There are a few things about the Bible as we know it that I think complicate our ability to interpret it, and perhaps the greatest of these is that the Bible is a finished product.
Most of us come to a Bible that has already been compiled, redacted, and canonized. We have been completely shielded from the historical processes that brought us this book back when even the writings themselves were very much in flux. Because of this, it gives the illusion that the Bible is a single, unified, continuous work where all of its parts are meant to be interpreted by the whole, just as we would most other books.
Furthermore, we come to the Bible as though it is a single, continuous book written for today’s world. It is supposed to answer our questions and our concerns and tell us how to live, today.
Finally, our Bible is divided into chapters and verses, which not only contributes to the illusion that we are looking at one book, but has the effect of isolating pieces of the writings into “nuggets” that are abstracted from their context and applied to anything that might remotely sound like the “nugget” in the abstract. This is the process by which a verse to Israel telling them that God will not let them languish in the Babylonian exile becomes a verse by which a college graduate can be confident they’ll have a nice life. (Jer. 29:11)
I can already hear the objections coming about divine inspiration and God’s plans for the Bible. But before we get to the theological objections, let’s take a look at how the Bible was produced.
No one ever sat down to write a book of the Bible. The Bible as we know it did not exist at the time any of the writings in the Bible were written – which is important to keep in mind when we find phrases like “the Word of God” or even “the Scriptures” in the Bible. No verse in the Bible has as its referent the Bible that we have, today. Even the infamous 2 Timothy 3:16 was written before any kind of New Testament canon was even prototypically established. And if, like most conservatives, you believe Paul wrote it – that would put a late date of 65 A.D. on it, well before several other New Testament writings.
Anything that ended up as a book of the Bible was something written by someone (or someones) in a particular historical era that was intended to be relevant to those people. It addressed their situation, their questions, and their concerns using their language, their symbols, and their idioms. Even the strongest theological doctrine of inspiration can’t overlook the fact that what got into these people’s brains and onto the papyrus was language comprehensible to them about things relevant to them.
To further complicate matters, it is a virtual guarantee that the books as we know them today (and as Israel in the first century would have known them) went through a process of compilation, editing, and redaction.
Over time, some writings, either due to the source or the content or both, became authoritative writings for the communities that received them. They were used, repeated, and referenced. It is by this process of community use and recognition that a canon was formed. This is the case for both Testaments, although obviously the Old Testament canon came first.
So, the Bible is actually closer to an anthology than a single book. It’s a collection of historical writings of various genres that have been selected according to the theme of telling the story of the people of YHWH in the world through her eyes, and all of those writings had an origin and lifespan outside of the Bible – they were selected for inclusion at a later date.
Now, these writings aren’t only meant to be descriptive. They are meant to be formative and definitive. But when we are interpreting these writings, it is vital to understand them on their own terms in their own world before we think about them with respect to ours. That’s not to say these writings have nothing to say to us – quite the contrary. But what do they have to say to us? Sadly, our answer has generally been “whatever it makes us think of.” The remedy to this is to recover why a biblical writing existed in the first place. God gave it to those people at that time to help them. And in uncovering their story, we can begin to make wise decisions about how their story can (and can’t) help us form ours.