March 6 - 12
Understanding Biblical Literature
READ FOR THIS WEEK'S STUDY: Exod. 25; Ps. 19; 80:7-11; Matt. 13:34, 44-46; Isa. 40:26; 2 Cor. 5:7, 9; 10:1-13; Heb. 9:1-9; Rev. 6:1-8.
MEMORY TEXT: "They that seek the Lord understand all things" (Proverbs 28:5).
KEY THOUGHT: Because literary style strongly affects interpretation, it is extremely helpful if the Bible student is aware of the principles that apply to the interpretation of some of the literary devices such as poetry, symbols, types, allegories (symbolic stories), and parables.
BE AWARE OF WHAT SYMBOLS MEANT TO THOSE USING THEM. Biblical writers use symbols and expressions known to their audiences, but in order to understand them, we need to become acquainted with the meaning they attach to the language they use. Here several principles of interpretation could be useful. First, the language should be interpreted literally unless there is clear contextual evidence that symbols are being used. The parable of the good Samaritan mentions a donkey (Luke 10:34, NIV). In some parts of the Bible, kings rode on donkeys. Does it mean that this man was a king? Of course not! This was his means of transportation, and it does not have any specific symbolic meaning in the story. Second, the meaning of a symbol must be determined by the Bible itself. Third, one is to deter-mine the central truth each parable or type intends to teach and avoid giving a particular meaning to every detail of the story or narrative.
In the Scriptures "there is poetry which has called forth the wonder and admiration of the world. In glowing beauty, in sublime and solemn majesty, in touching pathos, it is unequaled by the most brilliant productions of human genius."Counsels to Teachers, p.429.
For examples of beauty, nobility, and majesty in Hebrew poetry, read Isaiah 40:26 and Psalm 19. What are some expressions that catch your attention in these poems?
Hebrew poetry does not depend on regular accent and rhyme but on the repetition of thoughts expressed in the verse. This is called parallelism. There are three primary forms of parallelism found in the Bible:
1. Synonymous parallelism: The fundamental thought is repeated in
the second line of a couplet.
Line one"O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
Line two"or discipline me in your wrath" (Ps. 38:1, NIV).
Notice that rebuke is defined in the parallel line as a disciplinary action. Both lines express the same thought in slightly different language. Comparing the two lines makes the interpretation of the verse easier.
2. Antithetical or contrasted parallelism: The thought of the first
line is explained by its contrast or reversal in the second line.
Line one"The wicked borrow and do not repay,
Line two"but the righteous give generously" (Ps. 37:21).
The contrast is between the wicked and the righteous and their different inner dispositions toward others. Notice also that while the wicked have to borrow, the righteous have enough to share generously with others.
3. Synthetic or constructive parallelism: The thought of the first
line is completed, enlarged, or intensified in the second line.
Line one "I sought the Lord, and he answered me;"
Line two"He delivered me from all my fears" (Ps. 34:4).
The first line describes the psalmist seeking the Lord and the Lord listening to him but does not tell us what his concern is. This is done in the second line: The psalmist is possessed by fear produced possibly by the problems confronting him.
|The Psalms show that the Lord cares for and protects us regardless of the hardships that come our way. How do such hardships lead us to a closer relationship with Him? Think of a character in the Bible who experienced hardship and share with your class how the trials that he or she faced actually brought this person closer to Christ.|
Bible types are rooted in history yet applicable to the future. They are realities that later Bible writers indicate apply to antitypes. For example, see the following list of types and study the texts next to them to discover how types meet antitypes.
|Exodus||1 Cor. 10:1-3|
|Elijah||Mal. 4:5; Matt. 11:12-14|
|Passover||1 Cor. 5:7, 9|
|Jonah's release||Matt. 12:39, 40|
|Day of Atonement||Dan. 8:13, 14; Rev. 14:7|
Interpreting Types. Not every type meets its full counterpart in the New Testament. Some have later eschatological significance. Because types do not apply in every detail to antitypes, it is important to take into account the differences between the two. The only safe interpretation is to follow the lead of inspired writers. Antitypes usually are broader in meaning and have a more vital and ultimate reality than do types.
"Types frequently have spiritual meaning both for the times when they were given and the future. Especially are the OT types important to the interpretation of the NT, so that there is great loss in attempts to separate the study of the NT from a careful exegetical and theological exposition of the OT. Care must be exercised to differentiate between type and prediction. Although a type has reference to the future, it is not itself a prediction. Rather, it is recorded as historical fact without evident reference to the future. The antitype proves to be the 'body' of which the type was a foreshadowing."W. 0. C. Murdoch, "Interpretation of Symbols, Types, Allegories, and Parables," in A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. G. M. Hyde (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1974), p.214.
Of what was literal Israel a type? Rom. 2:28, 29.
"Israel was God's chosen people in the OT era. They were called to do a special work, but failed their commission. In the NT God called another people, who were free from ethnic restrictions. Their faith and commitment centered in Christ. The OT promises are now fulfilled to them who are Jews inwardly."Murdoch, Symposium, p.215.
A religious symbol is a representation of an idea or an object that helps an observer grasp a difficult truth. Often it teaches a particular lesson as did the flaming sword at the Garden of Eden. There are prophetic symbols such as those used in Daniel and Revelation and New Testament symbols that supersede Old Testament ones such as those used in the Communion service. Probably some of the most fascinating prophetic symbols to Seventh-day Adventists are those used in the earthly sanctuary service that symbolized events and services that would take place in the heavenly sanctuary.
What do the following furnishings of the sanctuary symbolize?
Altar of Burnt OfferingRom. 12:1 _____________________________________
LaverTitus 3:5, 6 __________________________________________________
CandlesticksJohn 8:12 ______________________________________________
Table of ShewbreadJohn 6:48 ________________________________________
Altar of IncenseRev. 8:3, 4 __________________________________________
Ark of the CovenantHeb. 4:16 _______________________________________
"The matchless splendor of the earthly tabernacle reflected to hu-man vision the glories of that heavenly temple where Christ our forerunner ministers for us before the throne of God. The abiding place of the King of kings, ... filled with the glory of the eternal throne, where seraphim, its shining guardians, veil their faces in adoration, could find, in the most magnificent structure ever reared by human hands, but a faint reflection of its vastness and glory. Yet important truths concerning the heavenly sanctuary and the great work there carried forward for man's redemption were taught by the earthly sanctuary and its services."The Great Controversy, p. 414.
Interpreting symbols. No symbol should ever be treated in such a way that it is made to contradict the plain teachings of the Bible. In the interpretation of symbols, some details may be incidental and of no particular significance. In defining the meaning of a symbol, study all other Bible passages that use the same symbol. There is a possibility that a symbol could have more than one meaning. For example, both Christ and Satan are referred to as "lions" (Rev. 5:5; 1 Pet. 5:8). In those cases, the context determines the specific use of the symbol. When the context or other inspired writers do not explain a symbol clearly, it is best to keep silent rather than speculate as to its meaning.
A parable is an illustration that indicates that something is like something else. Often a common narrative or ordinary circumstance is used to illustrate a truth. One of Jesus' favorite teaching devices was the use of parables. (See Matt. 13:34.)
What major truth did Jesus illustrate in the parable of the hidden treasure? Matt. 13:44.
This parable is based on a rather common occurrence in the Palestine of Christ's day. It was a time when bank vaults did not exist. Thefts, robberies, and invasions were frequent. Those who had valuables worth trying to preserve often followed the custom of burying them in their fields. If, however, the individual or individuals who knew where the family treasure was hidden were slain or exiled, the place where the treasure had been concealed might be forgotten.
In this parable a man was working his neighbor's field on shares. One day he was plowing the field when, suddenly, the plow struck something metallic. He stopped the oxen and found a small treasure chest. As he broke it open, he recognized that it contained a fortune far exceeding anything he ever hoped to own. But according to the laws of that country, it wasn't his unless he owned the field. Covering it up, he ran over to the owner's house and urged him to sell the field.
"I'm sorry, friend. It's not for sale. This property has been in my family for generations, and I don't want to sell it." But the anxious purchaser wouldn't take No for an answer. Finally the owner, in order to get rid of him, placed a ridiculously high price on the field. "All right, I'll buy it!" the discoverer of the treasure answered, rushing off to sell everything he owned so he could complete the transaction.
Jesus did not tell the story to teach us how to take advantage of our neighbors. The point is that when we find hidden treasure worth far more than anything we ever expected to be ours, we joyfully give all we have for it.
"This parable illustrates the value of the heavenly treasure, and the effort that should be made to secure it. The finder of the treasure in the field was ready to part with all that he had, ready to put forth untiring labor, in order to secure the hidden riches. So the finder of heavenly treasure will count no labor too great and no sacrifice too dear, in order to gain the treasures of truth.
"In the parable the field containing the treasure represents the Holy Scriptures. And the gospel is the treasure."Christ's Object Lessons, p.104.
|What is your "hidden treasure"?|
An allegory is a story or narrative in which several elements are compared to and are practically equated with each other. It is usually formed by a list of points that are easily identifiable. For example, in the story of the Good Shepherd, the shepherd is Christ, the sheep are people for whom He dies, and the flock represents those who follow Jesus (John 10:1-16; see A. B. Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1963], pp.230, 231). We have to allow the text itself to identify the key points of the allegory that are relevant for the message that is being communicated. Look at the following allegories:
In Psalm 80:7-11, Israel is likened to a vine transplanted from Egypt that prospered in the Promised Land. List the different points of comparison.
Galatians 4:21-31 illustrates the difference between the old and new covenants. Identify the points used in the comparison.
Hagar represents the old covenant and Jerusalem; Sarah represents the new covenant and the heavenly Jerusalem; Isaac is the son of the promise, and Ishmael is the son of the flesh. The tension between the two sons is the tension between justification by faith and legalism.
Paul is illustrating "the freedom Christians have in Christ's grace in contrast to the bondage of trying to earn salvation by works. Isaac was the child of faith, Ishmael the son of works. . . .
"In attempting to interpret an allegory we should  always bear in mind the original hearers,  the author's reason for using the device, and  the basic points of comparison stressed by him. Recognition of the messages for the original and present readers is vital for the interpreter."Murdoch, Symposium, p.218.
Understanding the Song of Solomon. This book has been considered by many commentators to be an allegory in which the basic points of comparison would be the king/Christ and the bride/the Church. The allegorical method of interpreting this book has resulted in speculations of different types with little, if any, foundation based on the biblical text; and here one must be very careful. We have here a beautiful collection of love poems that illustrate in a very appropriate way God's intention and will for husbands and wives. Of course, there are many other spiritual lessons that we can learn by reading the book. Ellen White applies Song of Solomon 6:10 to the church and 4:15 to the Word of God (see Prophets and Kings, pp.724, 725).
FURTHER STUDY: Apply what you have learned in this lesson to deciding the proper category for the following examples:
|A. Symbol||____ Baptism|
|B. Type||____ The vineyard in Isaiah 5|
|C. Allegory||____ The Day of Atonement|
|D. Parable||____ Rending of temple veil at the time of Jesus' death|
|____ Marriage feast in Matthew 22:1-14|
|____ The marriage of a king in Psalm 45|
|____ The sacrificial lamb|
(There can be honest differences of opinion as to that which is the most appropriate category for these examples. Be prepared to give your reasons for putting them in the category you chose.)
WORD FOR REVIEW: Parallelism. This is the most common type of Hebrew poetry. As we learned this week, it arranges ideas in pairs in order to explain or contrast them. (For biblical examples, see Sunday's lesson.)
SUMMARY: Because most of the literary devices studied can be easily misunderstood or misapplied, we must be careful to understand them in the terms of what they meant to those who used them or to applications made by later inspired writers. The Bible is to be understood as it plainly reads, unless the context clearly indicates that literary devices such as symbols and parables are involved. Although interpreting figurative language involves careful and prayerful study, we should not pass up the opportunity to gain the rich rewards that come from becoming acquainted with Bible poetry and symbolism.
When Ivan told his wife, Lidia, that they were going to his parents' home on Saturday to work in the garden, he hoped to put a top to her foolish new notion that God expected people to rest on the Sabbath day. All week Lidia prayed that God would intervene so she would not have to work on Sabbath. But by Sabbath morning nothing had happened to prevent their trip, and the couple hitched their donkey to the cart and set out for the country.
While the family ate lunch, they heard a commotion outside. Ivan ran to the front door to see what had happened. There he saw his donkey lying in the middle of the road. Several neighbors stood Looking at the animal. "Something happened to your donkey," one man told Ivan. "He just fell to the ground."
"How can that be?" Ivan said, examining the donkey. "He was fine a little while ago." Ivan ordered the animal to stand, but the donkey did not respond. Ivan jerked on the halter and shouted at the donkey to get up, but the donkey did not move.
The neighbors pushed and tugged on the animal while Ivan pulled at the harness. But still the donkey did not respond.
"I can't imagine what is wrong," Ivan said, shaking his head. "We can't work in the garden without the donkey." Angry and frustrated, Ivan finally returned to the house to finish his lunch and mull over the problem. Lidia thanked God for providing a way to keep the Sabbath but prayed for the donkey's safety as well.
Several times that afternoon Ivan tried to get the donkey to stand, but nothing worked. Late in the afternoon Ivan gave up and slumped on the front step. It would be dark soon; how would they get back to town without the donkey?
At sunset the donkey stirred, then slowly stood to his feet. Amazed, Ivan ran to see if the donkey was fine. Finding nothing wrong, he hitched the cart to the donkey and called to Lidia that it was time to go home.
Ivan had little to say as they rode home that evening. Finally Lidia broke the silence. "I think that God made our donkey sleep all day so that I could keep the Sabbath holy," she said.
Ivan would not admit it, but he wondered as he listened to the donkey's brisk clip-clop on the road if Lidia might be right. Later that week when Lidia told him that she wanted to be baptized into the Adventist Church, he did not even try to change her mind.
Rae Patterson is the assistant director of the General Conference Office of Mission Awareness.
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