On Interpreting the Bible

When I was in university I took a course on hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is all about how to study and interpret Scripture.

On one particular day in this class, our professor said the only thing we can use to explain, interpret, or corroborate Scripture is Scripture itself. That is because Scripture is our highest authority.

If we use anything else to verify the authenticity of Scripture, we are ultimately making that thing (archaeology, geology, etc.) a higher authority than Scripture itself. And since there can be no higher authority than Scripture, we must not use other disciplines to validate Scripture. Or at least, if there is a discrepancy between Scripture and another discipline, we must always side with Scripture.

This understanding of Scripture is wrong for a couple of different reasons.

The first is that it misunderstands what Scripture is in the first place. The Bible is not a single document that has been dropped from heaven. The Bible is a collection of 66 books that have been compiled and edited over hundreds of years. These books were written in different contexts to different people groups in radically different life situations.

The Biblical authors did not have the same worldview as each other, much less the same worldview of 21st century North Americans. Their values and ways of communicating were different and their understanding of math and science was much less advanced.

Here’s an example. In 1 Kings 7, there is a description of the Temple of Solomon as well as all the furnishings within it. In verse 23 we read this, “He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.”

The Sea was a giant circular basin of water in the Temple. According to the description in 1 Kings, it was 30 cubits around and ten cubits across. The ratio of a circles circumference to its diameter is what mathematicians call Pi. Pi is a really, really long number, but it starts with 3.14159.

The means that if an object was 10 cubits in diameter, it should be 31.4159 cubits around. The description of the Sea in Solomon’s Temple is missing almost one and a half cubits.

What does this mean? Are mathematicians wrong? Are they trying to spread lies about the nature of the universe in order to cast doubt on the infallibility of Scripture?

Or was the cubit—which was the distance from the inside of your elbow to the tip of your middle finger or roughly 18 inches—simply an inaccurate system of measurement?

Does this miscalculation mean Scripture is wrong? Does it mean that nothing in the Bible can be trusted? Of course not. But it means we need to change how we understand Scripture.

Here’s another example. In 2 Samuel 24:1, we read, “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’”

However, if we read 1 Chronicles 21:1 (a passage written at a later time which describes the same event), we read, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.”

In 2 Samuel, in a passage written much earlier in Israel’s history, we read that God incited David to take a census. Later on, when Israel looks back on this moment in history with a different perspective, they change the narrative to say it was Satan who persuaded David to take the census.

Then James, writing his epistle to Jewish Christians in the first century, writes, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.”

The earliest narrative suggests God tempted David. Later in Israel’s story, the had a different perspective and determined that it must have been Satan who tempted David. By the first century, James had determined that God can’t be tempted by evil himself, and therefore doesn’t tempt others either.

What this shows is not a static uniform theology for all time but an evolving understanding of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. In fact, as far as I can tell, that’s kind of the point of Scripture. The Bible is not a single document infallible in everything it says, it’s an ongoing conversation among its writers about who God is, what he is doing, and our role in all of it.

Scripture is not an authority itself as much as it’s a guide pointing us towards Jesus, who is the ultimate authority. Scripture is authoritative insomuch as it directs us to Jesus. In which case, it’s okay to use other disciplines to help us understand and interpret Scripture. Looking into archaeology, history, and sociology doesn’t undermine Scripture; it helps us understand it better. Which leads to our second issue…

All too often, we can conflate Scripture with our interpretation of Scripture.

Even if Scripture is infallible (it’s not for the reason listed above), that doesn’t mean our interpretation of Scripture is.

For example, in Genesis 6 we read, “When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.’”

There are two different ways we could interpret this passage, specifically what God says about not contending with man forever.

The first way is to interpret this as God putting an age limit on people and deciding that no one can live past 120 years old. I disagree with this interpretation mainly because if you read the genealogy in Genesis 11, we see that everyone from Shem through Abraham lived beyond 120 years old. If we pay attention to the rest of the book of Genesis both Abraham and Isaac also lived longer at 120 years and we’re never told Jacob’s age when he died. The first time we’re told someone’s age when they died was with Joseph, who died at 110 years old. It seems odd to me that God would create an age limit on people and then take 14 generations to enforce it.

The second way we could interpret this passage in Genesis 6 is to realize it comes right after a genealogy in Genesis 5 that traces the lineage from Adam to Noah, and right before we read the bulk of the Noah and the flood narrative in Genesis 6-8. In which case, it’s possible God isn’t putting a cap on how old he will let people live but rather has decided 120 years from that moment he would send a flood.

An argument could be made for both of these interpretations. Maybe we should read Genesis 6 as a universal (or near universal) age limit God has put on us to keep us from living forever. Or maybe we should read it as God deciding in advance he would send the flood and giving Noah advanced warning.

Some scientists believe the first person to live to be 150 years old is already alive today. Whether that’s true or not, there is no disputing that people are living longer than we used to.

So, hypothetically, if people start regularly living to be older than 120, what does that do to our Genesis 6 passage? Would those who believe it is a universal age limit imposed by God continue to believe that or would it require a change in interpretation?

If you change your interpretation of Genesis 6 based on how long people are living, then you’re using math to interpret Scripture. Does that mean math and science are greater authorities than Scripture? No, but they’re also not inferior authorities either.

And that’s the point. Scripture is not in conflict with other disciplines. Scripture is not at odds with math, history, geology, archaeology or medicine. All truth, both sacred and secular, comes from Jesus. Understanding the world around us should help us understand the Bible more and vice versa.

Our interpretation of Scripture can be wrong as can our interpretation of other data sets. Science is a constant series of course corrections that help us understand the world around us better.

So let’s use other disciplines, archaeology, history, textual criticism, sociology, and a whole host of others sciences to help us better interpret Scripture.

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