Thursday, October 27, 2011

Difficult passages and the different genres of the Bible

How we should handle difficult passages can be an interesting and difficult process in and of itself. When we were dealing with the Abraham and Isaac passage in our Bible Study (part one of this discussion can be found here) someone asked a very good question.

"Can we understand this passage as a parable?"

Parables are short and simple stories that Jesus told in order to communicate a deeper spiritual or moral truth. Sometimes the story itself is very easy to understand but the meaning behind the story can be very complex. For example the Parable of the Sower found in Matthew 13 taken at a very basic meaning is fairly easy to figure out. And that is if you plant seeds in areas that are not good for growth then the seeds won't grow but if you plant the seeds in good soil then they will grow and produce well.

Jesus later explains to the Disciples that he uses parables to explain deeper spiritual meanings because it is easier for people to start with the simple truths. So when we start to investigate the deeper meaning of the parable we find that Jesus is not actually talking about farming but about how different people react to his teaching.

The thing about parables is that while they may be based in truth (there certainly are people that plant seeds), they are not tied to an actual event (Jesus was not referencing a specific person planting seed at a specific time.) So in terms of dealing with the story of Abraham and Isaac we have no indications that this story is a parable. It is a story that is told about specific and actual events.

So while it might be very tempting–and easy–to explain away the story as a parable, the passage does not allow us to do so. We have to deal with this passage in a different way than we would a parable.

But the question about how understand the story of Abraham and Isaac is an excellent one because it points out a very important fact about the Bible. It is not a singular work. It is a collection of books that were written by different authors that used very different styles of writing. On top of this the Bible uses different types or genres of writing within each book that need to be read with different lenses. There is Historical/Epic, Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Poetry, Apocalyptic, Gospel, Parable, and Epistle/Letter. And that is not a complete list. Each of these genres are to be understood a little differently.

It is very easy to see this in the above parable example. We do not read the Parable of the Sower and think that Jesus was talking about a specific person or that he was an agricultural guru. Rather when we read it we take its meaning at face value. Jesus was communicating a truth through a story. We also see this in everyday use. If we came across a headline that said "Bears maul Packers" we would understand that headline in very different ways in different sections in the paper. We take the headline at face value. In the Sports section it has a different face value than if it were to appear above a story about a couple of animals running loose in a meat processing plant.

The same goes for the Abraham and Isaac passage. It is a very difficult story for us to understand but we have to take it at face value. It is a story about how God tested Abraham by giving him a command that seemed contrary and out of character for the type of command that God would normally give.

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