The Language of Scripture

The sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies” (v. 13a).

- Joshua 10:1–15

Literal interpretation of the Bible doesn’t mean that we read the Scriptures in a wooden way. For example, we should read poetry as non-literal symbolic language. Instead, the purpose of literal interpretation is simply to read Scripture with an eye for understanding it according to its various literary forms and genres. As in other works of literature, a noun in the Bible is a noun, an adjective is an adjective, and so forth. God has revealed His Word in such a way that even those with minimal education can understand it (Deut. 6:6–9); He has not spoken in a code or in an obscure way that is accessible to only the spiritually elite or the most highly educated individuals.

To interpret Scripture literally and discern the original meaning of a text—the meaning the author intended to convey—we must have at least a basic knowledge of various literary forms and how they work. Today, we will consider two basic categories of non-literal language that Scripture employs. The first of these is phenomenological language, which describes the way things appear to the naked eye.

In everyday life, we are content to describe things the way they appear without always going into the precise science behind what we observe. For example, we still talk about the sun rising and setting even though we know that it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not the sun that revolves around the earth. It is not wrong for us to speak in such a way unless our intent is to give a scientifically precise description of astronomical movements. In a similar way, the Bible often uses phenomenological language, as in today’s passage where we read that the sun stood still during a battle (Josh. 10:13a). Scientifically speaking, God must have caused the earth to stop moving briefly, not the sun, in order for this to happen, but the intent of the text is not to give a science lesson about solar movements but to describe an incredible act of God that enabled the Israelites to win their fight.

The second kind of non-literal language we frequently find in Scripture is anthropomorphic language, which is language that describes God as having human attributes. Some passages, for example, speak of God as having fingers, eyes, or other physical body parts. But since God is spirit (John 4:24), we know that He cannot really possess these physical characteristics. The biblical authors simply use this kind of language to indicate that God sees or is aware of all that happens and is capable of acting when necessary.

Coram Deo

The Bible is not silent on topics related to science; however, it is not a science textbook. Understanding literary forms such as phenomenological language will assist us in not treating the Bible as something that it is not, thereby improving our interpretation of the text. Reading the Word of God carefully according to these forms will help keep us from asserting error and confusing people about the meaning of God’s revelation.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 19:23
Ezekiel 13:8–10
Matthew 5:44–46
Luke 23:46

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