Answers to Chapter Two

by David Crabtree


Answers to Chapter Two

by David Crabtree

David Crabtree has provided the following answers to the study questions from chapter two of The Language of God.

Question #1

I briefly discuss this issue later in the book. But, in this forum, I have the luxury of giving a more complete elaboration.

The term “literal interpretation” is usually used to distinguish two very different approaches to biblical interpretation which stem from different attitudes toward God’s activity in the affairs of mankind. Some students of the Bible are embarrassed by the miraculous, fantastic and/or supernatural in the Bible. Such things as God’s special creation of the universe, the universal flood in Noah’s time, the parting of the Red Sea during the exodus, Jonah being swallowed by a whale, Christ’s resurrection from the dead, etc. are all thought to be beyond credulity. Therefore these people choose to interpret such accounts as myths rather than history. Such accounts should not be understood as descriptions of actual events, but stories that have value in so far as they contain important truths which can be understood symbolically. This approach allows the reader to hold to two values at the same time. On the one hand, they can hold the intellectually respectable position of denying the supernatural intervention of God in human history, while, on the other hand, holding the Christian position of having respect for the Bible.

Other Bible students, in an effort to differentiate themselves from such an approach have adhered to a “literal interpretation.” This approach disdains any concern about intellectual respectability and revels in the supernatural of the Bible. This approach eschews resorting to symbolic interpretation just because the plain reading of the text is uncomfortable. In an effort to safeguard against the excesses of the anti-supernaturalists, this approach sometimes goes so far as insisting on interpreting the Bible non-figuratively, whenever this can possibly be done. From this perspective, interpreting any language in the Bible symbolically or figuratively is seen as cowardly capitulation to the spirit of anti-supernaturalism. So in the name of protecting the Bible from being reduced to nothing more than mythology, an approach has developed which works especially hard to interpret the text non-figuratively.

While we would share this approach’s disdain for anti-supernaturalism, the emphasis on non-figurative interpretation is naïve in two respects. First, it does not appreciate the extent to which we all use symbolic or figurative expressions in everyday speech. How much we use such expressions varies from culture to culture and from person to person but we all use them. Furthermore, they are not an inferior means of communication; in fact, symbols and figurative speech can be more effective at communicating some things than non-figurative speech. A friend of mine was talking about his son-in-law, for whom he has very high regard. He could have said, “He is a good son-in-law.” But instead he said, “He is a gem.” This figurative expression impressed upon me the strength of his feeling, and was therefore the better choice of words.

The second approach is also naïve in that it assumes that speech does not contain sufficient clues as to when language should be interpreted figuratively or symbolically. Granted making such a determination can sometimes be difficult, but in principle it can be done. Language is a form of communication. In order for communication to be possible the listener must know, among other things whether any given expression should be understood figuratively or non-figuratively. Therefore any message ought to contain adequate clues to make such a determination. Let us use this as an example: “When he opened her letter and read it, she died of embarrassment.” Can the reader determine whether “died” is to be understood figuratively or non-figuratively? Of course. It is being used figuratively. How do we know? The expression “to die of embarrassment” is so common that when we hear it we do not even think of literal death. Furthermore, embarrassment is not a likely cause of death. In fact, it is so unlikely that if she literally died, the speaker is going to have to provide more information-something as explicit as “When he opened her letter and read it, she died of embarrassment and was buried three days later.” We have to learn to be attentive to such clues and this is particularly true when we are dealing with a language and culture other than our native ones, but, in principle, the clues that indicate whether an expression is to be understood figuratively or not should be there. Consequently, a sound approach to interpreting the Bible need not contain special safeguards for discouraging excessive use of figurative or symbolic interpretations; one need merely be intent upon discovering the meaning intended by the author.

In the view presented by this book, the goal of interpretation is to recover the meaning intended by the author. To err in the direction of interpreting the text symbolically is wrong. But to err in the direction of interpreting the text non-figuratively is no better. One ought not err in either direction. The goal is to accurately determine when a literal meaning is intended and when a symbolic meaning is intended and interpret accordingly.

If one places this meaning on the term “literal interpretation” then we are advocates of it.

Question #2

I did not select this passage for any particular reason. In principle I could have picked any passage from historical narrative as an example, but I figured I could come up with something to say with regard to this one, so I chose it. I will not give a detailed interpretation of the entire passage. I will merely deal with one issue-why was Abel’s offering accepted and Cain’s rejected?

At this time in history, God had not given any commands for men to present offerings to him. Presumably Cain and Abel were both acutely aware of the degree to which their well-being was dependent on the gracious provision by God. They were both moved to express their gratitude by “returning” to him some of what he had provided. It makes sense then that each presented an offering from that which they had produced with the gracious help of God. At this point, however, the text indicates a difference between the offerings of Cain and those of Abel-they selected that portion which they would offer to God by different criteria. Cain just presented some of what he produced to God; it was, at best, a random sampling. Abel was much more deliberate. He selected some of his firstlings and some of the “fat” portions. I believe “fat portions” is being used figuratively here. It means the best or choice portion (this same Hebrew word chelev is used in this sense in Numbers 18:12). In other words, rather than taking a random sampling of what he produced, Abel goes through his flock and selects the very best to present as an offering to God. This difference in method of selection betrays a difference in attitudes towards God. Cain is expressing a measure of gratitude toward God-he certainly does not want to be on God’s bad side-but he does not want to relinquish the very best of what he has produced, because then he would be missing out on a good thing. Abel, on the other hand, is very cognizant of the fact that all that he has is due to the kindness of God. He is so grateful for God’s provision and so confident in God’s goodness that he knows he can offer the best of what he produced as the best thank you gift he can provide and still not jeopardize his well being in any significant way. He knows that the God he serves is so dedicated to Abel’s well being and so powerful that Abel can be generous with his offering and still not lose out on any good thing. In other words, he truly trusts God. This is why the author of Hebrews can say, “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead he still speaks.” (Hebrews 11:4)

What I have just explained is what I understand to be the meaning of the passage-this is what I believe the author of Genesis intended to communicate. Some have argued that the reason Cain’s offering was rejected and Abel’s was accepted is because Abel’s offering involved the shedding of blood and this is what is necessary for forgiveness of sins. I think this is not the meaning of the text. There is no indication from the text that the two men had been commanded by God to make offerings nor that God had given them instructions as to how to do it. It makes the most sense to assume that Cain and Abel are just trying to find an appropriate way to express thanks to God. When God speaks to Cain, he says, “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” This seems to focus on Cain’s inner disposition rather than whether or not he sacrificed an animal. If the latter had been the concern, the author would have written, “If you do the offering right . . . ” Furthermore, the word that is used to describe what they are presenting to God is “offering” rather than “sacrifice.” An offering does not necessarily imply the shedding of blood; a sacrifice does. So the author is doing nothing to steer us to think in terms of a blood sacrifice being given. In the absence of such clues there is no reason to think that this is what the author intended to communicate. Therefore the meaning of the text intended by the author of Genesis does not include the idea that Abel correctly followed the rules and Cain did not.

The fact that Abel offered animals may not be an integral part of the meaning of the text, but is it significant? When the sacrificial system was set up by God it became evident that the forgiveness of sins was granted only on the condition of the shedding of blood. This latter development makes the fact that Abel offered animals and Cain offered produce look suspiciously coincidental. It is possible that Abel’s offering foreshadows the blood sacrifices that God later prescribes for the people of Israel. According to tradition, Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. Those books include instructions regarding blood sacrifices that the people of Israel were to offer. If Moses is the author of Genesis, is it possible that he recorded the fact that Abel’s offering was from his flocks and that Cain’s offering was of produce as a foreshadowing of the sacrificial system, even though it is not the reason that God rejected Cain’s offering? I think this is possible. A similar foreshadowing could be found in the fact that God replaced the coverings that Adam and Eve had made from leaves to cover their nakedness with more suitable clothing he made from animal skins. If Moses included this fact as foreshadowing, then this is part of the intended meaning of the text.

For the sake of argument, however, let us say that the author of Genesis was someone other than Moses, did not know anything about the later sacrificial system, and did not in any way intend this account to be a foreshadowing of it. In this case it would not be part of the meaning of the text, because the human author did not intend to make this point. However, as history unfolds this fact of history potentially takes on a significance that it did not otherwise have. It could be a foreshadowing of the sacrificial system that God, the author of history, had woven into the unfolding of events. In other words it would not be an intended meaning, but it would be significant in the light of subsequent history.

Question #3

I have argued that the authors of the books of the Bible are not the equivalent of messengers in the way we usually think of messengers. The authors of the Bible are not mechanically conveying to readers the words they received from God. They actually composed the works based on their own thoughts. These works are unique in that God so constructed their lives that when they went to pen their thoughts in Scripture, they were penning the exact thoughts in the exact words that God wanted put into Scripture. But this in no way alters the fact that the human author is one to whom we should turn in asking the question-What did you intend to say?

If a messenger were informed about all of the details regarding a message that he is carrying, such that he could have, or possibly did, actually compose the message, this would be much more analogous to an author of Scripture. The receiver of the message could turn to the bearer of the message and ask, “What was meant by the word x in this sentence?” And the messenger could give an informed and authoritative response. If this is the kind of messenger one has in mind, then the authors of Scripture are similar.

There are portions of the Bible where the author is similar to the first kind of messenger. This is most common in prophetic literature. If the author is merely recording what God told him to record or is describing a message sent by God, he is functioning as a relay and the relevant author is God himself. The book of Revelation is a good example. There are portions of this book which simply record the words that God told John to record. When we interpret these words, we are trying to recover the meaning intended by God himself-John’s intent is simply to faithfully pass these words on to the reader.

Written records of visions are a little different in that there are, indeed, two intents involved. There is the intent of the author in his description of what he saw, and there is the intent of God, the author of the vision itself. In Revelation John is trying to accurately describe the vision in all of its relevant detail so that the reader has all the necessary facts to make sense of the vision as God intended it to be understood.

Copyright February 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree