Interpretive Challenges A.T



Genesis

Grasping the individual messages of Genesis which make up the larger plan  and purpose of the book present no small challenge since both the individual accounts and the book’s overall message offer important lessons to faith and works. Genesis presents creation by divine fiat, ex nihilo, ie., “out of nothing.” Three traumatic events of epic proportions, namely the Fall, the universal Flood, and the Dispersion of nations are presented as historical backdrop in order to understand world history. From Abraham on, the pattern is to focus on God’s redemption and blessing.


The customs of Genesis often differ considerably from those of our modern day. They must be explained against their ancient Near Eastern background. Each custom must be treated according to the immediate context of the passage before any attempt is made to explain it based on customs recorded in extrabiblical sources or even elsewhere in Scripture.  

Exodus

The absence of any Egyptian record of the devastation of Egypt by the 10 plagues and the major defeat of Pharaoh’s elite army at the Read Sea should not give rise to speculation on whether the account is historically authentic. Egyptian historiography did not permit records of their pharaoh’s embarrassments and ignominious defeats to be published. In recording the Conquest under Joshua, Scripture specifically notes the three cities which Israel destroyed and burned (Jos 6:24; 8:28; 11:11- 13). The COnquest, after all, was one of takeover and inhabitation of property virtually intact, not a war designed to destroy. The date of Israel’s march into Canaan will no be confirmed, therefore, by examining extensive burn levels at city-sites of a later period.


Despite the absence of any extra biblical, ancient Near Eastern records of the Hebrew bondage, the plagues, the Exodus, and the Conquest, archeological evidence corroborates the early date. All the pharaohs, for example, of the 15th century left evidence of interest in building enterprises in Lower Egypt. These projects were obviously accessible to Moses in the Delta region near Goshen.


The typological significance of the tabernacle has occasioned much reflection. Ingenuity in linking every item of furniture and every piece of building material to Christ may appear most intriguing, but if NT statements and allusions do not support such linkage and typology then hermeneutical caution must rule. The tabernacle’s structure and ornamentation for efficiency and beauty are one thing, but finding hidden meaning and symbolism is unfounded. How the sacrificial and worship system of the tabernacle and its parts meaningfully typify the redeeming work of the coming Messiah must be left to those NT passages which treat the subject.   

Leviticus

Leviticus is both a manual for the worship of GOd in Israel and a theology of Old Covenant ritual. Comprehensive understanding of the ceremonies, laws, and ritual details prescribed in the book is difficult today because Moses assumed a certain context of historical understanding. Once the challenge of understanding the detailed prescriptions has been met, the question arises as to how believers in the church should respond to them, since the NT clearly abrogates OT ceremonial law (c.f. Ac 10:1-16; Col 2:16, 17), the levitical priesthood (c.f. 1Pe 2:9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), and the sanctuary (c.f. Mt 27:51), as well as instituting the New Covenant (c.f. Mt 26:28; 2Co 3:6-18; Heb 7:10). Rather than try to practice the old ceremonies or look for some deeper spiritual significance in them, the focus should be on the holy and divine character behind them.

 

This may partly be the reason that explanations which Moses often gave in the prescriptions for cleanness offer greater insight into the mind of God than do the ceremonies themselves. The spiritual principles in which the rituals were rooted are timeless because they are embedded in the nature of God. The NT makes it clear that from Pentecost forward (c.f. Ac 2), the church is under the authority of the New Covenant, not the Old (c.f. Heb 7-10).

 

The interpreter is challenged to compare features of this book with NT writes who present types or analogies based on the tabernacle and the ceremonial aspects of the law, so as to teach valuable lessons about Christ and New Covenant reality. Though the ceremonial law served only as a shadow of the reality of Christ and His redemptive work (Heb 10:1), excessive typology is to be rejected. Only that which NT writers identify as types of Christ should be so designated (c.f. 1Co 5:7, “Christ, our Passover lamb”).

 

The most profitable study in Leviticus is that which yields truth in the understanding of sin, guilty, substitutionary death, and atonement by focusing on features which are not explained or illustrated elsewhere in OT Scripture. Later OT authors, and especially NT writers, build on the basic  understanding of these matters provided in Leviticus. The sacrificial features of Leviticus point to their ultimate, one-time fulfillment in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ (Heb 9:11-22).

Numbers

Four major interpretive challenges face the reader of Numbers:

  1. First, is the book of Numbers a separate book, or is it a part of a larger literary whole, the Pentateuch? The biblical books of Génesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy from the Torah. The remainder of the Scriptures always views these five books as a unit. The ultimate meaning of Numbers cannot be divorced in the Pentateuch. The first verse of the book speaks of the Lord, Moses, the tabernacle, and the Exodus from Egypt. This assumes that the reader is familiar with the three books that precede Numbers. Still, every Hebrew manuscript available divides the Pentateuch in exactly the same way as the present text. In them the book of Numbers is a well-defined unit, with a structural integrity of its own. The book has its own beginning, middle, and ending, even as it functions within a larger whole. Thus, the book of Numbers is also to be viewed with singular identity.

 

  1. The second interpretive question asks is there a sense of coherence in the book of Numbers? It is readily evident that Numbers contains a wide variety of literary materials and forms. Census lists, genealogies, laws, historical narratives, poetry, prophecy, and travel lists are found in this book. Nevertheless, they are all blended to tell the story of Israel’s journey from Mt. Sinaí to the plains of Moab.

 

  1. A third issue deals with the large numbers given for the tribes of Israel in 1:46 and 26:51. These two lists of Israel’s men of war, taken 39 years apart, both put the number over 600,000. These numbers demand a total population for Israel in the wilderness of around 2.5 million at any one time. From a natural perspective, this total seems too high for the wilderness conditions to sustain. However, it must be recognized that the Lord supernaturally took care of Israel for 40 years (Dt 8:1-5). Therefore, the large numbers must be accepted at face value (1:46).

 

  1. The fourth interpretive challenge concerns the heathen prophet Balaam, whose story is recorded in 22:2— 24:25. Even though Balaam claimed to know the Lord (22:18), Scripture consistently refers to him as a false prophet (2Pe 2:15, 16; Jude 11). The Lord used Balaam as His mouthpiece to speak the true words He put in his mouth (22:2— 24:25).  

Deuteronomy

Three interpretive challenges face the reader of Deuteronomy.

  1. First, is the book a singular record, or is it only a part of the arger literary whole, the Pentateuch? The remainder of the Scripture always views the Pentateuch as a unit, and the ultimate meaning of Deuteronomy cannot be divorced from its context in the Pentateuch. The book also assumes the reader is already familiar with the four books that precede it; in fact, Deuteronomy brings into focus all that had been revealed in Genesis to Numbers, as well as its implications for the people as they entered the Land. However, every available Hebrew manuscript divides the same way as the present text, indicating that the book is a well-defined unit recounting the final speeches of Moses to Israel, so it may also be viewed as a singular record.

  2. Second, is true structure of Deuteronomy based on the secular treaties of Moses’ day? During the last 35 years, many evangelical scholars have supported the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy by appealing to the similarities between the structure of the book and the ancient Near Eastern treaty from of the mid-second millennium B.C. (the approximate time of Moses). These secular suzerainty treaties (i.e., a ruler distanting his will to his vassals) followed a set pattern not used in the mid-first millennium B.C. These treaties usually contained the following elements:

    1. preamble— identifying the parties to the covenant

    2. historical prologue— a history of the king’s dealing with his vassals

    3. general and specific stipulations

    4. witnesses

    5. blessings and curses

    6. oaths and covenant ratification

  1. Deuteronomy, it is believed, approximates this basic structure. While there is agreement that 1:1-5 is a preamble, 1:5-4:43 a historical prologue, and chaps. 27, 28 feature blessings and cursings, there is no consensus as to how the rest of Deuteronomy fits this structure. While there might have been a covenant renewal on the plains of Moab, this is neither clearly explicit not implicit in Deuteronomy. It is best to take the book for what it claims to be: the explanation of the law given by Moses for the new generation. The structure follows the speeches given by Moses.     

Joshua

Miracles always challenge readers either to believe that the God who created heaven and earth (Ge 1:1) can do other mighty works, too, or to explain them away. As in Moses’ day, miracles in this book were a part of God’s purpose, such as:

  1. His holding back the Jordan’s waters (Jos 3:7-17

  2. the fall of Jericho’s walls (Jos 6:1-27)

  3. the hailstones (Jos 10:1-11)

  4. the long day (Jos 10:12-15


Other challenges include:

  1. How did God’s blessing on the prostitute Rahab, who responded to Him in faith, relate to her telling a lie (Jos 2)?

  2. Why were Achan’s family members executed with him (Jos 7)?

  3. Why was Ai, with fewer men than Israel, hard to conquer (Jos 7-8)?

  4. What does God’s sending “the hornet” before Israel mean (Jos 24:12)?

Judges

The most stimulating challenges are:

  1. How to view men’s violent acts against enemies or fellow countrymen, whether with God’s approval or without it.

  2. God’s use of leaders who at times do His will and a times follows their own sinful impulses (Gideon, Eli, Jephthah, Samson).

  3. How to view Jephthah’s vow and offering of his daughter (11:30-40)

  4. How to resolve God’s sovereign will  with His providential working in spite of human sin (c.f. 14:4).


The chronology of the various judges in different sectors of the Land raises questions about  how much time passed and how the time totals can fit into the entire time span from the Exodus (ca. 1445 B.C.) to Solomon’s fourth year, ca. 967/966 B.C., which is said to be 480 years (1Ki 6:1; Jdg 11:26). A reasonable explanation is that the deliverances and years of rest under the judges in distinct parts of the Land included overlaps, so that some of them did not run consecutively but rather concurrently during 480 years. Paul’s estimate of “about 450” years in Ac 13:20 is an approximation.

Ruth

        Ruth should be understood as a true historical account. The reliable facts surrounding Ruth, in addition to its complete compatibility with Judges plus 1 and 2 Samuel, confirm Ruth’s authenticity. However, some individual difficulties require careful attention. First, how could Ruth worship at the tabernacle then in Shiloh (1Sa 4:4), since Deuteronomy 23:3 expressly forbids Moabites from entering the assembly for 10 generations? Since the Jews entered the land ca. 1405 B.C. and Ruth was not born until ca. 1150 B.C., she then represented at least the 11th generation (probably later) if the time limitation ended at 10 generations. If “ten generations” was an idiom meaning “forever” as Ne 13:1 implies, then Ruth would be like the foreigner of Isa 56:1-8 who joined himself to the Lord (1:16), thus gaining entrance to the assembly.

 

Second, are there not immoral overtones to Boaz and Ruth spending the night together before marriage (3:3-18)? Ruth engaged in a common ancient Near Eastern custom by asking Boaz to take her for his wife, symbolically pictured by throwing a garment over the intended woman. (3:9), just as Jehovah spread His garment over Israel (Eze 16:8). The text does not even hint at the slightest moral impropriety, nothing that Ruth slept at his feet (3:14). Thus, Boaz became God’s answer to his own earlier prayer for Ruth (2:12),

 

Third, would not the levirate principle of Dt 25:5, 6 lead to incest and/or polygamy if the nearest relative was already married? God would not design a good plan to involve the grossest of immoralities punishable by death. It is to be assumed that the implementation of Dt 25:5, 6 could involve only the nearest relative who was eligible for marriage as qualified by other stipulation of the law.  

 

Fourth, was not marriage to a Moabite woman strictly forbidden by the law? The nations or people to whom marriage was prohibited were those possessing the land that Israel would enter (Ex 34:16; Dt 7:1-3; Jos 23:12) which did not include Moab (cf. Dt 7:1). Further, Boaz married Ruth, a devout proselyte to Jehovah (1:16, 17), not a pagan worshiper of Chemosh— Moab’s chief deity (cf. later problems in Ez 9:1, 2 and Ne 13:23-25)

1, 2 Samuel

The books of Samuel contain a number of interpretive issues that have been widely discussed:

  1. Which of the ancient mss. is closest to the original autograph? The standard Hebrew (Masoretic) text has been relatively poorly preserved, and the LXX often differs from it. Thus, the exact reading of original autograph of the text is in places hard to determine (1Sa 13:1). The Masoretic text will be assumed to represent the original text unless there is a grammatical or contextual impossibility. This accounts for many of the numerical discrepancies.

  2. Is Samuel ambivalent to the establishment of the human kingship in Israel? It is claimed that while 1Sa 9-11 presents a positive view of the kingship, 1Sa 8 and 12 are strongly anti-monarchical. It is preferable however, to see the book as presenting a balanced perspective of the human kingship. While the desire of Israel for a king was acceptable (Dt 17:15), their reason for wanting a king showed a lack of faith in the Lord (1Sa 8:5, 20).

  3. How does one explain the bizarre behavior of the prophets? It is commonly held that 1 and 2 Samuel present the prophets as ecstatic speakers with bizarre behavior just like the pagan prophets of the other nations. But there is nothing in the text which is inconsistent with seeing the prophets as communicators of divine revelation, at times prophesying with musical accompaniment (1Sa 10:5; 19:23, 24).

  4. How did the Holy Spirit minister before Pentecost? The ministry of the Holy Spirit in 1Sa 10:6, 10; 11:6; 16:13, 14; 19:20, 23; 2Sa 23:2 was not describing salvation in the NT sense,  but an empowering by the Lord for His service (Jdg 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14).

  5. What was the identity of the “distressing spirit”? Is it a personal being, i.e., a demon, or a spirit of discontent created by God in the heart (c.f. Jdg 9:23)? Traditionally, it has been viewed as a demon (1Sa 16:14).

  6. how did Samuel appear in 1Sa 28:3-5? It seems best to understand the appearance of Samuel as the Lord allowing the dead Samuel to speak with Saul.

  7. What is the identity of David’s seed in 2 Sa 7:12-15? It is usually taken as Solomon. However, the NT refers the words to Jesus, God’s Son in Heb 1:5 (2Sa 7:12-15).       

1, 2 Kings

The major interpretive challenge in Kings concerns the chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah. Though abundant chronological data is presented in the book of Kings, this data is difficult to interpret for two reasons.

  1. First, there seems to be internal inconsistency in the information given. For instance, 1Ki 16:23 states that Omri, king of Israel, began to reign in the 31st year of Asa, king of Judah, and that he reigned 12 years. But according to 1Ki 16:29, Omri was succeeded by his son Ahab in the 38th year of Asa, giving Omri a reign of only seven years, not 12 (1Ki 16:23).

  2. Second, from extrabiblical sources (Greek, Assyrian, and Babylonian), correlated with astronomical data, a reliable series of dates can be calculated from 892 to 566 B.C. Since Ahab and Jehu, kings of Israel, are believed to be mentioned in Assyrian records, 853 B.C. can be fixed as the year of Ahab’s death and 841 B.C. as the year Jehu began to reign. With these fixed dates, it is possible to work backward and forward to determine that the date of the division of Israel from Judah was ca. 931 B.C., the fall of Samaria 722 B.C., and the fall of Jerusalem 586 B.C. But when the total years of royal reigns in Kings are added, the number for Israel is 241 years (not the 210 years of 931 to 722 B.C.) and Judah 393 years (not the 346 years of 931 to 586 B.C.). It is recognized that in both kingdoms there were some co-regencies, i.e., a period of rulership when two kings, usually father and son, ruled at the same time, so the overlapping years were counted twice in the total for both kings. Further, different methods of reckoning the years of a king’s rule and even different calendars were used at differing times in the two kingdoms, resulting in the seeming internal inconsistencies. The general accuracy of the chronology in Kings can be demonstrated and confirmed.    


A second major interpretive challenge deals with Solomon’s relationship to the Abrahamic  and Davidic Covenants. First King 4:20, 21 has been interpreted by some as the fulfillment of the promises given to Abraham (c.f. Ge 15:18-21; 22:17). However, according to Nu 34:6, the western border of the Land promised to Abraham was the Mediterranean Sea, In 1Ki 5:1 ff., Hiram is seen as the independent king of Tyre (along the Mediterranean), dealing with Solomon as an equal. Solomon’s empire was not the fulfillment of the Land promise given to Abraham by the Lord, although a great portion of that land was under Solomon’s control.

 

Further, the statements of Solomon in 1Ki 5:5 and 8:20 are his claims to be the promised seed of the Davidic Covenant (c.f 2Sa 7:12-16). The author of Kings holds out the possibility that Solomon’s temple was the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to David. However, while the conditions for the fulfillment of the promise to David are reiterated to Solomon (1Ki 6:12), it is clear that Solomon did not meet these conditions (1Ki 11:9-13). In fact, none of the historical kings in the house of David met the condition of complete obedience that was to be the sign of the Promised One. According to Kings, the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants did not take place in Israel’s past, thus laying the foundation for the letter prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve) who would point Israel to a future hope under Messiah when the Covenants would be fulfilled (Isa 9:6, 7)

1, 2 Chronicles

First and Second Chronicles present a combination of selective genealogical and historical records and no insurmountable challenges within the two books are encountered. A few issues arise, such as:

  1. Who wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles? Does the overlap of 2Ch 36:22-23 with Ezra 1:1-3 point to Ezra as author?

  2. Does the use of multiple sources taint the inerrancy doctrine of Scripture?

  3. How does one explain the variations in the genealogies of 1Ch 1-9 from other OT genealogies?

  4. Are the curses of Dt 28 still in force, even though the 70 year captivity has concluded?

  5. How does one explain the few variations in numbers when comparing Chronicles with parallel passages in Samuel and Kings?  

Ezra

1. First, how do the post Exilic historical book of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther relate to the post-Exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi? 7:1. The two books of Chronicles were written by Ezra as a reminder of the promised Davidic Kingship, the Aaronic priesthood, and appropriate temple worship. Haggai and Zechariah prophesied in the period of Ezra 4-6 when temple construction was resumed. Malachi wrote during Nehemiah’s revisit to Persia (c.f. Ne 13:6).


2. Second, what purpose does the book serve? Ezra historical reports the first two of three post-Exilic returns to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity. The fist return (chaps. 1-6) was under Zerubbabel (ca. 538 B.C.) and the second (chaps. 7-10) was led by Ezra himself (ca. 458 B.C.). Spiritually, Ezra reestablished the importance of the Aaronic priesthood by tracing his ancestry to Eleazar, Phinehas, and Zadok (cf. Ezr 7:1-5). He reported on the rebuilding of the second temple (chaps. 3-6). How he dealt with the gross sin of intermarriage with foreigners is presented in chaps. 9-10. Most importantly, he reports how the sovereign hand of God moved kings and overcame varied opposition to reestablish Israel as Abraham’s seed, notionally and individually, in the land promised to Abraham, David, and Jeremiah.


3. Third, the temple was built during the reign of Cyrus. Mention of Xerxes (a.k.a. Ahasuerus 4:6) and Artaxerxes (4:7- 23) might lead one to conclude that the temple could also have been built during their reigns. Such a conclusión, however, violates history. Ezra was not writing about the construction accomplishments of Xerxes or Artaxerxes, but rather he continued to chronicle their oppositions after the temple was built, which continued even to Ezra’s day. It is apparent, then, that Ezr 4:1-5 and 4:24-5:2 deal with rebuilding the temple under Zerubbabel, while 4:6-23 is a parenthesis recounting the history of opposition in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah.


4. Fourth, the interpreter must decide where Esther fits in to the time of Ezra. A careful examination indicates it took place between the events of chaps. 6 and 7. Fifth, how does divorce in Ezr 10 correlate the fact that God hates divorce (Mal 2:16)? Ezra does not establish the norm, but rather deals with a special case in history. It seems to have been decided (Ezr 10:3) on the principle that the lesser wrong (divorce) would be preferable to the greater wrong of the Jewish race being polluted by intermarriage, so that the nation and the messianic line of David would not be ended by being mingled with Gentiles. To solve the problem this way magnifies the mercy of God in that the only other solution would have been to kill all of those involved (husband, wives, and children) by stoning, as was done during the first Exodus at Shittim (Nu 25:1-9).   

Nehemiah

First, since much of Nehemiah is explained in relationship to Jerusalem’s gates (cf. Ne 2, 3, 8, 12), one needs to see the map “Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s Day” for an orientation. Second. The reader must recognize that the timeline of chapter 1-12 encompassed about one year (445 B.C.), followed by a long gap of time (over 20 years) after Ne 12 and before Ne 13. Finally, it must be recognized that Nehemiah actually served two governorships in Jerusalem, the first from 445 to 433 B.C. (cf. Ne 5:14; 13:6) and the second beginning possibly in 424 B.C. and extending to no longer than 410 B.C.   

Esther

The most obvious question raised by Esther comes from the fact that God is nowhere mentioned, as in Song of Songs. Nor does the writer or any participant refer to the law of God, the Levitical sacrifices, worship, or prayer. The skeptic might ask “Why would God never be mentioned when the Persian king receives over 175 references? Since God’s sovereignty prevailed to save the Jews, why does He then not receive appropriate recognition?


It seems satisfying to respond that if God desired to be mentioned, He could just as sovereignly have moved the author to write of Him as He acted to save Israel. This situation seems to be more of a problem at the human level than the divine, because Esther is the classic illustration of God’s providence as He, the unseen power, controls everything for His propose. There are no miracles in Esther, but the preservation of Israel through providential control of every event and person reveals the omniscience and omnipotence of Jehovah. Whether He is named is not the issue. He is clearly the main character in the drama.  


Second, “Why were Mordecai and Esther se secular in their lifestyles? Esther (2:6-20) does not seem to have the zeal for holiness like Daniel (Da 1:8-20). Mordecai kept his and Esther’s Jewish heritage secret, unlike Daniel (Da 6:5). The law of God was absent in contrast to Ezra (Ezr 7:10). Nehemiah had a heart for Jerusalem that seemingly eluded the affections of Esther and Mordecai (Ne 1:1-2:5.


The following observation help to shed some light on these issues:

  1. First, this short book does not record everything. Perhaps Mordecai and Esther actually possessed a deeper faith than becomes apparent here (cf. 4:16).

  2. Second, even godly Nehemiah did not mention his God when talking to King Artaxerxes (Ne 2:1-8).

  3. Third, the Jewish festivals which provided structure for worship had been lost long before Esther, e.g., Passover (2Ki 23:22) and Tabernacles (Ne 8:17),

  4. Fourth, possibly the anti-Jewish letter written by the Samaritans to Xerxes several years earlier had frightened them (ca. 486 B.C.; Ezr 4:6).

  5. Fifth, the evil intentions of Haman did not just first surface when Mordecai refused to kneel down (3:1, 2). Most likely they were long before shared by others which would have intimidated the Jewish population.

  6. Sixth, Esther did identify with her Jewish heritage at a most appropriate time (7:3, 4). And yet, the nagging question of why Esther and Mordecai did not seem to have the same kind of open devotion to God as did Daniel remains. Further, Nehemiah’s prayer (Ne 1:5-11, esp.v. 7) seems to indicate a spiritual lethargy among the Jewish exiles in Susa. So this issue must ultimately be resolved by God since He alone knows human hearts.   

Job

The most critical interpretive challenge involves the book’s primary message. Although often thought to be the pressing issue of the book, the question of why Job suffers is never revealed to job, though the reader knows that it involves God’s proving a point to Satan— a matter which completely transcends Job’ ability to understand. James’ commentary on job’s case (5:11) draws the conclusión that it was to show God’s compassion and mercy, but without apology, offers no explanation for Job’s specific ordeal. Readers find themselves putting their proverbial hands over their mouths, with no right to question or accuse the all-wise and all powerful Creator, who will do as He please, and in so doing, both proves his points in the spiritual realm to angels and demons and defines His compassion and mercy. Engaging in “theodicy” i.e., man’s attempt to defend God’s involvement in calamity and suffering, is shown to be appropriate in these circumstances, though in the end, it is apparent that God does not need nor want a human advocate. The book of Job poignantly illustrates Dt 29:29. “The secret things belongs to the Lord our God…”    

 

The nature of job’s guilt and innocence raises perplexing questions. God declared Job blameless, upright fearing God, and shunning evil (1:1). But Job’s comforters raised a critical question based on Job’s ordeal: Had not job sinned? On several occasions Job readily admitted to having sinned (7:21; 13:26). But Job questioned the extent of his sin as compared to the severity of his suffering. God rebuked Job in the end for his demands to be vindicated of the comforters’ accusations (chap.38-41). But He also declared that what job said was correct and what the comforter said was wrong (42:7)

 

Another challenge comes in keeping separate the pre-understanding that Job and his comforters brought to Job’s ordeal. At the outset, all agreed that God punishes evil, rewards obedience, and no exceptions are possible. Job, due to his suffering innocently, was forced to conclude that exceptions are possible in that the righteous also suffer. He also observed that the wicked prosper. These are more than small exceptions to the rule, thus forcing Job  to rethink his simple understanding about God’s sovereign interaction with His people. The type of wisdom Job comes to embrace was not dependent merely on the promise of reward or punishment. The long, peevish, disputes between Job and his accusers were attempts to reconcile the perceived inequities of God’s retribution in Job’s experiences. Such an empirical method is dangerous. In the end, God offered no explanation to Job, but rather called all parties to deeper level of trust in the Creator, who rules over a sin-confused world with power and authority directed by perfect wisdom and mercy. (Ps 73).

 

Understanding this book requires:    

  1. Understanding the nature of wisdom, particularly the difference between man’s wisdom and God’s.

  2. Admitting that Job and his friends lacked the divine wisdom to interpret Job’s circumstances accurately, though his friends kept trying while Job learned to be content in God’s sovereignty and mercy. The turning point or resolution  for this matter is found in job 28 where the character of divine wisdom is explained: divine wisdom is rare and priceless; man cannot hope to purchase it; and God possesses it all. We may not know what is going on in heaven or what God’s purpose are, but we must trust Him. Because of this, the matter of believers suffering takes a backseat to the matter of divine wisdom.     

Psalm

It is helpful to recognize certain recurring genres or literary types in the Psalter. Some of the most obvious are:

  1. The wisdom type with instructions for right living

  2. Lamentation patterns which deal with the pangs of life (usually arising from enemies without)

  3. Penitential psalms (mostly dealing with the “enemy” within, e.e., sin)  

  4. Kingship emphases (universal or mediatorial; theocratic and/or messianic rule)

  5. Thanksgiving psalms. A combination of style and subject matter help to identify such types when they appear.  

 

The comprehensive literary characteristic of the psalms is that all of them are poetry par excellence. Unlike most English poetry which is based on rhyme and meter, Hebrew poetry is essentially characterized by logical parallelisms. Some of the most important kinds of parallelisms are:

  1. Synonymous (the thought of the first line is restated with similar concepts in the second line, e.g., Ps 2:1)

  2. Antithetic (the thought of the second line is contrasted with the first, e.g., Ps 1:6)

  3. Climactic (the second and any subsequent lines pick up a crucial word, phrase, or concept and advance it in a stair-step fashion, e.g., Ps 29:1, 2)

  4. Chiastic or introverted (the logical units are developed in an A...B...B’...A’ pattern, e.g., Ps 1:2)

 

On a large scale, some psalms in their development from the first to the last verse employ an acrostic or alphabetical arrangement. (Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145 are recognized as either complete or incomplete acrostic. In the Hebrew test, the first letter of the first word of every verse or section begins with a different Hebrew consonant, which advances in alphabetical order until the 22 consonants are exhausted. Such a literary vehicle undoubtedly aided in the memorization of the content and served to indicate that its particular subject matter had been covered from “A to Z.” Psalm 119 stands out as the most complete example of this device, since the first letter of each of its 22, 8 verse stanzas moves completely through the Hebrew alphabet.      

Proverbs

The first challenge is the generally elusive nature of Wisdom literature itself. Like the parables, the intended truths are often veiled from understanding if given only a cursory glance, and thus must be pondered in the heart (1:6; 2:1-4; 4:4-9).


    Another challenges is the extensive use of parallelism, which is the placing of truths side by side to that the second line expands, completes, defines, emphasizes, or reaches the logical conclusion, the ultimate end, or, in some cases. the contrasting  point of view. Often the actual parallel is only implied. For example, 12:13 contains an unstated, but clearly implied parallel, in that the righteous one comes through trouble because of his virtuous speech (cf. 28:7). In interpreting the proverbs, one must:

  1. Determine the parallelism and often complete what is assumed and not stated by the author

  2. Identify the figures of speech and rephrase the thought without those figures.

  3. Summarize the lesson or principle of the proverb in a few words

  4. Describe the behavior that is taught

  5. Find examples inside Scripture.


    Challenges are also found in the various contexts of Proverbs, all of which affect interpretation and understanding.

  1. First, there is the setting in which they were spoken; this is largely the context of the young men in the royal court of the king.

  2. Second, there is the setting of the book as a whole and how its teaching are to be understood in light of the rest of Scripture. For example, there is much to be gained by comparing the wisdom Solomon taught with the wisdom Christ personified.

  3. Third, there is the historical context in which the principles and truth draw on illustrations from their own day.


    A final area of challenge comes in understanding that proverbs are divine guideline and wise observations, i.e., teaching underlying underlying principles (24:3, 4) which are not always inflexible laws or absolute promises. These expressions of general truth (cf. 10:27; 22:4) generally do have “exceptions,” due to the uncertainty of life and unpredictable behavior of fallen men. God does not guarantee uniform outcome or application for each proverb, but in studying them and applying them, one comes to contemplate the mind of God, His character, His attributes, His words, and His blessings. All of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge expressed in Proverbs are hidden in Christ (Cal 2:3).    

Ecclesiastes

    The author’s declaration that everything is meaningless” envelops the primary message of the book (fc. 1:2; 12:8). The word translated “meaningless” is used in at least 3 ways throughout the book. In each case, it looks at the nature of man’s activity “under the sun” as:

  1. “fleeting,” which has in view the vapor-like (cf. Jas 4:14) or transitory nature of life

  2. “futile” or “meaningless,” which focused on the cursed condition of the universe and the debilitating effects it has on man’s earthly experience

  3. “incomprehensible” or “enigmatic,” which gives consideration to life’s unanswerable questions. Solomon draws upon all 3 meanings in Ecclesiastes.


While the context in each case will determine which meaning Solomon is focusing upon, the  most recurring meaning of meaningless is “incomprehensible” or “unknowable,” referring to the mysteries of God’s purpose. Solomon’s conclusion to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13, 14) is more than the book’s summary; it is the only hope of the good life and the only reasonable response of faith and obedience to sovereign God. He precisely works out all activities under the sun, each in its time according to His perfect plan, but also discloses only as much as His perfect wisdom dictates and holds all men accountable. Those who refuse to take God and His Word seriously are doomed to lives of the severest meaninglessness.  


Song of Solomon

The Song has suffered strained interpretations over the centuries by those who use the “allegorical” method of interpretation, claiming that this song has no actual historical basis, but rather that it depicts God’s love for Israel and/ or Christ’s love for the church. The misleading idea from hymnology that Christ is the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys results from this method (2:1). The “typological” variation admits the historical reality, but concludes that it ultimately pictures Christ's bridegroom love for His bride the church.

 

A more satisfying way to approach Solomon’s Song is to take it at face value and interpret it in the normal historical sense, understanding the frequent use of poetic imagery to depict reality. To do so understands that Solomon recounts  (1) his own days of courtship, (2) the early days of his first marriage, followed by (3) the maturing of this royal couple through the good and bad days of life, The Song of Songs expands on the ancient marriage instructions of Ge 2:24, thus providing spiritual music for a lifetime of marital harmony. It is given by God to demonstrate His intention for the romance and loveliness of marriage, the most precious of human relations and “the gracious gift of life (1Pe 3:7).

 

The metaphoric and euphemistic nature of this book is designed by God to veil the private intimacy of marriage. Its beautiful expressions or romantic love are purposely shrouded in poetic language intended only to give general insight into the joys of passion, desire, and romance. In this way, the Song expresses the wonders of marital love while distancing itself from anything crass or explicitly sensual. Interpreters of this book must be careful to maintain the dignified character of the book, and must not read anything into it that is not actually there.  

Isaiah

          Interpretive challenges in a long and significant book such as Isaiah are numerous. The most critical of them focuses on whether Isaiah’s prophecies will receive literal fulfillment or not, and on whether the Lord, in His program, has abandoned national Israel and permanently replaced the nation with the church, so that there is no future for national Israel.


On the latter issue, numerous portions of isaiah support the position that God has not replaced ethnic Israel with an alleged “new Israel.” Isaiah has too much to say about God’s faithfulness to Israel, that He would not reject the people whom He has created and chosen (43:1). The nation is on the palms of His hands, and Jerusalem’s walls are ever before His eyes (48:16). He is bound by His own Word to fulfill the promises He has made to bring them back to Himself and bless them in that future day (55:10-12).


On the former issue, literal fulfillment of many of Isaiah’s prophecies has already occurred. To contend that those yet unfulfilled will see non-literal fulfillment is biblically groundless. This fact disqualifies the case for proposing that the church receives some of the promises made originally to Israel. The Kingdom promised to David belongs to Israel, not the church. The future exaltation of Jerusalem will be on earth, no in heaven. Christ will reign personally on this earth as we know it, as well in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 22:1, 3).

Jeremiah

A number of questions arise, such as:

  1. How can one explain God’s forbidding prayer for the Jews (7:16) and saying that even Moses’ and Samuel’s advocacy could not avert judgment (15:1)?

  2. Did Jeremiah make an actual trek of several hundred miles to the Euphrates River, or did he bury his loincloth nearby (13:4-7)?

  3. How could he utter such severe things about the man who announced his birth (20:14-18)?

  4. Does the curse on Jeconiah’s kingly line relate to Christ (22:30)?

  5. How is one to interpret the promises of Israel’s return to its ancient land (chaps. 30— 33)?

  6. How will God fulfill the New Covenant in relation to Israel and the church (31:31-34)?


A frequent challenge is to understand the prophet’s messages in their right time setting, since the book of Jeremiah is not always chronological, but loosely arranged, moving back and forth in time for thematic effect. Ezekiel, by contrast, usually places his material in chronological order.  

Lamentation

Certain details pose initial difficulties. Among them are:

  1. Imprecatory prayers for judgment on other sinners (1:21, 22; 3:64-66)

  2. The reason for God shutting out prayer (3:8)

  3. The necessity of judgment that is so severe (cf. 1:1, 14; 3:8)

Ezekiel 

Ezekiel uses extensive symbolic language, as did Isaiah and Jeremiah. This raises the question as to whether certain portions of Ezekiel’s writings are to be taken literally or figuratively, e.g., being bound with ropes, 3:25; whether the prophet was taken bodily to Jerusalem, 8:1-3; how individual judgment can be worked out in chap. 18 when the wicked elude death in 14:22, 23 and some  of the godly die in an invasion, 21:3, 4; how God would permit a faithful prophet’s wife to die (24:14-27; when some of the judgments on other nations will occur (chaps. 25-32); whether the temple in chaps. 40-46 will be a literal one and in what form; and how promises of Israel’s future relate to God’s program with the church.  

Daniel

The main challenges center on interpreting passages about future tribulation and kingdom promises. Though the use of Imperial Aramaic and archeology have confirmed the early date of writing, some skeptical interpreters, unwilling to acknowledge supernatural prophecies that came to pass (there are over 100 in chap. 11 alone that were fulfilled), place these details in the intertestamental times. They see these prophecies, not as miraculously foretelling the future, but as simply the observations of a later writer, who os recording events of his own day.


Thus, they date Daniel in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C., chap. 8; 11:21-45). According to this scheme, the expectation of the rock and son of man (chaps. 2, 7) turned out to be a mistaken notion that did not actually come to pass, or the writer was being intentionally deceptive. Actually, a future 7 - years judgment period (cf. 7:21, 22; 11:36-45; 12:1) and a literal 1,000 - years kingdom (cf. Rev 20) after Christ’s second coming when He will reign over Israelites and Gentiles (7:27) are taught. This will be an era before and distinct from the final, absolutely perfect, ultimate state, i.e., the new heaven and the new earth with its capital, the New Jerusalem (Rev 21, 22). The literal interpretation of prophecy, including Daniel, leads to the premillennial perspective.


Many other aspects of interpretation challenge readers: e.g., interpreting numbers (1:12, 20; 3:19; 9:24-27); identifying the one like a son of man (7:13, 14); determining whether to see Antiochus of the past or Antichrist of the far future in 8:19-23; explaining the “seventy’ sevens” in 9:24-27; and deciding whether Antiochus of 11:21-35 is still meant in 11:36-45, or whether it is the future Antichrist.     

Hosea

That the faithless wife, Gomer, is symbolic of faithless Israel is without doubt; but questions remain.

  1. First, some suggest that the marital scenes in chaps. 1-3 should be taken only as allegory. However, there is nothing in the narrative, presented in simple prose, which would even question its literal occurrence. Much of its impact would be lost if not literal. When nonliteral elements within the book are introduced, they are prefaced with “saw” or “have seen” (5:13; 9:10, 13), the normal Hebraic means of introducing non-literal scenes. Furthermore, there is no account of a prophet ever making himself the subject of an allegory or parable.

  2. Second, what are the moral implications of God’s command for Hosea to marry a prostitute? It appears best to see Gomer as chaste at the time of marriage to Hosea, only later having become an immoral woman. The words “marry a promiscuous woman” are to be understood proleptically, i.e., looking to the future. An immoral woman could not serve as a picture of Israel coming out of Egypt (2:15; 9:10), who then later wandered away from God (11:1). Chapter 3 describes Hosea taking back his wife, who had been rejected because of adultery, a rejection that was unjustifiable if Hosea had married a prostitute with full knowledge of her character.

  3. A third question arises concerning the relationship between chap. 1 and chap. 3 and whether the woman of chap. 3 is GOmer or another woman. There are a number of factors which suggest that the woman of chap. 3 is Gomer. In 1:2, God’s command is to “Go, marry”; in 3:1, however, His command is ti “Go, show your love to your wife again,” suggesting that Hosea’s love was to be renewed to the same woman. Furthermore, within the analogy of chap. 1, Gomer represents Israel. As God renews His love toward faithless Israel, so Hosea is to renew his love toward faithless Gomer. For Hosea 3 to denote a different woman would confuse the analogy.     

Joel

It is preferable to view chap. 1 as describing an actual invasion of locusts that devastated the Land. In chap. 2, a new level of description meets the interpreter. Here the prophet is projecting something beyond the locust plague of chap. 1, elevating the level of description to new heights, with increased intensity that is focused on the plague and the immediate necessity for true repentance. The prophet’s choice of similes, such as “have the appearance of horses” (2:4), and “ like warriors” (2:7), suggests that he is still using the actual locusts to illustrate an invasion which can only be the massive overtaking of the final Day of the Lord.

 

A second issue confronting the interpreter is Peter’s quotation from Joel 2:28-32 in Ac 2:16-21. Some have viewed the phenomena of Ac 2 and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as the fulfillment of the Joel passage, while others have reserved its fulfillment to the final Day of the Lord only— but clearly Joel is referring to the final terrible Day of the Lord. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, was not a fulfillment, but a preview and sample of the Spirit’s power and work to be released fully and finally in the Messiah’s kingdom after the Day of the Lord.

Amos

        In 9:11, the Lord promised that He “will restore David’s dallen shelter.” At the Jerusalem Council, convened to discuss whether Gentiles should be allowed into the church without requiring circumcision, James quotes this passages (Ac 15:15, 16) to support Peter’s report of how God had taken “a people for his name from the Gentiles” (Ac 15:14). Some have thus concluded that the passage was fulfilled in Jesus, the greater Son of David, through whom the dynasty of David was reestablished.


The Acts reference, however, is best seen as an illustration of Amos’s words and not the fulfillment. The temporal allusions to a future time (“in that day,” 9:11), when Israel will “possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations” (9:12), when the Lord will “plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them” (9:15), all make it clear that the prophet is speaking of Messiah’s return at the Second Advent to sit upon the throne of David (cf. Isa 9:7), not the establishment of the church by the apostles.   

Obadiah

The striking similarity between Ob 1-9 and Jer 49:7-22 brings up the questions: Who borrowed from whom? Assuming there was not a third common source, it appears that Jeremiah borrowed, where appropriate, from Obadiah, since the shared verses from one unit in Obadiah, while in Jeremiah they are scattered among other verses. 

Jonah

The primary challenge is whether the book is to be interpreted as historical narrative or as allegory/parable. The grand scale of the miracles, such as being kept alive 3 days and nights in a big fish, has led some skeptics and critics to dany their historical validity and substitute spiritual lessons, either to the constituent parts (allegory) or to the book as a whole (parable).

 

       But however grandiose and miraculous the events may have been, the narrative must be viewed as historical. Centered on a historically identifiable OT prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C., the account of whom has been recorded in narrative form, there is no alternative but to understand Jonah as historical. Furthermore, Jesus did not teach the story of Jonah as a parable but as an actual account firmly rooted in history (Mt 12:38-41; 16:4; Lk 11:29-32).

Micah

The verbal similarity between Mic 4:1-3 and isa 2:2-4 raises the question of who quoted whom. Interpreters are divided, with no clear-cut answers on either side. Because the two prophets lived in close proximity to each other, prophesying during the same period, this similarity is understandable. God gave the same message through two preachers. The introductory phrase, “In the last days” (4:1), removes these verses from any post-Exilic fulfillment and requires an eschatological time frame surrounding the Second Advent of Christ and the beginning of the Millennium.

 

Apart from Isa 2:2-4, three other passages from Micah are quoted elsewhere in Scripture. Micah 3:12 is quoted in Jer 26:18, thereby saving Jeremiah’s life from King Jehoiakim’s death sentence. Micah 5:2 is quoted by the chief priest and scribes (Mt 2:6) in response to Herold’s query about the birthplace of the Messiah. Micah 7:6 is employed by Jesus in Mt 10:35, 36 when commissioning his disciples.   


Nahum

Apart from the uncertain identity of Elkosh, the prophecy presents no real interpretive difficulties. The book is a straightforward prophetic announcement of judgment against Assyria and her capital Nineveh for cruel atrocities and idolatrous practices. 

Habakkuk

The queries of the prophet represent some of the most fundamental questions in all of life, with the answers providing crucial foundation stones on which to build a proper understanding of God’s character and His sovereign ways in history. The core of his message lies in the call to trust God (2:4), “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.”


The NT references ascribe unusual importance theologically to Habakkuk. The writer of Hebrews quotes Hab 2:4 to amplify the believer’s need to remain strong and faithful in the midst of affliction and trials (Heb 10:38). The apostle Paul, on the other hand, employs the verse twice (Ro 1:17; Gal 3:11) to accentuate the doctrine of justification by faith. There need not be any interpretative conflict, however, for the emphasis in both Habakkuk and the NT references goes beyond the act of faith to include the continuity of faith. Faith is not a one time act, but a way of life. The true believer, declared righteous by God, will habitually persevere in faith throughout all his life (Col 1:22, 23; Heb 3:12-14). He will trust the sovereign God who only does what is right.   

Zephaniah

The book presents an unambiguous denunciation of sin and warning of imminent judgment on Judah. Some have referred the phrase “I will purify the lips of the peoples” (3:9) to the restoration of a universal language, similar to the days prior to confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel (Ge 11:1-9). The point out that the same Hebrew word translated “lips” is also used in (Ge 11:7). It is better, however, to understand the passage as pointing to a purification of heart and life.

 

This is confirmed by the context (3:13) and corroborated by the fact that the word “languages” is most commonly translated “lips,” as here. When combined with “purify,” the reference to speech speaks of inward cleansing from sin (Isa 6:5) manifested in speech (Mt 12:34), including the removal of the names of false gods from their lips (Hos 2:17). It does not imply a one world language.  

Haggai

      The most prominent interpretive ambiguity within the prophecy is the phrase “what is desired by all nations” (2:7). Although many translations exist, there are essentially only two interpretations. Pointing to “The silver is mine and the gold is mine” (2:8), as well as to Isa 60:5 and Zec 14:14, some contend that it refers to Jerusalem, to which “what is desired” (the wealth of other nations) will be brought during the Millennium (Isa 60:11; 61:6). It seems preferable, however, to see a reference here to the Messiah, a Deliverer for whom all the nations ultimately long. Not only is this interpretation supported by the ancient rabbis and the early church, the mention of “glory” in the latter part of the verse suggests a personal reference to the Messiah (ISa 40:5; 60:1; Lk 2:32). 

Zechariah

While there are numerous challenges to the reader, two passages within the prophecy present notable interpretive difficulty. In 11:8, the Good Shepherd says, “In one month I got rid of the three shepherds.” The presence of the definite article points to familiarity, so that the Jews would have understood the identity of these shepherds without further reference. It is not so easy for modern readers to understand. Numerous alternatives concerning their identity have been suggested.


One of the oldest, and probably the correct view, identifies them as three orders of leaders: the priests, elders, and scribes of Israel. During His earthly ministry, Jesus also confronted the hypocrisy of Israel’s religious leaders (Mt 23), disowning them with scathing denunciations, followed by destruction of the whole nation in A.D. 70. Since his coming, the Jewish people have had no other prophet, priest, or king.


Considerable discussion also surrounds the identity of the individual who possessed “wounds on your body” (13:6). Some have identified him with Christ, the wounds supposedly referring to His crucifixión. But Christ could neither have denied that He was a prophet, nor could He have claimed that He was a farmer, or that He was wounded in the house of His friends. Obviously, it is a reference to a false prophet (vv. 4, 5) who was wounded in his idolatrous worship. The zeal for the Lord will be so great in the kingdom of Messiah that idolaters will make every attempt to hide their true identity, but their scars will be the telltale evidence of their iniquity.  

Malachi

      The meaning of Elijah being sent “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes” (4:5) has been debated. Was this fulfilled in John the Baptist, or is it yet future? Will Elijah be reincarnated? It seems best to view Malachi’s prophecy as a reference to John the Baptist and not to a literally returned Elijah. Not only did the angel announce that John the Baptist would go “on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17), but John the Baptist himself said he was no ELijah (Jn 1:21). Thus John was like Elijah, internally in “spirit and power” and externally in rugged independence and nonconformity. If the Jews would receive the Messiah, then he would be the Elijah spoken of (Mt 11:14; 17:9-13); if they refused the king, then another Elijah-like prophet would be sent in the future, perhaps as on of the two witnesses (Rev 11:1-19).