We’ve all been there. We are doing our read through the Bible in a year program and we come to a verse like Deuteronomy 22:8, When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.
We were excited to hear from God, to be spiritually energized for our day. Instead, we feel let down, and that doesn’t seem right. After all, we believe that every book in the Bible is the Word of God and given for our benefit. This verse doesn’t seem very beneficial, so now we feel guilty. But what are we supposed to do with verses like Deut. 22:8? Should I make sure my house is safe for visitors? Up to code? Check my home owner’s insurance?
Often our lack of clarity on how to understand a biblical passage is due to a failure to think about what we are reading. The Bible is full of different kinds of literature, called genres. Every day we automatically deal with genres. When we read an obituary we expect a short life summary. When we see an ad on a billboard we understand the overall point is to recommend a service or product. When we read a news story on a website we expect a report. When someone posts a Facebook status update we expect a brief glimpse into their day.
For some reason, however, when we read the Bible we forget about genres. The reality is that failing to take genres into account when we read the Bible increases misunderstanding and misapplication. This is very common, especially in devotional Bible reading.
What are the various genres of the Bible? In the Old Testament we find narrative, law, poetry, wisdom literature, and prophecy. In the New Testament we find narrative, epistles, and prophecy. Within books of the BIble we also find minor genres or genre variation. The gospels are mostly narrative, but Jesus uses a well known kind of wisdom literature called parables. Deuteronomy is part narrative, part law. You get the idea.
The first question we need to ask when we are reading the Bible is “what am I reading?” In our Deuteronomy 22:8 example we are reading law. This means we are reading God’s revealed law for the nation of Israel. These laws are not meant to be followed by Americans, or even by the church. They do, however, reveal something important about the character of God and his expectations of humanity.
In general, the civic laws found in Deuteronomy are designed to protect Israelites from each other or themselves. Most ancient Israelite homes had flat roofs and were used as patios, so putting a protective railing on the roof of your home was considerate of others. It was a way of loving your neighbor and protecting yourself from unnecessary guilt and heartache should someone fall off your roof.
In other words, protect your neighbor. Now there’s a message that we can apply. Deut. 22:8 reminds us that God is calling us to look out for those around us. Not only on our roofs, but on the road, in our classes, and at our workplaces. Indeed, isn’t protecting neighbors exactly what Jesus has done for us? By sacrificing his life for sinners he protects us from the wrath of God and offers us forgiveness and fellowship. Talk about a protective fence! Maybe Deuteronomy 22:8 wasn’t such a bad devotional after all.