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Literary Interpretation

Getting the most from God’s Word requires more than just casual reading. It requires work, and some knowledge of interpretive methods (hermeneutics). This is because the Bible is not a simple how-to book. It does not convey its message through propositional statements alone. Oh, it contains straight-forward propositions: “You shall not murder,” for example, and “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” are propositional statements that require no interpretation. But Scripture is also a literary work. This means that its contents are presented in various literary forms (genres) that engage the imagination and convey images and meanings that bare propositions cannot. Therefore, we cannot be satisfied with reading; we must learn to rightly interpret.


Literature always calls for interpretation. It expresses its meaning by a certain indirection. The statement that “our neighbor is anyone in need of our help” is direct and requires no interpretation. By comparison, Jesus’ Parable of the good Samaritan requires a reader to determine what the details of the story add up to.

The more concrete or complex a story is, the more open it becomes to interpretation. The story of David in the Old Testament illustrates this. What does the story of David communicate about God, people, and society? There is, of course, no single answer, nor is it always easy to determine exactly what truth is communicated by this or that episode in the story. It is no wonder that the story of David has elicited so many interpretations.

Biblical poetry also requires interpretation on the part of the reader. Consider, for example, the most important of all figures of speech: metaphor and simile. These figures of speech compare one thing to another: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water” (Ps. 1:3). Exactly how is the godly person like a tree? How many of the suggested points of comparison are valid? These are questions of interpretation that metaphor and simile always place before a reader.

If the need to interpret literature and the unavoidable differences in interpretation from one reader to another strike us as a risk, we should also note the advantages of literature as a medium. They include memorability, ability to capture a reader’s attention, affective power, and ability to do justice to the complexity and multiplicity of human life as we actually experience it.

—Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Zondervan, 1984), 22–23.

Posted 2009·01·28 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Bibliology · Hermeneutics · How to Read the Bible as Literature · Leland Ryken

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