How to Read the Bible

Last month I did a series of posts on religion and science; the theme for November is interpreting the scriptures. (Since November basically ends when Thanksgiving hits, I’m borrowing a week from October.) First up: a few thoughts on Steven McKenzie’s book How to Read the Bible: History, Literature, and Prophecy — Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference, and What it Means for Faith Today (OUP, 2005).

McKenzie stresses genre, specifically the idea that modern readers often force biblical writings into modern categories and thereby misconstrue what the writer of the book was trying to say. He starts off the book talking about the book of Jonah: “The story is full of humor, exaggeration, irony, and ridicule. These features indicate that the book was never intended to be read as history but was written as a kind of satire. No wonder it has been misunderstood!” Is the book satire or history? That’s the genre question, one we can ask about every biblical book or writing.

The author frames every chapter around a misconception that prevents a reader from really understanding what is being read. Regarding what we call the historical books of the Old Testament, the misconception is: Biblical historians relate what happened in the past. His summary after offering details and examples: “This does not mean that the Bible never describes what actually took place in the past, but that was not the main objective of the ancient Israelite history writers.”

I’m sure the real fireworks for an LDS audience would come from the misconception that McKenzie tries to correct in the chapter on prophecy and the prophetic books: Biblical prophets foretell the future. He holds that the prophetic genre in the Bible is more about “address[ing] specific social, political, and religious circumstances in ancient Israel and Judah.” I suspect that most Mormons (and any CES instructor that wants to keep their job) would object and claim that biblical prophets were certainly in the business of telling the future and did see our day.

What is interesting from an LDS perspective is that we don’t expect our modern prophets to tell the future for us. Their official titles as prophets, seers, and revelators even emphasizes their claim to exercise such a gift, yet their many pronouncements sound much more like the description given by McKenzie of what prophets of an earlier day (properly understood) were doing, giving counsel about the “specific social, political, and religious circumstances” of our own day. I certainly don’t object to this approach — I think we benefit more from forthright counsel about how we should be living in the face of today’s many problems and challenges than about what might come to pass in the year 2112 or 2525. If we are to understand ancient prophets by what modern prophets do, McKenzie is on to something.

So I guess the question is: Does this view of what prophets do and what prophets wrote about in the Bible help us avoid misunderstanding the prophetic books in the Bible?

19 comments for “How to Read the Bible

  1. Jonathan Green
    October 21, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    But my impression from reading Isaiah and the rest is that they comment on their current circumstances in the guise of foretelling the future, so it’s not as if Mormons are making up their reading out of whole cloth. Also, I wouldn’t want to limit “reading the Bible” to mean “figuring out what a writer 2+ millennia ago wanted his contemporaries to understand.” The historical sense is only one thing to learn from scripture.

    It’s true that there are equally one-sided readings of the OT prophets that see in them only predictions of, for example, the current missionary program, and I wish we would approach the prophets with an eye towards finding additional meanings (including historical ones), rather than limiting the possible references to the years 1830 onwards.

  2. October 21, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    That seems to fit pretty well with the LDS Bible Dictionary entry for Prophet:

    “In certain cases prophets predicted future events, e.g., there are the very important prophecies announcing the coming of Messiah’s kingdom; but as a rule prophet was a forthteller rather than a foreteller.”

  3. October 21, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Score one for the Bible Dictionary, Jared*.

  4. October 21, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    The Book of Daniel purports to tell future events. Most historians believe the book was written, not at the time of the Babylonian captivity–about 590 BC, but as late as 164 BC. Obviously the “future” events it predicts from the 6th to the 2nd century BC are pretty accurate–prophesied after the fact. The predictions of events later than the Maccabean revolt become imaginative rather than accurate.
    The author of Daniel should probably have stuck to the definition of a prophet “giving specific social, political, and religious circumstances” for his own day.

  5. James Olsen
    October 21, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Another interesting twist is the need of a prophet to interpret a prophet (How can I understand Isaiah, save someone [with authority] teach me?). In addition to commenting on contemporary social, political, and religious circumstances, prophets (then and now) authoritatively interpret scripture, and do so in a way that coherently links the contemporary religious community (Israel) with the ancient one (Israel).

  6. Jax
    October 22, 2010 at 12:09 am

    If you take John at his word, than a prophet is anyone who has a true and accurate testimony of Christ – what he did premortally, what he did in mortality, and what he will do in the “last days.” from a solely chronological perspective, it would seem obvious that modern prophets would have very little future to prophesy about. The do fulfill the same mission though and teach about Christ (who he was, what his commandments are, what he expects of us, etc.) But since most of Christ’s doings were in the past for us it doesn’t appear as “prophetic” to tell us what Christ did in mortality. It just isn’t as impressive to hear it in the past tense that he was born to a virgin, do miracles, atone for mankind, be resurrected…. because it has happened for us. But anciently it hadn’t, and to hear of what would come would be spectacular indeed!!!

  7. October 22, 2010 at 7:14 am

    McKenzie trained under one of the biblical minimalists, and it shows. That said, you can get his whole book from

    I prefer Brettler’s and Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible” volumes.

  8. October 22, 2010 at 9:33 am

    I don’t want to join on the debate.

    My trust is the bible is a holy thing and all the events discussed here must be trusted without any hesitation.

  9. Margaret
    October 22, 2010 at 10:14 am

    My trust without any hesitation is in Jared.

  10. larryco_
    October 22, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    “in the year…2525” if man is still alive, if woman can survive, they may find…

    I am always amazed that I belong to a church that has an “out”, i.e “we believe in the bible as far as it is translated correctly”, but has an OT SS manual that is soooo literal in it’s interpretation to make an evangelical blush. Considering the vast majority of the OT is written by scribes who don’t try to conceal the fact that they live hundreds of years after the events discribed have taken place (over and over the writers will say “and it is like that to this very day” much like we would say “the Anasazi ruin Publo Bonito is still standing to this very day”), we are so very fortunate to get what info we have.

    Truth be told, I take great comfort in the “translated correctly” out. I feel no complusion to subscribe to the “god ordered” genocide of women and children depicted in Joshua which is so foreign to the teachings in any of our scriptures or modern prophets. I see at least most of Joshua and other parts of the “history books” of the tanakh as written by scribes during a time of peril in Israel to point back to an age when our god can beat up your god.

  11. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    October 22, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    The thrust of the prophetic voice in the Restored Church is advising and warning us what we should do in order to be prepared for the future. A lot of that sounds like reasonable advice based on known principles and the lessons of history–how to have a secure future through provident living, obtaining education and work experience, and even being prepared against unemployment and disasters with savings and accumulation of food. But advice we get is often counterintuitive to what the rest of society thinks is wise.

    Back in the 1970s the Church leadership made a concerted effort to enlist Church members in opposition to ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Many people have criticized the Church then and since over that position. Yet we have seen what were considered in the 1970s to be extreme and unrealistic hypotheticals being used to scare people–coed bathrooms, same sex marriage–become demands based on claims of constitutional right under the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. It is clear now that, had the ERA become part of the Constitution, it would have provided a much stronger foundation for this kind of litigation. Whether you agree with the Church’s position on those issues or not, the leadership certainly chose a position at the time that has materially strengthened its position 30 years later.

    In 1967 Hugh B. Brown, at the time a Counselor in the First Presidency, told a congregation in Osaka, Japan, that in the future they would see missionaries going into Russia. When the Cuban Missile Crisis was only 5 years old, and a year before Soviet Tanks were used to crush a slight liberalization of totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia, that prophecy, announced as such, was certainly contrary to the reasonable expectations of just about everyone, especially those most familiar with the USSR. Yet that statement was fulfilled just over 20 years later.

    In 1974, President Kimball told the new mission presidents that, if the Latter-day Saints prepared themselves, the Lord would open the nations of the world to the Church and its missionaries. His own prophetic action in 1978 created the conditions to advance the Church in most of Africa, in certain nations of the Caribbean, and to people in Brazil and other parts of Latin America with large African-descent populations. The fall of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical event that opened new opportunities for the Church.

    What would true prophetic leadership look like? Certainly much prophetic advice would appear to be logical and reasonable based on predictable trends. On the other hand, some of it would be contrary to the conventional wisdom. Only in hindsight would we be able to evaluate the foresight (of both kinds) contained in the advice.

    Based on what I have observed in my own 60 years, I think someone who bets against the Brethren is making, in the long run, a losing bet.

  12. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    October 23, 2010 at 9:15 am

    The Christians believe that the OT and NT are the words of God, written as if our own mortal father would speak to you. Actually, I believe it is the Uncles, who wrote it, because they were involved in a deception to deprive you of your inheritance, before you fully understood the value of it.

    As a Mormon and having studied both scriptures; I have found too many incomprehensible passages and even places where paragraphs were redacted. Christianity, in general, accepts it as a Book of Instruction for the general public. The history of having the Books translated into ordinary German and English is littered in a river of innocent blood. At BYU I heard a quote from my Bishop, that if everyone in Utah picked their Bible and blew of the dust, the State would be covered in a cloud of dust.

    What I learned about Biblical prophets, that they were reluctant participants in becoming God’s messengers. Many were killed or exiled. Even the Prophet Nephi tried to excuse himself from the task of preparing the Book of Mormon for the latter days. Even he could not stop his wicked brethren from going their own way. God’s ways are different, because His message has to overcome the opposition of the Uncles.

    The word of Jesus, Christ I fear the most is the Book of Commandments, aka the Doctrine and Covenants. I haven’t gotten to that one, yet. I still think the natural man is a good fit for me!

  13. Dave R
    October 23, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Dave, in answer to your question, absolutely. The trick to understanding the prophetic books of the bible is to start with the question, “How would people in that day have understood this message?” In that regard, I think Jim F has done an excellent job with his posts on Isaiah. It’s very tough to make useful comparisons without that historical contex. And my sense is those who read the ancient prophets in search of cryptic predictions, are those most likely to not have understand the message as originally intended.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m going to download a sample on my Kindle.

    Ben S — likewise, thanks for the book recommendation.

  14. October 23, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Dave R, thanks for the comment. I linked the book title to the Amazon page to facilitate your purchase. The book just came out as paperback last year; I read the hardback version from my local library. There’s a Kindle version, too, for $10.

    The author, Steven McKenzie, is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Rhodes College in Tennessee. Here’s what scholar Michael D. Coogan says about the book (as quoted on the back cover and at the Amazon page):

    In order to determine what the Bible means, we must first determine the intentions of its authors, intentions expressed in the literary genres they used. In his examination of several genres used in the Bible, McKenzie demonstrates through detailed analysis how the identification of genre is as necessary for the understanding of biblical literature as it is of any literature. An important and insightful book.”

    A genre approach is more than just a guide to helpful reading, of course. A genre determination places limits on what a responsible reader or interpreter can do with the text. If, as McKenzie argues in the first chapter of the book, Jonah is satire rather than history, that rules out some of the ways quotes from that book are sometimes used in our day. And so forth.

  15. Brad Dennis
    October 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I liked the post and would be interested in reading that book. But I thought of another potential problem.

    Should we accept that the book of Isaiah, since it mentions Cyrus by name (see Isa. 44:28 and Isa. 45:1) the Achaemenid leader who gained power some 200 years after Isaiah, to have been written by multiple authors? Or was Isaiah foretelling the future? If the conventional scholarly interpretation is accepted that the book of Isaiah was composed by multiple authors (chaps. 1-39 written by Isaiah, chaps. 40-55 written by an author under the Babylonian captivity (597-538 BC), and chaps. 56-66 written in Jerusalem after the exile), then it may pose some problems for the Book of Mormon since it quotes Isaiah chaps. 48, 49, 50, 51, 53, and 54. How could have Nephi quoted from Isaiah were chaps. 40-55 to have been written until after the departure of Lehi and his family from Jerusalem in 600 B.C.? Could we accept the scholarly explanation of the book of Isaiah and maintain the traditional LDS notion of Book of Mormon historicity?

  16. Dave R
    October 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Dave, I love the perspective the Restored Gospel provides to scripture, but if i have a complaint, it’s that we treat with great suspicion any insight that comes from the academic world (or anything that wasn’t said first by a General Authority or by CES). However, I think the point from your last comment (understanding genre provides the proper framework for interpretation) nicely makes the case of why this topic is spiritually beneficial to the general membership.

    I’d also add one more benefit to separating sections of the bible into different literary categories. For me, it helps to provide a model for preserving the holiness of the scriptures. For example, it allows me to place the Servant Songs in Isaiah in a very different category then the story of the Philistines and the Ark. When reading about Job, Jonah, or even the creation story, it relieves me of the burden of having to continually ask, “How exactly did this happen?”, and instead I can focus on the story’s meaning.

    The problem you run into in sharing this perspective is that, at first glance, it sounds like a departure from what people have learned in church about the Bible. I think the trick is to show that in reality, the best way to honor the authors of the Bible isn’t necessarily with a literal interpretation (although it sometimes is). It’s reading their message as they intended you to understand it.

  17. Dave R
    October 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    Brad. I’ve had the same question. Don’t have a good answer, but for what it’s worth, i don’t see as much conflict there as i once did. Although I think Isaiah 40 – 66 was composed in its final form after Nephi left, the author of those chapters was greatly inspired by Isaiah. At the very least, some of the text (like Isaiah 53) was probably written before Nephi left (maybe for Hezekiah or another king of Judah) . . . and who knows, may have been written by Isaiah or one of his contemporaries.

    The chapters you reference are easily some of the most beautiful and important ones in the Bible. I’m not surprised the Lord wanted them included in the Book of Mormon, whether Isaiah actually wrote them all or not.

  18. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    October 24, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I was attracted to study the Bible, because of an aura of non-performance at the crucial moment in the stories. The mystical and symbolic hovers somewhere, giving me the hope that I do not yet have a fullness of understanding. That is why I think many dare not reject the Bible and have found different reasons for studying it. It also helps that the KJV was written during a period, when the English language was at its peak in turning a phrase.

    In pondering the non-spiritual aspects of the stories against what I have learned of the restored doctrines; I have wondered whether misdirection was a motive in the use of Jews and Jewish in the John’s writing. Is it intentional or random? Is it really important?

    The consequences have reverberated throughout Christian political history with a devastating effect as multi-millions of Jews were persecuted and murdered. The Jewish and Mormon religions are ruled by High Councils. It is an ancient pattern going back to the pre-existence. In re-imagining the use of Jews, Jewish and substituting High Council in some instances, I get a different picture as to who the culprits were, who crucified Jesus.

    It was not really the Jewish people, who murdered Jesus. Yet they had to live with the consequences. His murderers possibly could be descendants of the Priesthood of Aaron, whose family was chosen to serve in that capacity? It is not Aaron or the Priesthood that is guilty of blasphemy; just that powerful Spirits from among the great ones in the pre-existence met in mortal combat in the meridian of our history.

    Misdirection is a convenient tool for those, who make or judge our moral or legal behavior. Just look at our current US and State lawmakers; they are now full throttle pointing fingers at each other. Accusing US citizens, members of the Tea Parties and Independents of greater transgressions, while they cover the ones have already committed. People in general are subject to laws and end up in jails.

    Once legal and moral foundation has been compromised, who will be our magistrate? Is another great escape in the offing? No! This time will not be a repeat of what happened then. Jesus, Christ has been glorified and the Judgment Bar of God, the Father is in preparation and awaits all of them.

  19. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    October 29, 2010 at 6:30 am

    What I have observed about people and how they accept biblical ideas? Symbolism or Signs are confusing, because we expect it to motivate us and change our behavior, but it does not work that way. These terms are mental bridges between what we know and what advantages, we think, it will bring. Jesus of Nazareth was confronted with the need to explain ideas about our earthly and spiritual continuity in our relationship with God. He explained it using parables and allegories. These are literary devices to help the mind, but not our immediate wants.

    For some men the strongest motive is the desire to maintain control over what they possess and to form secret networks for relationships to perpetuate it. Life on earth has its limits, because death is a natural part of everyone’s experience. We all see, eat, think, create opportunities in our environment and enjoy the relationships of our family and friends.

    Jesus spoke to His disciples, saying you must eat of My flesh and drink My blood. It was misunderstood, even by His Apostles, until His resurrection, when He met with them in Galilee. He spent only 40 days with them before He departed for His other sheep.

    The Lord had gained popularity with His healings of the sick and His messages of hope. The Pharisees ridiculed Him publically for having said it and claimed that it came from the devil. The Pharisees wanted to change the public’s opinion and asked Him for a sign that He was the promised Messiah. For them His parables, allegories and miracles were not convincing enough to worship God, the Father.

    What the Lord wanted the Apostles to know, was that even though He was the Messiah, that conditions would not change immediately and to accept His suffering and death at the uncaring hands of others, as part of their experience, if it should happen to them. The Lord was no ordinary Man. Joseph was His adopted father. The Angel Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would come and that God would be His true Father.

    The Pharisees enjoyed the special privileges of their high offices and were determined to keep it, at least until the normal end of their lives. They were chasing the desires of their thoughts and were losing touch with the consequences of their rule. They sought His death, thinking it would extend their rule. Some 30 years later many had forgotten the special circumstance of His birth and only remembered Him as a member of Joseph and Mary’s family. The Lord did not show them a sign, because He also came as the Son of Eve. He had to prepare our earth and its inhabitants into conditions acceptable to His Father and become the Savior of everyone living or dead.

    The miracles were a bridge to the Holy Ghost, a Comforter and a Guide, to cross between living in a mortal body and the return to the presence of God. It was necessary to have a people willing to listen and obey God’s Commandments. This increases Faith, because without it we would not accept God as the Father of our spirit and body.

    The special circumstances of His birth gave Jesus the right to receive the Fullness of His Father’s creation, which Adam initially received, when it became entangled in multiple transgressions. Subsequently all, who had Faith in Him would be redeemed.

    Can there be Everlasting Life without the knowledge that God is the Father of our bodies? What is stored in our mind cannot proof that God lives. The proof is in our behavior toward God and our neighbors.

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