the study of which is also useful training.

In addition to the ancient literary structures of the Bible, we also have to take into account the fact that the Bible uses a symbolic worldview. Bible people knew full well that the world was round, but as a figure of speech they spoke of it as having corners, pillars, and other things, because the world was a home. We don’t think symbolical­ly, but the ancients did, and the writers of the Bible did.10 This is even more of a problem for American evangelicals because (a) our churches are generally bare of visual symbolism due to our understanding of the second commandment, and (b) our churches lack the monarchical rituals of the Eastern, Anglican, and Roman churches. Thus, we are just not accustomed to thinking visually.

The Generations of Isaac (Genesis 25:19a)

A. Opening genealogical notice, 25:19
B. Labor of bride, and supplanting, 25:20-34.
C. Attack on bride, settlement, and blessing (altars & wells), 26:1 -33.
D. Jacob & Esau: struggle, separation, blessing, 26:34- 28:9.
E.Departing the land, encounter with God, 28:10•_>.>.
F. Arrival, kiss of greeting, 29:1-14
G. Jacob & La ban: contract making, 29:15-20.
H. Laban tricks Jacob, 29:21-30.
I. The Seed, pre-resurrection, 29:31-30:21.
I’. The Seed, post-resurrection, 30:22 24
H’. Jacob tricks Laban, by God’s help, 30:25-31:16.
G’. Jacob and Laban: contract dispute, 31:17-42.
F’. Departure, kiss of farewell, 31:43 55.
E’. Entering the land, encounter with God, 32:1 32.
D’. Jacob & Esau: reconciliation, reunion, blessing, 33:1 17.
C’. Attack on bride, settlement, and blessing(altars & wells). 341 -35:15.
B. Labor of bride, and supplanting, 35:16 223.
A . Closing genealogical notices, 35:22^36:4.0.

Larger Themes to Notice

  1. Replacement of Firstborn theme in Genesis continues: Jacob, Rachel, Joseph.
  2. Two Trees theme in Genesis continues: Isaac sinfully prefers wrong son & his food: Jacob deceived into eating of wrong tree (wife).
  3. Lex Talionis Deception of Serpent theme in Genesis continues: Isaac tries to trick God, but is tricked by God: Laban tricks Jacob, but is tricked by God & Jacob; Simeon and Levi sinfully trick the Shechemites (C, H, H , C ).
  4. Attack on Eve-Bride theme in Genesis continues: Abimelech and Rebekah; Laban and his daughters and grandchildren (“all are mine!”); Shechem and Dinah. The proper means of resolution differs each time: deception by Isaac, divine threats for Jacob, circumcision & incorporation for Shechem (thwarted).
  5. Recapitulation of previous sins in Genesis:
  6. a. Sin of Ham: Simeon & Levi take matters into their own hands, ignoring father.
    b. Sin of Shemites: Esau’s repeated intermarriages.
    c. Sin of Cain: Esau’s threats to kill brother.
    d. High handed sin of Adam: Isaac’s preference for wrong tree and wrong food, in the face of God s clear revelation.
    e. Sin of inadvertency of Eve: Jacob tricked into eating of wrong tree (wife). This was also Abram’s sin.
  7. Exodus theme recapitulated: enslavement of Jacob, attack on bride & seed, prosperity of Israel, flight, pursuit, humiliation of false gods (sat upon by menstruating woman!). Compare also Isaac and Abimelech.
  8. Major new theme: wrestling for the kingdom. Wrestling against evil is the same as wrestling with God, for it is He who brings such challenges to us.
  9. Gentile theme in Genesis continues:
    a. Abimilech is initially hostile, but converts (C). Compare Abraham and Abimelech.
    b. Laban is initially pleasant, but become oppressor (G, H, H’, G ). Compare Abraham and Pharaoh.
    c. Shechem is initially hostile, converts: his people have hidden hostility; incorporation into the covenant people thwarted by sin of Simeon and Levi (C ). Simeon and Levi should have learned from Jacobs history with Laban that when the wicked try to grab the inheritance of the righteous, it backfires.
    d. Bride from foreign land theme: Leah and Rachel from Padan Aram (compare Rebekah from Padan Aram; Joseph’s Egyptian wife: Moses’ two foreign wives; Rahab: Ruth: etc.)
  10. Overall structure of this section forces attention on the Seed:
    a. Genealogical notices bracket the section (A, A’).
    b. Labor of bride to produce Seed brackets the section (B, B’) and is center of it (I, I’).
    c. Satan’s attempt to possess Bride and Seed brackets the section (C, C’) and is also found at the center (G’).
    d. The first seed produced is non-miraculous, and fallen. After the resurrection miracle of the opened womb (dischronologized; Joseph was older than Zebulon and Naphtali), the true Seed-Messiah is born (1, 1′). This is the center of the palistrophe.
  11. Enoch Factor theme in Genesis continues (Genesis 4 the gentiles build the first culture: the redeemed build the last culture): At the end of section (A ), Esau not only has many sons but also a culture around them; Jacob merely has sons ritually. (Nor. unfortunately, are we used to thinking of Christ as our King.) But, if we are going to learn to read the Bible, we shall have to learn to think like people in Bible times, to think visually and ritually.

More Reading Suggestions

A good book to read, if you want to break out of the narrow bands of the shrunken world of the 20th century, is C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image (Cambridge U. Press). Lewis does not set out the Biblical worldview, but that of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It is a valuable read, because it helps us break free from our preconceptions.

Biblical studies that I have found helpful in opening up the Biblical symbolic worldview include Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1949); and two commentaries by Gordon Wenham, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) and Numbers (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1981). The book of Revelation is the symbolic climax of Scripture, and nothing matches David Chilton’s commentary, The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth: Dominion Press, 1987). Also very helpful is G. Lloyd Carr’s commentary on The Song of Solomon (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).

With some reservations let me call attention to Nor­throp Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton-. Princeton University Press, 1975) and The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). Also, G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980). A study of imagery in the Psalter, though it leans too much on ancient near eastern parallels, is Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (New York: Seabury, 1978). Keel’s book is particularly valuable because it contains hundreds of iconographic illustrations.

I have mentioned literary structure, visual symbol, and ritual. Let me now turn to the matter of historical develop­ment. The stories of the Bible are not isolated illustrations of moral principles or typological shapshots of Jesus. If that were true, they might as well be fictional parables. Rather, they record historical events that reveal truth by showing the development of the Kingdom of God and the maturation of humanity. A grasp of the organic flow and development of Biblical history is essential for understand­ing the Bible.

After all, we don’t want to chop the Bible up into teeny bits, isolated from one another. We want to appreciate the whole long line of history and God’s development of humanity over the centuries. There are some good helps along these lines. Klaas Schilder was the intellectual head of a remarkable theological movement in The Netherlands during the first part of the century. Sadly, little of this brilliant man’s legacy has made it into English. His “Trilogy,” a set of three books on the sufferings of Christ, is an invaluable example of careful redemptive historical exegesis. Schilder traces our Lord’s suffering and death step by step.12 A valuable study of the redemptive historical approach as it was hammered out in the “Liberated” Churches of The Netherlands (of which Schilder was a part) is Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles of Preaching Historical Texts by Sidney Greidanus (Toronto: Wedge Pub. Co.; currently out of print). A popular redemptive historical Bible survey is the four volume set by S. G. de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance (Toronto: Paideia Press). Much more in-depth, and available only in mimeograph (but well worth having) are the series of Old Testament History books by Homer Hoeksema. Each of these volumes gives very good redemptive historical insights into the text. I had read all these books years before I ever wrote Judges, and that is partly why I have been amazed when some people regard my method as new or different. It was old hat to me.

Well, I have to draw this section to a close. Two books relevant to Biblical exegesis need to be noted. They are Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspec­tives in Theology by Vern S. Poythress, and Has the Church Misread the Bible? The History of Interpretation in the Light of Current Issues, by Moises Silva. Both men taught at Westminster Theological Seminary. These men are setting out the kind of hermeneutical models that I regard as ideal, and I highly recommend their works. And finally, there are the older works on hermeneutics, such as Biblical Hermeneutics by Milton Terry, Principles of Biblical Interpretation by Henry Berkhof, and Interpretation of the Scriptures by Arthur Pink.

James B. Jordan is Director of Biblical Horizons and Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis. This essay first appeared in Biblical Horizons in 2010.



  1. See Wenham, Genesispp. 133f. Barnouin’s similar study of the census numbers in Numbers is available in English translation. Barnouin argues that the census numbers in Numbers correspond to the numbers of days of various astral cycles, indicating that Israel was considered as pan of the heavenly host, gathered around the Tabernacle, and marching through the skies on the way to conquer Canaan. For instance, in the first census,
    Benjamin numbered 35,400. 354 is the number of days in a lunar year.
  2. I discussed this in Law of the Covenant,chap. 5.
  3. Note: When we interpret Biblical symbolism we shouldnotrun to other ancient sources and cultures, but rather we need to interpret from the Bible itself. The fact that all ancient cultures were highly oriented toward symbol and ritual does not mean they all used symbol and ritual the same way. The study of symbols in other cultures may give usclues that help us in searching for the meaning of Biblical symbols, but our proof of meaning must come from the Bible itself.
  4. Wenham’s Genesis is loaded down with technical material and is pretty light on theology. This is what the Word Biblical Commentary commissioned, of course, but it is a disappointment. 1 hope someone else will get him to write a theological commentary.
  5. Christ in His Sufferings, Christ on Trial, Christ Crucified (Baker Book House). These are not studies but sermons, and possess a rather artistic sermonic style.