Interpretation #2

There are things we should consider when studying the Bible . . .

It is unfortunate that many of us approach the Bible as if we were the only audience God ever had in mind. Although opinions differ as to precise dating, Bible books and letters were written over a period of 1500 years, from the time of Moses c. 1400 BC to the last decade prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD (yes, I believe that includes the Book of Revelation). Its writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit and in some cases commissioned directly by God. They addressed audiences that were far removed from us - our time, culture, language, style of speech, worldview, and level of technological knowledge, but . . . how quickly we forget.

Audience Relevance:

It may surprise some of us to discover that there were other people to whom God spoke besides ourselves. The writings of biblical authors in whom God invested his authority had their own contemporary audiences and historical situations in which they communicated the inspired truth of God. This is called audience relevance, and is a critical principle of Bible interpretation. In other words, who was the initial audience? What did the text mean to them? And how did they perceive reality? These questions all pertain to the worldview and intellectual capacities of those first recipients of what each Bible author presented.

Take, for example, the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). This seminal body of literature was addressed to a vast multitude of Abraham's descendants (est. two million) who, along with their ancestors, had been in Egypt for over 400 years (ten generations). The better part of those four centuries was spent in abject slavery under Egyptian taskmasters (Gen. 15:13; Exo. 12:41) There were no elite universities teaching the mysteries of the universe, string theory, gravity, or the earth's orbit around the sun. These slaves spent their days in exhausting labor, up to their knees in mud, making bricks for an oppressive pharaoh's building projects. They were incapable of navigating through a modern image or perception of the universe. Even from God's perspective, his priorities were to deliver his people from oppression, mold them culturally, morally, and liturgically under his laws, and bring them to a land where he would establish his kingdom rule over them. His agenda did not include correcting their science. The shape of the cosmos was entirely irrelevant. Seeing Yahweh as the one who paced everything in its domain and gave it function is what mattered.

We see this condescension to the level of the Hebrews' understanding in the very first chapter of Genesis, through the Exodus narrative and the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that follow. Extensive laws regarding sacrifices and the maintenance of the tabernacle, God speaking from a mountaintop, and yes, even the creation story itself, all employ pagan cultural norms and worldviews with which the Hebrews were already familiar. However, Yahweh gave them new meaning. What mattered was that they understood that he, the ONE LORD, was their maker, their deliverer, and that he, by his own hand, formed all things from nothing. They were to be a holy nation, accountable to him and him alone.

Like a parent explaining to a very young child where babies come from or what makes rain fall from the sky, God condescended to the intellectual capacities of his people in order to teach them. Other peoples (including the Egyptians) offered animal sacrifices to their gods. Many gods inhabited mountaintops (characterized by Ziggurat temple-towers), so he described himself and his laws in ways they could understand. The difference being that he presented himself as the one who fashioned everything ex nihilo (from nothing) and set the created order on its course. He gave new meaning to sacrificial animal rituals, and made himself known by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day. He was not distant, but present among them.

If you've never seen it before, it may surprise you to learn that the illustration below is a commonly regarded image of the worldview of the Hebrews throughout most of the Old Testament era. However, this is not to suggest that God was endorsing such a cosmological perspective, but merely employing it, because it was familiar to the Hebrews. This, (or something similar) was the dominant perspective of ancient Near Eastern peoples, and was common prior to the writing of the Book of Genesis. The Hebrews, under the influence of Egyptian culture, myths, and gods, with no other description available, would have, like other nations, seen the creation in this manner.

Ben Stanhope, (Mis)interpreting Genesis: How the Creation Museum Misunderstands the Ancient Near Eastern Context of the Bible (Scarab Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2018), 88.

As you can see, the illustration depicts the earth as a flat (or disc-shaped) surface surrounded by water and supported by pillars. Above is the firm arc (Heb: raqia - or "firmament"), that separates the earthly realm from the waters above and the realm of God's heaven. The waters beneath are the habitation of the dragon, and the region of the underworld beneath the earth is sheol. The heavenly lights (sun, moon, and stars) move around the earth. The windows of heaven are opened to bring rain upon the earth.

Although this is consistently the cosmic model of the creation portrayed in the Bible, it should never be construed as an endorsement of such an image or suggestive that the Bible "teaches" such a perspective. The Bible is not a science book. God used existing knowledge of the times, but inserted himself as the creator, the mountain-dweller (Zion), and the one who instituted the sacrifice of innocent animals to atone for sin. Furthermore, he established it as a foreshadowing of the atoning work of his son, Jesus, who would be the true sacrificial Lamb of God.

More Than Meets the Eye

The point I'm making is ultimately not about science.

Understanding what the Bible actually teaches as opposed to what it uses to address a specific audience can help us avoid errors in interpretation. For example, both Isaiah and Ezekiel paint pictures of the afterlife that are entirely inconsistent with the meaning of sheol, which is a place of silence, the state of death, or the grave. Contrarily, the prophets characterize it as an underworld domain where kings rise from their thrones to meet and to mock deceased Babylonian and Egyptian kings as they arrive there (see Isa. 14:9-10; Eze. 32:21).

Compare these characterizations with Psalm 31:17, which is one of many inspired descriptions:

"Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I call upon You; Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in sheol."

The distinctly contradictory views of the state of the dead are reconciled only through understanding and employing audience relevance. Isaiah and Ezekiel address pagan kings using the pagan, mythical understanding of those kings concerning the underworld.

David, in prayer to God, sees sheol for what it really is: darkness, the grave, silence, and the state of death.

These are only a few of the misinterpretations and potential contradictions that can be resolved if we understand, to the extent possible, the audience of a given narrative and their worldview.

Interpretation #2

Marc Paladino