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Practical Rules for Interpretation: Rules 6-7

Rule 6 – Note the Presence of Parallelisms in the Bible

Parallelisms are one of the fascinating characteristics of Hebrew literature.  The literary form is very common in Near Eastern language and is relatively easy to recognize.

Hebrew poetry, like other poetry, often has a particular meter.  Metric form, however, is hard to preserve when translating the literature.  Parallelism is not so easily lost in translation because it is not so much a rhythm of words as it is a rhythm of thoughts.

Parallelism may be defined as a relationship between two or more sentences or clauses that are similar to one another or are set with each other.  There are three basic types of parallelism:  synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic.

Synonymous parallelism occurs when different lines or parts of a passage present the same thought in a slightly altered manner of expression.  (Prov 19:5, Ps 95:6)

Antithetical parallelism occurs when the two parts are set in contrast to each other.  The may say the same thing but by way of one being the negative of the other.  (Prov 13:1, Prov 10:4)

Synthetic parallelism is a bit more complex.  The first part of the passage creates a sense of expectation which is completed by the second part.  It can also move in a progressive, “staircase” move into a third line that concludes the thought.  (Ps 92:9, Matt 5:42, Matt 7:7)

Understanding and recognizing the use of parallelisms by Hebrew thinkers can often clear up apparent difficulties in understanding a text.  It can also enrich our understanding of some passages.  (Isa 45:6-7, Matt 6:13)

The appearance of parallelism can greatly enrich our understanding of biblical concepts.  For example, how did the Hebrew mind understand the notion of blessedness?  Consider Num 6:24-26

Rule 7 – Note the Difference between Proverb and Law

A common mistake in biblical interpretation and application is to transform a proverbial saying into a moral absolute.  Proverbs are dense with wisdom and designed to represent practical truths.  The do not reflect absolute moral lawas that are to be applied rigidly to every conceivable life situation.  They are wisdom and should be used with wisdom.

Even in the English language we understand that “proverbial sayings” have to be applied correctly.  Consider the English sayings:  “Look before you leap” and “He who hesitates is lost”.  Both are true in a given situation but both cannot be absolutely applied to the same situation.

The same kind of thing happens with biblical proverbs.  Christ had wisdom sayings as well.  Jesus said, “He who is not with Me is against Me” (Matt 12:30) but he also said, “He who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50)

Consider Proverbs 26:4-5.  If both verse 4 and verse 5 are treated as “laws” then you would have a clear contradiction.  Fools do just that to show that the Bible contradicts itself.  The wise man (the one who fears the Lord) looks at these verses and prays for wisdom when it is most prudent to apply the specific form of reply to the fool.

Just as we distinguish a proverb from a law, we must also distinguish between different forms of laws. The two basic types of laws we find in the Bible are apodictic law and casuistic law.

Apodictic laws express absolutes and provides a direct personal form such as “Thou shall” or “Thou shall not”.  We find this form clearly in the 10 Commandments.

Casuistic law is seen in the “if…then” form of conditional statements.  Consider this the case law of the Scriptures.  Casuistic law gives a bunch of “examples” that act as guidelines for rendering justice.

Exodus 23:4 instructs:  “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you should surely return it to him.”  Note the first part has the casuistic form (if…then) and is follow by the apodictic (thou shall).  Clearly, if you find your enemy’s donkey or ox wandering away you need to be neighborly and return it to him.  But what if it’s his dog or his cow or his cat or his iguana?  Only the sinful human heart would say “Well God didn’t tell me I had to return his dog after all….”

If the Bible gave explicit rulings for every conceivable eventuality that could ever occur, the legal volumes would fill up the entire world.  Case law provides the illustration of the principle, but the principle has a very wide realm of application.  Understanding the application in all cases means you must understand the principle and wisely apply it to the situation.

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