Book Excerpt: How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor
Chapter 8 — Love Notes and Lockers
It’s time to get on the sentimental train.
I met my wife in junior high and we hung out as friends until, sometime during our freshman year in high school, we hit it off at a social event. We were in a club together. Bass Buster’s, I think. (Now that’s what I call a woman!) Sparks flew and we began to see each other more frequently.
As the relationship developed during our sophomore year, we arranged to have lockers beside each other so that we could say hi between classes. On certain days of the week, however, our schedules kept us from seeing each other. Because this was before cell phones and texting, we developed a system for leaving notes for each other.
On those days, fifth period was a highlight. After class I would fly across campus to my locker in anticipation of a love letter. Disregarding friends and bypassing hallway antics, I was a man on a mission, eager to hear from my honey.
Upon arriving at my destination, I would fling open the locker to find a nicely folded, highly decorated, heart-drawn, perfume-scented letter. Glory!
I couldn’t wait to open up that note and devour every syrupy sentiment, but time was my enemy. I couldn’t read it until my next class way across campus: American history. I hurried to class, sat in the back row, propped up my textbook as a shield, and began reading sweet nothings from my girl. In my attempt to be a good student of history, I gave the note an initial once-over, put it away, and tried desperately to focus on the Magna Carta, the English colonies, the Royal Navy, and the Treaty of Ghent—but my mind kept drifting back to my girl’s note. This was my routine the entire semester.
To this day, American history gets really fuzzy somewhere around the War of 1812. Whatever. I eventually got a great wife out of the deal!
Hanging on Every Word
Safely hidden within the solitude of my textbook love castle, I did three things with the letter. First, I read her words multiple times. Why? Because I had a love letter! Despite my vain attempts to focus on American history, I always broke down; I just had to read it again . . . and again . . . and again.
Second, I read it carefully. I read it slowly, searching for insights. I was a boyfriend on the hunt, trying to see how she referenced me. Did she call me cute? Did she notice my biceps? Did I say something that made her laugh? In search of assurance that I was heading in the right direction, I measured her words, hoping for affirmation.
Third, I read the letter with discernment, because I cared for her. It was important for me to know how she was doing. Was there something I could do to please her or assist her throughout the day? Was she telling me something without telling me? (And you know what I mean, guys.) I was developing feelings for her. My growing love prompted me to cultivate selfless concern, thoughtful compassion, and a perceptive ear.
Sound wise? Certainly. Especially if you want to keep your girlfriend!
If that’s how we read a love letter, how should we approach the Word of God?
The State of Reading in Western Culture
In Western culture and in developing countries, reading as a skill set is on the decline. It’s happening right in front of our eyes. As we do more texting and tweeting, and turn to visual and audible media for information, we simply aren’t reading as much as we used to. And the recent studies prove it.
In a telling Los Angeles Times article, Hector Tobar states:
The reading skills of American adults are significantly lower than those of adults in most other developed countries, according to a new international survey. What’s more, over the last two decades Americans’ reading proficiency has declined across most age groups . . . The study of 160,000 people by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is composed of two dozen developed nations, found that U.S. adults had reading levels that were below average, and lagged far behind those of Japan (which scored at the top), several Scandinavian countries, Australia and Korea.1
What’s more, the 2013 OECD Skills Outlook study, as referenced in the article above, reveals an alarming trend for United States study participants in their thirties and forties. In one part of the study, the report documents two literacy tests given in 1994 and 2012 to that age-group. People in their thirties and forties in 2012 scored significantly lower than people in their same age-group in 1994.2
To summarize (just in case you skimmed that last part): Reading skills have declined.
This is not to say that cognition or recall is down; only that reading and reading skills are in decline. Obviously, if reading is down, the skill of observational reading is down. The two issues are connected. So, how does this apply to you and me?
Simply put: If we want to become better students of the Word, we must become better readers.
For some of you, this is not an issue at all. You scarf down books like a good meal. You will devour this book in several hours and be on to the next one. However—slow down for this next sentence—for avid readers, the question is not the volume of material they read, but the manner in which they read it. That is especially true when reading Scripture. If you are an enthusiastic reader, use this discussion as an opportunity to strengthen your reading comprehension skills.
For others, this section may be confrontational. In fact, it may be very confrontational. If you are a child of the digital age and you’re wired to communicate in short bursts of tweets and texts, you may need to cultivate some basic reading skills.
I say that not to demean you but to encourage you. Our shared goal is to become better students of the Word. This calls for all of us to improve our ability to read purposefully and observationally.
Reading the Bible Like a Love Letter
Remember my approach to reading my love letters? If you recall, I did three important things while reading each note:
- I read it repeatedly.
- I read it for details.
- I read it for insights.
By adapting these habits and establishing other helpful guidelines, we can gain more from our time reading the Bible. When studying a biblical text, try the following:
Read the passage multiple times and in multiple translations
When reading a Bible passage, read it slowly several times. And if you’re alone, try reading it out loud with expression. Pretend you’re reading it for someone else. Why? Because we miss details when we skim over the words silently. When we slow down to sound out the words and read them with expression, our minds must consider how the words are used and why the writer arranged them as they appear. This exercise allows for a more complete and developed understanding of the text.
For most readers, it takes time and repetition for words to sink in and stick. It is like listening to a new song. The first few times, you get the beat and you find the hook—that catchy part of the song that draws you in. After listening to it a few more times, you begin to pick up a few words. Listen enough times, and you can sing the song from memory and you reflect upon what the composer has revealed.
The patient and diligent reader who takes the time to repeatedly read a passage inevitably gains greater understanding.
For readers of the English language, it is also helpful to read a passage in multiple English translations. There is only one Bible. There is only one Word of God. And all Scripture is God-breathed. But the Bible was not written in English. (Shockingly, not even the English of King James.) The Old Testament was originally writ- ten in Hebrew and Aramaic. The writers of the New Testament used Greek. All modern Bibles are translations of those original manuscripts.
Then why are there so many translations? Because languages change as cultures develop. Every language evolves over time as each generation of speakers use words and phrases differently. For example, the King James translation is still the most widely read English translation. Originally published in 1611 (and revised multiple times since then), this version is now difficult to read and therefore difficult to understand. It uses Shakespearean English, which sounds majestic and formal, but is difficult to comprehend. For example, consider the King James rendering of Job 36:33:
The noise thereof sheweth concerning it,
the cattle also concerning the vapour.
Sheweth? I doubt you use that word often. And I’m not sure I even want to know what’s going on with cow vapor. It brings back bad memories of an earlier chapter when I was stuck in the cattle pen.
Note how the New International Version assists us in understanding the meaning of the text:
His thunder announces the coming storm;
even the cattle make known its approach.
See my point? I’m not belittling any translation. The King James Version made perfect sense to the readers of that era. Today, we must use translations of the Scripture that have these qualities:
- Reliable—it is accurate and thorough.
- Contemporary—it uses present- day language and grammar.
- Understandable— it strives for readability, comprehension, and clarity.
Today, English-speaking students of Scripture are blessed with many versions of the Bible that are reliable, contemporary, and understandable. My goal is not to recommend a particular translation or talk you out of the one you’re currently using. That said, here is a list of sound, dependable translations commonly available today:
- New American Standard Bible (NASB: completed in 1971 [NT in 1963])
The NASB is a solid translation that renders a word-for-word translation wherever possible. This dedication to literalness can, however, come across as stiff and stilted in style.
- New English Bible (NEB: completed in 1971)
The NEB was a completely new translation when it hit the market. It is a phrase-for-phrase rendering, which gives the translators more latitude than a word-for-word version would. The smoother English style sometimes sacrifices accuracy, which can mislead the reader at times.
- New King James Version (NKJV: completed in 1982)
The NKJV is a much-improved KJV. The original KJV used the best manuscripts of the day. Four hundred years later, however, the NKJV translators had better, older, and more numerous manuscripts. Although the style is choppy at times, it still has a majestic read.
- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV: completed in 1989)
The NRSV is a literal translation that updates the RSV. It purposefully uses gender-inclusive language where possible. This is helpful for modern readers, but gender-inclusive language can be overapplied. The Bible writers used ancient customs and relationships—which, right or wrong, were paternalistic—to illustrate spiritual truths. Sometimes, deeper insights can be lost in gender-inclusive translation.
- New English Translation (NET: completed in 2005)
The NET is easy to read and very accurate. It has translation notes that are extremely helpful for readers who want greater interaction with original languages. If you’re intrigued by the technical issues involved in translation (mostly grammar), you will enjoy the NET Bible.
- English Standard Version (ESV: completed in 2001)
The ESV maintains a helpful balance between the formality of the KJV and the word-for-word accuracy of the NASB. It is very thorough and theologically accurate.
- New International Version (NIV: completed in 1978; updated in 2011)
The NIV has been the top-selling and most popular translation since its publication. As a thought-for-thought translation, it is easy to read, although it does sacrifice detail. Even so, it is a very strong and reliable translation.
There is no such thing as a perfect translation. All versions have strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is essential to read a passage in different versions so you can consider alternative phrasing. The versions taken together will assist in understanding. In fact, some publishers have taken advantage of this idea by printing Bibles with as many as four translations side by side.
Reading a text multiple times and in multiple translations will help you work the text.3
2. Read the passage with precision and for detail
As I sat in American history class, I read my love letters like a hungry dog licking every last morsel from his food bowl. I devoured every word. Why? Because I didn’t want to miss any details. I paid special attention to how she described things. I traced the word pictures she used. If she told a story, I followed her train of thought to make sure I clearly understood what she wrote. (I might be tested on it later.) In a nutshell, I paid attention.
Read the Word of God in much the same way. When you study a particular passage of Scripture, make yourself slow down so you won’t miss the details. This goes hand in hand with reading the text repeatedly. This helps you see things you would have missed if you’d zipped through the passage too quickly. Train yourself to notice the little things.
For example, consider the creation account in Genesis 1. The writer didn’t produce an exhaustive chronicle to include every detail. Instead, he focused on certain details to lead us on a narrative journey. Repetition is one clue that helps us recognize what the writer intends to highlight. Read Genesis 1 slowly, and preferably out loud with expression. Take note of the word good.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
God, as the Creator, brings all things into existence, and He calls these things “good.” God first notes that the light is “good” (Genesis 1:4). As the creative days progress, a rhythmic theme unfolds. God creates, observes what He has created, and the narrator states, “And God saw that it was good.”
The Hebrew word for “good” implies gratification, that which gives aesthetic or moral satisfaction. It’s pretty simple: Upon seeing what He created, God was happy with it. He was satisfied. This theme is carried through the rest of the chapter. The author desires the reader to see, and hear, the resounding response: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25).
Do you think we are supposed to pick up on something? See a clue? Yes! When God creates, “it is good.”
Then something happens that breaks the pattern. God creates humanity, but this time it is not simply “good”; it is “very good” (Genesis 1:31, emphasis added). See the detail? Everything else is “good.” But man and woman are “very good.” It’s no surprise that the next two chapters zero in on God’s most prized creation.
Consider also Daniel 3, the account of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three Hebrew juveniles uprooted from Jerusalem and transplanted to Babylon. When challenged to worship anything or anyone but God, they wouldn’t bend, bow, or burn. It is a fascinating and powerful story.
The episode opens with Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, making an image of gold ninety feet high and nine feet wide. Having set up the idol on the plain of Dura, the king instructed everyone to attend the dedication. Ever notice whom the text lists as instructed to attend? If you’re like most, probably not. We typically zoom past the guest list and fast-forward to the action scene. Take note of what the text says in Daniel 3:2:
He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up.
Those are quirky little titles. Now pay attention to what happens next in Daniel 3:3:
So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it.
First, note how the attendees are described in detail. Precise position titles of those in significant authority are given. To be exact, eight titles are stated in the text. The author could have chosen to say, “High-ranking officials were present.” But he did not. Each title, and the detail represented in the position, is given. If we identify each title, this is what we find:
- Satraps were administrators of large provinces.
- Prefects were military commanders who presided over various army ranks.
- Governors were administrators over small territories.
- Advisers were counselors to governmental officials.
- Treasurers were administrators of governmental funds.
- Judges were overseers and writers of Babylonian law.
- Magistrates were enforcers of Babylonian law.
- Provincial officials were governmental executives and high-ranking officials.
Second, note that the titles are duplicated. In other words, the author provides the same list in the exact order in two verses in sequence. Why? Because he is emphasizing the positions. (Repetition is always a clue.) The author doesn’t want us to miss who was required to attend. This is a Who’s Who of everyone who is anyone in Babylon. This is the upper echelon of society. These are the power brokers. These were the faces on the Babylonian edition of People magazine and the lead stories on Babylonian TMZ. The paparazzi followed these folks to the plain of Dura.
What did they eventually do upon command? They “fell down and worshiped the image of gold” (Daniel 3:7). Everyone except our three heroes. They didn’t conform when everyone else followed the king’s immoral order. They stood their ground. And when they stood upright among all those bowed to the ground, everyone who was anyone saw it. The detailed description helps us see their bold stand.
Read the details. It opens up the text and makes it come alive.
3. Read the passage with discernment and sensitivity
Discernment and sensitivity help us read between the lines.
Now, hold on. You may be thinking, “Is he talking about identifying a hidden meaning?” Oh my, no! I’m merely suggesting that we need to be discerning and sensitive to what the author is saying and how he is saying it. When reading a biblical text, always ask yourself, “What is the author doing with what the author is saying?”
A colleague of mine refers to this as “pericopal theology.”4 A “pericope” is a unit of thought or a single story. When reading a pericope, we must be sensitive to the meaning portrayed by an author and pay close attention to how he has chosen to express it in writing. In other words, it is identifying the theological thrust within a literary unit.
OK, I admit that last paragraph is very nerdy. Forgive me. I am, after all, a seminary professor. Let me break it down and illustrate it.
It is important for us to remember that the writer of a given biblical text is leading us on a journey, and he has a purpose for writing. Sometimes the author is very direct. The apostle John states, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Other times, the author is . . . well, not so direct. Sometimes we have to read between the lines and allow the author to direct us through the text’s line of thought. We do this by taking note of what happens in the story, as well as what doesn’t happen. We have to discern what the writer is trying to accomplish by noticing words that are used and through circumstances that are revealed. Sometimes we must be like detectives and connect units together to understand the author’s intended meaning.
Example: Jesus Calms the Storm
Let me illustrate. Mark 4 concludes with a scene in which Jesus calms the superstorm on the Sea of Galilee. Mark describes it this way: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped” (v. 37).
Where is Jesus? Jesus is in the stern, catching some z’s. In a moment of panic, the disciples wake Him up. Jesus then does what only He can do. He says to the storm (in the Yarbrough paraphrased version), “Enough! Shut up.”
Mark tells us that the sea became calm. How did the disciples respond? No “Hot diggity dogs” or “We aren’t dying today, boys” statements. They question Jesus’ identity. They ask, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41).
Let their question hang there for a minute, and we’ll come back to it.
Unfortunately, that’s where we usually let that story come to an end. But look how the narrative continues in the next literary unit. Yes, I know. That’s moving into chapter 5. Don’t let that confuse you. Chapter breaks and verse numbers were added long after the text was written. This helps us organize and reference the text, but sometimes it obscures the literary flow (or the “pericopal theology”).
Mark wants us to see that immediately after the “Who is this?” question, Jesus and His disciples went across the lake to the regions of the Gerasenes. There they met a man who was possessed by an evil spirit. Pay attention to the words of the demon. When it saw Jesus from a distance, the evil spirit caused the man to shout, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mark 5:7).
What do you notice about the connection? Are you following where Mark is leading us? The disciples ask, “Who is this man?” The best title they can come up with is “Teacher” (Mark 4:38). But the demon knows. Jesus is the Son of the Most High God.
When piecing together these clues in seeking Mark’s pericopal theology, it appears he wants his readers to consider the true identity of the man, Jesus, and to make their own decisions about Him. If a demonized man recognizes Jesus as God’s Son, the Savior of the world, what conclusion should we draw?
Mark is connecting a series of stories to tell his readers a singular story.
If you want to be a good student of the Word, you must become a good reader. And when studying the Bible, read it like a love letter.
- Read it repeatedly.
- Read it for details.
- Read it for insights.
When you do, the text will begin to speak—sometimes louder than you can stand.
1 Hector Tobar, “American Adults Have Low (and Declining) Reading Proficiency,” Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2013, http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la‑et‑jc‑american-adults-have-lowand-declining-reading-proficiency-20131008-story.html.
2 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “OECD Skills Outlook 2013,” http://skills.oecd.org/OECD_Skills_Outlook_2013.pdf.
3 For an excellent overview of the translation practices and the process of choosing a Bible translation, see Daniel B. Wallace, “Choosing a Bible Translation,” Bible Study Magazine, http://biblestudymagazine.com/preview/choosetranslationWeb.pdf. For an excellent book, see Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007).
4 Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! (Chicago: Moody, 2013), 110–18.
About the Contributors
Mark M. Yarbrough
Dr. Mark Yarbrough serves as the sixth President of Dallas Theological Seminary and is a professor of Bible Exposition. He has been in a variety of positions during his tenure at DTS: Research Assistant to the President, Executive Director of Information Technology, Associate Dean for External Education, Vice President for Communications, Academic Dean, and Vice President of Academic Affairs.
His love for the classroom draws him to the Bible Exposition department where he serves as Professor. Along with his responsibilities of leading DTS, he serves as an elder of Centerpoint Church in Mesquite and travels extensively leading tours and speaking at conference centers. Mark has recently authored Jonah: Beyond the Tale of a Whale and Tidings of Comfort and Joy. He has been married for thirty years to Jennifer, his high school sweetheart. They have four adult children, one son-in-law, and reside in Sunnyvale, Texas.