The title of this post comes from footnote “a” in the Jewish Study Bible for Genesis 4:7. The note simply states, “Meaning of verse uncertain.” I have no idea why the authors decided that note was necessary.
However, if you have practiced preaching through books of the Bible or even large sections of books of the Bible, then you have hit verses or phrases within verses that were difficult to interpret.
In his excellent little book, Reading The Bible Wisely, Briggs writes, “Alongside this doctrine [of the “clarity of Scripture”] I would like to set the difficulty of Scripture, which is not, to my knowledge an equally well-known theological position, but which can certainly be maintained alongside a view of ‘clarity'” (p. 54).
So, for instance, the JSB’s translation of Genesis 4:7 reads, “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin crouches at the door…” (uncertain verses in italics).
What’s a preacher to do when coming face to face with uncertain meaning?
- Place less focus on the lexical meaning of individual words (in this case, “uplift”). Scan the range of meaning provided by scholars, but don’t agonize too long there.
- Place more focus on the larger context. You already know how important context is to meaning. It’s especially important when dealing with difficult biblical data. Simply read the story of Cain and Abel and you’ll discover that Cain has the opportunity to be like his younger brother if he does right. Cain could gain God’s attention like Abel did, but Cain must do the right thing. “Uplift” has to have something to do with Cain’s status before God. Briggs writes, “Scripture is clear, let us say, on the macro level. On the micro level it is persistently difficult to pin down” (p. 66).
- Place most emphasis on what the passage is designed to do to the Church. Emphasize how Believers respond to this preaching portion as an act of worship.
- Be clear about the Gospel so Believers can believe before they obey.
- Finally, don’t be afraid of partial interpretations. Virtually every Sunday I come away knowing I could have done more research and come to better conclusions (about some minutia). I am content with partial interpretations (without being satisfied with shoddy work!).
Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion has a place where the footnote above would fit. If so, I hope these suggestions might help you preach with Spirit-given confidence in your partial interpretations.
Preach well for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).
P.S. If you haven’t read Briggs (Reading the Bible Wisely: An Introduction to Taking Scripture Seriously. Revised Edition.), you’ll enjoy the 100-page paperback. It’s rare that a small book delivers such large insight.