Not the Intended Use

I am committed to the inerrancy of Scripture. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that, “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.” In the affirmation and denial section, article 12, it further states:

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

The question is whether the Bible touches upon a certain subject. Does scripture touch upon chemistry? Does it touch upon processed foods? There are many questions that we want answered and so we go to the Bible in search of answers. It is commendable to look for answers in scripture, but that can also be a dangerous approach. We need to take steps that we not read into a passage what was never its intent.

Every generation has battles that it needs to fight. Every generation has its own characteristic biases and predispositions that it needs to guard against. Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them. But each generation also has the responsibility to examine afresh the teachings of scripture on their own terms to see where the previous generation may have mistakenly read their culture back into the text. Let’s consider a few examples.

Rabbits “Chew their Cud”

In Leviticus 11:6 we read, “And the hare, because it chews the cud but does not part the hoof, is unclean to you.” But critics of the Bible have tried to find an error here since rabbits do not chew their cud. An animal that chews its cud usually has four stomachs. They will eat their food and swallow it into one of their stomachs where it will be partially digested. They will then regurgitate that food, chew it again and swallow it again into a different stomach for further digestion.

Simply put, rabbits don’t do this. So is the Bible in error? No. These critics have taken our modern concept of chewing the cud and cast it back into scripture to try to find an error. The rabbit, does partially digest its food and then eat it again to complete the digestion process. The difference is that the rabbit will pass its food completely through and then eat it again instead of regurgitating it. These animals that redigested their food were considered unclean. These critics err by reading our modern definition back into a 14th century BC Semitic text.

Snakes “Eating Dust”

Another area that critics have attacked in the past is Genesis 3:14 which says:

The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.

They laugh at how little these primitive people understood. Snakes don’t eat dust. They flick out their tongue as a way to “smell” the air. To the critics this is just another example of how you can’t take the Bible seriously because it is full of mistakes.

Snakes do crawl on their bellies, but they do not actually eat dust. However, the image of both of those is one of defeat and subjugation. For instance:

Psalm 72:9 May desert tribes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust!

Isaiah 49:23 Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers. With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD; those who wait for me shall not be put to shame.”

These critics are forcing the Bible to answer questions of anatomy and diet which it was not addressing. The point is that God is going to defeat the serpent. He will be subjected before the Lord God almighty!

The Smallest of all Seeds

In Matthew 13:31-32 we read:

[31] He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. [32] It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

Once again, critics attack the Bible’s trustworthiness. They point out that the orchid seed is smaller, so Jesus made a mistake. They desire Jesus to speak on the subject of botany so that if he slips up they can condemn him.

But Jesus was not speaking about botany. They are forcing the passage to answer a question that it was never designed to answer. It was commonplace for Jews to discuss something’s size in comparison to the mustard seed. As such it acted as an idiom of sorts. When we say “older than dirt” we aren’t making a genuine estimate of age. When we say “the sharpest tool in the shed” we are speaking of intelligence, not a blade’s edge. “Slower than molasses in January” draws a comparison without intending a literal measurement of velocity.

For most of these we can easily see that the critics have missed the point of the passage. We can easily see that they are forcing it to answer questions of diet or geography or botany which were never part of the intent of the passage. But at other times, because we are so caught up in a cultural war, we unwittingly follow the critics in their assumptions. The following are a couple of examples.

A Flat Earth

In Matthew 4:8 we read, “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” Again the critics point out that it doesn’t matter how high the mountain is, the earth is a globe and you can’t see the other side of it. So the Bible is mistaken because Jesus couldn’t see “all the kingdoms of the earth.”

But once again, they take our 21st century concept of “world” and read it back into the text. We live in the age of space exploration. We are familiar with NASA images of the Earth along with many other celestial bodies. The problem is that this passage is not about geography or astronomy or the shape of the earth in general. “World” (kosmos) had many different definitions in Greek. These critics want the Bible to teach on the shape of the earth so they can discredit it, but that is not what the passage is about.

They add to their critical repertoire by citing passages like Isaiah 11:12 in support of a square earth:

He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

Yet Isaiah is speaking of the four points of the compass, not of the shape of the planet.

But some Christians have tried to defend a flat earth. They are eager to fight against the attacks of the unbelievers so they commit themselves to defending what they shouldn’t be defending – a bad interpretation. Thankfully not many Christians have done this (although there still exists a flat earth society). While most Christians have not tried to defend a flat earth, many have taken the same approach in trying to defend a spherical earth. They cite passages like Isaiah 40:22 to support the globe interpretation.

[22] It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;

But this is no more about the shape of the earth being a circle than the four corners passage. In our zeal to defend we have unwittingly capitulated to the skeptics approach.


Perhaps most famously, the Bible started being attacked for teaching geocentrism. Faithful believers again took the bait. They accepted the approach of unbelievers (and some believers of course) that the Bible taught about astronomy and then lined up on the opposite side.

At that time Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.” [13] And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. [14] There has been no day like it before or since, when the LORD heeded the voice of a man, for the LORD fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:12-14 ESV)

Many believers, committed to the inerrancy of the Bible accepted the premise that this passage spoke about the motions of the heavens. Once that is accepted, they have to defend geocentrism.

Dr. Faulkners has admirably addressed this issue saying:

It is also important not to base doctrines upon any passage that at best only remotely addresses an issue. That is, if cosmology is clearly not the point of a passage, then extracting a cosmological meaning can be very dangerous.

It is better to understand what the text is about and then see if it is appropriate to ask secondary questions. Dr. Faulkner’s words are part of his critique of geocentrism, which is one of the best responses I have read.

What Did God Intend?

Leviticus talked about chewing cud, Genesis talked about eating dust, Jesus talked about the smallest seed, Isaiah spoke of the four corners, and Joshua talked about the sun standing still. Even though all of that verbiage was used, each of those passages was not about astronomy, botany, etc. They were pressed into service to answer a question that was not their design. I think we have fallen prey to the same kind of thinking in Genesis 1.

Darwin was highly influential. He help unbelievers to become “intellectually justified atheists.” His work was well employed by critics during the age of modernism and into the present to discredit the Bible. “Time” became a kind of genie in a bottle for them. Answers in Genesis has pointed out that it is absurd to think that a frog can become a prince when kissed, but for some reason it becomes reasonable if you add millions of years. I don’t think the science of evolution works.

However, many Christians, with a desire to defend the Bible, saw “time” as the answer. They pressed the genealogies and the days of creation into service to arrive at a date of creation. With that in hand, evolution’s genie in a bottle was gone. But I don’t think that this was the intent of either the genealogies or the days of Genesis. They were never intended to give us an age of the universe.

Joshua is not about cosmology. Genesis is not about the date of creation. Yes, Genesis does use the words evening morning, day and night. But Joshua also uses the terms for sun and moon and it says that they stopped and then later set. Since Joshua was not intending to give a cosmology, then forcing it to answer that question is misguided. Since Genesis was not intending to give a date or duration, then forcing it to answer that question is misguided.

I’m sure some will disagree with me on that mark and insist that it did intend to give us a duration. Why did Moses tell us it was day one and then day two all the way to day seven if he didn’t intend to tell us how long it took? I would turn the question around and ask, “Why does Joshua say that the sun stopped and that later it hurried to set if he didn’t want to tell us about the motions of the heavens?” But my answer is not merely negative, I just want people to realize that even though the text uses actual words like day and night, sun and moon, these texts may have a different aim than whatever question we want answered.

“Speak!” Say the astronomers to Joshua 10. “Tell me whether heliocentrism or geocentrism is true.” But the text is silent. It refuses to answer. God demands we pay attention to what he wants to say in the text. But we keep insisting that God talk about the things we want to know. But it doesn’t work that way. “Speak!” says the 21st century clock-oriented westerner to Genesis 1. “Tell me whether the days were long or short.” But the text is silent, it refuses to speak.

Utmost in our minds needs to be understanding what God wanted to say in a passage.