The Bible employs many different genres of literature. There is poetry. There are personal letters. There are visions and dreams. There is narrative. Good interpretation of the Bible requires recognizing the genre of the respective passage and applying the appropriate interpretive rules for the genre.
One interpretive decision to make that crosses over genres, but occurs most especially in personal letters and narrative, is whether to understand the passage as descriptive or prescriptive. Let me explain…
Descriptive: Some passages are descriptive. That is, they tell you what was happening. It’s not necessarily telling us whether it is morally right or wrong, just that it is what happened. Example:
He [Solomon] had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart (1 Ki 11:3).
Was it good for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. Was it right for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. So this passage is a clear example of a descriptive passage that tells us what was happening, but never infers that it was good or what was should have been happening. The Bible is clear on marriage… one man, one woman, forever.
Prescriptive: Other passages, however, are intended to prescribe moral imperatives upon the reader. Example:
You shall not murder (Ex 20:13).
Murder is wrong. That is clear. This verse (and the 10 Commandments in general) are moral prescriptions of how God’s people are supposed to act (praise God for grace that covers us when we don’t do what we are supposed to do). But the point is that this verse is prescriptive.
In short, when reading the Bible, ask yourself this question: Is this passage describing what should be (prescriptive) or describing what is happening (descriptive)?
Of course, the challenge is, it’s not always as easy as the passages I used as examples above. And sometimes it may even change in the course of a chapter from description to prescription and back again. Let’s look at one more example:
Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him (1 Cor 11:14).
So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? If prescriptive, that means it is morally wrong for a man to grow long hair. But if it is simply descriptive, is the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul teaches on the Lord’s Supper? Here are back to back sections on Godly worship in the same chapter. So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? It’s a big decision…
Deciding whether a passage is descriptive or prescriptive is one of the most important decisions we make in properly interpreting the Bible. And if you are ever not sure, ask a friend…
Interact: What passages of the Bible do you struggle to decide if they are descriptive or prescriptive?