How to Study the Bible

Essay 1: How to Study the Bible
 
The first essay, 4-5 pages long, is a “hands-on” exercise in Bible study. Please follow these guidelines:
 
1. Choose your text. Read as many as you wish of these passages, and choose one of them:
 
​(a) Genesis 25:19-34​​Jacob and Esau
​(b) Numbers 11: 4-34​​Quail in the Wilderness
​(c) Genesis 38: ​1-30​​Judah and Tamar
(d) Joshua 3: 1-17​​Crossing of the Jordan.
​(e) Judges 2: 6-23​​Israel’s Disobedience
 
2. Develop a structure/outline for your paper as follows:
 
(a) Introduction: One or two paragraphs, in which you briefly summarize your passage and state what you will attempt to do in your essay – this includes a thesis statement
(b) A 3-part main section, covering the “3 levels of meaning”:
(1) the literary level (approx. 1 page): Here you will point out some indicators of the passage’s structure and arrangement, e.g., repetition, opening/closing statements, dialogue, movement of characters, comments made by the narrator/author to the reader;
(2) the ideological level (approx. 1 page): Here you will collect and comment on some of the leading ideas of the passage. Don’t try to cover them all, and try at this stage to hold back from suggesting the meaning or meanings of the passage as a whole;
(3) the communal level (approx. 1 page): Here you will suggest the purpose of the passage, e.g., to encourage, correct, remind, comfort, exhort. Remember: it is unlikely that your author simply intended to convey raw data. If possible, conjecture an actual problem or other situation that your author intended to address in writing to a specific Israelite community. (NOTE: There is no single “correct” identification of [1], [2], and [3], in any of these passages.), but you must support your contentions.
(c) Conclusion: One or two paragraphs, in which you summarize your findings, and, if you wish, suggest the relevance of your chosen passage to life and faith today.
 
IMPORTANT HINTS AND TIPS — please read these slowly and carefully:
 
1. Sources. You are not expected to do any research (e.g., in the library or on the internet). I am not interested in reading the opinions of others, nor am I expecting polished pieces of biblical scholarship — I recognize that most of you are writing your first essay on the interpretation of the Bible.   Instead, I am looking for your imaginative application of the first principles of responsible Bible study. Of course, use the notes in your Bible, but do not limit what you write to what you read in the notes. As for the major sources of the Pentateuch (J, E, D, and P), I expect no reference to them.
 
2. Referring to your passage. When summarizing or otherwise referring to your passage, use the general present tense, e.g., “In this passage Abraham asks Sarah. . . .” And note that the question “Did this happen?” is virtually irrelevant to your essay. Likewise, do not ask “Is this true?” but “What was this author trying to convey to his or her community?” “Why did he or she write about this?”
 
3. Comparisons, analogies. To help bring your essay to life, feel free to compare what you find in your passage with material in passages we have studied in class, or other texts with which you are familiar.  Similarly, if you wish point out analogies between the way you are analyzing your text and how a student in another discipline would study texts, e.g., in English, history, philosophy. Engage your reader — write interesting prose. If you wish, give your essay an imaginative title.
 
4. Coherence. Try your best to write an essay that “hangs together” — that has a sense of direction. Your reader should get the sense that the “three levels” together constitute “one method.” Use no section headings; they take up valuable space. Instead, let your prose indicate your outline.  In this regard I suggest that students follow one of two manners of organizing their papers.  1) Treat the levels in sequence.  Identify some of the literary features of the passage, then identify the ideas conveyed by these features, and then speculate regarding why the author felt his or her community needed to hear these ideas.  2) Discuss a particular literary feature, its function on the ideological level, and its role on the communal level.  Then, move to another feature and repeat the process until you reach the page requirement.
 
5. Stylistic issues.  As you write try to keep issues such as the following in mind.
a. Avoid speaking for your reader with “we”, “you”, or “our”.  Make your case and allow your reader to decide whether or not to agree with you.
b. Avoid contractions.  They make your paper look sloppy.
c. Remember that more words does not necessarily mean that your paper is better.  Sometimes in the effort to write a “college paper,” students try to use more words than is necessary.  Good writing is a balancing act between “See Spot run.” “Spot is crossing the yard.” and “See Spot run across the yard enthusiastically to chase the ball which was thrown by a young man with blond hair which flowed down to his shoes which were recently purchased at Kohl’s, a store of which his family had become fond since their arrival in Adrian, MI, a town in Southeastern Michigan in which two colleges are located, one of which is Siena Heights University, a Catholic, Dominican institution situated on the highest point in Adrian, hence the inclusion of ‘Heights’ in the name of the university.”
d. Attempts to artificially inflate your paper’s length with extra wide margins, larger than standard spaces between lines, and font size greater than 12 pt are easily noticeable and will affect your grade if they are the only way your paper reaches four full pages.  I want:
i. A single spaced header that provides your name, semester, course number, and my name as professor
ii. 12pt font with seraphs.  Seraphs are those little lines on letters in fonts such as times new roman.  Note: Calibri does not have seraphs.
iii. One inch margins on the sides, top, and bottom.
iv. No extra lines between paragraphs.  If you are using Word, you may need to make this change in the “paragraph” tab.
e. Avoid ending paragraphs with quotations.  The goal of a paper is to provide your thoughts and explanation of the ideas of others, not to simply state those ideas.
f. Your voice. Above all, remember that I am hoping to see your insights and wish to hear your voice. Avoid the passive voice (e.g., “It is said that. . .”  “There is/are…”  “It is evident that…”  etc.). And please write in your own words — in a relaxed, non-professorial, friendly, low-key style. Be direct and to the point. Ask yourself this: “Could my best friend understand my essay?” Be sure the answer is yes.  However, a relaxed style does not mean sloppy grammar.  Poor grammar hurts your presentation because your reader may be either distracted by errors or forced to “translate” your essay into English.  Asking someone to proofread your paper is a great help in this regard.
g. Inclusive language.  In this day and age, inclusive language is important.  Do not use “mankind” or “man” when referring to all of humanity.  Instead, use “humankind” or “humanity.”  Failure to observe this directive will negatively impact your grade. Even though you may not feel such gender specific language is important, I do.  Therefore, even if you think this is much ado about nothing, you would be well advised to follow this directive.
h. “Four to five pages” means four to five pages.  You will lose points if you write three and one half pages or exceed the five page limit.  The passages selected provide enough ideas to warrant four pages, and being able to present your thoughts clearly and concisely is also important.
 
6. Rough drafts and outlines.  I highly suggest and encourage students to meet with me regarding outlines and rough drafts or just to make sure that you are on the right track.  “I didn’t understand what you wanted.” is not an acceptable excuse for a poor paper.  You have weeks to discuss your paper with me.  Take advantage of this opportunity.
 
7. Grading.  On the first two levels, your grade will be based on your essay’s accurate representation of the text.  If you identify poetry on the literary level when only prose is present your grade will suffer.  Similarly, if your work on the ideological level is unsupportable by the text, your grade will suffer.  Be true to the literary features and ideas present in the text.  The third level is less straight forward.  Although a community may have any number of reasons for needing the message of the text, your essay must make logical sense.  If your text is exhorting its audience to return to the Law at the risk of Divine punishment, do not argue that this text was written for a community who was adhering too strictly to the Law.  Remember, the three levels work together to form a single methodology.  If your levels do not agree with each other, it is time to go back to the drawing board or come see me.  For further details, see the attached rubric.