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Cut the Bible Some Slack

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In response to one of my articles, I received the following email:

I am 46 years old and I was raised as a Christian and never doubted that the Bible was the true word of God. . . . Please read the following passage and tell me how the statement could possibly be true if the writers of the Bible knew the Earth was round: “The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the Earth” (Dan. 4:11) The Bible also clearly says the Sun rotates around the Earth: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose” (Eccl. 1:5). If the Bible is the true Word of God, then God believes the Sun rotates around a flat Earth.

He ended his letter this way: “I have no expectation that you will even finish reading my e-mail, much less respond.” Of course, I did read his email, and I did respond.

Much of the problem in dealing with questions like these is a faulty understanding of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the skill of interpreting literature. Every time you pick up the Bible and attempt to figure out what it means, you are involved in hermeneutics. Most new Christians are told to interpret the Bible literally, but they are almost never told what “literal” actually means. Dispensationalists like Tim LaHaye offer a very simplistic and misleading definition:

The best guide to Bible study is “The Golden Rule of Biblical Interpretation.” To depart from this rule opens the student to all forms of confusion and sometimes even heresy. When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise.[1]

If we follow this Golden Rule, then the man who emailed me is correct: The Bible teaches that the earth is flat, the earth is the center of the cosmos, and Jerusalem is the center of the world. There is nothing in the above definition that would allow him to read the Bible any other way. But there is no such “Golden Rule” stated in the Bible. Furthermore, there is no way to substantiate such a methodology even by biblical example. The claim is often made that every prophecy concerning the first coming of Christ was fulfilled literally. This is not true given the Golden Rule paradigm. Some prophecies had a direct (literal) fulfillment (Matt. 2:5), while others were fulfilled typologically (Matt. 27:43) and analogically (Matt. 2:23).[2]

Proper interpretation depends on the type of literature one is studying in the Bible. This is the fundamental key to the proper interpretation of any type of literature. “The term literal comes form the Latin litera meaning letter. To interpret the Bible literally is to interpret it as literature.”[3] Consider Daniel 4:11. The context describes a dream that Daniel had. In that dream he saw a tree “in the midst of the earth, and its height was great” (4:10). Right away we should not expect the images Daniel saw to conform to reality. The fact that Daniel had to interpret the dream is an indication that the images represent other things (4:19–37). The Hebrew word eretz can be interpreted as “earth” or “land,” depending on the context. Even a Golden Rule literalist like LaHaye would understand this methodology.

It would be difficult for a Golden Rule literalist to deal with flat-earth and earth-centered language in non-poetic contexts because the descriptions are what people actually see. The earth doesn’t look like a ball, and the sun seems to rise. The Bible is not attempting to be scientifically accurate any more than a newspaper is attempting to be scientifically accurate when it posts the time of sun rise and sunset or when Rand McNally prints an atlas with pages of flat maps with four corners.

The Bible does say that Jerusalem was set “at the center of the nations, with lands around her” (Ezek. 5:5). In theological terms, this is absolutely true. If you read this passage in terms of the Golden Rule of interpretation, then you are left with a statement about geography that is not true. A similar thing has happened with trying to figure out what Jesus was saying in Matthew 12:40 where He tells the Scribes and Pharisees, “the Son of Man” will be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Will Jesus be buried for three complete 24-hour days or just parts of three days? Most commentators understand the text to mean this, even though the verse doesn’t say a thing about burial. R. A. Torrey did everything he could to maintain the “Golden Rule” when he attempted to interpret the text. To get three full days and three full nights, he moved the crucifixion back to Wednesday, claiming that Thursday was a special Sabbath, a “Passover Sabbath” and not the usual Friday-Saturday Sabbath:

To sum it all up, Jesus died just about sunset on Wednesday. Seventy-two hours later, exactly three days and three nights, at the beginning of the first day of the week, Saturday at sunset, He arose again from the grave.[4]

Attempts to resolve this apparent error center on the mistaken assumption that “heart of the earth” is a reference to Jesus’ burial. “Heart of the earth” is a reference to Jerusalem, the city that would reject Him and put Him to death. Since Matthew 12:40 is the only place in Scripture where “three days and three nights” and “heart of the earth” are used, we can assume that it’s a parable that takes some deciphering. Jesus was not buried in the “heart of the earth,” that is, at the earth’s core. “Heart” is a metaphor for “center” or “middle.” Jerusalem was considered to be the “heart of the earth”: “Thus says the Lord GOD, ‘This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her’” (Ezek. 5:5; Psalm 74:12; Ezek. 38:12; Acts 1:8). In terms of Jerusalem, it was the center of the land of Israel. The Greek word ges can be translated “land” or “earth.”

Jesus continually points to Jerusalem as the place where He will be betrayed and crucified: “From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day” (Matt. 16:21). When did the “suffer many things” begin?: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him up to the Gentiles to mock and scourge Him, and on the third day He will be raised” (20:17–19).

 From the time of His being “delivered up” on Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemene to the day He “will be raised” constitutes “three days and three nights” in the “heart of the land,” that is, in Jerusalem. Jesus says that “Jonah the prophet” is a “sign” (Matt. 12:39). Gentiles—“the men of Nineveh” and the “Queen of the South”—will stand up on judgment day and condemn “this generation.” Jonah is sent to the “heart of the nations” via the sea, and the Gentile nation Nineveh repents at the preaching of Jonah. Jesus is a Jonah to Israel, “the heart of the earth.” Jesus “came to His own”—to those who live at the center of the earth—and “those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). If we follow the Golden Rule method, the theological meaning is lost in the morass of technical details in order to salvage a Golden Rule literal hermeneutic.

The Bible states the earth has “four corners” (Isa. 11:12; Rev. 7:1; 20:8). The three occurrences of “four corners” in the Bible appear in literature that is mostly poetic and symbolic. This is hardly enough biblical evidence to warrant the claim that the Bible teaches that the earth is either shaped like a box or a platter since the Bible also says that trees (Isa. 55:12) and rivers (Psalm 98:8) have hands, hearts have highways (84:5), and stars sing (Job 38:7. In fact, the Bible can’t be a platter, a box, and a house with a foundation and cornerstone all at the same time (38:4, 6). It’s obvious that the Bible is using poet and symbolic language. Only a die-hard skeptic and an ill informed literalist would read the Bible a different way. These non-literal examples could be multiplied.[5] If we take the poetic descriptions and convert them into images, we end up with absurd representations of the cosmos, and yet we don’t see paintings of trees clapping their hands and take them as serious representations of horticulture.

The Bible is a book of literature. It speaks in literary ways. No one should expect it to read like a science journal. The fact that some read it this way is not the Bible’s fault. Our everyday speech is peppered with easily understood metaphors. How should we understand Moshe R. Manheim who wrote a guest editorial for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution?

In the 2,000 years since the destruction of the second Holy Temple that scattered Jews to the four corners of the Earth, there have been few times that Jews have been able to live in the land of Israel.[6]

Are we to assume that Manheim believes the earth is a box because he writes that the earth has four corners? Describing a four-cornered earth is obviously metaphorical, and no one considers it otherwise. All maps are flat and have four corners, and they work well enough to get us around the world. Airplane pilots carry flat maps into the cockpit even though they are flying around the globe.

If a time capsule that included an atlas of our world as it exists today were unearthed two thousand years from now, would these future earthlings suppose that we believed in a flat earth? Would they think we were geocentrists if they read newspaper archives? Didn’t these editors hear of the Copernican Revolution? Copernicus himself was not opposed to using metaphors to describe the cosmos:

In the very centre of all the Sun resides. For who would place this lamp in another or better place within this most beautiful temple, than where it can illuminate the whole at once? Even so, not inaptly, some have called it the light, mind, or the ruler of the universe. Thus indeed, as though seated on a throne, the Sun governs the circumgyrating family of planets.[7]

The sun is not the center “of all.” It’s more than a “lamp.” It’s not a “temple,” and it’s not “seated on a throne.” Copernicus uses language that sounds very much like the Bible. Apparently he saw no conflict with the use of metaphors and his more precise scientific terminology, and neither should we.


[1] Tim LaHaye, No Fear of the Storm: Why Christians Will Escape All the Tribulation (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1992), 240. No Fear of the Storm has been republished as Rapture Under Attack.
[2] Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, 3rd ed. (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1994), 5–12.
[3] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), 48.
[4] R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible, 2nd ed. (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 107–108.
[5] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, gen. eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998).
[6] Moshe R. Manheim, “Faith, conviction give father strength to send son to Israel,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (August 12, 2002), A8.
[7] Quoted in A. R. Hall, The Scientific Revolution, 1500–1800: The Formation of the Modern Scientific Attitude (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1954), 67.

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