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Feedback archiveFeedback 2012

Do correspondents’ letters mean what they intended?

A correspondent writes that ‘what the author intended to convey’ is ‘subjective and debatable’.

Published: 28 October 2012 (GMT+10)

We receive many letters from correspondents questioning the ‘genre’ of Genesis—echoes of the serpent’s words to Eve, “Did God really say … ?”, in Genesis 3:1. For example, correspondent Jack D. of Indonesia writes:

I’m a Christian, and I will pray for you and your readers to realize that the Bible can be true without every word of it being literally true.

I read some of your articles, and I don’t get how in The Galileo ‘twist’ you can, to explain the whole geocentric confusion, say “they failed to realize that Bible texts must be understood in terms of what the author intended to convey”, that Moses “by God’s spirit, was using the language of appearance so that his readers would easily understand”, and “A convenient figure of speech does not invalidate science; nor does it invalidate the Bible”, and “Likewise verses such as Psalm 19:6 and 93:1, which the writer(s) clearly meant to be poetic expressions, were given a literal meaning”, and yet at the same time you can insist that every single word of Genesis must be literally and exactly true.

Which is it? Should “Bible texts must be understood in terms of what the author intended to convey”? Can parts of the Bible be “the language of appearance”, a “convenient figure of speech”, and “poetic expressions”, used “so that […] readers would easily understand”?

Or does it all have to be “given a literal meaning”?

Surely the moment that interpretation and understanding “in terms of what the author intended to convey” enter the equation then it becomes an argument of interpretation and understanding—basically a matter of faith. You have faith that Genesis is literal, I have faith that it isn’t. If we have to consider the author’s intentions and meanings then it is subjective and debatable.

Still, you say “the text shows that Moses wrote Genesis as a literal account of the history of the world from the beginning of creation to the arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt”. Could you point me to that bit, please, so I can see for myself?

Russell Grigg, author of The Galileo ‘twist’, responds:

Thank you Jack for your queries about my article on Galileo.

Let me see if I can deduce what you intended to convey in your email.

From a straightforward reading of what you wrote, it seems to me that you are asking some questions about what I said, and that you would like an answer to these questions. This doesn’t seem to me to be a matter of interpretation, or involve any argument about your meaning, or to need faith, or to be subjective and debatable. So if these qualifications don’t apply to what you wrote, I don’t follow why they should apply to what Moses wrote. But let’s deal with them anyway.

There doesn’t seem to be much room for doubt as to what time of day Moses meant to convey …

Genesis 19:23 reads: “The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.” And Genesis 28:11 reads: “And he [i.e. Jacob] came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set.

There doesn’t seem to be much room for doubt as to what time of day Moses meant to convey on each of these occasions.

Re Psalm 19:6 and 93:1, the Psalms are part of Israel’s ancient collection of hymns of praise and worship and have the distinctive mode of Hebrew poetry, namely repetition or parallelism of the thought in different words without the parallelism of sounds (rhyme) or parallelism of time (metre) that are distinctive aspects of traditional English poetry. That is, the writer(s) of the Psalms intended to write poetic expression and they also intended that their readers regard it as such. I made this clear in the Footnotes of the article, which read as follows:

4. Psalm 19:4–6 metaphorically describes the sun as coming forth from a tent in the heavens, and also personifies the sun both as a bridegroom and as a strong man running a race. One would have thought that even the inflexible literalists of Galileo’s day might have allowed the writer of this Psalm to have meant it to have had a poetical meaning.

5. In Psalm 93:1 the phrase “the world also is established, that it cannot be moved” needs to be read alongside v. 2, “[God’s] throne is established of old”, where the same Hebrew word [kown = ‘established’] is used and has the meaning ‘set up’, ‘stable’, ‘secure’, ‘enduring’, ‘confirmed’, etc., not ‘immobile’ or ‘stationary’. Likewise the Hebrew word for ‘moved’ (v.1) is used in Psalm 16:8, “I shall not be moved”, meaning that the writer would not stray from the path of the Lord, not that he was rooted to any one spot.

Incidentally, this Hebrew poetic style of repeating the meaning using different words is the reason why the Psalms can be translated into other languages without losing their appeal to the reader (unlike e.g. English poetry).

Let us now consider Genesis. Speaking generally, an author can choose from a variety of intentions in what he writes, e.g. he can set out to write fiction, or science fiction, or a cryptic puzzle, or poetry, or history. or … etc. And this intention will be the best indicator of what he meant to convey and what he wants his readers to understand. We believe that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of Moses’ intention having been to write history. This evidence includes:

Genesis begins with the beginning of creation in chapter 1 and ends with Joseph being placed in a coffin in Egypt in chapter 50.

  1. The internal evidence of the book itself.
  2. The principal people mentioned in Genesis chapters 1–11 are referred to as real people in the rest of the Bible, e.g. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel and Noah are referred to in 15 other books of the Bible.
  3. The Lord Jesus referred to the creation of Adam and Eve as a real historical event by quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in His teaching about divorce (Matthew 19:3–6; Mark 10:2–9), and by referring to Noah in Matthew 24:37–39; Luke 17:26–27).
  4. The first chapters of Genesis tell us how sin entered the world. Unless this was a true historical fact that merited the judgment of God, God’s purpose in sending His Son to die as a substitutionary atonement is a mystery. Similarly the historical truth of Genesis shows that all mankind needs salvation from the penalty, power and presence of sin.

For enlargement on the above, see Should Genesis be taken literally? (This will surely influence how you pray that prayer you mentioned. )

Finally, re my article’s pointing out that Moses wrote Genesis as a literal account of the history of the world from the beginning of creation to the arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt, you asked, “Could you point me to that bit, please, so I can see for myself?

Sure. Genesis begins with the beginning of creation in chapter 1 and ends with Joseph being placed in a coffin in Egypt in chapter 50.

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Readers’ comments
Jack C., Australia, 28 October 2012

How ironic. Here we have a person who doubts the literal meaning of Genesis yet doesn't state what Genesis is all about. Sounds like a confused person who wouldn't mind seeing the pages of Genesis ripped out of the Bible.

Susan W., United States, 28 October 2012

Thanks again for another great article. You really helped me to understand this clearly. If I tell my husband "You are the sunshine of my life" (like in the Stevie Wonder song)that is obviously poetic. If I read the weather report and it says there is a 100 percent chance of sunshine, and I tell my husband "You will be out in the sun today", that is just a factual staement, no poetry involved. As a human created in God's image I have the capacilty for both poetry and factual conceptual frameworks. They express different aspects of my soul. In the above quotations both statemwnts are acurate, yet their expression is different.

Thanks for helping me see this, I think I can explain it to my kids when the need comes up in the future. You at CMI are so helpful!

Richard G., Japan, 28 October 2012

Congratulations Bro Russell. You were helped by God to give a good but brief answer to these specious queries. I doubt the honesty or certainly the depth of many of your questioners so I suggest you take comfort in the fact that you are probably greatly helping ones like me who want to believe in the normal literal sense of the Word of God. Unfortunately I have a cousin brought up like me in the lap of spiritual luxury (in NZ)like me but he turned away from orthodoxy and even said that Bishop John Selby's book "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" helped him the most. However when I judiciously emailed him a diatribe showing up Spong's charlatanism he ignored it, full stop. Few doubters will accept your patient help and most people are very shallow in their thinking and in their knowledge of science or the Bible so you need patience toward them but be encouraged that some honest and obedient (to the Truth) people are being helped immensely through your giftedness.

Chandrasekaran M., Australia, 28 October 2012

Actually evolution science does not mean what it says even though it does not use poetry in its peer reviewed papers. For example in evolution world view, all cosmos and everything in it including DNA information came about out of the singularity, ie ‘nothing’, via big bang(s) Almost all fossils are millions of years old in this worldview without mentioning the fine details of what assumptions were made to arrive at the age and how dating methods were calibrated.

This history science is an endangered and protected science for intelligence is not allowed in this worldview.

Like Aristotelian scientists, evolution scientists prop up their worldview by any means.

Even forensic science is not as bad as the evolution science.

dean R., Australia, 28 October 2012

I thought that the explanation was well put.Many people also do not grasp the difference between the Old Testament laws & how they no longer apply since the coming of Christ.Sadly many people dismiss the Bible because of the different denominations yet Evolution seems OK to them whilst it probably has more divisions & theories.

Keep up the good science, keep up pointing people to sound biblical teaching & a Creator God that is intimately concerned for what He has made, so much so that He would send His own Son to teach us about the physical world & the heavenly kingdom.

Curtis C., United States, 28 October 2012

What puzzles me is why anybody thinks that the use of poetic language inherently makes the meaning -less- clear. Isn't the whole point of such language to draw comparisons to things we are familiar with, to things we are less familiar with -- things that share the attributes that are being pointed out?

For example, Jesus acknowledged that many in the public at the time he gave his parables did not understand his meaning, however, he didn't endorse that lack of understanding. He even acted surprised on many occasions that even his disciples did not understand what he meant. For example, his reaction to their rather thick-skulled speculations about what he meant about the yeast of the Pharisees in Matthew 16:11a, "How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread?" Jesus expects us to gain a -better- understanding of authorial intent from the use of poetic language.

Another point is that often Hebrew poetry makes multiple poetic comparisons immediately about the same object, so it is crystal clear even in some of the narrowest contexts that none of those comparisons are literal. Parallelism and similar functions show a vast contrast with historical writing, in which once something is stated once, that literal meaning is always treated as the final answer. Jesus often did this even with his parables; for example, the many parables he used to express what the Kingdom of God is like. And besides, the rules of language guide proper interpretation.

Also, it is a Straw Man fallacy that biblical creationists believe everything in Genesis is literal. There is some poetic language, like the striking of the heel, the number of Israelites being like the stars in heaven, etc. (And we know this by the rules of grammar, context, etc.)

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