Monday, December 6, 2010

Purpose of Scriptural Language

The type of language used in scripture helps reveal the author’s purpose for writing. C. John (Jack) Collins recently addressed the Vibrant Dance of Faith and Science Symposium from that standpoint with respect to the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Collins is professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. One of his areas of interest and expertise is the text-linguistic approach to Hebrew grammar and lexicography.

Genesis 1-11 is described as the “front end” of the story of Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelites, God’s chosen people. These chapters include vast time frames, in contrast to the following chapters of Genesis which relate detailed accounts of events within a much shorter time period. The author of the first eleven chapters sought to correct the views handed down in the literature of surrounding cultures which conveyed their beliefs of reality and events long past. Those examples of literature are known as myths, but the writers thought their accounts described real events. Moses’ writings were based on his experience with the one true God and present a proper monotheistic worldview.

The Old Testament expresses a coherent view of one true God who originated all things and created man to rule his creation in a wise and benevolent way. Sadly, man’s disobedience put an end to their enjoyment of caring for Eden. But Genesis 12-50 describes Abraham and his descendants as recipients of God’s purposeful blessing: hope for common human dignity, a just human society, and righteousness resulting from obedience to God’s commands.

Moses wrote Genesis, therefore, with a purpose in mind. That purpose was best expressed using a combination of “ordinary” and “poetic” language which could be understood by the Hebrew people. Collins described “ordinary” language as descriptive or phenomenological. For instance, a day may be described as “very cold” or the sun may be described as “rising.” The writer may also use familiar “poetic” imagery such as “pillars of the earth” or “the windows of heaven.”

A third type of language may be termed “scientific.” It aims for a high level of precision and detail with minimum ambiguity. Modern scientific language may describe temperature or speed with a great degree of exactitude. Examples of modern scientific language are, “The temperature is -13.7 degrees Celsius,” or “Our speed is 52 km/hr.” Such scientific language is not found in Genesis. Science as a systematic discipline would not develop until several thousand years later. The purpose of Genesis 1-11 is not to render a scientific account. The purpose, rather, is to unfold a worldview in preparation for later detailed accounts of God’s work through Abraham and His chosen people.

Hyper-literal interpretations of lengths of Genesis days (yom) do not use the Bible properly, according to Collins. I reaffirm my previous claims that the Bible is not a textbook enabling us to answer specific scientific questions. To make a scientific claim that each Genesis creation day is equivalent to our 24-hour day betrays the purpose of the Genesis account. That purpose is not to answer scientific questions such as precisely how or when events occurred, or precisely how long they took. Rather, the purpose of Genesis is to communicate a theistic worldview. Scripture reveals one true God who is the Creator of all things.

Events described in Genesis are historical. They are true. In Moses’ time the written account helped the people develop a proper view of God and His acts of creation and redemption. God’s word does the same for us in our day.