Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suggestions for a Close Reading of a Biblical Text

Are you interested in learning to read the Bible more productively? Here are some brief suggestions to help you.

There are three core elements in learning to study a text closely: observe the text, ask questions, and seek answers.

First, observe the details in the text and record observations. The wise interpreter continually captures insights and observations through careful note-taking. Read slowly. Take your time. This is particularly true for familiar passages. Don’t assume that you know the meaning of any text. Ponder the words and phrases found in the text. Savor the images and language used to convey the text’s message. Notice how the individual words are connected together into a tapestry. You may find it helpful to read a couple of different translations and record the differences as a means of reflecting on the text. Stay put within the confines of the passage you are studying. Resist the temptation to flip to another part of the Bible until after you have carefully engaged the text that you are studying. Describe it. Dissect it. Paraphrase it. Analyze it. Observe recurring words, phrases, ideas, and themes. Establish an outline or create a chart to organize its content. Above all, don’t give up. Persist in the process of collecting your own observations and insights. This process will prove generative in terms of the insights and new questions that will emerge.

Second, while making observations, be sure to write out questions that your observations lead you to ask. Engaged reading requires this. The best interpreters of the Scripture are those who ask the most penetrating questions. This process of reading the text carefully and recording a series of observations and questions is the secret to engaging the Bible at a deep level. Observations lead to questions, and questions guide the interpreter to new insights. Ask questions that engage the text at two levels: defining questions and questions about function. Defining questions attempt to gain a full description of the content of the text (“What’s here?” “What is the precise and specific meaning of each element that is present?”). Functional questions focus on the “So what?” and attempt to probe beneath the surface to look for the deep meaning and implications. Let me offer an example. If we are studying Exodus 19:4-6, we will encounter a phrase that is unique in the Old Testament. In verse 6, we find, “You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” The twin noun phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation” are critical for the interpretation of this text. Regarding the phrases, we may ask the following defining questions: What is the precise and specific meaning of the phrases “kingdom of priests” and “a holy nation”? What is the relationship between these two phrases? Definitional questions are followed by functional ones: Why are these particular phrases being used here? What is their significance?

Third, answer key questions. In many ways, biblical interpretation is nothing more and nothing less than the answering of interpretive questions that the reader asks about the text. Review your observations and questions. Select the handful of questions whose answers are essential for making sense of the text. Begin answering your questions by looking at the observations that you have already made. What evidence have you already found through your close reading to begin to develop possible answers? If you need additional help in answering your questions, you may find it helpful to read other commentaries, look up subjects in a bible dictionary, or use a concordance to study key words as they are used elsewhere in Scripture. 

Wrap up
Summarize your answers along with the key evidence that supports them. When summarizing, attempt to answer a question such as this: If this were the only part of Scripture that I had, what would I know? 

For more details on these elements see the longer blog post: Reading the Bible Missionally: A Short Guide for Interpreters

Here are two books that will help you learn to read Scripture wisely and well:


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