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Do correspondents’ letters mean what they intended?

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

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.

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:

  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.

Published: 28 October 2012

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