Description and Prescription

Not everything we read about in Scripture is meant to be copied!

There are various important principles of biblical interpretation. If we keep these in mind, we can avoid a world of trouble – and misunderstanding and misconstruing of the Word of God. Many are fairly basic and straightforward. Some of the key principles are these:

-Study every text in its context
-Compare Scripture with Scripture
-Study difficult passages in the light of those that are more clear

Many more can be mentioned of course, but simply observing these three will help you go a long way in rightly understanding Scripture and avoiding theological error. Another basic principle to keep in mind is the subject of this article.

Not everything described in the Bible is being prescribed. Just because we read about something happening in Scripture does not necessarily mean it is a template for all people for all time. This can be easily illustrated in a humorous fashion.

Some believers seem to seek guidance by closing their eyes, opening their Bible, and putting their finger down on a page, in the hopes that the text pointed to will give them the answer they are looking for. One well-known story makes clear just how foolish this is as a means of determining God’s will:

-A person using this method came up with Matthew 27:5: “Judas went out and hanged himself”.
-A bit troubled, he tried again, and got this: Luke 10:37: “go and do likewise”.
-Being really rattled, he tried one more time, only to get this: John 13:27: “and what thou doest, do quickly”!

The point is obvious. Just because we are told that someone did something in the Bible (like Judas hanging himself) does not mean we should follow suit. While I have written about this matter before, it always is worth revisiting. See this earlier piece for example:

Test case: the Patriarchs

Since I am reading again in the Pentateuch, one can find plenty of examples simply by looking at the lives of the Patriarchs. So many things that we see them doing are decidedly NOT something we should emulate and take as an example. 

There are numerous things we could mention. I recently wrote a piece on burial versus cremation. I looked at some Old Testament passages, saying we need to decide what might be the best course. One person said this in a comment:

“I remember that Joseph asked for his bones to be carried back to Canaan Gen 50:25 when they returned to Canaan (nearly 400 years later, Exodus 13:19 ‘Moses took the bones of Joseph with him’), and before that his father, Jacob wanted his body buried with his fathers in Canaan Gen 47:30 so to me it means our bones are important or the place where we are buried is important.”

Yes, quite right: all the Patriarchs wanted to be buried in the same place: a cave of Machpelah. That is certainly descriptive. But whether it is to be prescriptive as well might be another matter. And we know that the Patriarchs also did various other things which we probably should not emulate. For example, they all had multiple wives.

They also heard directly from God, something which we may well not experience – at least not in the same way as they did. Also, they all left their homeland; they all quarrelled with their brothers; they all met their brides at a well.

And then the wives of the three Patriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were all infertile – yet God miraculously opened the wombs of all three. Believers today are not called to follow in their infertility – nor to expect a miraculous healing from it. Also, all three went down in the direction of Egypt, and so on.

But let me mention just one more issue, related to that last point. In at least the case of two of them (Abraham and Isaac), they had beautiful wives, were in a different land, and lied about their wives (saying they were not wives but sisters). In the case of Abraham, this was partly true, as Sarah was his half-sister.

The first case involves Abraham in Egypt. We read about this in Genesis 12:10-20. But he did this again! The second time this happened involved Abimelech. Genesis 20: 1-18 records this story. And Isaac ends up doing much the same as Genesis 26:6-11 discusses.

Once again, what is being described in these passages is not something we must also do. Most of us do not have ravishingly beautiful wives as these men had, and we generally are not travelling in another country where the leaders there want to get to know these women much better. Nor are we to lie about it all, even if those other two conditions are met!

Common sense needed

But you get my drift. So much of the narrative portions of Scripture certainly involve lots of descriptive material. But not all of it is meant to be prescriptive. We can even talk about Jesus in this regard. Jesus was circumcised at the end of the eighth day – should we be too?

Jesus never married – should we therefore remain single as well? And Jesus died a horrible death on a cross – should we as well? Sure, we are to live a crucified life, in a spiritual sense. In that and other ways we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

But much of this is just common sense – or hopefully it is. When one son of the Patriarchs, facing sexual temptation, fled out of the room (Joseph in Genesis 39) that is both descriptive and prescriptive. If we ever find ourselves in that sort of situation, we should do exactly the same thing! Get out of there real fast – don’t pray about it or meditate on it!

Many other obvious incidents – of bad examples – can be mentioned, such as King Saul consulting the witch of Endor, King David committing adultery and murder, or King Solomon having 1000 wives and concubines, to name but a few. Here were folks that God used for his purposes, yet they all had their flaws – some worse than others.

We of course can emulate such figures when they did that which was right and pleasing to God. But not all that we read about when it comes to various biblical characters is meant to be something we are to do as well. Again, this should be a matter of common sense for us, but sometimes that is lacking in believers. Indeed, I know of one Christian who, appealing to Solomon and others, thinks polygamy is just fine!

So as you dally read your Bibles, use some God-given wisdom in deciding what is to be copied and mimicked and what is simply to be read – or at times, warned about and avoided!

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2 Replies to “Description and Prescription”

  1. One of the most serious perversions of biblical interpretation involves the abuse of scripture to condone anti-Semitism and racism, of course. When it comes to ethnicity, we are all equally loved by God, who sent his only Son to save humanity, not one particular ethnic subgroup within it. That particularly heinous eisegetical interpretation of God’s Word was practiced for centuries in Germany, within both its Catholic and Protestant churches, with hideous consequences eighty years ago throughout Europe. And white South African churches practised similar eisegesis when it came to condoning their murderous practice of apartheid.

    (NB: Eisegesis is when one misreads Scripture through one’s own prejudices and biases).

  2. I totally agree with the three principles you use to help us understand how to interpret (and apply) Scripture. Right now, the first of these is particularly on my mind — studying in context. One of the daily devotionals I read too often overlooks this vital principle, and selects a verse totally out of context and applies it to whatever topic is under consideration for that day. And, sorry to say, it tends to emphasize what is sometimes called “prosperity gospel” views by which I mean the idea that God wills Christians who are truly devout to prosper materially. This is a doctrine for which I find no real support in Scripture. God wants us to abound/prosper in spiritual gifts (Galations 5: 22-23), in love for Him and others, and in works of service. I sometimes despair of this devotional guide, but on other days I find it helpful, giving practical advice and guidance. Few devotionals are perfect, for all of us, no matter how devout or experienced, still have our biases and quirks. So I persist with it, not relying on it exclusively, but also making use of other devotionals, study guides and commentaries.

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