Growing up, my family read the Bible together every day after supper. When the kids were old enough, we took turns reading around the table. Looking back, it was a privilege to have the time to gather as a family every night. It was a powerful spiritual discipline that my wife and I tried to repeat in our home over the years. On good days, we would linger and discuss what we were reading, with the kids asking questions about what surprised them in the passage. These were teachable moments for faith formation.
When coming up with answers for kids’ Bible questions, the key is to wonder first “what did this passage mean to those who were originally reading it?” Because the biblical text was written thousands of years ago, in a far away place, and in a foreign culture, it helps to unpack scripture a little. Then it will make more sense when we ask “How does this apply to us today?” Here are five good questions that can help unpack scriptural understandings.
Since the Bible was written in a different place and time, understanding what life was like at that time is important. Sometimes practices that seem bizarre to us now were commonplace then, like polygamy and animal sacrifice. Finding where events happen on a Bible map can help us see how the landscape shaped events. Noticing, for example, that Israel was geographically surrounded by larger, more powerful kingdoms, like Egypt and Babylon, helps to see the continual fragility of the Hebrews’ political independence through the centuries. Noting that there weren’t any police or court systems as we know them, but rather the heads of local families would sit in judgement in the city gates over disputes and accusations helps us to hear scripture’s constant call for leaders to remember the widow, orphan, poor, and powerless, not to mention the commandment against bearing false witness. During the New Testament period, it helps to know that the Romans were a resented occupying military force in Israel. Looking into the historical context of a given passage helps us to see both the context of the passage and the difference of what is being emphasized and what was just background. Perhaps a Bible commentary can help unpack the history around a confusing text.
In any newspaper today, you can read news articles that report the facts, editorials that offer opinions, ads that sell products, financial columns that list transactions, social pages that announce weddings and deaths, comics that tell jokes, and more. We natively understand that these styles of writing are read differently from one another. To read an exaggerated comic as if it was facts and news would be a mistake, as would be reading facts and news as if they were just an opinion or fiction. Scripture too has a wide range of literary styles from historical descriptions, to poetic metaphors, to lists of generations, to fictional parables designed to teach a lesson, to letters sent to far away friends. We should read a Psalm poem, which were actually song lyrics, differently than we would read historical chronicles, for example. Sometimes, the genre will switch in the middle of a chapter, such as when someone recites a poem or tells a parable. Understanding the literary style and intention of a given passage can help us interpret the original impact it had on its first listeners.
Some verbs are commands (“repent!”), and some are more ongoing background action (“as you go,...”). It helps to know the force of the action. Nouns also have nuance. If I describe a group as a crowd, or mob, or assembly, or horde, that group and it’s intentions are understood differently in each case. Likewise, word choices matter in scripture too, but unfortunately, they matter more in the original languages than they matter in English translations. For example, the English language uses the word “you” for both singular and plural, but Hebrew and Greek have different words for each. Sometimes I wish Bible translators would use “you” and y’all” so we could tell the difference. If you have a particular passage to unpack, it can help to review more than one translation to see what the key themes are as opposed to emphasizing a particular English word. Consulting a commentary that unpacks the original language a bit can also help. Understanding the force of original words can help us put the emphasis in the right place.
There’s a saying that “Scripture interprets scripture.” One implication of this idea is that when one passage deals with a topic, we can’t fully understand it without considering all the passages that deal with the same topic. They inform one another. If one verse talks about giving or tithing, for example, it’s helpful to how tithing is treated throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Another implication is to pay attention to where we are within a given book. Instead of considering a passage in isolation, consider what has come before in this book. What has led us to this discussion at this point? Also consider what comes after this passage to see the results of what is occurring now and its impact as the narrative progresses. Usually a book has some sort of movement or storyline, so it helps to see where a given passage falls within it.
A final and major implication is that the Bible, with all its diversity, ultimately tells one big story about how God is drawing a people to himself through his Christ and by his Spirit. So when we consider just one part of the story, it helps to remember where we are within the whole of the Bible. How does an Old Testament passage look forward to Jesus coming, for example? God is always the primary actor and hero of every story, so how is he moving in any given passage? The Holy Spirit calls and equips his people, so how is the Spirit at work here? These big picture questions help us place a passage in its wider context within God’s Big Story.
Scripture is God’s Word. It is the testimony of God’s church from ages past to what God has done for us, and the Lord himself speaks through it. When we talk about the authority of scripture, we’re really talking about God’s authority. Scripture is authoritative in what it intends to say, which is why carefully understanding scripture’s original impact is so important. Too many have tried to make scripture say something it did not intend to say and then claim that exaggeration as God’s will.
More to the point, reading scripture is a spiritual enterprise, and the Holy Spirit speaks directly to our hearts through it. It’s one thing to read words, it’s another to have your heart moved by what you’re reading. Asking in prayer for wisdom and illumination is always a good idea before reading scripture. Listening for God’s voice as you read is kind of the whole point of reading scripture, so doing so prayerfully is a natural thing to do.
These five sets of questions will help us read scripture well. When we have a clearer idea of what a passage meant to its original audience, we can hear more clearly what God is saying to us today. May the Holy Spirit give you ears to hear and eyes to see God’s Word at work in your life.