How not to Interpret the
Bible - Part 1
Without a doubt, Genesis 2:16-7 is one of the more difficult passages
of the Bible to understand. Heraklides said something to the effect that
"even a Clinton lawyer couldn't worm out of that passage". Well, I'm not
a lawyer, but we shall see what we can do about "worming".
Gen 2:16-7: "And the Lord commanded the man, saying, 'Of every tree
in the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the Tree of the Knowledge
of Good and Evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest
of it, thou shalt surely die'".
Adam and Eve ate of the tree and didn't fall over dead. How can this
be? Is God a liar and the serpent truthful?
Given a literal rendering of the passage (as Heraklides does), it would
seem obvious that this passage shows just that. One must ask, then, why
the Hebrews, who obviously believed the passage to show that God did tell
the truth, bothered to preserve it in the current form.
A lot of Bible-believing commentators take the literal rendering, but
spiritualize the meaning of the passage. "Adam did die that day", they
will say, "but he died spiritually". Now while that may be true, it is
certainly not evident from the passage itself, but is imposed on the text,
and frankly, I think it is a bit of a copout. The passage is clearly talking
about physical death, not spiritual death, a concept not introduced until
the New Testament.
So on the assumption that physical death is what is being discussed
here, there are two possible answers for the passage. The first is that
the authors were morons who really didn't understand what they were writing.
After all, only an incompetent defense attourney would start off his defense
by introducing the most incontroverible, damning piece of evidence and
let it speak for itself. In the same way, our authors must be incompetents
to introduce, in the first 2 chapters of Genesis, a piece of evidence which
would negate everything they spent the next 65 books proclaiming. I believe
this is the choice that Heraklides would make. One must wonder, however,
if the authors were such idiots, how they managed to handle the more challenging
things in life, like lacing up their sandals.
The second possible answer is that the passage contains an idiom, a
figure of speech, which once unlocked, will allow us to properly understand
the truth that the author is trying to get across. Now in order to understand
a figure of speech, it is helpful to find another, similar passage, to
help put us into the Hebrew writer's mindset.
Fortunately, we have another passage which will shed some light on this
conundrum. In 1 Kings 2:36-46, we have a similar story. For brevity, I
will summarize most of it, but I suggest you read all of it for yourselves.
The short version is that Solomon, newly kinged, puts a man named Shimei
under house arrest, and says to him, "For it shall be, on the day thou
goest out, and passeth over the brook Kidron, thou shalt know for certain
that thou shalt truly die" (v 37).
Now, Shimei, after a couple of years, went to Gath (v 40), which in
retrospect seems to be a bad idea, but we have a significant parallel here:
So what happened? Well, the king later calls him in and says, "Did I not...say,
'know for a certain, on the day that thou goest out and walkest abroad
any whither, that thou shalt surely die?'" (v 42). And Shimei didn't live
much past that.
The phrase "on that day"
Solomon used the phrase "on the day" twice, including once *after
the literal day* that Shimei left (for he could not have traveled to Gath,
done his business, and returned the same day). Was Solomon not wise enough
to note the anachronism? Or did it mean something to this effect, "Here's
a test, and if you fail the test, on that day your fate will be sealed,
and that fate is death"? That seems to me to be a reasonable reading of
the passage, and the only one which takes into account Solomon's anachronistic
use of "on that day" *after* the exact day.
So taking that back and applying it to Genesis 2:17, we get an interpretation
of the passage something like this: "The day you eat of the tree, judgement
is pronounced, and that judgement is death". Adam did not die the day he
ate, just like Shimei did not die the day he crossed the brook, but both
of their fates were sealed by the act, and that fate was death. The serpent
is shown to be a liar, for Adam died, and God is proven to be both just
and merciful, because the sentence was passed as promised, but the sentence
was not carried out immediately. Instead, Adam was allowed to live for
many years, have kids, marry and be a father. But now he's dead, because
of the act he committed "on that day".
How not to Interpret the Bible
- Part 2
To what extent is the Bible a scientific or mathematical textbook?
That is a question many have pondered, especially in the last 200 years
with the separation of "science" from the Biblical understanding of the
origin and nature of the universe. Sure, the Bible makes some statements
about the material world which are testable by the scientific method, like
"He hangeth the Earth upon nothing" (Job 26:7), which was in contradistinction
with the other theories of the Earth in Classical times, like those who
believed that the Earth rested on the back of a large animal. These
statements can be tested and verified or disproven. And it does claim
to be an history book, which events can sometimes be verified, but of course
with much less accuracy than its scientific claims, due to the nature of
history. But how far can we really push it? And to what extent
can we, in being fair to what the Bible claims about itself (and more importantly,
what it *doesn't claim), expect that it will contain mathematical or scientific
"accuracy" compared to the level we demand today?
The "pi = 3" statement above can serve as a guide to understanding
just how close or how far. In 1 Kings 7:23, we read of a bowl which
was being crafted for Solomon's Temple: "And he made a molten sea, ten
cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his
height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round
Now, certainly, we know that the circumference of a circle is
not equal to *exactly* three times the diameter. pi is not equal
to three. So what are we to do with this statement?
For those interested in the "hidden codes" argument, there is
an argument which can be made that the passage is *extremely* accurate:
although personally, I find it less than convincing. I have just
included it for those who are so inclined.
But the real issue is not whether the Bible is accurate to an
arbitrary standard we set, but rather what was the purpose of the author,
and is he accurate enough that we can understand what he was saying?
The question we ought to be asking is not "is the Bible accurate?", since
even the statements of the biggest liar are accurate to a certain extent,
usually just accurate enough to sneak the lie in. The real question
is "How accurate do we expect the Bible to be?". 2 significant digits?
5 significant digits? 21? And it really is a fair question,
since if we're going to impose our expectation upon the document, we ought
to examine those expectations and compare them to what the authors purposed
Here's what I mean. We calculate pi to many, many digits
today, but mostly we use 3.14 or 3.1416. In past years, 22 sevenths
was used as an approximation, although it had its shortcomings, and we
recognized those. But if we are to use 3.1416, why not 3.142?
3.14? 3.1? 3? When accuracy is not really at issue (like
when describing a bowl that had been made, as opposed to describing one
to be made for the space shuttle), how accurate must we be?
For example, if Hiram's bowl was 9.6 cubits (rounded to 10, because
exactness to the tenth of a cubit was not necessary to describe it), then
the diameter, using 3.14 for pi, whould have been 30.1 cubits, and it would
be fair to say that "and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about",
in the same way it would be accurate for me to say I've got $30, when in
fact I have $29.60. A man should not be accused of lying for choosing
a different level of rounding, unless that level was chosen to deceive,
or if it has a meterial impact (like if I needed exactly $30 to purchase
something, rather than $15).
If we, in our own classrooms used 22/7, which we knew was accurate
enough *for the purpose* of what we were measuring, how can we deny
the Biblical author the same right? Those who demand scientific
accuracy to 3 significant digits from a description of an item are
pushing the text way beyond what the purpose of the author was.
Was the author's purpose to define pi? If it was, the Bible
has a problem. But if it was to describe an object, where accuracy
to the inch was not at issue, then it fulfils the purpose of the
author to give an approximation to the degree *the author* deems
necessary to make the point.