Bible interpretation guidelines
Good practice for interpreting Genesis 1–11
The scientists, theologians, speakers, and writers at CMI encounter different interpretations of Genesis 1–11 among professing Christians from those which we teach. Therefore, it appears that it would be helpful to review basic principles of Bible interpretation and apply them to examples of interpretation of Genesis 1–11. This review is not intended to be an academic course in hermeneutics for seminarians. Rather it is offered as an approach which can be applied by any Bible-believer who wishes to be a Berean—that is to examine the Scriptures to determine what is true (Acts 17:10–11).
Key assumptions about Bible interpretation
1. We interpret the Bible so that we can know what we are to believe and how we are to act
The purpose of Scripture is to make us wise for salvation and equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15–17). So, when we approach a study of a Bible passage our objective should be to know what God has chosen to say to us, because the Bible teaches “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”1
2. The Bible is its own final authority
The Bible is the ultimate authority on everything it teaches. We can know that the Bible is true because the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds and hearts so that we accept it as the word of God (1 Corinthians 2:13–14). Moreover, it says that it is the word of God and is true (Psalm 119:160; 2 Timothy 3:16) and Jesus declares it to be so (Matthew 4:4, 7; John 17:17). But how can we show that it is true if it is the ultimate authority? It invites open and honest cross-examination (1 Thessalonians 5:21), affirms the major principles by which cross-examination should be conducted (e.g. Deuteronomy 17:6, John 5:31–47, Acts 17:10, Galatians 2:1–10, 1 Thessalonians 5:21), and stands up under scrutiny, so far as such tests can be applied (see Using the Bible to prove the Bible? and Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture).
3. The original language texts are the word of God
God the Holy Spirit has ensured that there are multiple witnesses to the text of the Bible and that the accuracy of the text has been maintained.
OT manuscripts were hand copied with remarkable fidelity. This was demonstrated with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940’s. Although there are differences between the text in the Dead Scrolls and the Masoretic manuscripts2, the Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate the consistency between the hand-copied versions that were produced during an approximately 1,000-year period and the versions that remained buried during that period.
Similarly, there is extensive manuscript support for the NT text. There are thousands of Greek manuscripts. When compared together, they provide multiple witnesses to the text of every verse in the NT. Textual variants do exist. However, most (~99%) are insignificant, being variants in spelling or different forms of words with the same root. Very few of the variants, if any, can be used to argue for a different theological position than what is presented in the published texts that have been the accepted position for five hundred years of Bible translation.
Since most of us do not have a full understanding of how the editors of the printed editions compared manuscripts, we need to believe that God the Holy Spirit providentially superintended the preparation of the printed editions from which the Bible has been translated so that God’s purposes for his word will be accomplished (Isaiah 55:11).
4. No Bible version is perfect
Most people cannot read the Bible in its original (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) languages. Thus, we are dependent on using translations for our study of God’s word. Translation can be affected by factors such as theological biases, word selection (words can have shades of meanings), different sentence structures, and the difficulty of translating idioms and different verb forms. Therefore, it is wise to use multiple faithful translations when conducting an interpretive study of the Bible. Also, we should avoid being dogmatic about the rendering of a particular verse where reliable translations vary.
5. We must apply good reasoning
The Bible is not a ‘cookbook’ for life, giving exhaustive detail, for what to believe and how to behave. This means that we need to use good reasoning practices when we read the Bible and apply it to our lives. In this regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.”3 Therefore, at times, our efforts for determining a correct interpretation of a passage will require deduction by “good and necessary consequence”.
Guidelines for Bible interpretation
Accepting the preceding assumptions, we can now consider selected guidelines for Bible interpretation. However, we should note that these guidelines do not provide a checklist like that used before flying an airplane. They are guidelines to assist us when we study God’s word. We need to appeal to the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom when interpreting the Bible.
These guidelines are presented with a general hierarchical precedent. However, all the guidelines should be applied as a set when interpreting a Bible text.
1. Understand the literary genre
The Bible contains several literary genres, including historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, theological treatises, and apocalyptic.
When considering Genesis 1–11, the first question we need to ask, is, what is the genre of the text? An unbiased (if one exists) consideration of the account would conclude that Moses includes an historical narrative which flows seamlessly into the historical narrative from Abraham to Joseph in the remainder of the book of Genesis. Today this is questioned by some theologians (and most scholars who are unbelievers), and they place Genesis 1–11 into another genre, such as ‘myth’. However, it is purely a subjective imposition to reject this part of Scripture as providing a description of actual events that occurred in the spatial-temporal realm and to claim that it is symbolic, figurative, poetic, or whatever else.
2. Accept the plain sense meaning
Once we understand what the genre is, the next logical step is to accept the plain sense meaning of the text within its genre.
In the case of Genesis 1–11, this means that we are to understand the account to be relaying information about events which occurred in space-time history. This understanding is supported by Jesus who accepted the plain sense of the historical narrative passages—for example, the creation of Adam and Eve (Mark 10:6–9) and Noah’s building the ark and the Flood (Matthew 24:38–39). Likewise, writers of NT books accepted the Genesis 1–11 account as speaking of actual historical events:
- And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, …” (Acts 4:24).
- The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, (Acts 17:24–26).
- For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. (2 Peter 3:5–6).
3. Determine the meaning for the original audience
We believe, based on the word of God through the Apostle Paul, that all the Bible has timeless relevance and application for everyone—believer and unbeliever (2 Timothy 3:16–17). However, that does not mean that the Bible was not written to a specific audience. For example, Deuteronomy was given to the Israelites before they crossed the Jordan, Romans was written to churches in Rome early in Nero’s reign (c. AD 55–57), and Hebrews was written to the scattered Jews in the second half of the 1st century likely before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD.
So, questions we need to ask of the Genesis 1–11 passage, are: 1) Who was the first primary audience? 2) What did the Holy Spirit wish to communicate to them? These questions are important to answer, so that we don’t read into the text an interpretation which is not intended by the Holy Spirit.
The Genesis 1–11 account contains references which appear to indicate that it was directed initially either to pre-Noahic or to pre-Mosaic audiences. For example, the location of Eden (Genesis 2:10–14) cannot be identified anywhere in the current world’s topography. Eden was destroyed during the Flood. Likewise, internal evidence in Genesis 10 suggests a date for its composition that is considerably earlier than the time of Moses.4
4. Use Scripture to interpret Scripture
Today many Christians have a limited knowledge about the contents of the Bible. This makes it difficult for them to understand passages directly or within the broader context of Scripture. Even though they can read, that does not necessarily mean that they have an ability to understand what they are reading. For example, consider the following extract from an article posted on CMI’s website:
Genomes encode scores of enzymes responsible for catalyzing various chemical modifications on tRNAs. These modifications can occur on tRNA precursors or fully processed tRNAs. Nucleotide insertions or substitutions are often necessary to ensure base pairing within the tRNA in the three kingdoms of life and that the modifications occur in a stepwise fashion.5
Most people proficient in English could smoothly read the extract but would not have a clue what the extract is talking about unless they had some familiarity with biology and genetics. This illustrates why a disciplined study of the entire Bible will help us overcome our native ignorance and help us to interpret the Bible.
We cannot obtain a full understanding of any portion of the Bible if we read or study it in isolation from the rest of the Bible. We need to consider all that the Bible says about a particular topic. Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture (Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15; 1 Peter 1:10–12).
An example of comparing Scripture with Scripture, is found in the repetition of the genealogies found in Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 in 1 Chronicles (1 Chronicles 1:1, 24–27). This demonstrates that the Jews during the Persian period (when 1 Chronicles was compiled) accepted the genealogies as a reliable list of the ancestors of David and subsequent kings—as did Luke (Luke 3:34–38).6
5. Interpret a text within its context
It has been said that a “text without a context is a pretext.”7 It means that a text can be interpreted to mean something different from the author’s original intention or can be interpreted to mean what we want it to mean. Both approaches are wrong.
To properly interpret a verse or passage it must be understood within the context of its surrounding text—paragraph, chapter, book, and the whole Bible. Each book of the Bible has a primary purpose and key theme(s). Likewise, chapters and sections of chapters generally focus on a particular topic or small range of topics.
We must remember that the overriding context of the Bible is God’s plan for redeeming the elect of mankind. Therefore, the primary purpose of the Bible is to reveal man’s lostness in sin and his need for a redeemer—the Anointed One, the Messiah/Christ. This begins explicitly in Genesis 3:15 with the announcement, in the midst of the curse on Eve’s sin, that a descendent of Eve would conquer Satan.
To properly interpret a verse within its context, it is helpful to look for:
- Repeated words or phrases. For example, “it was good” in Genesis 1. The multiple uses of “it was good”, reinforces the “it was very good” statement in Genesis 1:31, which indicates that everything that God had made was without any imperfection or defect. Thus, there was no disease, or decay, or death of living creatures in the universe before Adam’s sin. Another example is the repeated phrase “and he died”, in Genesis 5. This reminds us of the seriousness of Adam’s sin which brought death and decay into the universe.
- An immediate explanation. For example, the words “evening and morning” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31) define the word ‘day’, indicating that each of the days of creation were natural days.
We can broaden our scope for interpreting the word ‘day’ as it is used in Genesis 1 from its immediate context to consider the context of similar uses in other parts of Bible. We find a parallel with the use of the ordinal for the 2nd through 6th days of the creation week8 in Numbers 7:12–83 and Numbers 29:12–38. These passages refer to offerings that were made during a series of sequential days. No one could seriously suggest that the days in Numbers 7 and 29 are other than natural days and that they do not follow one another as evening follows morning.
Likewise, in Exodus 20, we find additional guidance for how we should understand the meaning of the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1.
- For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. (Exodus 20:11).
In the Ten Commandments, God states explicitly that he created the universe over a period of six days and set aside the seventh day as a day of rest. This pattern of six days of work followed by a day of rest established the pattern for our week (see, The Seven-Day Week)
Thus, within the immediate context and broader context, we must understand the word ‘day’, as it appears in Genesis 1, to mean a natural day—what we refer to as a ‘24-hour day’. We, at CMI, have addressed alternative interpretations of the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1.9
6. Interpret figures of speech correctly
Every language uses figures of speech—often to make statements more interesting or memorable. Good Bible translations deal with the challenges associated with figures of speech, for example translating idioms into reasonable equivalents in English. However, some figures of speech are more challenging to interpret, and care must be taken to derive the meaning as intended by the Holy Spirit and the human author. Examples include Jesus’ use of hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Genesis 1–11, we find figures of speech. Some of the idioms we can understand with no translation of the idea because they have been absorbed into our linguistic culture. For example, in Genesis 4:1, the word ‘knew’ we understand to mean ‘had sexual relations’, and in Genesis 2:17, the word ‘seed’ is understood to mean ‘descendants’.
Genesis 3:19 contains multiple figures of speech. We understand the synecdoche, in which a part represents the whole, with the word ‘bread’ to mean ‘food’. The words ‘you are dust’ is a metaphor for ‘material essence’. And there is a chiastic structure built into the latter part of the verse. The words ‘heel’ and ‘head’ in Genesis 3:15 are also figures of speech, which we know from later portions of Scripture to refer to the death of Jesus which was overturned by his resurrection and the destruction of Satan who is cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10).
It is possible that the expression “evening and morning” can be understood as a merism, in which parts are given which encompass a whole. It could also be a metonymy in which the pair of words represent a complete unit. In either case, the use of the expression provides a definition for the nature of the word ‘day’ used in its immediate context—i.e., a day in Genesis 1, was made up of an evening and morning and was a natural day.
7. Do not read an interpretation into the text
Interpreters sometimes read an interpretation into (eisegesis) a text rather than reading out of (exegesis) the text. For example, it is pure eisegesis to suggest that Genesis 1:1–3 describes, in stylized form, a Big Bang incident.10 Similarly, to claim that there is a gap between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:2 is purely speculation with a feeble attempt to defend ‘deep time’ for geological processes to occur.11
Since verses and passages are composed of words, it is important that we understand how particular words are being used. Some words appear only once (or rarely) in the Bible. An example in Genesis 1 is the word ‘expanse’ (Genesis 1:6, 20). It occurs only in one other place (Ezekiel 1:22). Some interpreters have claimed that the word should be understood as speaking of a solid dome and that it reflects a primitive cosmology. The author of Genesis 1 was supposedly applying an ancient pagan concept which shows an ignorance of modern celestial mechanics.12 However, in Genesis 1:8, God provides a parallel definition of the word, calling it ‘heavens’, which can refer to the sky, the celestial realm, or heaven.
We must not read a meaning into a word that the author did not intend. We can illustrate this using examples in modern English. The word ‘fortunate’13 is used in the ESV translation in Acts 26:2. However, this does not mean that we believe in luck ruling our destinies through the goddess Fortuna. Likewise, we use the terms ‘sunrise’ (Numbers 2:3; Matthew 5;45; Luke 1:78) and ‘sunset’ (Deuteronomy 16:6; 1 Kings 22:36) without implying that we accept the Ptolemaic model of the solar system rather than the Copernican model.
Sadly, many professing Evangelicals suggest novel or esoteric interpretations of Genesis (particularly of Genesis 1). See Creation compromises for a list of examples. These alternative interpretations have been proposed or have gained support in the Church only since naturalistic theories of cosmology, geology, and evolution arose after about 1800 AD. They undermine God’s word and are attempts to conform to the ever-shifting teachings of men. They claim to cling to biblical authority while denying the plain sense of the Bible’s teaching.
8. Consider the historical context
To interpret a verse or passage in its historical context, we must start with information which the Bible provides elsewhere that relates to what we are considering. For example, God tells Noah to take seven pairs of clean animals into the ark (Genesis 7:2). To this point in the narrative, we are not informed what is meant by ‘clean’. Presumably, the pre-Flood patriarchs had been informed of the meaning. We need to turn to Leviticus 11 to gain insight into the meaning of ‘clean’.
Once we have considered the biblical context, we can expand our consideration to include ancient cultural information. Bible dictionaries can provide additional insight. But it is wise to compare what multiple dictionaries say, as each can have a theological bias.
We don’t need to have an extensive knowledge of ancient history to understand the Bible’s teachings. However, we can mistakenly assume that the historical context is so different from our own that the text no longer applies to us. Thus, we can lose sight of today’s relevant application of a passage.
Conversely, if we ignore entirely a consideration of the historical context, we can impose our current context on a passage and make it read something radically different from what the author intended. An example is when writers suggest that there is a problem with the account of the topography of Eden (Genesis 2:10–14), because it mentions four large rivers. Eden was entirely obliterated during the Flood, and attempts to find its location in the world’s current topography are futile (Where was Eden? Part 1, Where was Eden? Part 2).
9. Apply the wisdom of the ages
For the past 2,000 years Christians have been interpreting the Bible. There have been many dangerous misinterpretations of Scripture. These have included heresies such as those which appeared in the first few centuries of the NT Church (e.g., Adoptionism, Marcionism, Gnosticism, Docetism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Pelagianism). Others appeared during the Middle Ages. In the Modern era, old heresies are constantly being reworked (e.g., Unitarianism) and new ones have appeared (e.g., Kenosis Theory, Prosperity Gospel, and Open Theism).
Early councils, the development of creedal statements, and the writings of theologians (e.g., Athanasius, Augustine, Anslem, Luther, and Calvin) have helped to steer Christian theology and Bible interpretation in an orthodox direction. Thus, we should respect the wisdom of those of the past who have given considerable thought to the interpretation of the Bible. However, when the fathers contradict Scripture, we are to follow the teachings of the Bible. This is a principle that was re-established during the Protestant Reformation. Jesus teaches that we must not accept the opinions of the elders over the written word of God (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43; Mark 7:8).
When considering how others have interpreted a verse or passage, we must avoid the celebrity mentality (e.g., “John Calvin taught …”, “John MacArthur says …”). Even the most godly and intelligent commentator or preacher can be mistaken. The believers in Berea were credited with being noble because they examined the Scriptures daily to see if the things being taught by Paul were correct (Acts 17:11). We are to have only one final authority for all truth—the Bible.
We must also avoid falling into consensus traps: 1) An appeal to the masses: “Most Christians believe …”. 2) An appeal to experts: “Most scholars say …”. Consensus can be wrong. There are numerous examples, in science and in other domains of knowledge, which demonstrate that majority opinion can be wrong. For example, the belief that the sun revolved around the earth or that most ulcers were caused by stress, rather than by the H. pylori bacteria.
So, when we interpret Genesis 1–11, we should judiciously consider the interpretation that has been given to the text for millennia by some of the greatest minds that have appeared since Solomon, Jesus, and Paul.
To properly interpret the Bible, we need to:
- Trust the authority of the word of God.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into the path of wisdom (James 1:5).
- Remember that the Bible was not written for those who are ‘learned’ but for sinners who need to know what to believe about God and what requirements he has for us (Romans 15:4).
- Follow the example of Jesus, who used what was written to guide his thinking and actions (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10).
- Refuse to allow our presuppositions to influence our interpretation of Scripture or to silence its voice.
- Be humble before God’s word by accepting what it says and letting it correct our false notions.
- Apply sensible biblical interpretation principles and guidelines, such as those outlined above.
If we do this, we can trust that God the Holy Spirit will lead us to the truth.
References and notes
- Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to Question 3. Return to text.
- Texts copied and edited by Jews known as the Masoretes in 7th to 10th centuries AD. Return to text.
- Westminster Confession of Faith, Of the Holy Scripture, chapter 1, paragraph 6. Return to text.
- For example: 1) Sidon is mentioned (Genesis 10:19) but not Tyre. Tyre later became the more prominent of the two cities. This seems to indicate that this account was written before Tyre was founded—before 1300 BC. 2) Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned as existing cities (Genesis 10:19). Therefore, the account was written before they were destroyed, which occurred after Abram had left Mesopotamia. 3) Abram is not mentioned in the account, indicating that it was written before his birth (around 1990 BC), and certainly before he had been called by God to leave Ur. 4) The account of the Hebrew (Eber’s) line is discontinued with Peleg who was born around 2245 BC, even though his brother’s sons are mentioned (Genesis 10:26). However, the history of the Joktanites becomes obscure after their mention in this account. 5) Since Reu (Genesis 11:18) was born to Peleg around 2215 BC, it appears that the account was written sometime between 2245 and 2215 BC. Return to text.
- Truman, R., The surprisingly complex tRNA subsystem: part 2—biochemical modifications, Journal of Creation 34(3):87–94, 2020. The complex tRNA subsystem: part 2 - creation.com Return to text.
- There is an apparent inconsistency in these genealogies, because of the addition of the extra ‘Cainan’ in Luke 3:36. This has encouraged some critics of the belief that we can use the Genesis genealogies, along with key date markers elsewhere in the Bible, to calculate an approximate date for the creation of the universe. They argue that this extra name indicates that the Genesis genealogies are not intended to be understood as giving an actual father-son list of ancestors from Adam to Abraham. A possible explanation for the addition of the extra ‘Cainan‘ is dealt with elsewhere in CMI’s publications. Return to text.
- This statement is found as early as 1912; according to news.google.com. Return to text.
- The ESV uses “first day” in Genesis 1:5. However, it is not an ordinal number in the Hebrew, but a cardinal number, and could be translated as “day one”. Return to text.
- For example: Tuinstra, L., Genesis 1: YÔM ≠ eon, 18 June 2019; Humphrey, F., The meaning of yôm in Genesis, Journal of Creation 21(2):52–55, 2007; Batten, D., Catchpoole, D., Sarfati, J., and Wieland, C., Creation Answers Book, Ch. 2: Six days? Really? Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, Georgia, 2018. Return to text.
- Hartnett, J., The big bang is not a Reason to Believe! 20 May 2014; Bates, G., Did God use big bang, 6 October 2012. Return to text.
- Morris, H.M., The gap theory—an idea with holes?, Creation 10(2):35–37, 1987; Robinson, P., Genesis 13 undermines gap theory, 3 September 2013. Return to text.
- Holding J.P., Is the Raqiya’ (‘Firmament’) a Solid Dome?, Journal of Creation 13(2):44–51, 1999. Return to text.
- A better translation could be ‘blessed’ (see, Luke 1:48). Return to text.