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The Meaning of the Scriptures


This is the text of a talk I gave in church on New Year's Eve day, 1995. Some minor editting has been done


The title of my talk is It is impossible for you to understand the meaning of the scriptures .

Notice that I did not say The scriptures have no meaning . Nor did I say It is impossible for you to find any meaning in the scriptures ." What I said was that it is impossible for you to understand the meaning (as in the one true meaning) of the scriptures.

The scriptures are too rich, too textured, and too layered, to assign one single meaning to most passages. Every time I read the scriptures, I find some new meaning to a verse I thought I understood before, or else some passage that I never noticed before will jump out at me.

As any of my former Valiant B or Seminary students will tell you, I love to study the scriptures. There are few things in life that give me greater satisfaction that sitting down and getting closer to my Father in Heaven by studying the messages He and His servants have given me. Today, I would like to talk about some of the methods that I have used to study the scriptures. It is my hope that this talk will encourage one person to make a New Year's resolution to study the scriptures more this coming year.

Translation Problems

The first thing to realize is that translating the Bible isn't always straightforward. For example:

1 Sam 13:1
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,

Now that seems pretty straight forward, doesn't it? It would be hard to misinterpret that passage, don't you think? The problem, however, is that in the original Hebrew the number of years is missing. The KJV translators simply guessed at the number.

Besides missing text, or sentences that don't make any sense, there is another problem with translating the scriptures. There are some words that only appear once in the Bible. In many cases, we can guess at their meaning from the context of the sentence, but other times we can't. When this happens, the translators simply pick one of the possible meanings.

Unfortunately, most Bible translations, including the KJV, don't tell you when things like this occur. But remember when you are reading a translation, the meaning of one verse might be much less certain than the meaning of the verse next to it. There are many interlinear translations, study bibles, and commentaries available that will make you aware of these places.

Understanding the Culture

When my wife and I were first married, we spent some time comparing our likes and dislikes. We both liked movies, but different types. For example, I liked the classic horror movies with Boris Karloff and Bella Lagosi, while she liked Mel Brooks comedies. An interesting thing happened when we watched one of her's favorites, Young Frankenstein, which is a spoof on the old horror movies. There were parts of the movie that I thought were funny, but she didn't understand why. When she started watching the old horror movies with me, she would suddenly recognize something from Young Frankenstein, and then realize why it was funny.

Although my wife had gotten a lot of enjoyment from seeing the movie, she got even more enjoyment when she understood the culture and background from which the movie was derived. The same thing is true when studying the scriptures. The more you know about the background and culture of various groups around the time the Bible, the better you will be able to appreciate the scriptures.

This is why it is important that you don't ignore the Hebrew Bible, (or, as many of you call it, the Old Testament.). Someone once said that trying to understand the New Testament without understanding the Old Testament is like trying to lift a hot pan off the stove without using the handle.

Footnotes and Cross References

There is a difference between reading the scriptures and studying them. When I first started studying the scriptures, I would measure my progress by how many pages I had read. That wasn't really studying; that was just reading. Studying requires a careful reading of the scriptures. The footnotes and cross references are a wonderful tool to help you in your scripture study.

For example, most of us have read the Christmas story recently, so we should be able to say how many Wise Men there were, and where they visited the Baby Jesus. Actually, we don't know how many wise men there were (the number of wise men doesn't appear anywhere in the story.) We also know that they didn't visit him in the stable, but probably at his home in Nazareth. Furthermore, Jesus probably wasn't a baby when they got there.

In Luke 2:22-24, we read that they took Jesus to the temple and offered two pigeons.

Luke 2:22-24
22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)
24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

This was in compliance to Lev 12:3-4. Jesus would have to be at least 41 days old.

Lev 12:3-4
3 And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4 And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.

But according to Lev 12:5-8, what they were supposed to offer was a lamb and a pigeon, but if they couldn't afford that, they could offer two pigeons.

Lev 12:5-8
5 But if she bear a maid child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation: and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.
6 And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest:
7 Who shall offer it before the LORD, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female.
8 And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.

Now if the Wise Men had arrived before this time with expensive gifts, they certainly could have afforded a lamb and a pigeon. So the Wise Men had to arrive after this time. But Luke 2:39 tells us when they were done with this offering, they returned to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

Luke 2:39
39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.

Getting back to the Wise Men, the star led them to Jerusalem and disappeared, so they asked Herod where the new king was. Matt 2:8-11 says that Herod told them to go to Bethlehem, but when they started to leave, the star reappeared and led them to the house where the young child was. I would guess that this house was in Nazareth.

Mat 2:8-11
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Notice that Jesus is referred to now as a young child, not a babe. This may well explain why Herod had all children under two years old slain rather than just newborns.

Bible Study Techniques

There are many different ways to study the scriptures. What is interesting to me may not be interesting to you. So if you have trouble studying the scriptures, maybe you haven't tried the right method for you yet.

Here are some of the methods I've used. Maybe one of them will appeal to you. Maybe one will give you an idea for your own method of study.

Cover to Cover

Probably the most common method is to read the scriptures from cover to cover. The first time I read the Bible this way, I was amazed to find how soon the Flood came. Adam was still alive when Noah was born.


Another fairly easy approach is to read the various books in chronological order. For example, even though Malachi appears at the end of the Old Testament, it wasn't the last book that was written.

Parallel Accounts

Another nice way to study scriptures is to examine parallel accounts of the same event. I did this with the four gospels, and enjoyed it very much. Often, one author includes details that the others don't, so you get a better picture of what happened.

For example, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden, Matthew, Mark, & Luke mentions that someone cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest. John, however, tell us that it was Peter who cut off Malchus' ear. Only Luke tells us that Jesus healed the ear.


Another interesting way to study scriptures is to study by topics. Use a Topical Guide or concordance and read all the scriptures that are listed under some subject. This will help you gain a better understanding of what the scriptures say about a given topic. A variation of this method is to use a computer search program to look how words and phrases are used.


When I was a kid, there was a set formula for Westerns. The good guy always wore a white hat and rode on a white horse, while the bad guys always had black hats. The bad guy would take careful aim with a rifle, fire a shot at the hero and miss. The hero would draw his six-shooter, and without aiming, pick off the bad guy, firing far more than six shots. But some shows had a gimmick. The Rifleman, for example, didn't use a six shooter. Zorro used a sword, and Lash Larue used a bullwhip. That made these people special, but only if you knew that everyone else used six shooters.

There is a fascinating book by Robert Alter, a Jewish scholar, called The Art of Biblical Narrative . He lists several theme types that are repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible, and suggests that these were literary forms that were used as frameworks for the stories themselves. If this is true, then any deviation from the standard form would have significance to the audience.

The themes he identified are:

Consider the following: an old couple is very sad because they have no children. An angel appears to one of them and tells them that they will have a child, what to name the child, and what that child will accomplish. There are plenty of places in the scriptures where we read this type of story. Perhaps if a story varied from this formula, that was as significant to the early biblical audience as the Rifleman was to TV viewers. What would it mean if the name of the child wasn't predetermined? Or, in the case of Mary, if there were no husband?

How many stories can you find in the scriptures of someone receiving a vision in the field or wilderness? (For you Mormons: don't forget Joseph Smith's first vision.) Once you have made your list, what are the similarities and differences of these instances?

Original Language

The current method I am using for scripture study is the original languages. For a number of years now I have been studying the scriptures in the original languages and then comparing them with the KJV translation. I have found this very rewarding, and have learned a lot about the scriptures this way. [I finished this method during 1996] . There are a number of computer programs available now that makes this much easier to do than when I first started. Now you can click on an English word and see the original Hebrew or Greek and what that word means.

What you often miss if you don't read the original language are puns and word plays that are lost in the translation. The Hebrews put great significance in puns and repetition of words. In English, however, repeating the same word is considered awkward, so often the translation obscures the repetition.

For example, the Hebrew word Adam means the dust or dirt of the ground, as well as mankind, as well as a specific name. So when we read that God took the dust of the ground, formed a man, and called him Adam, what we are really reading is that God took adam, formed adam, and called it Adam.

Other Methods

There are as many ways to study scriptures as there are people to study them. What I have done today is list some of the ways I have used. Hopefully, you can find a way that suits your needs.

Some of you may remember Brother Palmer, who was in medical school here several years ago. He developed an interest in determining what diseases biblical people had in the scriptures. He would read the scriptures for symptoms and make a diagnosis.

I recently read an article where three statisticians searched the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) looking at every other letter, then every third letter, etc. They found names of people who were born long after the Torah was written. Even more fascinating, they found pairs of words close to each other. For example, they found the Hebrew words for Hanukkah and Hasmonean close together. The Hasmoneans were the group of people who recaptured the Temple and Hanukkah is the feast celebrating this event.

One group studied the foods of the Bible and have come up with a Biblical cookbook.

I remember a study once where they tried to determine the authors of the various parts of the Book of Mormon. Which passages did Mormon copy verbatum, and where did he insert his own comments? The results of this effort were then used to determine if passages written by the same person were similar in vocabulary and style.

What is Your Method?

What method should you use? That depends on your interest. I don't think it matters so much what method you pick, as much as how interesting it is to you.

Maybe you want to study the women of the Bible, or maybe study how children or families are discussed. You could study legal issues, monetary issues, marriage customs, or any of a wide range of topics. Think of something that is interesting to you, and then see how you can learn more about it in the scriptures.


If you aren't a Mormon (and my guess is that most of you aren't :^), these notes might clarify some of the references that may not be familiar.

Valiant B or Seminary

Valiant B was a Sunday School class for 9 year olds. I taught that class for about 8 years.

Seminary is an early morning scripture study program held every school day for high school students. I taught that class for 1 year. We met from 6-7 AM every school day.

Go back to the article.

The First Vision

Mormons believe that Joseph Smith had several visions in which he saw God. The First Vision is a reference to the very first vision, which happened when he was 14 years old. It took place in a wooded area on his family farm.

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