John Walton and Tremper Longman III (The Lost World of the Flood) consider many of the stories in the old Testament, and in Genesis 1-11 in particular, to be theological histories. These stories refer to historical events in some sense, but they are not exhaustive accounts. They are structured to convey a theological message.
Biblical narrators thus speak from their worldview and select and emphasize aspects of the past that communicate their interest in God and the relationship between God and his human creatures. For this reason it is appropriate to refer to those biblical books that look to the past as theological histories.
Furthermore, historians, including biblical writers about the past, do more than simply report events (just the facts); they interpret the significance of the events. Indeed, again, biblical authors are not interested in giving us what we need to recreate the event in its pure facticity but rather in using the event to communicate their theological message. It is their theological message that carries the authority God has invested in them. (pp. 22-23)
The biblical authors use rhetorical devices and hyperbole to convey their message. They do so in a manner that was consistent with accepted practice in the ancient Near East. The presentation of the message is rhetorically shaped for impact using figurative language. John and Tremper point out that the use of figurative language is not a modern discovery forced on us to resolve conflict with ‘science.’ Origen, writing in the early 200’s noted the presence of figurative language in Genesis 1-3 (See “On First Principles”). St. Augustine also recognized the presence of figurative language in Genesis.
A personal aside. When I first started digging seriously for answers to intellectual questions raised by the conservative evangelical approach to Christian faith, I read both Augustine’s Confessions and the Ante-Nicene Fathers beginning with volume I. (I did buy a set of books rather cheaply – without matching covers – but you can also find the text online for free, e.g. here or here.) Reading Origen and some of the other early Christian writers was enlightening. The simple “literal” approach of modern fundamentalism was not a universal approach of the church. Reading Origen and Tertullian and others was an enlightening experience. The approach to Genesis was particularly interesting.
A faithful reading of the text as the Word of God will appreciate figurative language and rhetorically shaped narrative for what it is – an appropriate way to tell a theological history relating the work of God in his creation. “The author wants us to understand the theological significance of these events, and he utilizes figurative language that ancient readers did (and modern readers should) recognize.” (p. 29)
Ok, figurative language is one thing, but what about hyperbole? Isn’t exaggeration simply lying?
John and Tremper point out that it is clear that the Bible does use hyperbole to describe historical events on occasion. It does so in a manner consistent with ancient Near Eastern practice. It does so to emphasize the important theological significance of the events being described. A prime example is found in the book of Joshua. Read the book straight through sometime. The apparent contradictions are obvious. (This is another example that I noticed when listening to Scripture on my commutes. It helped to shape my understanding of Scripture and inspiration. We have to let the Bible define what it means to be inspired – not impose some modern mold and bend the text to fit.) “If we read Joshua 1-12 as a straightforward, dispassionate report of the wars of Joshua, we would have to conclude that all Canaan was taken by the Israelites and not a single Canaanite survived unless they, like Rahab, came over to the Israelite side.” (p. 31) However Joshua 13 and following contradicts this view (as do Judges, Samuel, and Kings). The conquest of Canaan was not actually completed at this point or within Joshua’s lifetime. Nor were all the Canaanites obliterated. John and Tremper conclude with respect to chapters 1-12:
The author is intentionally using universalistic language and intends to convey, rhetorically, that he conquest was complete, but that did not correspond to the actual geographical scope of the conquest, only to the significance of the conquest. Thus is uses hyperbole to make a theological point. (p. 32)
Later they go on:
Our point is that the biblical authors sometimes employed hyperbole in their materials in a way that they expected their readers to recognize. In other words, hyperbole is a convention of writing that was used by ancient authors to make important theological points. (p. 34)
We respect the text as the inspired Word of God. The use of ancient conventions in telling the story doesn’t make it any less inspired. Nor does it make it error-ridden, except when some anachronistic modern expectation is imposed from outside. Hyperbole can be identified in many places throughout the Bible.
Thus, we can see the Bible is not at all averse or slow to use hyperbole to communicate its important theological message … There are historical events behind these hyperbolic statements, but it is hard if not impossible to reconstruct these events in detail because the biblical authors are not so interested in the event itself as their significance for God’s relationship with his people. (p. 35)
Recognition of hyperbole, when it is used and why, will help us better understand the message of the text. It will also help us avoid unnecessary pit holes and rabbit trails.
What role do figurative language and hyperbole play in the biblical text?
How can we recognize these as we read and study?
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