Why the Literal Meaning of the Bible is Not Always the Literal Wording

One of the ‘traditional’ concepts of reading the Bible is that of a ‘verbal, plenary, literal’ reading of the text. That is, (verbal) ‘every word counts’, (plenary) ‘every word is inspired by God, and (literal) ‘it means what it says and not a hidden meaning’. This is correct, by the way, but can lead to some confusion depending on the reader.

Allow me to explain.

I’ll start with the word ‘word’. The obvious ‘literal’ meaning of ‘word’ is ‘a single unit of language. (As in there are nine ‘words’ in this sentence.) However, the ancient Hebrew meaning of word is very similar to that of modern English.

From Strong’s Lexicon:
Word: H1687 דָּבָר

For an English mouth, this is pronounced ‘davar’, with the accent on the final syllable; or “duh-VAR”.
1. speech, word, speaking, thing
A. speech
B. saying, utterance
C. word, words
D. business, occupation, acts, matter, case, something, manner (by extension)

We use the language unit ‘word’ in English to mean many of the same things. For instance, “What’s the word?” or “What’s the good word?” does not imply a single ‘word’, but basic news pertaining to an issue or one’s environment. We are using the B. or D. choice from above and can often equally well say, “What did the boss say?” or “What’s the news?”

So, the writer of Hebrews (who recorded his ‘word’ in Greek, but probably thought in Hebrew) in chapter 4, verse 12 says “For the word of God is quick, and powerful …” he is NOT saying ‘quick’ is the single unit of language (word) which God uses, but is using B. from above, a saying or utterance – the message – of God is quick and powerful.

In the New Testament, written in Greek by the way, the ‘word’ commonly translated as ‘word’ is the Greek word (again from Strong’s Lexicon)
G3056 λόγος transliterated as ‘logos’; pronounced as ‘lah-gahs’ (not ‘low-goes’ as I always thought.) Just like the Hebrew word, it does include the idea of a single unit of language; the primary meaning is the concept behind the communication, or the ‘message’.

Every one follow so far? The word ‘word’ does not always mean ‘ink stain on paper’. In fact the word ‘davar’ is nearly always in reference to a message or concept rather than a single unit of speech. When the phrase translated (in the King James Version [herein referenced as ‘KJV’) “Hear the word of the Lord…” appears, it always means ‘listen to the Lord‘s message…’

Moving along then, I’m going to list a few examples of ‘words’ and a phrase or two that are commonly used in the Bible (especially the KJV) that can cause some confusion if read ‘literally’ in English.

“knew” In Genesis 4:1, the text in the KJV reads “And Adam knew Eve his wife…”
I remember as a young child being struck with the silliness of that phrase. Of course Adam knew Eve; he married her, didn’t he? (As I recall, I was no more than six or seven and the thought of arranged marriages was not in my repertoire either.) Then, in Genesis 4:25, “And Adam knew his wife again…” and I thought that even more silly. Did he forget, somehow?

Most of you are ahead of me on this. The Hebrew word יָדַע (yah-DAH) does translate as ‘know’, but it means ‘acquainted with’ AND means ‘know carnally’ (or coitus for the Big Bang Theory fans). So when Adam ‘knew’ Eve, they weren’t shaking hands and saying ‘How do you do?’

On a side note, this meaning was more obvious when the KJV was translated in 1611. The translation hasn’t changed, the English language has changed; the phrase ‘had sex’ is probably more used than ‘knew carnally’ in current conversation. I suppose there are other phrases as well, but space precludes…

“forty days and forty nights” is an idiomatic expression, not a precise measurement of time. (Much like ‘let your hair down’ means to relax, not to alter one’s hair style.) It signifies a long, unspecified period of time; it also has the meaning of continuous action until the action in question is finished. Typically in Biblical usage, it also signals a change initiated by God. For instance, in Genesis 7 (the story of Noah) when it rained for ‘forty days and forty nights’, it rained for a long period of time until the Earth was inundated. When Jesus fasted and prayed (Matthew 4) for ‘forty days and forty nights’, it means He fasted and prayed for a long (non-specific) time until He was finished with His fasting and praying. (I am aware there are those who will be upset with me for saying this. Don’t fret, you’ll survive and Jesus is neither mocked nor offended.)

We (modern English) use similar idioms. For instance, “Man, I was digging that ditch in the sun FOREVER!” Or, “I studied for that final exam FOREVER!” Actually, it wasn’t ‘forever’, it was a couple hours on a hot day. It just felt like ‘forever’. The studying might have gone on deep into the night, but that didn’t take up ‘forever’ either. One could use the expression ‘forty days and forty nights’ and convey the same meaning.

“And” Look back at the quotes about Adam and Eve his wife above. Note the sentences begin with ‘and’? (They do, whether you looked or not.) That is a correct translation and is not poor sentence construction. In the ancient Hebrew written language, there were none of what we think of as punctuation. Therefore, one convention was to begin a new paragraph, thought or section of text with the word ‘and’. In that usage, it does not convey the idea of ‘moreover’. That’s why one sees ‘and’ at the beginning of many paragraphs in the Bible.

We use similar construction in verbal English more than written. For example, “My friend borrowed my car and wrecked it. So, I bought another car. And then I drove to Tallahassee.” There is continuity, but driving (anywhere) is a new idea separated from buying the car. That’s a different usage than “My new car is red and black.”

‘day’ is another word with more than one meaning. In Hebrew the word יוֹם (yom) is translated ‘day’. Much like in English, יוֹם can mean a twenty-four hour period, or daytime (as opposed to night time), or an era (the day of computers, in Grandpa’s day) and a couple other ideas depending on context (like a day’s work or journey).

‘quickly’. When Jesus left the Earth, all the apostles and writers of the New Testament said He would return ‘quickly’. Seeing as that was just shy of 2,000 years ago, there are those who think that may be an error. After all, by what standard is a 2,000 year delay termed ‘quickly’.

One could argue that ‘quickly’ by God’s standard is different than ‘quickly’ by man’s standard. However, the word itself gives the perceived ‘error’ an explanation. According to Strong’s Lexicon (yet again), the word translated ‘quickly’ is G5035 ταχύ, transliterated ‘tachy’ and pronounced ‘tah-KHU’. It is an adverb describing the action of a verb, not the temporal location. In other words, when Jesus returns, He will return in a rapid manner – not half-stepping – not ‘soon’.

So what’s the point of all this? Am I trying to convince the reader one can never ‘really’ understand what the Bible is saying? Not at all. The Bible is rather clear and direct about the most serious matters; the relationship between God and man and what needs be done to correct the rift.
My point is there are many tangential issues that can detract from the main thrust of the Bible. However, those tangential issues are the results of inaccurate perceptions of the meanings of words, not due to inaccuracy of what is meant.

The ‘correct’ way to read the Bible is as a whole message. No, not as one continuous novel, but what one reads in Genesis must agree with what one reads in Revelation – and all points in between. The nature of God does not change; nor does God’s message.

Here’s an important concept to remember. In Revelation 22, verse 19, the KJV reads, “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life…” This has been used repeatedly to defend the superiority of the KJV translation. The argument presented is that since the ‘words’ (the ink-stains on paper) are ‘changed’ in other translations, those other translations are fraudulent and a curse upon the reader and user. It is a false argument.

The injunction against taking away ‘words’ speaks of taking away the inherent message, not altering the grammatical and linguistic units involved – as long as the original meaning is preserved.

Therefore, allow me to challenge – or charge – the reader with this: Read the Bible continuously. A little here, a little there; whenever it is handy. When the reader finds something ‘odd’, look up the words (blueletterbible.org is an excellent website for this) and do some research on the customs of the day involved. What seem to be contradictions or conundrums tend to evaporate in the light of knowledge.

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