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Interpreting the Bible with Common Sense and Context

My husband took the elevator to his office on the 37th floor of a high-rise building daily. During rush hour, the elevator was always packed bumper to bumper with people. One day, upon his arrival, he was pleasantly surprised that only one other person entered the elevator with him. He smiled over his good luck until the other person stood beside him, squeezing in uncomfortably close, shoulder-to-shoulder as if the elevator was full of people.

18th-century French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire spoke the truth when he said, “Common sense is not so common.” 

Interpreting the Bible requires common sense.

Common sense is sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts. It is based on logic and reason. Anybody, not just the highly educated, can have this ability. 

Last month, I discussed the first step of Bible study: Reading & Observation. I shared a story from high school about my brother accusing me of being “stuck up.” Evidently, on several occasions, I had walked past him in the hallways without acknowledging or saying hi to him. I was mortified. How could I not see my own brother in the hallway? Although unintentional, this faux pas indeed pointed to my self-absorption—not atypical for a teenager, not atypical for a human.

Years later, while attending seminary, I was confronted with behaving similarly with God and the Bible by my habit of rushing through my Bible reading. Bible reading had become a task to cross off the day’s To-Do list: DONE! The biggest thing I learned through pursuing a master’s in theology was not so much about God or the Bible. No, I learned how little I knew and how much more there is to learn! I also learned that if I was going to know the God of the Bible, I needed to slow down to observe. I had spent a lifetime walking past God in the hallway while reading my Bible. 

Good observation involves curiosity, slowing down to notice details, and asking God questions. As George MacDonald would say, “Eager disciples of Jesus ask questions of the Bible!” Asking questions makes the second step of Bible study, interpretation, easier.

Ask questions. Then, answer (or interpret) using common sense.

Those answers become our interpretation. Although no box or space is labeled common sense in our SIMPLY BIBLE workbooks, this tool provides a critical interpretation skill, similar to how slowing down is vital for good observation. The answer to our Bible question is often right before our eyes, even within the verse, paragraph, or chapter. A plain and simple, matter-of-fact reading and understanding are usually best when approaching Scripture. 

As we slow down to make good observations, the answers to our questions often jump off the page immediately. As I observe and ask questions, I automatically answer and interpret. Thus, in the workbooks, my observation and interpretation columns become blurred.

Let’s look at the first paragraph of Exodus:

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. Exodus 1:1-7

Admittedly, this passage is not the most exciting portion of Exodus. I’d be tempted to skim right past it. Asking questions helps me slow down to notice the details. Then, I can easily answer the questions as I ask:

  • Who? Israel/ Jacob and his 12 sons, including Joseph.
  • When? After Jacob and his sons and every one of that generation had died. (v.6)
  • Where? Egypt (v.1,5)
  • Why? There was a famine in Canaan. (Genesis 42:5)
  • What? Jacob and 70 members went to Egypt. Meanwhile, they all have died, but Egypt is full of Israelites.
  • How? They were fruitful, increased greatly, multiplied, and grew exceedingly strong.

But that’s too easy, Carmen! 

Bible study is not rocket science.

In other words, we glean a lot when we slow down, ask good questions, and answer them using text and common sense. As a beginner, with questions and answers neatly separated, my SIMPLY BIBLE book would look something like this:

Looks nice and neat, huh? 

Now, after growing in curiosity and study skills, my questions lead to more questions. So, I usually answer my simple detective questions in the OBSERVE column. This allows me more room under INTERPRET to ask more questions and expound on my insights.

My studies are usually messy:

Yeah. I wasn’t joking! 

As a side note, SIMPLY BIBLE books were created so that no two studies would look identical. Some SIMPLY BIBLE users are very orderly and neat, with logical lists and compare-and-contrast charts. Others are colorful and artistic, using hand lettering, quotes, and even the words to hymns and worship songs that come to mind. And there is everything in between. And some, like me, are messy. Although I wish my books looked logical or artistic, it’s best not to compare! So, if you’re asking, “Am I doing this right?” please know that your study will look unique to you. 

We don’t need to be academic scholars to know and enjoy God through the Bible. 

We grow in interpretation skills using common sense while walking through the step-by-step format of the SIMPLY BIBLE studies.

I listened to a podcast this week with N.T. Wright, a renowned biblical scholar. He commented (my paraphrase),

“I’m in my seventies and began studying this book of the Bible 40 years ago. Now, 40 years later, I continue to discover new insights to understand it.”

Friends, if N.T. Wright has not arrived, we won’t either. Beware of anyone who thinks they have all the right answers about God and the Bible! Follow N.T. Wright’s footsteps and faithfully study the Scriptures each day, enjoying the journey with God.

Asking and answering simple questions using common sense gets us started in the journey. 

Once we get the ball rolling, more questions fly off the page. It’s a snowball effect. Catapulted by the simple detective questions above. I ask more.

Question: Who is Jacob? Why is he also called Israel?

As I peek back at Genesis, I am reminded that he is Isaac’s son and Abraham’s grandson. 

Question: Who is Abraham?

To answer, we need more help than common sense; we need context. Context refers to the circumstances, information, or setting surrounding a particular event, situation, statement, or piece of data and helps to clarify its meaning. It provides the background or framework necessary. Context can include factors such as the time, place, people involved, social norms, cultural influences, and other relevant details that shape the meaning or significance of the subject in question.

Context is vital to understanding the original meaning. 

Remember: Moses did not write Exodus for us. He wrote a record, a journal of sorts, for the Israelites. Instead of reading the Bible from our twenty-first-century sensibilities, we try to see the world through the eyes of the Ancient Near East. I call it putting on my ancient Near East glasses and sandals in order to put myself in their context. What do I see when I ask, “Who is Abraham?” I see that these folks would never, and I mean never, ask.

They knew. 

For them, he is Father Abraham. They are his descendants. God established His covenant promise with him. 

Again, this brings up another question: What is the covenant promise?

We go back to Genesis to find the answer: God’s promise to Abraham included making him a great people, a land, and a blessing to all the world’s nations. It’s quite a promise. But if they are inheritors of God’s covenant promise, which included the land in Canaan, then what in the world are they doing in Egypt? That doesn’t make sense. 

Do you see the snowball effect of asking and answering questions? 

The passage’s meaning unfolds using context and common sense, even if we only have time to answer some of our questions.

We interpret the meaning by using common sense and context to answer our simple questions. At first glance, this paragraph appears mundane. In reality, Moses sets up the entire book of Exodus. As descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, what in the world are they doing in Egypt? This does not make sense! Hence, it’s as if Moses dangles a question before the people of Israel: 

When life doesn’t make sense, can we trust God?

This moves ahead to application! Life often does not make sense. Have you ever wondered if you could trust God? Now Moses has our attention. Exodus will answer!

Who knew that such a mundane passage could pack a powerful punch?

Many people fear being like the guy in the elevator, seemingly lacking in awareness and common sense in Bible study. Friend, God gives us common sense and promises to give wisdom when we ask, we can rest. He is generous, not stingy. As your Friend, He wants to be known by you and is excited about your pursuit of knowing Him through His Word. He will provide. 

Make common sense a common part of knowing God through the Bible.

Lord God, thank You for the gift of the Bible. Please help us grow in common sense and learn how to put ourselves in the shoes of the ancient Near East people to understand You and Your Word better. We long to know and trust You.

Practical application:

The next time you read the Bible, slow down. Then ask questions: who, what, where, when, how, and why. Try answering those questions using common sense and a plain reading of the text. See how far you get. Talk to God about what you discover. Talk with others about it. 

Next blog: We will discuss the interpretation tools of keywords and cross-references.

2 Responses

  1. This is really helpful to actually see another’s thought processing. While we are all different, it helps to have a visual from which we can then move on to our own style and way of observation and interpretation.

    1. Patti, thank you so much for your feedback. I had wondered if this blog was necessary. So I’m grateful that this was helpful! I’m a visual person, too. It would be fun if others could share a photo of a workbook page!

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