The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is--what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used. ~C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost
Interpreting scripture is a time-consuming and difficult endeavor. Anyone who says elsewise is lying to you, and likely not practicing inductive Bible study themselves... which means you need to question the validity of their advice, or at least I would. (There are good reasons why we have Seminaries.) Yes, solid Bible study is challenging, but the benefits and fruits of the labor are sweet to taste and worth it.
I want to plug a book I've mentioned numerous times up to this point which is so incredibly helpful for us laypeople who don't have the time to pick up Hebrew or Greek (as cool as that would be): Living By the Book. Much of what I say from this point on, the authors go into far greater depth in their book.
Interpreting is when we step back, and while looking at our observations, we ask and seek to answer the 'why' questions. Some things to consider at this step...
Context. Context is the framework and the background to our reading; the circumstances surrounding the reading, including what came before and after whatever book or passage we've selected. There are five types of context...
- Literary Context: Where is this book/passage located in the whole span of the Bible? (Bible tidbit: Prior to the Reformations verse numbers and chapters didn't exist in the text, so the Jews and early Christians would've read the whole body of work.) Who was the author of the book, and what were their concerns/convictions/emotion or why were they writing it? Who's the original audience receiving these words, and why? Does the audience have strengths/weaknesses/struggles/sin patterns/etc.?
- Historical Context: How does this passage/book fit into the timeline of history? When was it written? What events where taking place when it was written? Who was ruling/leading at the time? Who are the people in the story, and what's their background, and who are they related to (i.e. genealogy)?
- Geographical Context: Where is this happening? Does the landscape/topography influence the people (how or why)? What's the atmosphere like?
- Cultural Context: What is the culture of the people in the passages/book? There's a big difference between being a Moabite and a Samaritan. They're not the same; they have a culture and society that each had their own unique beliefs, norms, traditions etc.
- Theological Context: What is the relationship between the readers, author, and God? How much scripture did the audience have access to? What other worldviews/religions were vying for the peoples attention?
Literary Genre. Examine the genre a passage/book belongs to and all it's corresponding, unique figures of speech included. We went over some of these but there are many more, some of which can be taken literally, and others are to be read figuratively.
Word Studies. Sometimes it's helpful to take some time a focus in on a key word in scripture and study it specifically, including it's meaning in the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. (See my resources list for where to start and helps with this)
Paradox. Paradox is when we have two ideas or concepts that seem or appear to us to be at odds with one another, but they're not, because they're in Scripture, and God does not contradict Himself. Paradox isn't something we have to shy away from, but rather it's a mystery God asks us to discover and explore. Again, when it may feel like God is contradicting, He's not. But, He does ask us to trust Him that whatever may seem conflicting can be reconciled, even though our finite human minds tell us differently. The problem doesn't lie in what God says, as His Word is true, the problem lies in the fact that we're like preschoolers trying to grasp a concept that only an adult would have psychologically come to understand after years of development. This is one of the huge reasons why hermeneutics is so important; letting the scriptures interpret themselves. It's also why study bibles have cross references. We can't dismiss one bible verse for the sake of another. All of scripture is connected, married to each other, and therefore verses that have the impression of being at odds with one another are not.
Be Careful... not to distort or misread what the text says. Remember, studying scriptures ought to be done so inductively. The Bible is timely and authoritative, therefore, it's not a subjective or relativistic endeavor. In other words, the meaning of/behind scripture doesn't actually change over time (regardless of historical or cultural changes, technologies, or advancement), nor does the meaning change because of our reaction to it. We come humbly to stand under it, not over it.