Part 1

Part 2

Enter the Modern Reader

Ben, in his post, agreeing with Robinson, makes an interesting point that we should consider: “…[From] the perspective of a modern person who knows quite well that the sun doesn’t go around the earth and that the periods of day and night are caused by the rotation of the earth on its axis.”

He contines,

..[In] the ancient Near East … virtually everyone believed that the sun, moon, and stars orbited the earth and not vice versa. The earth didn’t rotate and thereby produce day and night. Rather, the sun, moon, and stars orbited the earth and did so. And this makes sense of the assumed worldview of the author of Joshua.

While somewhat relevant to the matter, I think that this misses a larger picture. And it is something that is very relevant, that requires us as we read the text—as Ben points out— that it needs to be read and understood in light of “their ancient context.”

Part of that “ancient context” is recognizing that we are reading documents that aren’t intended to be strictly history. Yes, they record historical events, but they are told with specific interests and intentions and not for purely the sake of recording history. They were often biased and written with a certain narrative slant (Background, 210).

For those of us who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture such facts may seem to cut against that belief. I would argue that the fact of Scripture as historiography, as a legitimate historical source—if that is how we intend to portray it—is entirely dependent upon the fact of innerancy as a result of inspiration. The problem seems to be that some believe—both Christians and atheists— for the Scriptures to be inerrant or inspired that they must be divorced from their nature as historical texts.

The argument appears to go something like, if the texts we hold as Scripture must be interpreted with regard to their nature as historical documents arising at a particular time or within a particular culture then they are neither inerrant or inspired. The subsequent argument being that because that somehow eliminates their authority, which is dependent upon their being inerrant or inspired.

Such an argument seems to preclude the necessity of interpretation and interaction not only with the text but with different cultures throughout history. To that end there is a sense that the modern reader isn’t required to engage with the text on the level and with the mindset of the author of the time at which it was written, in light of the context (historical/cultural/literary) in which it was written, for the purposes in which it was written. The Bible, for so many readers, is a leather-bound, gold-edged monolith that we uncritically and unquestioningly revere, not a collection of ancient texts that weren’t written in terms of a modern, purely materialistic mindset. 

Thinking back to the the question of a “literal” interpretation of the Bible, I believe that the late R.C. Sproul has said it best,

The term literal comes from the latin litera meaning “letter.” To interpret something literally is to pay attention to the litera or to the letters and words being used. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature. That is, the natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context. ( emphasis added)

Knowing Scripture, 54

One of the aspects that he stresses is that our belief in the inspiration of the text does not change the reality of the text as text and as literature (Knowing, 54). This means that readers of Scripture must engage with the text as literature, making careful distinctions between the types of literature that are contained not just across the volume but even within a particular book itself (Knowing, 54-5).

Wink-wink, Nudge-nudge

In many of the discussions that I’ve had regarding biblical interpretation, one of the complaints that is often raised by the interlocutor is that if we weren’t meant to take things literally then there would have been cues in the text that would indicate such.

Whether it’s in regard to creation being a supposed “six, 24-hour days” or the flood of Noah being “global”, there is a tendency for the opponent to appeal to the “plain meaning” of the words, which is a particularly sound means of biblical interpretation. Similarly, when we come to Joshua 10 and the text reads “stopped” or “stand still” we expect those words to mean what we normally expect, that motion ceased.

So sensible are such appeals to language that the natural, logical next point that follows is that if that is not what occurred, then the writers are liars and Scripture is not true. 

They never bother to ask questions, like, “If we are to take the six days of creation as literal 24-hour days, why is the seventh day—which hasn’t ended—not understood to be equally literal?” The stammering that usually accompanies such previously confident declarations about the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1 is rather enlightening. The point being that it’s not the words or the meaning of words but rather it’s how the words are used in similar contexts. 

Now, that being said, the best examples of Hebrew, and the usage of Hebrew in general that we have, are the Hebrew Scriptures. We have examples of various kinds of literature readily available to us now for study and examination. However, the problem that arises is that Hebrew borrows a lot of terms—as most languages do—from other languages, usually in regard to technical language. But it’s not just technical language that is shared, but meanings of words in specific contexts.

One specific context where there is a very developed technical language that is found is in the area of ancient astrology and comes from an ancient Mesopotamian text known as the Enūma Anu Enlil (Rochberg-Halton). With the discovery of the Hittite libraries, there have been parallels discovered not just in application of terms but in methodology and conclusions (ibid). Perhaps, given such parallels, one could argue that Mesopotamia was both the source of this vocabulary and the propagator, so much so that, it is pointed out,

Scholarly divination was that product of Mesopotamian intellectual history which made the broadest and most profound impact beyond the cultural and temporal spheres of Mesopotamia proper. Celestial divination, liver divination, birth omens (the series šumma izbu), and omens about everyday life (the series šumma ālu) can be traced both to the [eastern] and [western reaches] of Mesopotamia beginning already in the 2d millennium, and are preserved within non-Mesopotamian contexts well into late antiquity (in India, Egypt, and in the Greco-Roman tradition) (Rochberg-Halton). 

This means that one would be hard pressed, given the parallels, to not see at least the biblical author’s familiarity with the use of certain terms in certain contexts especially because,

The Mesopotamian celestial omens use verbs like wait, stand and stop to record the relative movements and positions of the celestial bodies. When the moon or sun do not wait, the moon sinks over the horizon before the sun rises and no opposition occurs. When the moon and sun wait or stand, it indicates that the opposition does occur for the determination of the full moon day (Background, 226).

The failure or even outright obstinance of interpreters to see the biblical text as communicating from and in light of its historical and cultural context, a context that has a certain beliefs and understandings of the world and the objects in it is to undermine the significance of the text—and its inerrancy—as a historical document testifying of past events. 

The result of the initial failure of treating the biblical documents as–of first and foremost importance–historical documents has the effect of subsequently undermining them both as honest reporters of events and as an carrying divine authority for life and morals, in the opinion of this writer. 

Part 4


Rochberg-Halton, Francesca. “Astrology in the Ancient Near East”. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Volume 1. Doubleday Publishing. 1992.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Ed: John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews & Mark W. Chavalas. InterVarsity Press. 2000.

Sproul, R.C. Knowing Scripture, Second Edition. InterVarsity Press. 2009.