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Reading the Bible: Parables

Updated on January 9, 2011

In continuing with my Read the Bible series, I wanted to address another literary genre known as Parables.  In this hub I wanted to discuss the generalities of reading a parable, although at a future time I will address the Parables of Jesus specifically.  I'm a little embarrassed, because I feel like there are parables in the Old Testament, but I can't remember the situation.  So generally speaking this is how to read a parable.  A parable is harder to read and understand than a narrative (which if you haven't read my hub on that I suggest you read it here), but you will see as we go that with a few tips you'll be able to read and understand parables when you encounter them on your own.  

An Explanation

Before we try to understand how to read a parable, we need to realize what a parable is. A parable is a simple story trying to communicate a profound truth. They are very similar in style to a fable. A key difference between a fable and a parable are the realities in which they spoken. In Aesop's Fables we are exposed to a fox trying to eat some grapes and a mouse taking a splinter out of a lion's paw. The animals talk and have these emotional experiences. We can learn stuff from these fables, but they aren't housed in reality. These stories could never really happen. In a parable the setting is reality. Jesus's parables include a shepherd looking for sheep, a son who asks for his inheritance early, and a seed growing into a tree. Those things are in the realistic realm. A common clue as to whether a story is a fable or parable is in the characters. If the character is an animal or a plant, you probably have a fable. If the character is a person (and no magic is going on) then you probably have a parable.

The intent of a parable is to communicate a universal truth through a short story. The intent of a parable is not to communicate many truths, but is typically limited to one point. In order to understand a parable you need to think about what is being said, but you don't need to look for the mysterious. The universal truth is designed to be very clear to the person who has listened carefully and processed the story.

A parable differs from an allegory.  In allegory, everything in the story is meant to have a one-to-one correspondence with something else.  One the most famous allegories is Pilgrim's Progress.  There the main character (Christian) leaves the city of destruction (this world) and sets out on a journey to the celestial city (heaven).  The symbolism is very clear.  In a parable, things don't have a one-to-one correspondence.  Rather it is that universal truth that is being communicated.

Interpretation

The first thing in understanding a parable you need to understand the historical context in which the parable is set. Since a parable is attempting to communicate a universal truth they need to be things with which the original audience would easily understand. It's important to note that we today don't necessarily have the same life experiences, cultural knowledge, and practical experience that someone in the Old Testament or someone in the crowd listening to Christ may have. We have to wear their shoes, er I mean sandals, that the people had when the parable was originally presented.

The parables vary in size. Some are a sentence, like the parable of the leaven. Some are a story like the prodigal son. Regardless of the size the need to be read in their entirety and interpreted as a whole. Then when moving on to interpretation look for the one concept that ties the entire story together.

Finally, believe it or not, sometimes the meaning is clearly told us in the Bible. In Matthew 13:36 the disciples asked Jesus after He had told a parable to the crowd to tell them the meaning of the parable. In the following verses Jesus then explains to them the whole parable. In this case the parable is extremely simple to understand: interpret the way Jesus said it was to be interpreted. If you come up with a different interpretation then what Jesus gave, I can say with 100% you're wrong and Jesus is right.

In a nutshell that is the parable genre of scripture. For the interpretation of specific parables try reading my parable on the sower or the mustard seed.

Recommendation

I recommend this book on parables because Dr. Pentecost understands the necessity of the contextual interpretations of the parables.  He is very careful to unwrap these while staying true to the Biblical text.

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