The Implication of Genre in Job, Ezekiel and Genesis

Some notes on hermeneutics

“When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied in the light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.”
–Dr. David L. Cooper (1886-1965),
founder of The Biblical Research Society

The above quote is known by many expositors as “The Golden Rule of Biblical Interpretation.” states that, “This has often been shortened to ‘When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, lest it result in nonsense.’” An implication of this rule, which I think is inescapable, is that not every word of Scripture is meant to be understood literally. That is troubling to many, because in careless or untrained hands it opens the door to subjectivism and arbitrary conclusions. Yet almost all the great conservative Bible commentators practice a hermeneutic (a set of formal principles for Biblical interpretation) that allows for non-literal text, including parables, figures of speech, anthropomorphism, poetic exaggeration, and a host of other confusing factors. Not to mention translational difficulties. Understanding the “genre” (from the Latin genus), or “literary type” of a Biblical passage is one obvious prerequisite for understanding how literally one should interpret it.

Suggesting that some passages should probably not be understood in a literal sense does not subtract from the central truth that “all Scripture is God-breathed.” It is axiomatic to me that the Bible is inerrant in its original language and the original manuscripts. Yet some folks read my opinions, especially respecting emotional themes like creation, and make snide comments like, “So you believe it’s inerrant except when it isn’t!”

My suggestion for anyone who wants to understand Scripture for himself or herself, or to judge the competence of another commentator, is to read a good book on hermeneutics. One that I recommend is Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth, ©Roy B. Zuck, 1991. I pretty much agree with all of Dr. Zuck’s stated principles, though I am not in full agreement with some of the applications he makes from his interpretations. For example, he and I are not on the same page with respect to Covenants and Dispensations.

I don’t think there are any substantive problems with corruption of our Scriptures over the millennia. There are a few problems with translation, but none that are impossible to unravel with sufficient attention to the linguistic and cultural background of the humans who penned the words, and those who the words are written to.

What I consider to be the biggest factor of all that contributes to doctrinal confusion and infighting in the Church is that some misinterpretations are enshrined in a nearly impenetrable wall of tradition.

In the remainder of this post, I am going to discuss three books in the Tanach, or Old Testament that I believe contain a mixture of literal and metaphorical text. Some of my readers will disagree with me about Job. Most will agree with me about Ezekiel, at least in general terms. Probably only a few will agree with me about Genesis.

The genres of Job

The book of Job is classified as “reflective wisdom literature” overall, but within the book, scholars recognize two, more specific, genres: Chapters 1, 2, and verses 7–16 of the final chapter, 42, are narrative, while the rest of the book is poetic.

Per Zuck, a Biblical narrative is a “story told for the purpose of conveying a message through people and their problems and situations.” The story is typically selective and illustrative, meaning that it doesn’t necessarily quote conversations verbatim or events in chronological order. Only substantive elements that contribute to the illustration are included. This is why, for example, the narrative content of the different Gospels differs somewhat from book to book when describing the same event. The separate human authors, under the same inspiration, often used different words to stress different aspects. Matthew and Luke report two Gadarene demoniacs, for instance, while Mark mentions only one, and John omits the incident entirely. Why only one in Mark? Because only one of them obeyed Jesus by telling his countrymen about the miracle of his exorcism and preparing the way for Jesus’ return to the region later in the book. The second man was inconsequential to the lesson Mark wished to teach.

Literate readers of our time have hopefully been taught a rigid set of literary rules for grammar and punctuation, but trying to hold ancient writers to the same standards is an anachronism. Thus, we must not be offended when quotations are loose, numbers are approximate, and chronology is fluid. In no ways do these things detract from the authority of Scripture.

When reading the narrative portions at the beginning and end of Job, we can be sure that there is no error in the substance of the story. What the words convey are substantially true, and the lesson they convey is unambiguous.

Leaving the narrative portions, the bulk of Job is poetic. Hebrew poetry has a very recognizable style of its own that some people find hard to follow. Rhyme and meter in the Hebrew originals cannot be transferred intact to English translations, but there is usually recognizable structure. One common element that we frequently see is two or more lines that state the same thing, but in different words. This rephrasing is called parallelism.

Biblical poetry is less exact than Biblical narrative, because the language of poetry is more flowery and sometimes exaggerated or hyperbolic. The narrative within the poem is much less important than the lesson taught by the poem. In my opinion it is dangerous to base dogma on poetic Scripture. Take, for example:

13 ¶ to him who split apart the Sea of Suf,
for his grace continues forever;
14 and made Isra’el cross right through it,
for his grace continues forever;
15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Suf,
for his grace continues forever;
—Psalm 136:13–15 CJB

Psalm 136 is an antiphonal song, during which a cantor might have sung or chanted the first line of each verse and a choir of Levites the second. Its intent was to praise Almighty God, and any details included here that were not recorded in the Torah writings could conceivably be embellishment. Exodus does not state that Pharaoh drowned in the Sea (The Reed, or Red Sea), and my analysis (see Historic Anchors for Israel in Egypt) indicates that he did not. Furthermore, “swept Pharaoh and his army into the Sea” clearly contradicts the Exodus account. The Egyptian army followed the Israelites into the sea and the sea swept across them.

In the case of Job’s poetry, the important lessons have to do with God, His power, and His relationship to His creation. The conversations between the actors here (between Job and his wife and friends, or even the conversations between Job and God) were immaterial aside from their message and need not have literally happened.

The genres of Ezekiel

Ezekiel is probably my favorite book in the Bible. It is a great illustration of the “prophetic” literary genre, and it may be the best example in Scripture of narrative and poetic symbolism.

What is prophecy? I think it is a message about the past, present, or future that is supernaturally delivered by God to His people through the agency of one or more of His people who are empowered by Him to act as His intermediary. I don’t think that there are any prophets today, though there will be again as the present age comes to a final end. There were no prophets after Micah until John the Baptizer. There have been none since the death of the Biblical apostles. Some Bible teachers will claim that today’s pastors and evangelists are prophets, by definition, but I don’t believe that the common leading of the Holy Spirit, which is often hard to distinguish from personal volition, counts. For one to feel like he is led by the spirit is nice, but not provable. Fallen humans should not revel in such feelings.

Ezekiel’s prophecies were mostly imparted to him by means of visions, and mostly passed on either through acting out skits (object lessons) or verbally. When verbal, and as recorded in Scripture, some were in narrative form, and some were poetic.

Ezekiel’s vision of God and heaven at the beginning of the book represent his impressions of whatever he actually saw. Efforts to interpret what he described in meaningful visual terms are fruitless. What I think we are supposed to see is that God is holy, majestic, and humanly beyond accurate description.

In chapters 4–32, Ezekiel presents a series of skits and sermons that call out the sins of Israel and other nations of the day and pronounce condemnation and judgement for those sins. Though he uses a mixture of plain language and symbolism, the unity of the message is clear.

Beginning with Chapter 33 we start seeing the beginnings of future restoration, culminating in the defeat of Gog and Magog in Chapters 38 and 39 (see my post, The Coming World War: Gog and Magog).

Finally, chapters 40–48 forecast events and objects in the Messianic age. Some of this material regards the return of God’s sh’kinah “presence” to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Previously, in chapters 10 and 11, Ezekiel described the departure of the sh’kinah from Solomon’s Temple immediately prior to its destruction by Nebuchadrezzar in 586 BC. The return of sh’kinah will be specifically to the Holy of Holies in the new Millennial Temple, which will be built on a radically different landscape at the same geographic location. I discuss my own exegesis (interpretation and analysis) of both the departure and return in the question-and-answer section near the end of my post, Opening the Golden Gate. That post also summarizes the history of the Temple in its different phases of construction. Contrary to what is believed by most Christians, both lay and ordained, it was the Father, not Jesus the Son, who will enter the Temple—and not through the Eastern Gate, but over it. The genre of both passages is prophetic narrative, and entirely symbolic, though with important theological meaning and at a location which is certainly literal. In theological terms, God in His immanence may have abandoned the Temple and the people of Israel, but in transcendence, He has always been with them.

the genres of Genesis

The five “Books of Moses“, often called Torah (Hebrew, not for “law”, but rather for “teachings”), or sometimes Chumash (my own default, Heb. “five”) or Pentateuch (Greek “five vessels, or containers”) are attributed by conservative scholars to Moses; a view that I share. They include to some extent, all genres of Hebrew literature.

The water world of Gen. 1:2. “The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

Genesis, in particular, is largely narrative in style, as you might guess. It also includes a small amount of poetry. I suggest that all of it, from beginning to end, is also prophetic in nature. Israel has always, since the Exodus from Egypt, considered Moses to be the greatest of the prophets. But I don’t recall ever hearing it suggested explicitly that his knowledge of preexilic history was prophetically derived. Certainly, it was! Recall that I implied above that the prophets, through supernatural means, saw events from their past, present and future, through the eyes of God. In a very real sense, that is what “inspiration by the Holy Spirit” really is.

In Genesis 1:1, Moses declared that, in the beginning (Reꜥshit, “first in time, order or rank”), God created (bara, to create ex nihilo, out of nothing whatsoever, which only God can do) the heavens (shamayim, plural, encompassing the air around us, the atmosphere above us, and the vastness of space) and the earth. The phrase “heavens and earth” in Scripture is a figure of speech called a “merism“, in which the totality of something is implied by substitution of two contrasting or opposite parts.

A more complete description of the genre of this one verse is “polemic prophetic narrative”. Every ancient civilization had a pantheon of pagan “gods”, and with each of those came a “creation myth.” In Genesis 1:1, the one true God said, “I did it—not them! Period!”

Theologically, that is really all we need to know about creation. God had no obligation to tell us exactly how he did it, or in what order, and if He had done so, nobody in the ancient world could have possibly understood it. Sure, I’m curious, but God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of the story!

By the time verse 2 rolled around, the earth had been inundated for some reason. I will discuss that, and my interpretation of the rest of the chapter, in a future post. For now, I’ll simply refer back to the quotation at the top of this post, and say that, to me, the “Plain sense” of Genesis 1:1–2 make perfect “common sense” in a book about God: creation, passage of time, cataclysmic flood, and beginning of a new age. The plain sense of Genesis 1:3–31 does not make common sense to me, if indeed it describes creation at all. To me, it is strongly reminiscent of prophetic visions recorded by a number of prophets, including John. The age of man on earth starts with a vision and ends with a vision!

Does Science Trump Theology?

Um, surely you don’t expect a short answer from me?! Not when there is so much bad science to consider, and also—believe it or not—a lot of bad theology, as well!

Most scientists, certainly, and probably most theologians agree that “theology is about God”, and “science is about purely natural and self-sustaining processes.” As someone who has been passionately interested in both theology and science from an early age, my view is that there is an unavoidable overlap. Both disciplines, in a very real sense, share the same goal—uncovering truth about the universe around us—and both disciplines come from the same source—the God who created and maintains the universe.

you can’t fully understand the universe without understanding the Designer who built it and instituted the natural laws that govern its existence, and you can’t fully understand God without understanding the environment He created for His creatures.

I am contending here that science is worth listening to and not simply dismissing as an enemy of faith. Most of my readers are intelligent Christian Believers but are neither scientists nor theologians. To those, I pose the question:

Can we only believe what our eyes show us if it conforms to what we have been taught? Can we not even consider that there are “mysteries” (Paul’s term) that can only be understood with the passage of time? We even have a theological term for that: “progressive revelation.”

JWST images of two distant spiral galaxies, as they appeared an estimated 10.3 billion light years ago using scales based on current physics. © Provided by ABC NEWS

Rom 1:19-20
19 For what can be known about God is plain to them [the ungodly and unrighteous], because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. ESV

If God has revealed Himself in nature to the ungodly, then who are we as believers to say that there is no benefit to us in that same revelation? I live by the principle that God gave me “eyes to see and ears to hear”. If my senses seem to conflict with what I have been taught to believe, then I must question both my senses and my beliefs. That doesn’t happen often, because I’ve had pretty good teachers over the decades. But not everything in the Bible is crystal clear. Most trained pastors and theologians subscribe to a particular “hermeneutic“, or system of principles for exegesis, i.e., interpretation of Scripture. See, for example, the book, Basic Bible Interpretation, by Roy B. Zuck.

I am a Biblical “literalist”, but that doesn’t mean I take every last word as literal. Does anyone believe that Jesus’ parables were literally true stories? A parable, by definition, is a made-up story designed to teach a principle. Did Peter see a real sheet containing real animals? I don’t think so, it was a vision, not reality, and was meant to teach him a lesson about people, not food. Is “three days and three nights” exactly 72 hours? No, that’s a well-attested Hebrew figure of speech. As is the “evil” or “single” eye of Matthew 6:22, which is about stinginess. Did Jesus promise me a mansion in Heaven? No that’s both a translation issue (“mansion” vs. “dwelling place”) and a misapplication of Hebrew wedding imagery, which Jesus’ hearers would have immediately recognized as such and not understood as a real estate promise (see “Jesus and Hebrew Wedding Imagery“). Will the meek inherit the earth? No, that’s a quote of Psalm 37:11 where David was speaking poetically of the prophesied return of Israel (the meek) to the Promised Land. Are there helicopters in Revelation? Maybe so, maybe no, but everyone agrees the wording there is symbolic.

On the other hand, did Jesus convert water into wine, and did He resurrect from the dead? Emphatically, yes! Science can’t demonstrate the possibility of either, but neither can they be disproved, and the facts are fundamental to my belief system. The same with Adam and Eve, the Genesis Flood, the Sea of Suf (Red/Reed Sea) crossing, manna from heaven, and numerous other phenomena that some folks can’t believe.

On yet another hand, was the Ark a ship, as some would have you believe is unarguable fact? Not in my opinion (see “Ships, Boats, Floats and Arks“), but the story itself is true, nevertheless. Did the Genesis flood change the entire structure of the earth’s crust? Not in my opinion (see “Fountains of the Deep“). There is no scriptural support for this simplistic theory, and there are better explanations for the apparent age of the earth. I plan, in perhaps my next post, to list a number of geological features that, in my professional opinion, could not have been caused by either a local or a general, worldwide flood.

In my view nothing in the Bible is in any way flawed—ever—but the Bible is written to convey facts about God Himself, and about God’s Will as expressed through Theology.

Information the Bible offers about human or natural history, or about scientific principles, is only incidental to the goal of explaining and glorifying God and His Will, and in my opinion is not intended to be exhaustive or fully explained. Furthermore, the human instruments who penned scripture, and the ancient audience for which it was initially penned, were historically and scientifically naïve and would have no perspective from which to correctly receive sophisticated explanations about the universe around them.

Sometimes science presents us with observations that are very compelling but seemingly out of sync with our assumptions based on traditional interpretations of scripture. For example, the following KJV references are all from poetic scriptures praising God for His power and greatness and for the stability and security of the planet He created for us:

  • For he spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast.
    —Psalm 33:9
  • the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.
    —Psalm 93:1c
  • the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved:
    —Psalm 96:10b
  • Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed [ESV: “moved”] for ever.
    —Psalm 104:5
  • the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved.
    —1 Chronicles 16:30b
  • and, behold, all the earth sitteth still, and is at rest.
    —Zechariah 1:11

These verses “prove beyond any shadow of doubt” that the earth is totally immobile, and the center around which the universe rotates! But, thanks to progressive revelation, we now interpret those scriptures in ways that conform to observation. At some point in the course of using our God-given senses and intelligence, it may occasionally become necessary to thus reexamine certain scriptures to see if there is something that we may have missed, or a conclusion we reached in error because in the past “it seemed to make more sense” than any alternative view. Certainly, I’m not talking about giving up fundamental faith issues, but I am suggesting that we should be more astute about recognizing what is fundamental and what is merely tradition. To my thinking, scripture is clear that God is the Creator. That is a fundamental of my faith, but the brevity of the Genesis 1 account and its wording in the Hebrew makes me much less confident in the traditional interpretations.

I similarly question whether Genesis 2 is a recapitulation of Day 6 in Genesis 1, or a separate creation event. What is fundamental to me is that Adam and Eve were real people, created directly by God, and placed into a real paradise where they really sinned. Noah, too, was a real person and all subsequent humans are descended from him. Without these fundamentals, my whole concept of soteriology is flawed, and my faith is in vain.

The dual advents of Jesus were a mystery to all Believers until Jesus died, and His followers had to reexamine ancient scriptures and develop new interpretations of passages that were not as clear and final as had been thought previously.

I do not believe in biological evolution, for reasons that I may go into in a future post.

At the same time, I reject “Young Earth” hypotheses about the way God created the non-organic universe. I believe that Earth is some 4.5 billion years old, and the universe nearly 14 billion. I’ll leave it to a future post to explain how I reconcile this with the “Genesis account”, which I refuse to explain away as mere symbolism. To reiterate, I believe in a literal, worldwide Genesis Flood, but I reject the theory that it accounts for the present geology of the earth.

Please dismiss the idea that “the theory of evolution” has anything to do with the development of the universe. “Evolution”, as I use the term, is about biological processes and “natural selection”, neither of which have anything whatsoever to do with star formation or the origin of the Solar system. If the formation of a star from interstellar gas and dust is “evolution”, then I guess the formation of a sinkhole after a water main break must also be called evolution.

To close out this post, I want to mention several similarities between Science and Theology:

Both disciplines deal in theory. Christians are fond of saying that, “Evolution is just a theory, not an established fact.” Not a “Law.” When I was a kid, the “Scientific Method” recognized three discrete levels of understanding: hypothesis, theory, and law. Many people brought up in that era see the word “theory” and assume that this is something unproven and tentative. That is no longer the case, linguistically. Reality has blurred the boundaries between theory and law. Many things that were once considered “law” are now recognized to have conditions, or limits. “Newton’s Laws”, for example, are now accepted as useful approximations under certain conditions, but under others, they have to be replaced by Relativistic principles, and even Relativity now sometimes must give way to Quantum Mechanics. So, even though biological evolution is still called a “theory”, most biologists are totally convinced of its truth, or at least that it is a valid working principle. Insisting that it is “theory” and not “fact” is, in this era, an empty argument. In the same way, theological principles must be considered theoretical up to a point, because we aren’t God! We simply cannot have a perfect understanding of scripture.

Both disciplines have an infallible basis. What?! Theology is at heart based on the Bible, which we believe to be inerrant and infallible. That is axiomatic to our beliefs. Most sciences, too—not so much biology, but certainly cosmology (the study of how the universe developed from the time of the “Big Bang”)—have a mathematical foundation, and math is an “exact science.” Math is the inerrant “scripture” of science, and it, too, was authored by God. It originated with God, it is absolute, and much of it is very well understood by human mathematicians.

Both disciplines have elements that are subject to interpretation. Some branches of math, like Probability and Statistics, can be erroneously interpreted and wrong conclusions drawn; and proven valid equations can sometimes be applied incorrectly to observation. But the same can be said about scripture. Sometimes scripture can be misinterpreted or misapplied. Again, we are not God!