As Christians learn to study the Bible, we pay more attention to the details. We notice repeated words, names, grammar, and genre. We train our eyes to spot anything surprising or out of place.
What we do with these observations is just as important as making them in the first place. Observing the text is like stocking the pantry. We gather raw materials, but we don’t know what we need until it’s time to cook.
The Problem with Interesting Details
Most of our Biblical observations arise because a detail captures our attention. We’re interested in a certain feature, conversation, or nuance in the text.
Yet when we move from observation to interpretation, we must be careful. Though there might be curious or compelling details in the passage, we should try to zero in on the main point. We’re likely to miss what God has for us if we concentrate on what is intriguing instead of what is most important.
Ideally, we should give our attention and thought to themes and details in proportion to their importance. Granted, we don’t usually know the major thrust of a passage until we’ve spent some time with it. But if we want to land on the main point, we should give our energy to the evidence and supporting truths that point in that direction. If we camp out on curiosities, we might be off the mark when stating the main point. And if we miss the main point, our application might be unnecessary or misdirected.
Additionally, we should avoid the trap of speculation. If we get obsessed with a detail or surprise in the passage, we’ll wonder why it’s there. When we interpret, we’ll try to answer related questions even though the answers are nowhere to be found in the text. While enjoyable on an intellectual level, this is merely spinning our wheels—expending mental energy without making progress.
The natural question, then, is this: How do I know if a detail is important? How do we know what to keep and what to discard?
Here’s the brief answer. If it leads to the main point, it’s important. If it doesn’t, it’s not.
In other words, when you follow the author’s train of thought, is this detail included? Is information about this character or description repeated or used later in the passage? It this detail were omitted from the text, could you still make your argument about the main point?
Here’s an example. The fifth plague is described in Exodus 9:1–7, and we read in verse 6 that all the livestock of Egypt died. However, both later in chapter 9 (verse 20) as well as in chapter 14, additional livestock are mentioned. How can this be if all the livestock died? You might pay attention to the phrase “livestock which are in the field” in Exodus 9:3 and speculate about exactly where the pestilence affected the animals. You might wonder whether Egypt simply stole animals from surrounding nations after all their animals died.
We’re not told. And all the wondering and worrying distracts from the main point of the passage: God judged Egypt and not Israel. The later reappearance of livestock is an interesting detail, but not an important one.
Build on the Main Point
It’s irresponsible to build doctrine on or draw application from mere curiosities in Scripture. Some of the oddities in the Bible are interesting, but not valuable.
When you ask questions related to your observations and turn to answer them, be vigilant. Answer only answer those questions where the text provides an explicit answer or one drawn through reasonable deduction.
We honor the Lord as we draw our main doctrine and application from the main points of Scripture. And to get to the main point, we must make sure to focus on what’s important, and not only what’s interesting.