Genesis 1-11: Fact or fiction?
Doublespeak is saying one thing and meaning another, usually its opposite. In 1984 when Big Brother and the Party say “peace” they mean “war”, when they say “love” they mean “hate”, and when they say “freedom” they mean “slavery”. And today “tolerance” can mean “intolerance”. Doublespeak deliberately obscures, distorts, disguises, or reverses the meaning of words to manipulate public opinion. It’s used in advertising and politics. Is the beginning of the Bible a type of doublespeak where words don’t have their usual meaning?
The Bible is a library of 66 books that were written over a period of more than 1,500 years by many different authors. It was written to be understood by ordinary people, so it shouldn’t be difficult to interpret. Fathers were to teach it to their children (Dt. 6:4-9; Eph. 6:4). Timothy knew it from infancy (2 Tim 3:15). And the Bereans were commended for checking Paul’s teaching against the Old Testament (Acts 17:11).
The original aim of this post was to examine the literary genre of Genesis 1-11. But then I realized that such studies are often a means to say that this portion of the Bible doesn’t mean what it seems to say. But there is no direct correspondence between genre and whether the content is fact or fiction. For example, God’s spectacular victory over the Egyptian army is described in prose (Ex. 14:23-31) and then in song (Ex. 15:1-12, 21). In this case, prose and poetry are both based on historical fact. Likewise, Christian hymns and songs are often based on Scripture. In this case poetry is based on the facts in Scripture. So, although poetry and prose are different genres (styles), the genre doesn’t indicate whether their content is factual or not. Poetry can be factual, and prose can be figurative. Nevertheless, I will look at the genre first.
Just as there are different types of painting (landscape, still life, and portrait), there are different types of literary works. Literature can be divided into poetry, drama, and prose. And prose can be fiction or non-fiction. The Bible is comprised of several types of literature.
Accurate exegesis and interpretation (understanding) takes into consideration the purpose and style of a given book or passage of Scripture. In addition, some verses are meant figuratively, and proper discernment of these is enhanced by an understanding of literary genre (category, type or classification). An inability to identify literary genre can lead to serious misunderstanding of Scripture. The main literary genres found in the Bible are: law, history, wisdom, poetry, narrative, prophecy and apocalypse, and letters (see Appendix A).
Genesis is the first book in the Bible. As it describes the background to the rest of the Bible, it’s the foundational book of the bible. Some claim that the early chapters of Genesis are more poetic and theological than factual by suggesting it’s an epic myth, exalted prose, semi-poetic, or a defence of monotheism. In this post, we will evaluate this claim.
The purpose of Genesis
The book of Genesis is summarized in Appendix B. The Bible says that this book was produced by Moses (Lk. 24:27, 44). As the events recorded in Genesis occurred before his lifetime, presumably he compiled and edited its content. He did this during the Israelites journey to the Promised Land. So, the book was written for the Israelites and the context is the exodus. The content of Genesis indicates the information they needed to know and the questions that they were asking. These included:
Why are we (Israel) traveling to the promised land?
Why were we (Israel) living in Egypt?
Why do we (Israel) have 12 tribes?
Why do we (Israel) practice male circumcision?
What was our (Israel’s) special relationship with God?
Who were our (Israel’s) ancestors and where did they live?
The history of our nation (Israel).
The origin of our nation (Israel).
The promises given to Abraham.
Where did the patriarchs come from?
The origin of nations and languages.
God protects the godly and judges the ungodly.
Why is humanity now in an alienated relationship with God?
The prevalence of evil.
The origin of evil.
The origin of marriage.
The origin of humanity.
The origin of animal and plant life.
The origin of the earth.
The origin of the universe.
God’s immense power.
Moses was selective in the material that he used. He “spoke from God as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). Moses documented enough information to answer their main questions without going into detail. So, Genesis describes the main features of the past, in order to help the Israelites understand their present circumstances.
Looking at the main genres found in the Bible (see Appendix A), it’s clear that the one most suitable for addressing these topics is “history”. To investigate whether Moses used this genre, we will look at the literary genre of Genesis 1-11 in particular.
Is it figurative language?
Figurative language is language that uses words or expressions with a meaning that is different from the most literal interpretation. Figurative language uses exaggerations or alterations to make a linguistic point. It is very common in poetry, but is also used in prose and nonfiction writing.
Metaphors, similes, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism are examples of figurative language. But there are many others like alliteration, onomatopoeia, oxymorons, puns, synecdoche, metonymy, irony, and idioms.
There is chiasmus in Genesis 1-11 (Gen. 2:4; 9:6; 6:1 – 9:19; 11:1-9). This is a figure of speech in which two or more phrases are presented, then presented again in reverse order to make a larger point. Chiasmus was particularly popular in the literature of the ancient world, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, where it was used to articulate the balance of order within the text. The chiastic structure makes narrative easy to remember, which is very important for a largely oral culture. Chiasmus presents facts in a particular order, but it doesn’t indicate fiction. Biblical scholars have identified many chiasms throughout the Bible. For example, Genesis 17:1-24 is a chiasmus in the life of Abraham.
Some claim that there is number symbolism in Genesis 1 (see Appendix C). But this is a weak argument for saying that this Bible passage is symbolic rather than factual. And it doesn’t change the meaning of the Hebrew words from their usual meaning. And like chiasmus, this doesn’t make the language figurative. Instead it shows that it was written to be easily remembered and passed on aurally.
In other post, I have shown that the framework hypothesis method of interpreting Genesis 1 is questionable and not robust. This assumes that the days of creation are figurative categories that were chosen for literary or thematic reasons and that many of the words in this chapter don’t mean what they seem to mean. This interpretation is unnecessarily complicated and extrabiblical.
As it’s not figurative language, maybe Genesis 1-11 is poetic?
Is it poetry?
The main characteristic of Hebrew poetry is parallelism where the statements in two or more consecutive lines are related in some way. Scholars have identified various types of Hebrew parallelism, such as: synonymous (repetition of the same thought), contrastive (contrast with an opposite thought), and developmental (building on a thought).
However, parallelism is absent from Genesis 1-11 except for 1:27; 2:23; and 4:23-24. If Genesis is poetic, it would use parallelism throughout like the book of Psalms. But Genesis doesn’t look like Psalms. For a poetic account of creation see Psalm 104.
Some claim that the number symbolism in Genesis 1 means that it is poetic (Appendix C). They infer this from a comparison with ancient non-biblical accounts. But this is poor exegesis. The best exegesis uses the immediate context and so should be based on Genesis and the other books of Moses. We will use this approach. And we will use the views of other biblical characters, rather than the views of current scholars who are separated from these events by thousands of years. This shows that the people referred to in Genesis really existed and the events referred to in Genesis really occurred.
There is repetition in Genesis 1-11 (see Appendix D), but it’s not parallelism or poetic. There are many other examples of this in the Old Testament (see Appendix E).
Just because a passage is poetic doesn’t mean that it’s fiction. Poetry is merely a literary form. On its own, it has nothing to do with whether the content is fact or fiction. It may or may not reflect a historical background. Many poetic portions of scripture relate to genuine history (Num. 24; Ps. 148; 1 Tim. 3:16b). And these are acknowledged as being divine in origin and authoritative in force (Ps. 82:6; Jn. 10:34).
As it’s not figurative language or poetry, maybe it’s parables?
Is it allegories or parables?
Parables are usually introduced with a simile or a statement indicating that they are a figure of speech. As neither of these are present in Genesis 1-11, there is no evidence of any parables. The prophet Nathan told a parable to King David (2 Sam. 12:1-7). The historical facts about David, Uriah and Bathsheba are clearly stated, and it is also clear that the parable was fictional. And the intention of Nathan in telling the story is clear, as is the intention of the writer of 2 Samuel in recording this historical event. But there are no indicators in scripture that any of Genesis 1-11 is a parable.
An allegory is a story in which the characters and/or events are symbols representing other events, ideas, or people. Paul interprets the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah as an allegory for the Old and New Covenants (Gal. 4:22-26). Here, Paul takes actual, historical people from Genesis (Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah) and uses them as symbols in a lesson for Christians. He explains for the reader, “These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants” (v.24). Likewise, Paul refers to “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Here he implies similarity between two historical characters. The evidence of scripture shows that the people referred to in Genesis really existed and the events referred to in Genesis really occurred. They are not allegories.
As it’s not figurative language, poetry or parables, maybe it’s a historical novel?
Is it a historical novel?
Historical novels are fictional stories that are based on historical characters or historical settings. The beliefs of the authors of the other books of the Bible show that the characters and settings in Genesis 1-11 are fact, not fiction. The evidence of scripture shows that the people referred to in Genesis really existed and the events referred to in Genesis really occurred. They are not a historical novel.
As it’s not figurative language, poetry, parables or a historical novel, maybe it’s a myth?
Is it a myth?
A myth is a mixture of fact and fiction that may have a moral lesson. Some believe that the biblical account of the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:3) was an abbreviated Hebrew version of a more ancient Babylonian tale. The ancient Babylonian creation myth Enūma Eliš is a poem that explains the origin of gods and people. But the gods are mortal, violent and frail, and nothing like the supreme Creator God of Genesis. It’s a song in praise of Marduk, their greatest god. Genesis 1 is about the creation, while Enūma Eliš is more about the creator. Genesis 1 is a tightly structured narrative, while Enūma Eliš, is a dramatic narrative poem.
The main problem with the mythical approach is that it confuses historical issues and literary genre. If we leave aside the question of whether the miracle stories in the Bible (including creation) are fact or fiction, the whole question of whether these stories are myths becomes extremely easy to answer. The biblical narratives are not myths because they do not possess a mythical literary form. They are straightforward and use the language of ordinary events. The biblical stories take for granted the world as we tend to experience it.
Is Genesis 1 merely an argument against pagan myths? A myth is a story blending fact and fiction that serves as a vehicle to convey truth. But if this was the case how does one decide which part is fact and which part is fiction? Does it teach us not to worship the sun but the God who made the sun? Pagans don’t just worship the physical object, but a god behind it (1 Cor. 10:19-20). The Bible does contain arguments against pagan gods (Ps. 74:13-15; Isa. 37:18-20; 45:12-20). They emphasize God’s strength and the weakness of idols. But Genesis 1 is nothing like this. Instead the pagan myths are probably derived from the original account which was passed down to Moses. The early chapters of Genesis were edited from ancient sources that pre-date the pagan ones. Normally borrowing embellishes history into a fanciful legend. In the ancient Near East, simple accounts may lead to elaborate legends, but not vice-versa. So, the simple Hebrew account of creation can lead to the embellished Babylonian creation legend, but not vice-versa.
Some scholars believe that there are three creation stories in the Bible. These are Genesis 1, Genesis 2 and a myth of the primordial battle between God and the forces of chaos known as Leviathan (Ps. 74), Rahab (Ps. 89) or the monster of the sea (Isa. 27). But this is incorrect. The introduction in Genesis 2:4 to the second section of Genesis states that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is an account of the creation of the universe. Recapitulation was widely practiced in ancient Semitic literature. It this case a broad summary is followed by a detailed account of matters of special importance. Genesis 2:5-25 is a more detailed account of the creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation (Gen. 1:26-30). So the difference in styles between Genesis 1 and 2 is due to the different subject matter. Leviathan, Rahab and the monster of the sea are symbols of the power of Egypt (Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10; Isa. 27:1). Such scholars interpret this figurative language to be narrative, while they interpret the narrative in early Genesis to be figurative! This demonstrates how presuppositions can influence one’s interpretation of Scripture!
The Bible specifically warns Christians against believing myths. The Apostle Paul says: “As I urged you … stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths … ’ (1 Tim. 1:3–4NIV).
“Have nothing to do with godless myths …” (1 Tim. 4:7).
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of (false) teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4).
“Therefore rebuke them (false teachers) sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth” (Titus 1:13-14).
The Apostle Peter says: “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power” (2 Pt. 1:16).
As it’s not figurative language, poetry, parables, a historical novel or a myth, maybe it’s a biography or autobiography?
Is it a biography or autobiography?
Genesis can be divided into sections which begin with the Hebrew word for generations or descendants (see Appendix F). It’s interesting to note the same pattern is evident in Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-36. So there is no evidence of a change of genre within the book of Genesis.
The Bible says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Ex. 17:14; 4;4; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Dt. 31:9, 24; Mk. 10:3; Lk. 24:27; Jn. 1:17). And Jesus referred to it as “the law of Moses” (Lk. 24:44; 1 Cor. 9:9), “the book of Moses (Mk. 12:26), and simply “Moses” (Lk.16:29).
It is likely that each of the generations from Adam onwards wrote down an account of the events which occurred in their lifetime, and Moses, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, selected and compiled these, along with his own comments, into the book we now know as Genesis. So Moses was the editor of Genesis. The events of Genesis occurred long before his time. The original version of Genesis 10 (which shows where people were scattered to after the incident at Babel) was written before 1870BC because it mentions the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah which were destroyed by God about 360 years before the birth of Moses (Gen. 10:19). Moses included editorial comments (Gen. 26:33; 32:32). And a description of the Jordan valley in Abraham’s time as being “like the land of Egypt”, seems to be an editorial comment by Moses (Gen. 13:10).
So Genesis 1-11 is mainly a biography and an autobiography. If it’s a biography or autobiography, can its facts be confirmed?
Comparison with Genesis 12-50
Genesis 12-50 is a historical description of the lives of four generations of Israelites: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Often, the book of Genesis has been divided into two sections: Primeval History (chs. 1-11) and Patriarchal History (chs. 12-50). But where is the boundary between these two sections? At Genesis 11:27? But the text of Genesis 11 has a similar structure to that of Genesis 12! In fact, there are no significant differences in the structure of the text in Genesis 1-11 compared to Genesis 12-50. As “patriarchal history” is generally regarded as accurate history, then there is no linguistic reason why “primeval history” should not also be accepted as accurate history. And some passages of the Bible cite characters from both sections without indicating that the earlier ones are less historical. It would be better to say that the difference is one of subject matter. Genesis 1-11 deals with the world, whereas Genesis 12-50 deals with the descendants of Abraham.
Genesis 12 would make little sense without the genealogical background in Genesis 11. As Genesis 11 includes the genealogy of Shem, this links to the genealogy in Genesis 10, and to the one found in Genesis 5. Shem is mentioned in each of these three chapters of Genesis.
Genealogies treat people from Genesis 1-11 in the same manner as those from Genesis 12-50 (1 Chr. 1-8; Lk. 3:23-38). The same applies to the list of heroes of the faith from the Old Testament (Heb. 11:4-22).
Evidence from the rest of the Bible
The principal people mentioned in Genesis chapters 1–11 are referred to as real people (historical, not mythical) in the rest of the Bible. For example, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, and Noah are referred to in 15 other books of the Bible. And I have demonstrated in other blogposts that Adam and Eve, and Noah were real people.
At least 25 New Testament passages refer directly to the early chapters of Genesis, and they are always treated as real history. Genesis 1 and 2 were cited by Jesus in response to a question about divorce (Mt. 19:4-6; Mk. 10:6-9). Paul referenced Genesis 2-3 (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 11:8; 15:20-22, 45-47; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-14). The death of Abel recorded in Genesis 4 is mentioned by Jesus and John (Lk. 11:51; 1 Jn. 3:12). The flood (Genesis 6-9) is confirmed as historical by Jesus and Peter (Mt. 24:37-39; 2 Pt. 2:4-9; 3:6). And Jesus mentioned the flood in the same context as He did the account of Lot and Sodom (Gen. 19) (Lk. 17:26-29). Finally, in Luke’s genealogy of Christ, he includes 20 names found in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 (Lk. 3:34-38). He traced the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam (Lk. 3:23-38). So the New Testament treats Genesis 1-11 as real history and not merely literary or theological devices. It’s a record of “actual events” in the history of humanity
Jesus Christ referred to the creation of Adam and Eve as a real historical event, by quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in His teaching about divorce (Mt. 19:3-6; Mk. 10:2-9), and by referring to Noah as a real historical person and the flood as a real historical event, in His teaching about the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (Mt. 24:37-39; Lk. 17:26-27).
Humanity needs to be redeemed because of the fall into sin (Genesis 3). Unless we know that the entrance of sin to the human race was a true historical fact, we can’t understand God’s purpose in providing a Savior. And the historical truth of Genesis 1–11 shows that all mankind needs salvation from the penalty, power, and presence of sin.
Unless the events of the first chapters of Genesis are true history, the Apostle Paul’s explanation of the Gospel in Romans chapter 5 and of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 have no meaning. Paul writes: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man (Adam) the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man (Jesus) the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). And, “For since death came through a man (Adam), the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man (Jesus). For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive … So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam (Jesus), a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45). The historical truth of the record concerning the first Adam is a guarantee that what God says in His Word about the last Adam (Jesus) is also true. Likewise, the historical, literal truth of the record concerning Jesus is a guarantee that what God says about the first Adam is also historically and literally true.
So Genesis 1-11 presents as a biography or autobiography whose facts are confirmed by the rest of scripture as being historically accurate. These inspired writers treat the people, and events in Genesis 1-11 as real, not merely literary or theological devices.
The Bible was written to be understood by ordinary people, so it shouldn’t be difficult to interpret. We have seen that Genesis 1-11 is not figurative language, poetry, parables, a historical novel or a myth. But it is a biography and an autobiography that describes real historical people and real historical events. It is prose narrative, with some embedded pieces that are poetic (Gen. 1:27; 2:23; 4:23-24) and some genealogical records (Gen 5, 10, 11:10–26). And it differs from other near eastern cosmologies because they are poetic and polytheistic. The writers of the Bible affirm that Genesis 1-11 is fact not fiction. It is an account of real events. Jesus affirmed it as well. And the gospel is based on the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis. So, Genesis 1-11 isn’t a type of doublespeak where words don’t have their usual meaning.
Sarfati J D (2015) “The Genesis Account”, Creation Book Publishers.
Appendix A: Traditional genre (literature style) of the books of the Bible
The dominant genre of each book of the Bible is listed below. Note that figures of speech can occur within each of these genres.
Joshua to Nehemiah
Wisdom (also contains poetry)
Song of Songs
Matthew to John
Prophecy and apocalypse
Ezekiel to Malachi
Romans to Jude
Appendix B: Summary of the book of Genesis
- Creation (Gen. 1-2).
- The fall into sin (Gen. 3-5).
- The flood (Gen. 6-9).
- The dispersion (Gen. 10-11).
- Life of Abraham (Gen. 12-25:8).
- Life of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-35-29).
- Life of Jacob (Gen. 25:21-50:14).
- Life of Joseph (Gen. 30:22-50:26).
God created a universe that was good and free from sin. God created humanity to have a personal relationship with Him. Adam and Eve sinned and thereby brought evil and death into the world. Evil increased steadily in the world until there was only one family in which God found anything good. God sent the Flood to wipe out evil, but delivered Noah and his family along with the animals in the Ark. After the Flood, humanity began again to multiply and spread throughout the world.
God chose Abraham, through whom He would create a chosen people and eventually the promised Messiah. The chosen line was passed on to Abraham’s son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and his twelve sons became the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. In His sovereignty, God had Jacob’s son Joseph sent to Egypt by the despicable actions of Joseph’s brothers. This act, intended for evil by the brothers, was intended for good by God and eventually resulted in Jacob and his family being saved from a devastating famine by Joseph, who had risen to great power in Egypt.
Appendix C: Number symbolism in Genesis 1
Some people quote the following to claim that Genesis 1:1-2:3 is symbolic rather than factual.
- The first sentence of Genesis 1 consists of seven Hebrew words.
- The second sentence of Genesis 1 contains exactly fourteen (a multiple of seven) words.
- The Hebrew words ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ appear 21 times (a multiple of seven). But this is incorrect, “heaven(s)” (Strongs #8064) appears only 11 times (which isn’t a multiple of seven) and “expanse” (Strongs #7549) appears 9 times (which isn’t a multiple of seven). According to Genesis 1:8 “God called the expanse Heaven (or sky)”. This is a total of 20 times (which isn’t a multiple of seven).
- The Hebrew word ‘God’, is mentioned 35 times (a multiple of seven).
- The Hebrew refrain ‘and it was so’ and the summary statement ‘God saw that it was good’ occur seven times. But this is incorrect, “and it was so” only appears six times (v. 7, 9, 11, 15, 24, 30; which isn’t a multiple of seven)!
- The six days of creation and the day of rest comprise seven days.
But they don’t mention that the Hebrew word “day” appears 15 times. And “water” appears 12 times. And “God said” appears ten times. And “evening” and “morning” both appear six times. None of these are multiples of seven!
So this is a weak argument for saying that this Bible passage is symbolic rather than factual. I expect better scholarship to justify such a claim. Instead, it looks like cherry-picking to me.
Appendix D: The structure of Genesis 1
Genesis 1 has a repetitive structure, which was a common device in ancient literature to aid memorization. But it is not poetic. There are four basic themes on each day of creation.
1. God’s command
“And God said, ‘Let there be …”
“And it was so …”. God spoke things into existence. As God is the creator of time, He needs no time for His creative acts.
“God saw that it was good”.
4. Conclusion/Closure of the day
“And there was evening and there was morning – the Xth day”. As the Hebrew day went from sunset to sunset, it was made up of the night-time hours followed by the daylight hours. Each command was fulfilled within a 24-hour period (see “In six days”).
Why did God take so long to create the universe? He took six days of creation plus one day rest to give us the pattern for a week.
Appendix E: Other Biblical examples of repetitive structure
Repetition is present in many Old Testament passages.
Numbers 7 is also a numbered sequence of days. On 12 consecutive days a representative of each of the 12 tribes of Israel brought an offering for the altar.
“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah” (v.12)
“On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, brought his offering” (v.18).
“On the third day, Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the people of Zebulun, brought his offering” (v.24).
“On the twelfth day Ahira son of Enan, the leader of the people of Naphtali, brought his offering” (v.78).
No one teaches that Numbers 7 is a literary framework for teaching something theological and that is not history. The same should apply to Genesis 1.
Genealogies are repetitive. 1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44 gives genealogies from Adam to King Saul. As these are accepted as being factual, so should those in Genesis 5 and 11 (they overlap).
Nehemiah 3 describes the rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in a repetitive manner. It progressively moves around the wall mentioned each section between each of the ten gates and describing who repaired each section.
Appendix F: Possible sources of the book of Genesis
The sources of Genesis are 12 family documents (see below). Eleven of these are headed by the Hebrew word toledoth (Strongs #8435), which means generations or descendants. The fact that these are referring to what follows rather than what precedes is clear in other instances of this word in the Old Testament (Num. 3:1; Ruth 4:18; 1 Chr. 1:29). So, in Genesis, the toledoths tell us what followed from the named person.
It’s possible that each of these documents was written on a clay tablet. During the exodus Moses probably compiled all these tablets into a long scroll. He may have used vellum to write on as the Israelites had many sheep.
- Creation of the universe (Gen. 1:1 – 2:3). There is no toledoth here, because nothing (in time) preceded creation. Time began at the beginning of this creation.
- “Descendants” of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:4-4:26). This is what followed from creation.
- Descendants of Adam (Gen. 5:1-6:8).
- Descendants of Noah (Gen. 6:9-9:29).
- Descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen. 10:1-11:9).
- Descendants of Shem (Gen. 11:10-26).
- Descendants of Terah (Gen. 11:27-25:11).
- Descendants of Ishmael (Gen. 25:12-18).
- Descendants of Isaac (Gen. 25:19-35:29).
- Descendants of Esau, born in Canaan (Gen. 36:1-8).
- Descendants of Esau, born in Edom (Gen. 36:9-37:1).
- Descendants of Jacob (Gen. 37:2-50:26).
Written, June 2018
Also see: In six days?
Genesis 1: Fact or fiction?
Adam and Eve: Fact or fiction?
Noah: Fact or fiction?
The chicken or the egg?
What does “by his wounds you have been healed” mean?
All languages contain figures of speech where words have a figurative meaning instead of the literal one. The same is true for the Bible. It’s important to correctly recognize figurative language so we don’t treat figurative language as though it were literal, or treat literal language as though it were figurative.
The passage “by his wounds you have been healed” is mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. What does it mean? From the context, “his wounds” refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Does it mean that through Christ’s death we can be miraculously healed from illness or injury? Or does it mean something else?
This passage is also alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:39NIV: “There is no god besides me. I (God) put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand”.
This verse is a part of the song of Moses which deals with the punishment of the nations which God used to punish Israel. Here God is shown to be sovereign over the nations. He can destroy them (“put to death”) and create them (“bring to life”). He can judge them (“wound”) and restore them (“heal”). So in this context, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech for restoring the fortunes of a nation. It has nothing to do with recovering from an illness or injury.
We will now look at Isaiah 53:5, followed by 1 Peter 2:24.
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. According to the Appendix, in 80% (4/5) of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. So what does it mean in the other verse, Isaiah 53:5? Is it figurative or literal?
Isaiah prophesied and wrote in Judea in about 700BC when there was great wickedness and idolatry amongst the Judeans. There are four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah in which the servant is the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12). The fourth song describes a servant who would experience suffering and exaltation. Isaiah 53:5 is set in the following context.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Here the servant endured: pain, suffering, punishment, striking, affliction, piercing, crushing, and wounding. This punishment was from God and in this way the servant took the punishment that “we” deserve for “our” transgressions, iniquities and sin (v.10, 12). In this context the “we” and “our” were the faithful remnant of Judah (Isa. 10:20-23; 11:11; 37:31-32; 46:3). The result is that they experience peace and healing and justification (v.11). Their problem was that they “had gone astray” (v.6). They had sinned and transgressed the law of Moses. There is no mention of illness or injury. So in this verse “healed” means forgiveness of their sins and transgressions, not physical healing. According to the NET version, “Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here”. It’s a spiritual healing, not a physical one. Brown-Driver-Briggs says that its figurative and addressing a nation or city like Babylon (Jer. 17:14). This means that the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech in 83% (5/6) of the verses where it is mentioned in the book of Isaiah.
In 1 Peter
The Greek word iaomai (Strongs #2390), which is translated “to heal”, is only mentioned once in the books written by Peter (1 Pt. 2:24). Most of the other instances of this word in the New Testament refer to physical healing. The exceptions are:
Acts 28:27, which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:10 in which the phrase “I (God) would heal them” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival (see Appendix).
Hebrews 12:13 “’Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”. The context of this verse is enduring hardship as God’s discipline (v.3-13). They are encouraged to persevere instead of giving up. The desired outcome is to “share in His (God’s) holiness” (v.10). This is a spiritual solution, not a physical one. So it was a spiritual problem, not a physical one. The “lame” is a weak believer (who had maybe drifted away, Heb. 2:1) and to be “healed” is to be built up, strengthened and restored (instead of stumbled). The NLT says “Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong”. So the words “lame”, “disabled” and “healed” are being used metaphorically in this verse.
So what does “heal” mean in 1 Peter 2:24. This verse is set in the following context:
23 When they hurled their insults at Him [Jesus], He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him [God the Father] who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
After dealing with submission to authorities, Paul gives the example of Christ’s submission when He suffered for our sins. Then he quotes from Isaiah 53:4-6 to encourage believers to live godly lives: “so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (v. 24, NLT). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” means to be forgiven and saved, not to be physically healed. According to Thayers’ Greek Lexion “by His wounds you have been healed” means “to bring about (one’s) salvation”. It’s a way of saying that Christ’s death brings salvation to those who trust in Him. So, it’s spiritual healing. This is consistent with the finding that Isaiah 53:5 is also addressing spiritual healing, which should be the case as that is the source of the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24.
This study has illustrated how to use the surrounding context to distinguish figurative language from literal language in the Bible. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Look at the message in the verses before and in the verses after. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
If a verse is quoted and explained without looking at the surrounding context, there is a danger of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) instead of exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
In our everyday language the meaning of the words we use is mainly given by the surrounding context. The same rule applies when interpreting Scripture. It’s not good practice to select verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”) to derive the meaning of a particular verse. Who decides which selection is best? But once the meaning has been explained, it’s OK to look for other passages of Scripture that are consistent with the meaning.
If this passage from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 is not relevant to illness and injury, then what is a proper Biblical response to such circumstances? Paul prayed about his health problems, but when it was clear that that weren’t going to be taken away, he knew that God doesn’t promise to remove our ailments and problems (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead God can give us the strength to live with our ailments and problems, because human weakness enables the display of divine power. Like a parent trains their children, God uses suffering for our spiritual development (Heb. 12:4-13). It’s how our self-reliance, pride, and earthly wisdom can be replaced with godliness and a stronger faith. James taught that the purpose of such trials is to develop our endurance, patience and perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3). Because our problems can develop our Christian character, we should accept them joyfully instead of getting angry, complaining, giving up, having self-pity, or believing that God will take them away. That can be a challenge for us!
We have seen that the passage “by his wounds you have been healed” mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 doesn’t mean that through Christ’s death we will be miraculously healed from illness or injury. Instead it means that through Christ’s death our sins can be forgiven and we can be spiritually healed and revived. However, physical healing is promised in future when believers will be resurrected to experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev.21:1-4, 22:1-3).
Paul’s response to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9), parental training of their children (Heb. 12:4-13), and James’ advice on trials (Jas. 1:2-3) are good examples on how to react to illness or injury.
Appendix: Usage of the word “heal” in Isaiah
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. We now look briefly at the meaning of this word in five of these verses.
Isa. 6:10b: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This verse is in a passage describing the results of Isaiah’s ministry to Judah. The people would be unresponsive (like being deaf and blind) and turn even further from God. It’s opposite to people turning back to God (being repentant). And opposite to a spiritual revival. And opposite to spiritual healing. So the phrase “be healed” is used in this verse as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival.
Isa. 19:22: “The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them”. Here the Egyptians are able to pray for deliverance from the plague like the Israelites (1 Ki. 8:35-40). In this verse, the word “heal” is used for physical healing from the plague, which is a disease.
Isa. 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted”. This chapter describes Israel relying on political alliances instead of on God, which results in suffering and sorrow. The suffering and sorrow are referred to metaphorically as “bruises” and “wounds”. But they are promised blessing if they repent. The end of their suffering and sorrow is likened to a metaphorical healing. So the word “heals” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival when the Israelites repent to obey God once again.
Isa. 57:18-19: “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them”. These verses are in a passage where God promises to restore the Israelites who turn away from idolatry. The meaning of the word “heal” is given as to “guide”, to “restore comfort to Israel’s mourners” and to bring “peace”. There is no mention of illness or injury. So the word “heal” is used here as a figure of speech for forgiveness and restoration.
So in 80% (4/5 of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. The other verse that we haven’t considered here is: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed“ (Isa. 53:5). The meaning of “healed” in this verse is discussed above under the heading “In Isaiah”.
Written, February 2017
Also see: Goes God heal all our sicknesses? Part 1
Does God heal all our sicknesses? Part 2
Understanding the Bible