Is There a Wrong Way to Teach a Bible Story?

Our small group workshop will soon be here. In this workshop I talk about the study guides that have come out in the past year. So my days are spent immersing myself in study guides. I find some good and some not so good. John and Kim Walton in their book The Bible Story Handbook ask point blank “Is there a ‘wrong way’ to teach a Bible story?” Their answer is yes and I have to agree. They write,

“It is not important to the author of John 11 (the raising of Lazarus) that Jesus had friends. It is not important to the author of Exodus 3-4 (the burning bush) that Aaron is willing to help his brother. It is not important to the author of John 6 (the feeding of the five thousand) that the boy shared his lunch. If we teach these things, we are telling the story wrongly because we are substituting what we want to teach at the expense of the biblical author’s message. A story is told rightly when we can confidently claim that it represents the intention of the author and the authority of the text.” (24)

They identify five fallacies that draw a lesson away from scriptural authority. There isn’t a study guide I look at that doesn’t contain multiple examples of many of these.

1)      Promotion of the trivial. A lesson is based on a passing comment within the text (Josh. 9:14, they did not consult the Lord), a casual observation about the text (Moses persevered by repeatedly appearing before Pharaoh), or even a deduction from the text (Joshua and Caleb were brave and strong). We are not teaching the Bible properly if we teach virtues that the specific text does not have in view.

2)      Illegitimate extrapolation. The lesson is improperly expanded from a specific situation to all situations. For example, Exodus 3-4 shows that God commanded Moses to do a hard thing and helped him do it, but the lesson taught from the text is that God will also help you do a hard thing—anything of your choosing. In such cases, we pass by the teaching of the text in favor of what we want to say, thus neglecting biblical authority.

3)      Reading between the lines. Teachers or students read between the lines when they analyze the thinking of the characters, speculate on their motives, or fill in details of the plot that the story does not give. When such speculations become the center of the lesson, the authority of the biblical teaching is lost because the teaching is supplied by the reader rather than by the text.

4)      Missing important nuance. This occurs when the lesson pinpoints an appropriate message but misses a connection necessary to drive the point home accurately. It is not enough, for instance, to say that God wants us to keep his rules; we must realize that God has given us rules to display his character and to show us how we ought to respond to him in our actions.

5)      Focus on people rather than on God. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself, and its message and teaching are largely based on what it tells us about God. This is particularly true of narrative (stories). While we tend to observe the people in the stories, we cannot forget that the stories are intended to teach us about God more than about people. If in the end the final point is ‘We should (or shouldn’t) be like X,’ there is probably a problem unless the X is Jesus or God. Better is, ‘We can learn through X’s story that God . . .’ The tendency to focus overly on people also shows up in questions such as ‘Who are the Goliaths in your life?’ The text is more interested in ‘Who is God in your life?’” (24-25)

 Bible Story Handbook

What Role Does ANE Literature Have on Interpreting Genesis?

In Reading Genesis 1-2 Todd Beall argues for a literal interpretation of these first two chapters. In his discussion of the role of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought he asks this question: “Why would God have used ANE myths to reveal his truth to Moses concerning this unique event?” (52) The “unique event” he refers to is creation. John Walton, a prominent advocate of reading the Bible in light of ANE literature, offers the following as a response to Beall’s question:

“I do not claim that God used ANE myths to reveal truth, and I do not know many who would make such a claim. My position is that all ANE literature (not just myths) gives us access to the way that people typically thought in the ancient world and that Israel often would have thought the same way. God does not use myths to reveal himself; he reveals himself in terms of the ancient cognitive environment of which Israel is a part.

Of course, in the process God shows himself to be different from the gods of the nations around Israel, and he offers many revisions about the ways they should think. As a result there are both similarities and differences, but God’s effective communication is going to be rooted in the similarities even when he is providing alternative ways of thinking. I would there consider it an extreme reaction to suggest that the uniqueness of the Bible somehow demands total isolation from an ancient worldview, as Beall does when he says, ‘To argue that Moses or whoever wrote Gen 1-11 was so immersed in the ANE world that it caused him to write in the way of other ANE literature is to deny the uniqueness of the biblical record.’ The uniqueness of the Bible is in the God of the Bible, not in the world of Israel or the literary genres of the Bible.” (71)

Reading Genesis

John Walton and Mark Strauss Introduce the “Teach the Text” Commentary Series

While John Walton was here I asked him about the new commentary series he and Mark Strauss were working on. He is very excited about it. He explained that many pastors have very limited time. He didn’t need to tell me this but he elaborated. In one week a pastor may have to do multiple funerals, offer counseling sessions, take care of things around the church, and any number of other things that larger churches can delegate to other individuals. He said, “I told the commentary contributors to imagine a pastor calling them on the phone and saying, ‘I need to prepare a message for this Sunday. In a half hour give me something I can use for my preparation.'” In other words, time is at a premium but I have to have something–help me. The Teach the Text Commentary Series fills this very need. In the clip below both he and Mark Strauss explain in more detail the features and benefits of this new commentary series. Do we really need another series? Listen and find out why “yes” is the right answer.



Did Death Occur Before the Fall? An Answer from John Walton

In honor of John Walton’s visit tonight I thought I would give a selection from his book The Lost World of Genesis One. The issue is this: Did death occur before the Fall? Walton answers yes. Here’s why:

Some might object that if the material phase had been carried out for long ages prior to the seven days of Genesis, there would be a problem about death. Romans 5:12 states unequivocally, ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.’ Interpreters have inferred from this verse that there was no death at any level prior to the Fall, the entrance of sin. But we should notice that the verse does not say that. Paul is talking about how death came to people—why all of humanity is subject to death. Just because death came to us because of sin, does not mean that death did not exist at any level prior to the Fall.

Not only does the verse not make a claim for death in general, everything we know logically repudiates the absence of death at any level prior to the Fall. Day three describes the process by which plants grow. The cycle of sprouting leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds is one that involves death as part of it. Likewise with animals: we need not even broach the topic of predatory meat eaters to see that the food chain involves death. A caterpillar eating a leaf brings death. A bird eating the caterpillar brings death. Fish eating insects brings death. If animals and insects did not die, they would overwhelm their environment and the ecology would suffer. Furthermore, if we move to the cellular level death is inevitable. Human skin has an outer layer of epidermis—dead cells—and we know that Adam had skin (Gen 2:23).

All of this indicates clearly that death did exist in the pre-Fall world—even though humans were not subject to it. But there is more. Human resistance to death was not the result of immortal bodies. The text indicates that we are formed from the dust of the earth, a statement of our mortality (for dust we are and to dust we shall return, cf. Gen 3:19). No, the reason we were not subject to death was because an antidote had been provided to our natural mortality through the mechanism of the tree of life in the garden. When God specified the punishment for disobedience, he said that when they ate, they would be doomed to death (the meaning of the Hebrew phrase in Gen 2:17). That punishment was carried out by banishing them from the garden and blocking access to the tree of life (Gen 3:23-24). Without access to the tree of life, humans were doomed to the natural mortality of their bodies and were therefore doomed to die. And so it was that death came through sin. (99-101)

Lost World of Genesis One

John Walton is Coming to Baker Book House

I’m pleased to announce that Dr. John Walton will be in our store on Monday, March 18th at 7:00 pm. John will be speaking on “Genesis Through Ancient Eyes.” Last time John was in our store he spoke on Genesis One so we’ve asked him to address chapter two this time around. John will speak for about an hour and then we will have time for Q&A. He will sign books after the lecture. Mark you calendars now. You won’t be disappointed.

John Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.

John Walton