by Steve Shermett


When the editor suggested that our president supply a pastoral article, he replied, "Nothing 'pastoral' has come to mind. Only the desire to equip!" So we'll just have to "settle" for being equipped. Here goes; but first a definition:

Hermeneutics. The art or science of interpretation, esp. applied to the Scriptures. (Webster)


Just Plain Sense

The Basic Rule of Interpretation
When the plain sense makes sense, look for no other sense. This is the basic rule of life for understanding pretty much anything written, including the Bible. If, for example, my wife writes me a note and asks me to pick up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk from the store, I know exactly what she means. Everyone would agree that for me to reinterpret my wife's note would be stupid. "Perhaps by bread she meant some sort of sustaining food--so I'll bring home steak. And since Israel was a land flowing with milk and honey she must mean by 'milk' 'bountiful fruits of the land.' So I'll bring home some fruit." Now, If I come home with steak and fruit, my wife will be happy, right? Yeah, right.

Interpreting the Bible
So, why is it that people don't follow this common sense rule with the Bible? Genesis chapters 1 & 2 clearly and plainly teach that God created everything in six literal days. To reinterpret this would be the same as reinterpreting the grocery list. If we shouldn't take Genesis 1 and 2 as written, why take the Ten Commandments as written? Shouldn't we feel free to "reinterpret" them too?

Just to clarify. The basic rule of life for interpreting pretty much anything written is to take it at face value: When the plain sense makes sense, look for no other sense. That's exactly what everyone does on a day-to-day basis with other literature and that's what should be done with the Bible.

Literary Devices
Having said this, there are, of course, instances when authors or speakers use literary devices to communicate more clearly. For example, we might exaggerate to make a point. "I've told you a million times to close that door." We know that "million" is an exaggeration. This exaggeration doesn't confuse the main point, or invalidate it, but rather, it clarifies it. This literary device using exaggeration is known as hyperbole.

Literary Devices in the Bible
There are several literary devices used in the Bible. When properly understood, these expressions help clarify the author's intent in a given context. Some of the most common literary devices used in the Bible are: simile, metaphor, allegory, parable, proverb.

A simile is easily identified because it invariably uses the key words "like" or "as." For instance, in Ps. 78:65 we read, "Then the Lord awoke as from sleep, as a man wakes from the stupor of wine." This isn't saying that God slept or that He was drunk. It is simply comparing God's action to something else entirely. His stirring was "like" the stirring of another.

A metaphor is similar to a simile. A metaphor however doesn't warn us with key words that it is a metaphor. It is understood by using common sense. An example is found in Deut. 32:4, where God is called a "rock." Of course, we all know that God isn't a lump of minerals sitting on the ground. By our common sense we know that a metaphor is being used about God. Walter Henrichsen gives us a good rule of thumb to help us know when a metaphor, or other similar literary device, is being used. He writes, "When an expression is out of character with the thing described, the statement may be considered figurative."

As for an allegory, it is simply an extended metaphor. A perfect example would be found in Galatians 4:21-31. Here several Old Testament people and locations are given entirely new meanings to help Paul clarify a point about the Law of Moses. Since Hagar was a "bondmaid," and Sarah was free, He "allegorizes" their story. He uses Hagar as a representative of slavery to the law of Moses and Sarah as a representative of the freedom found in Messiah. Again we see that a literary device is used to "clarify" a point. The KJV actually calls this section of scripture an "allegory."

Even as an allegory is an extended metaphor, it can also be said that a parable is an extended simile. Yeshua in fact, quite often spoke in parables . He would say for example, "The Kingdom of heaven is like a ______." If he simply plugged in a word we might be dealing with a simile. But Yeshua would go on, and tell a story or give some additional details. The presence of these details is what really makes the difference between a parable and a simile. Furthermore a parable is intended to make a moral or spiritual point, as the following demonstrates. Here Yeshua wants to communicate with his listeners that heaven is of ultimate value and pursuing it is the greatest of all pursuits. To make this point he uses a parable:

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field," Matthew 13:44.

Now we move on to proverbs. Proverbs are pithy bits of wisdom that usually address general behavior and it's consequences. In the Book of Proverbs each chapter is actually a compendium of smaller proverbs. For example, Proverb 3:30 states; "Strive not with a man without cause, if he have done thee no harm."

This one verse is, in and of itself, a proverb. It stands alone as a good piece of advice. In the Bible when a bunch of proverbs are grouped together we have, "the Book of Proverbs." Each "chapter" however is actually a compilation of smaller proverbs. Within proverbs, all of the literary devices are fair game. For example in the very first Proverb in verses 8-9 a metaphor is used about the instruction of a father. It is compared with ornamentation or jewelry.

Proverbs 1:8. Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and do not forsake your mother's teaching; 9. Indeed, they are a graceful wreath to your head, and ornaments about your neck. (NAS)

Another example is found in verse 12 of this same proverb; we see a perfect example of a simile: Proverbs 1:12: "Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, even whole, as those who go down to the pit;" (NAS).

Notice that unlike the metaphor above, here the key words "like" and "as" are used to help us know that we are dealing with a simile.

The Purpose of Literary Devices
Now we've seen examples of various literary devices and noted that each is identifiable and has standard characteristics. There are, of course, other more complex literary devices, used in literature as well as in the Scriptures. Suffice it to say however that literary devices are almost universally used to "communicate" and not to "obfuscate."

Knowing this, we can again turn our attention to Genesis chapters 1 & 2, where we see no discernible literary device being used. This being the case, we must default to our basic rule: When the plain sense makes sense, look for no other sense. Genesis plainly states that God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them in six literal days. We cannot accept the argument that Genesis doesn't really mean exactly that. We have no literary authority to do so. There is no literary device being used, it's that simple.

Back to Genesis
It would seem then, that the only reason a Bible student would have for thinking that Genesis 1 & 2 could possibly be teaching anything other than exactly what it says, must be found outside of the Bible. Furthermore, this external reason can only be the prevailing sentiment of modern, secular, scientific theory. If modern scientific theory says one thing, and the Bible say another, obviously only one can be correct. And as the Apostle Paul puts it, "...let God be true and every man a liar...." Scientific "theory" changes, but "the Word of God stands forever."

I for one would rather trust what God said happened at the creation of the Universe, rather than what some atheist or agnostic scientist theorizes. After all, God was actually there when it happened and I'm told He has an impeccable memory.


Shermett 2002. Steve Shermett is the president of The Association of Messianic Congregations. www.messianicassociation.org.