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"Chapter 4: Using the Genre Approach to defend Inerrancy"


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We already saw, in answering Cardinal Koenig's charges, an example of this use of the genre approach. It is highly likely that the narrative parts of Daniel were meant as the edifying narrative pattern. There is apt to be a core of history, but along with it go some rather free additions. Again, the key word is assert or claim. The writer does not assert or claim he is writing pure history. Part of it will fit with history, but he does not assert that the fill-ins are historical.

In using the literary genre technique we are not being unfaithful to Scripture. Rather, we are being completely faithful, and using a great means to defend Scripture against attacks. For it is clear that we should try to find out what the inspired writer really meant to say. To find that, we must ask: What did he mean to assert? To ignore that is to impose our own ideas on Scripture. That is being very unfaithful.

So the poor misguided Fundamentalists think they are respecting the sacred text, but actually they are not. They are imposing their own ideas on Scripture.

Genesis 1-11: When we looked at the first eleven chapters of Genesis we said the genre was that of an ancient story, which still conveys things that really happened. Pope John Paul II, in his series of audiences on Genesis, on November 7, 1979 called this narrative "myth". He explained: "The term myth does not designate fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing deeper content." So we need not say God created in 6 times 24 hours. Still less need we say creation was 4000 years before Christ. That number was reached by adding up ages of patriarchs and others. Centuries ago, St. Augustine knew better. In his City of God 15.7 he noticed that Cain was said to have built a city, and named it for his son Enoch, at the time when Genesis listed only about three men alive. He replied that the purpose of the sacred writer was not to mention all humans, but only enough to show the line of descent of the two cities.

Exodus: The books that describe the departure from Egypt and the wandering in the desert very probably use something like an epic genre. That genre tells of the great beginnings of a people. The story is basically history, yet has some fill-ins which are a bit fictional, which the writer does not assert really happened. But in spite of this, it is clear that there was an exodus, and not just a revolt of peasants in Canaan who never left there. The story of a great people beginning in slavery is not likely to be invented.

But there are new discoveries. It is now certain that Sinai was in Midian--when Moses had to flee Egypt he went to Midian, married the daughter of a priest of Midian, and while watching sheep there saw the burning bush. Wyatt Archeological Research, Presentation of Discoveries went to the real Sinai, photographed the top of Sinai where the top rocks are still blackened from the fire at the time of the Ten Commandments. They also found and photographed the twelve pillars erected by Moses at the site. There are more remarkable things in this video (More controversial: at the start of the video we see the discovery by using radar that penetrates soil, of a large boat, right dimensions for the ark. The problem is that a high Pentagon officer told me he had been permitted to see the photos made by a U.S. satellite from space, on which the ark is in the open, partly covered with snow, farther up on Mt. Ararat). Also Larry Williams, in The Sinai Myth (Wynwood Press, NYC, 1990) visited the site of Mt. Sinai in Midian and photographed the blackened top of Sinai and saw the twelve pillars of Moses. He also engaged the services of George Stevens of Horizon Research who was able to study the photos taken by the French satellite with infrared. He was able to see the precise spot where Israel crossed the Gulf of Aqabah, and to trace other parts of their movements in the area. (Further comments below in chapter 10).

Joshua vs Judges: These two books seem to contrast. Joshua tells of a great triumphant sweep of conquest; Judges gives a lower key picture of much struggle. The answer lies in the genres: Joshua is part of the epic style; Judges is a more sober narrative on the whole.

Jonah: Another fascinating example is in the book of Jonah. God ordered Jonah to preach to Nineveh that He intended to destroy it - of course, if they did not repent. Jonah feared God would actually not destroy it, and thought that then he would seem to be a false prophet. So he boarded a ship headed out into the Mediterranean. Soon a great storm arose. The crew threw overboard much of the cargo to lighten the ship. But the danger was still great. Then one of the sailors remembered that Jonah when coming on board had said he was running away from his God. So the sailors came to Jonah and questioned him. Jonah replied that yes, he was the cause. So they should throw him overboard, and then the storm would cease. They did so, and the storm stopped. But a large fish - a whale? - swallowed Jonah, but threw him up on the shore on the third day. Then Jonah decided he had to preach to Nineveh. They all did penance at once in sackcloth and ashes. So God did not destroy the city.

What did the sacred writer intend - to write history, or a sort of extended parable? There are difficulties against an historical view. The matter of the fish swallowing Jonah is not too difficult. In February 1891 the ship Star of the East caught an 80 foot sperm whale. But a seaman, James Bartley was missing. After a search, he was presumed drowned. Yet the next day when the whale was being cut up, they found Bartley inside, still quite alive. (Cf. Wallechinsky & Wallace, People's Almanac, Doubleday: Garden City, NY, 1975, p. 1339).

Another inconclusive objection comes from the language of the text. It has some words that are later than the supposed date. But we know that the Jews sometimes deliberately updated the language of the ancient texts. So the objection is not strong.

But there are more serious difficulties: Jonah 3:3 says, "Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth." The remains found there do not show a city that size. A. Parrott (Nineveh and the Old Testament, New York, Philosophical Library, 1971, pp. 85-86) suggests perhaps Nineveh could have referred to a 26 mile string of settlements in the Assyrian triangle. Or else, since people gathered at the city gates, Jonah would speak there. And since there were many gates there, and Jonah would talk much at each, it could have taken three days.

On the other hand, no matter what the genre of the book, it surely does teach two major lessons. First, the Assyrians then were considered the world's worst people, because of their deliberate terrorism in war. Yet God showed concern for them. So He must love everyone. Second - and this is not complimentary to us - when prophets went to the original people of God, they had a hard time, suffered much. But the pagan Nineveh welcomes Jonah readily. The Jews knew this: In the late 4th century Midrash, Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael (tr. Jacob Lauterbach, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, I. p. 7) we read words imagined as said by Jonah: "Since the Gentiles are more inclined to repent, I might be causing Israel to be condemned [by going to Nineveh]."

In Jonah 4:11 God says there are more than 120, 000 people who do not know their right hand from their left. If one takes the expression to mean babies, it would imply a huge populace. But it could merely mean they did not know the basics of religion. Jonah 3:6 speaks of the king of Nineveh - not the usual Assyrian expression. He was called king of Ashur. But Jonah might not have used the Assyrian way of speaking. However, we do not know of a king living in Nineveh at the time supposed in the story. Nineveh became the capital under Sennacherib (704-681).

It may be objected that Jesus Himself referred to Jonah, and said He was greater than Jonah. But to refer to a well-known story does not amount to asserting the story happened. We could quote Alice in Wonderland to illustrate things, and not think that tale was historical. Actually, this literary use occurs elsewhere in the New Testament, e.g., in 1 Cor 10:4 and Jude 9.

Apocalyptic: Besides the narrative parts of the book of Daniel, there are parts in the apocalyptic genre. This genre first appeared in full-blown form about 2 centuries before Christ, had a run of three or four centuries. In it the author describes visions and revelations - not usually clear if he means to assert he had them, or is just using the account as a way of making his points. There are highly colored, bizarre images, secret messages. The original readers knew better than to take these things as if they were sober accounts. (Sadly, some today have taken some of the apocalyptic images about streams of fire etc. as proof there were ancient astronauts who overawed the simple people of the Hebrews. That was foolish, for we must recognize the genre). For a very strong example of apocalyptic, please read Daniel chapter 7.

Touches of Apocalyptic: Now it happens at times that a writer will use some touches of apocalyptic in a work that is on the whole of a different genre. Thus Isaiah 13:10 includes some definitely apocalyptic language in speaking of the fall of Babylon: "For the stars of the sky and their constellations will not show their light, the sun will be dark when it rises, and the moon will not give its light." In foretelling the judgment on Edom, Isaiah 34:4 said: "All the stars will be dissolved, the sky will roll up like a scroll and all the host of the skies will fall, like withering leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from their tree." Ezekiel 32:7-8 uses much the same language to prophesy the judgment on Egypt: "When I blot you out, I will cover the skies and will darken their stars. I will cover the sun in a cloud and the moon will not give its light." We cannot help thinking of the language of Matthew 24:4. So we gather that while God surely could make such signs happen at the face value of the text, yet we cannot be sure that He intends to do it: the language of Isaiah and Ezekiel shows such expressions can be merely apocalyptic.

The "rapture": This brings us to the question of "the rapture". St. Paul in First Thessalonians 4. 13-17 is answering the concern of the people there: Would it not be too bad if we should die before the return of Christ - then the others would get to see Him before we would. Paul replies that it will be as follows: Christ will descend from the sky with a blast of a trumpet. Then the dead in Christ will rise, and after that, "we the living" will be taken to meet Christ in the air. Many fundamentalists say that this event must be different from the last judgment scene which we find in Matthew 25:21-46 in which Christ the Judge is seated on the earth, and has before Him the sheep and the goats. The fundamentalists say: the scene in First Thessalonians takes place in the air - the scene of the last judgment takes place on the earth. So there must be two separate events. So there is a separate rapture, when Christ will suddenly snatch out all good people from this world, leaving only the evil. The good will then reign with Him for 1000 years before the end.

The trouble is that they have neglected the genre, as usual. Both passages are clearly using some apocalyptic language. For in the judgment, all persons of all ages of the world must stand before Christ. The whole globe would not give standing room for that. So it must mean some sort of spiritual revelation of the just judgments of God at the final resurrection. In apocalyptic, we do not make close comparisons, for the whole is loose.

So the bumper sticker is wrong, which said: "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned," and will crash into others. But no problem, only the bad people are left!

Just incidentally, many who are not fundamentalist err in thinking that the words "we the living", which come twice, show that Paul must have expected to be alive at the end. So they reject his authorship of Second Thessalonians, in which he very clearly shows he does not expect that. They do that contrary to all the ancient witnesses who say both are by Paul. They reject his authorship for the sake of an expression which is at most, ambiguous. Really, many teachers will often say I or we to make something vivid, without intending to give any information about themselves at all.

Wisdom literature: This genre is one the Hebrews had in common with other ancient near Eastern peoples. With most peoples it is basically a group of worldly wise counsels, especially for the young, on how to get along in this life. Egypt was specially famed for it, and the Jews may well have gotten ideas in their long stay there. The Egyptian Wisdom of Amenemopet has many parallels to the Old Testament. For example, Proverbs 22:17-18 says: "Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply you mind to my knowledge; for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips." Amenemopet says: "Give thy ears. Hear what is said, give thy heart to understand them. To put them in thy heart is worthwhile (from ANET 421). Many texts of Proverbs and Amenemopet are given in parallel columns in J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, 2d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, 1974, pp. 124-25.).

We must keep in mind in reading the wisdom literature that only some things are meant as religious principles. Clement of Alexandria, head of the catechetical school at Alexandria in late 2nd century, tried to set up a counter attraction to the snob appeal of Gnosticism. So in books II and III of his Paidagogos, he tried for a deeper knowledge of the rules of morality, and gave very detailed rules for how a Christian should do everything: eat, drink, sleep, dress, use sex, and so on. He sometimes supports his injunctions from Scripture. He quotes Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 32:3 & 7, without understanding the genre: In Paidagogos 2. 7. 58: "I believe that one should limit his speech [at a banquet]. The limit should be just to reply to questions, even when we can speak. In a woman, silence is a virtue, an adornment free of danger in the young. Only for honored old age is speech good: 'Speak, old man, at a banquet, for it is proper for you... Speak [young man], if there is need of you, do it scarcely when asked twice."

Variant Traditions: There is another kind of seeming error that we can solve by the use of genre and determining what is asserted.

In Exodus 14:21-25 we find: "Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right and on their left."

We notice two different explanations: 1) a wind sent by God dried up the sea, 2) the water was like a wall on both sides of them. Clearly these two pictures do not fit. A sea dried up by the wind would be just shallow water - and after the drying, there would be no wall of water on left and right.

But we ask: What did the inspired writer really mean to assert? Let us picture him sitting down to write. He has on hand two sources - written or oral - and they do not fit. He has no means of knowing which is the right one. He decides: "I will let the reader see both." But that means he does not assert both. That cannot be done. What he does assert it this: I found two accounts, and do not know which is it. Here they are.

Another similar case concerns how David came to meet and know King Saul. In Chapter 16 of First Samuel, Saul is upset. He asks his servants to find a man skilled at playing a harp to soothe him. They bring David (16:18) "son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skilled in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech. "So David enters his service, and becomes armor- bearer to Saul. Saul sends word to David's father saying he wants David to stay in his service.

But in chapter 17 the picture is very different. David is feeding his father's sheep. One day his father sent him to bring food to his brothers who were in the army of Saul. David hears of the giant Goliath, and the great reward the king offers to one who will kill Goliath. So David goes to Saul, boasts of having killed lions and bears, offers to fight Goliath. Saul gives David armor, but David is not used to wearing armor, and discards it. So he gets some stones from the brook and a sling, and kills Goliath.

In chapter 16 (verse 18), David is called a mighty fighter, a gibbor. But in chapter 17, after David has killed Goliath, Saul asks his captain Abner who that is. Abner says he does not know (though in chapter 16 David has previously been in the service of Saul). Abner takes David to Saul, holding the head of Goliath. Saul asks who he is.

Clearly, the two accounts do not fit together. But we ask again: What did the inspired writer mean to assert? He meant to assert only: I found these two, and do not know which is right. But you can see both of them. He asserts no more than that.

Poetic Genre: In any culture, poetry is apt to use fanciful images and exaggerations. Scriptural poetry does the same. But if one does not recognize that a passage is poetic, mistakes can result.

St. Justin Martyr, in Second Apology 5, shows he believes angels have bodies. We do not blame lack of knowledge of genre for this: there was much hesitation in the patristic age on angels. But in Dialogue with Trypho 57 he says that angels have food in heaven since, "Scripture says that they [the Hebrews in the desert] ate angels' food." Justin does not understand Psalm 78:24 which speaks of bread from heaven, referring to the manna in the desert.

Isaiah 40:2 says Israel has received double for all her sins. Now of course God would not punish twice as much as what was due: We need to recognize Isaiah is a lofty poet, and/or take this as Semitic exaggeration.

Psalm 124. 3 has God saying: "All of them have turned, together they have gone astray. There is no one doing good, not one". One might imagine this could apply only to people of the time of composition, but St. Paul in Romans 3.10 cites it as meaning everyone. Again, we need to recall this is poetry. Paul had a different reason for citing it. He was out to prove that if one tries for justification by keeping the law, all are hopeless. To understand this, we need to know St. Paul at times uses a sort of focused view in which as it were he would say: The Law makes heavy demands, but gives no strength. To be under heavy demands without strength of course means a fall. In the focused view (a metaphor, as if one we were looking through a tube, and could see only what is framed by the circle of the tube) one does not see the whole horizon. Off to the side, in no relation to the law, divine help was available even before Christ. If one uses it, then the result is quite different. (More on focusing later on).

Isaiah 64:5 said: "All the deeds we do for justification are like filthy rags." Some, not seeing the poetic nature of the passage, thought all our good deeds are sinful. It is true, there is imperfection in most good things we do. Yet not everything is a mortal sin. St. Paul says in Philippians 3:6 that before his conversion he kept the law perfectly. Luke 1:6 says the parents of John the Baptist were keeping all the commandments without blame. 2 Timothy 4:6-8 looks forward to a merited crown from the Just Judge.