Culture shock adds color to any journey. Travelers abroad often return home with tales of language barriers, strange foods, and puzzling local customs. Cultural differences affect not only globe-trotting excursions, but also our views of ancient writings, including the Bible.
This series of articles has been dedicated to exploring the implications of Old Testament (OT) translation on the interpretations of the English-speaking population in particular. As noted in part 2, ancient Hebrew is linguistically different from modern English. But language isn’t the only obstacle to consider in approaching Genesis–our own cultural perspective can play a role in distorting our understanding of ancient text. A great gulf of time, location, and history separates the modern world from Moses’ world. Thus, we must constantly guard against projecting our current conceptions onto the text.
When C. S. Lewis was learning to read the great works of ancient literature in their original languages, he recognized this important principle.
I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle. The very formula, “Naus means a ship,” is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding.1
In the same way that Lewis had to forge past simply substituting English words for foreign ones, those who wish to truly understand Genesis 1 must overcome cultural barriers that separate modern perspective from ancient thought.
Example 1: Time
A particular friend of mine ardently supports the calendar-day view of creation. We had a discussion one day that brought home for me how easy it is to unknowingly read our contemporary assumptions into Scripture.
My friend understood the Sun, Moon, and stars as being created on the fourth creation day (Genesis 1:14-19), so I asked him how the first three creation days could be ordinary solar days without the Sun.2 He replied that the alternation of the light and darkness (from the first creation day) could occur in a cycle of 24-hours, thus these first three days could still be 24-hour periods. Seeming to resolve the problem, he unknowingly revealed a subtle error in his understanding of Genesis 1. Though he didn’t realize it his entire argument rested on thinking of “day” as a fixed period of time independent of the presence of the Sun. While we are conditioned to think this way today because of the widespread use of watches and clocks, that concept would have been completely foreign to the ancient Hebrews. Therefore, that couldn’t have been Moses’ intended meaning for the text.
Example 2: Genealogical Terms
Interpreting genealogies represents another dramatic cultural difference. We understand them today as being detailed statements intended to communicate specific relationships between individuals. Naturally, we tend to treat biblical genealogies as if they function the same way, but even a fairly simple investigation will show that they do not.
As mentioned in part 2, one of the primary differences is that Hebrew genealogies were almost always telescoped (abridged by leaving out less important names). The genealogy of Moses, which appears four separate times in Scripture (Exodus 6:16-20, Numbers 26:57-59; and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13), provides an excellent example of telescoping. In these passages, his genealogy is given as Levi (the patriarch) to Kohath to Amram (and his wife Jochebed) to Moses. As straightforward as this seems, we can use other Bible passages to demonstrate that at least six names were likely skipped between Amram and Moses.3 Despite the biblical evidence, some continue to try to explain away this gap because it seems unnatural to modern readers.4
Ancient Hebrew genealogies were primarily concerned with lineage and (in general) don’t communicate the actual number of generations spanned. This includes the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. Many assume that these records can be used to build an exact chronology from Adam to Abraham. Given that they are almost certainly abridged, attempts to use them to date the age of the Earth to around 6,000 years old are critically flawed.
Example 3: Geographical Terms
A third case to consider involves the extensiveness of geographical terms in Genesis. In our modern global society, we are constantly surrounded by globes and world maps. It is almost impossible for us not to think in global terms, but this perspective would’ve been foreign to Moses and his contemporaries. Nowhere is this issue more evident than in the account of Noah’s flood. We find it difficult to read “the whole earth” (kol ha’eretz) and “under the entire heavens” (tachat kol hashamayim) as referring to anything other than the entire planet. Yet when these expressions are used elsewhere in the OT they clearly refer to a local region.5 So, the phrase “the whole earth” in Scripture is approximately equivalent to “the known world” (from the viewpoint of the original readers).
Many more examples exist, but these sufficiently illustrate the challenge to interpretation based on translations. The points given here correspond to the three most controversial creation issues: the length of the creation “days”, the Genesis genealogies, and the extent of Noah’s flood. Much of the debate, therefore, derives from our tendency to impose our cultural perspective and assumptions onto the text. The key to resolving these long-standing issues is to study how words and phrases are used throughout Scripture–a time-intensive but rewarding exercise.
My complete work on this topic is currently unpublished. Inquiries regarding it should be directed to [email protected].
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5|
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1995), 141.
I discussed this issue surrounding the events on the fourth creation day in [part 2].
A detailed discussion of why Mosaic genealogies must be telescoped is given my paper, “The Genesis Genealogies.” A few key points are summarized here. (1) The names of Moses’ parents are conspicuously absent in Exodus 2 where they are only referred to as being Levites. (2) Kohath was born before the Israelites entered Egypt (Gen. 46:5-27; Exod. 1:1-4). The exodus out of Egypt took place 430 years later (Exod. 12:40-41; Acts 7:6). Since Moses was 80 years old at the time of the exodus, that means that from Kohath to Amram to Moses spanned at least 350 years. (3) Jochebed, Amram’s wife, is described as a daughter of Levi (Num. 26:59) and as Amram’s father’s sister (Exod. 6:20). This means that she would have been born along with Kohath some 350 years before Moses. (4) The descendents of Kohath at the time of Moses numbered 8,600 mean (Num. 3:27-28) of which 2,750 were between the ages of 30 and 50 (Num. 4:30). (5) Moses is not listed among the descendents of Amram (1 Chron. 24:20). (6) There were 12 generations connecting the patriarch Ephraim to Joshua, son of Nun (
See discussion by William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology: Are there Gaps in the Biblical Genealogies?” Bibliotheca Sacra 47, (April 1890), 285-303.
James Brendan Slagle, “How Far Did the Flood Waters Flow? Exegetical and Scientific Considerations on the Geographical Extent of the Biblical Deluge,” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Northwest chapter of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 1, 2003), https://www.geocities.com/jnkslagle/floodwater.htm. Examples of kol ha’eretz (“the whole earth”) meaning a limited region/area (non-global): “the ground or soil (Judg. 6:37-39), a territory, kingdom or country (Exod. 10:15) or all the people therein (1 Sam. 14:25), the country of Israel in particular (Gen. 13:9; Deut. 34:1) or all the people therein (2 Sam. 15:23), the known world (Gen. 47:13), or all the people therein (Gen. 41:57; 1 Kings 10:24), or the planet earth in its entirety (Exod. 19:5) or all the people therein (Gen. 18:25).” Deut. 2:25 uses tachat kol hashamayim (“under the entire heavens”) to refer to the nations in the region that the Jews were traveling in. (Information taken from Slagle.)