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  • Writer's pictureBrian O'Kelly

4-How to Study the Bible

I was going to do the next episode on the relationship between science and the Bible and the fact that some people claim that science has disproved the Bible. What I realized is that it was more important to discuss how to study the Bible first so that we would have appropriate context for some of the misunderstandings that atheists have regarding the Bible’s claims about science.

In order to really understand this topic the first thing we have to understand is what kind of book the Bible is.

Many of the claims the Bible can’t be proven by science or even worse is disproved by science are based on a juvenile understanding of what the Bible is and isn’t. I’ve already demonstrated in episode three that the Bible is historically reliable and there are no reasonable proofs against its historicity.

The Bible is emphatically not a science textbook. It is not designed nor written to give scientific information.

The Bible is full of different kinds of literature and different kinds of information. It’s important to understand what those different kinds of literature and information are.

Historical narrative-Historical narrative is not designed to be scientific in nature, it is designed to be true and tell us things that happened. Let me give you a couple of examples of how we do this today as well as a couple from the Bible:

People often ask me because of my last name being O’Kelly if I am Irish, and I always answer “yes I am”. Yet the truth is that I’ve never been to Ireland and my family has been here in the United States since the 1870s. Because of intermarriage I’m more English and German than I am Irish. Yet my sons also answer this question in the affirmative while because I married a woman who is Slovenian and German, they are even less Irish than I am.

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1).

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying out, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" (Matthew 9:27).

What is certain is that Jesus was not the son of David in any kind of a literal sense. He was in fact the son of God or if you want to take a non-divine view of Jesus he was the son of Joseph or as some of his worst detractors say, that Mary was impregnated through casual sex and Joseph was a cover story. Regardless of which view you adhere to, Jesus was not the literal son of David.

The historical narrative portions of the Bible are not to be taken literally in every aspect however, the fact that Jesus was a descendent of David makes him a “son of David” in the common parlance. So it’s important when were reading the historical narrative sections the Bible to understand what they mean by the context in the style of literature.

Poetry: poetic writing is in no way intended to be taken literally. Here are a few examples of places where poetry is used and it would be unfortunate to take them literally.

Love is like a waterfall that flows forever. A relationship of true love in different directions Through the steep, sharp and crooked lines of rocks are unpredictable challenges that lovers need to face to prove its resilience. (Waterfalls – Clifford Villalon)

In the pathway of the sun, In the footsteps of the breeze, Where the world and sky are one, He shall ride the silver seas, He shall cut the glittering wave. (Penelope – Dorothy Parker)

For the lips of an immoral woman drip honey, And her mouth is smoother than oil; (Proverbs 5:3) Do her lips really drip honey?

Keep my commands and live, And my law as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers; Write them on the tablet of your heart. (Proverbs 7:3) Are people really supposed to bind as in like attach with tape God’s commands to their fingers? And how do you write on the tablet of your heart? This is poetry implying that with her hands and hearts should keep the commands of God.

These poetic statements are clearly not intended to be taken in any kind of a literal sense.

Idiom: the Bible is replete with symbolic and/or apocalyptic language, none of which is to be taken literally rather as metaphorical or to illustrate a point. Here are a few examples.


Solid as a Rock

Honest as the Day is Long

Piece of Cake

When Pigs Fly

Miss the Boat

Zip your Lip

Modern from the Bible

By the Skin of your teeth – Job 19:20

The Lions Den – Daniel 6:12

Writing on the Wall – Daniel 5:5-31

Bible Idioms

Adam knew his wife (Genesis 4:1)

“In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Genesis 22:18

Flowing with Milk and Honey – Genesis 31:35

Gird up your Loins (Jeremiah 1:17) – Get Ready


Modern Hyperbole

Everyone was there

That was the best steak I’ve ever had

This is the worst/best/longest/biggest of anything

Nobody believe him/her/that

There is no remembrance of former things, Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come By those who will come after. (Ecclesiates 1:11)

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matt. 23:24, NIV)

Everything “Everything is possible for him who believes.” (Mark 9:23b, NIV)

Hate - “If any man come to me and hate not his father and mother…” Luke 14:26


All means all and that’s all all means

“He told me all that I ever did” Samaritan woman after meeting Jesus (John 4:39)

John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” Mark 1:4-5

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.

Metaphor & Simile - Metaphor is another common type of biblical figure of speech we see this throughout the Bible as much as we see it today:

Modern Metaphor & Simile

I’ve heard NFL quarterbacks described as having an “arm like a cannon

Olympic sprinters have been described as “running like a gazelle”

Even the famous Chicago Bears lineman was named William “the refrigerator” Perry

In the case of my own beloved Seahawks running back Mark Sean Lynch was described as going into “beast mode”.

These are commonly used expressions and I’m sure you can think of others in which we use a symbol to communicate a point. Why should this not be true also in biblical literature?

“Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives, And in their death they were not divided; They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions.” (Samuel 1:23)

“Among all this people were seven hundred select men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss.” (Judges 20:16)

“Also the king made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedars as abundant as the sycamores which are in the lowland.” (2 Chronicles 1:15)

1 Samuel 2:8 “He raises the poor from the dust And lifts the beggar from the ash heap, To set them among princes And make them inherit the throne of glory. “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He has set the world upon them.

Symbolism - the Bible often uses symbols to convey concepts, here are some examples:

Olive leaf/Olive branch - In the Bible, the olive tree, branch, or leaf is a symbol of peace, prosperity, beauty, and victory and, of course, a relationship between God and man. This symbol is mentioned frequently in the bible.

Nehemiah 8:15 “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.”

Genesis 8:11 “And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.”

Rock is a very bold and blunt symbol of the Bible. Rock is a strong and stable foundation on which the whole empire can be built. It is related to God, who is an immovable force that anchors us. It also stands for firmness and faithfulness. The One who is genuine like a rock. It is also symbolic of strength and permanence.

Deuteronomy 32:4 The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.

2 Samuel 22:3 My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence.

God is neither a rock, a shield or a horn.

The sacrifice of the lamb is discussed several times in the Bible. It symbolizes the blood pouring from Jesus on the cross during the ultimate sacrifice of his crucifixion. This sacrifice is discussed as a sign of peace and love of Jesus. Lamb is considered as the most innocent creature. In the Bible, Jesus is compared to the lamb of sacrifice

Genesis 22:8 Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)

Revelation 5:12 - In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

Jesus doesn’t have wool or four legs lamb, he also doesn’t bleat like a sheep.

Most of the misunderstandings and theological errors that come out of the Christian church or most of the claims against Christianity arise from misunderstandings of either the type of literature or the ways in which to interpret them. Here are the most common errors that people make.

Literal reading - in light of the styles of literature in the Bible is simply foolish to take the Bible literally in every verse of it.

Some of you have heard the statement “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”. That sounds pretty good and I agree with it to the extent that we understand what God said.

About himself

Psalm 36:7 - How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.

Nehemiah 1:10 -Now these are Your servants and Your people, whom You have redeemed by Your great power, and by Your strong hand.

MICAH 1:2-3 "Hear, 0 peoples, all of you, listen, 0 earth and all who are in it, that the Sovereign Lord may witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. Look! The Lord...comes down and treads the high places of the earth."

God doesn’t have wings or hands and doesn’t “tread” on the earth because in John 4:24 it says that because in because in “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”

About heaven and the physical world (Phenomenal Language)

Genesis 7:11 - In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. Does heaven have windows?

JEREMIAH 22:29 - "0 earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord." Does the earth have ears?

JEREMIAH 51:42 "The sea is come up upon Babylon: she is covered with the multitude of the waves thereof." Did the sea cover Bablyon? No it was the armies of the Medes that are being referred to here.

1 Samuel 4:5 - And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook.

1 Kings 10:24 - Now all the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart.

Genesis 19:23 - The sun had risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar.

Habakkuk 1:6 -For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans, A bitter and hasty nation Which marches through the breadth of the earth, To possess dwelling places that are not theirs.

Luke 12:56 -Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it you do not discern this time?

About animals –

HABAKKUK 1:8 "Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves,They shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat." Horses don’t fly.

Isaiah 40:31 - But those who wait on the Lord Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.

The Armor of God - 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. 14 Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God;

The Bible needs to be understood in context

One of the most important things in Bible study is to understand, who was writing who they were writing to and what they were expected to take from the verse.

Joel 2:25 “So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, The crawling locust, The consuming locust, And the chewing locust, My great army which I sent among you. Many people misuse this verse to indicate a belief that anything that has been lost will be recovered. This simply is not what it means, it is literally a promise to Israel after a plague of locusts had eaten their crops. It was given by God to the prophet Joel to speak to Israel after a specific tragedy. God may in fact restore things that have been lost, but this verse is not a universal promise.

Jeremiah 29:11 - For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Many people use this verse as though it applies to them what specifically was applying to the nation of Israel during their captivity in Babylon. He is telling them not to give up, to build houses and to go on living because the captivity is not the end of the story. Now it’s true that God probably does think of peace and not of evil for you and it is true that he offers you a future and a hope this verse speaking to a specific people in a specific situation at specific time.

Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Matthew 18: 15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. 18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again[d] I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

John 14:13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. John 14:12 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. 13 And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you [c]ask anything in My name, I will do it.

Chronicles 7:14 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land This was a statement by God to the nation of Israel through an appearance to Solomon at the building of the temple.

Matthew 24- 1 - Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” 3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains. 9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. 15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’[a] spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. 22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time. 26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. 29 “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[b] 30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth[c] will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.[d] 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it[e] is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

The Bible:

Is not a textbook of science or history


Historical Narrative




Metaphor & Simile


Not always literal

Needs to be understood in context


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