A brief start on the nature of Inspiration

In my previous post, I laid out several factors to consider as far as the nature of inspiration in light of the phenomena of the Bible. Today we will look at the first of these, although admittedly, very briefly.

  • Scripture is clearly written by people who were culturally and linguistically bound to their own time and place.

That Scripture was written long ago, by a people very different from us, in a culture very different from ours shouldn’t need much explanation. We are products of modernity, shaped by its way of thinking (even post-modernity is a direct reaction to and hence, shaped by modernity), its technological innovation and its priorities. The people who wrote the books that eventually became what we call the Bible were shaped by very different ways of thinking, different kinds of innovation and different ways of understanding the world and their place in it.

One of the tasks of translation is to make the source language understandable in the target language. So at times, cultural references are translated into meaningful references in the target language. As a result, some of the “alienness” of the original is intentionally translated out. And that is at should be. But in the case of ancient texts like the Bible, one of the side-effects  is that it can leave us reading our own circumstances and understandings into the text, since it all sounds so familiar. Take, for example, Psalm 37:3.

בְּטַ֣ח בַּֽ֭יהוָה וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב שְׁכָן־אֶ֝֗רֶץ וּרְעֵ֥ה אֱמוּנָֽה

We will look at a couple words in this verse. The Hebrew word amun(ah)  has the connotation of faithful or true. It’s used of relationships, both between people and between people and God. The second word we will look at is shekan, which means to dwell and is rooted in the word for “tent” or “tabernacle” (a particularly large tent). The NRSV renders the Hebrew:

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security

A more literal rendering might be

Trust [in the sense of “rely”] in/on the Lord and do good. Dwell [possibly in tents]  in the land and pasture [or cultivate] faithfulness.

Do you see how the translation has removed the cultural alienness of the text? This is based in an agrarian society where people lived a semi-nomadic life. Since we don’t live in tents anymore, the translation simply renders the word shekan as “live.” Likewise, we are not semi-nomadic shepherds, moving our flocks around in the land looking for hospitable grazing land.   Now don’t get me wrong, this is a reasonable translation (although not without its particular linguistic problems). But the point is, we don’t live in tents doing seasonal field labor and most of us don’t pasture sheep or grow things on a farm. So the idea of cultivating faithfulness is translated as enjoying security, something that is much more understandable to us but largely removed from the alien circumstances of the Ancient Near East.

Another area that is more controversial is the multi-tiered understanding of the cosmos. This is clearly identified in Proverbs 3:19-20 (CEB).ancient_science_diagram_giberson

19 The Lord laid the foundations of the earth with wisdom,

establishing the heavens with understanding.

20 With his knowledge, the watery depths burst open,

and the skies drop dew.

יְֽהוָ֗ה בְּחָכְמָ֥ה יָֽסַד־אָ֑רֶץ כּוֹנֵ֥ן שָׁ֝מַ֗יִם בִּתְבוּנָֽה

בְּ֭דַעְתּוֹ תְּהוֹמֹ֣ות נִבְקָ֑עוּ וּ֝שְׁחָקִ֗ים יִרְעֲפוּ־טָֽל

Here we see multiple tiers explicitly grouped together: The earth on its foundations, the heavens above, the watery depths below and the water that comes from the sky. When Genesis 1 talks about the firmament or dome (רָקִיעַ), we tend to read it metaphorically. But that’s probably not how the ancients understood it. The sky really was a structure that separated the waters above from the waters below. Based on ancient carvings and writings, the idea that the sky was a solid dome does not appear to be merely poetic imagery or metaphor.  Hence, in Job 22:14, God walks on the dome (חוּג, an admittedly different word, but the same imagery). This is just how they seem to have understood the cosmos.

These multiple tiers are seen in other ANE literature as well, albeit in somewhat different form. For example, In the Epic of Creation (Enuma Elish), after Marduk has slain Tiamat (tablet IV), he splays her body in two, with half of her “put up to roof the sky” (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 257). Similarly, in several Egyptian texts and funerary inscriptions, we see reference to the primordial waters. In the book of Nut, it says “The upper side of this sky exists in uniform darkness, the southern, northern, western and eastern limits of which are unknown, these having been fixed in the Waters” (Trans. James P Allen, The Context of Scripture, Vol 1, 6). Here we see several references that correspond to the ideas found in Genesis 1, “And the land was tohu vbohu (usually translated formless and void but with the connotation of chaos and a lack of any organization) and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” For our purposes, the important thing to note is the idea that the deep, or primordial waters, make up one of the levels of the cosmos, just as they do in Genesis, exemplifying this broader, multi-tiered cosmological worldview of the biblical context.

This view of the universe is significantly different from ours and we pretty much can’t help but think of it as metaphorical or poetic. In fact, that’s probably why it hasn’t been translated out, as we saw in the passage from the Psalms. But the idea of the Earth orbiting around the Sun, suspended if you will, by nothing, is completely alien to the Ancient Near East. This is not to say these people  were ignorant. It’s just to say that their understanding of the universe was distinctly pre-scientific and the multiple tiers was how they envisioned the cosmos.

The point being, that the people who wrote the books we now call the Bible wrote from within their own distinct culture(s) and were just as much a product of their times as we are of ours. This becomes our first point about inspiration. The Bible was written and sometimes updated by people in specific times and specific places and those times and places are very far from where we are today. To ignore or minimize this fact would be to dismiss one of the most basic understandings of where and when Scripture comes from.

So what does this mean for inspiration? To start with, it means that we need to understand the books of the Bible in their ancient context. Nothing too controversial there. But to understand that, we need to look at the the broader literature and other artifacts from the Ancient Near East and use it to compare and contrast with the Bible. I’m sympathetic to a grammatical and historical grounding of our interpretations, even though it’s clear the Church has not always used that method, especially in light of the traditional four-fold senses of Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropological, anagogical). The multiple layers allowed the Church to read the whole Bible as inspired, even when they felt the literal sense could not be describing the God they saw revealed in Jesus.

The Bible is a very human work and that means we can’t just interpret the Bible by the Bible, but that we need to bring in external sources, not just literary and archeological, but also other disciplines whether sociology, linguistics,  or even musicology to help us understand it and act as a control on our interpretations. It also means that it will be very helpful to ascertain the times and places the books were written. We need to understand the history of the books and their textual history. The texts have a past, sometimes a very checkered past, and to understand the texts we need to come to grips with that past. It will no longer do to simply say the originals were inspired when we know that what we treat as inspired aren’t the originals. In fact the very idea of originals, at least as far as the Hebrew Scriptures are concerned, is dubious. Whatever inspiration may be, it must be rooted in God acting upon and through some very human works, works that have changed to one degree or another over time.

So what about you? What are ramifications of the Bible being a human book, albeit not merely human? Does that diminish its authority? Do you see problems with using extra-biblical literature to help us understand the Bible?

2 thoughts on “A brief start on the nature of Inspiration

  1. Maybe thinking more thoroughly about the conjunction of these two statements can help start us off:

    1) The gospel message was preached by people who were culturally and linguistically bound to their time and location.

    2) The Gospels preserved and elaborated upon the message in an effort to help deliver it to all people, irrespective of cultural and linguistic location (without possibly understanding, hermeneutically or sociologically, what that could mean).

    I try to construe inspiration in light of this contingent and historical dynamic in my recent work, Biblical Inspiration and the Authority of Scripture, which contains critiques and comments provided by other scholars. I do this by including scripture’s readers in the process of inspiration. Perhaps you might find my proposal helpful.

    Grace and peace,
    Carlos Bovell

    • Thank you Professor Bovell! I will look up your most recent book. It sounds very interesting and related to what I am trying to work through. For me, I’m interested in how ancient communities handled Scripture as reflected in the textual evidence, what does inspiration even mean in that context, what did it mean for it to function authoritatively and how does that influence how we answer those questions today.

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