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Rules of Biblical Interpretation


Q Are there contradictions in the Bible? For example, Exodus 20:13 "Thou shall not kill," compared with the many verses telling the Israelites to kill.

A The story is told (and it may be true) of a life-time Bible student who had once had a list of a thousand Bible difficulties or supposed contradictions. Near the end of his life, he made the statement that he had solved 998 of the difficulties on his list, and therefore, figured that the other two would eventually be solved, as well. This is a good illustration, in my mind, of the fact that there are really NO contradictions in the Bible. There are a good many difficult passages and sayings, but the problem is our understanding. A study of the historical contexts in which they occur, or other Bible passages, etc. brings a solution. Do I say this because I have personally solved 998 of them? No, but every one I have tackled has proven to be a matter of just needing more information.

Actually, the example you have provided is one of the easiest to explain. There are a number of Hebrew words for “to kill” but the one in Exod. 20:13, ratsach, is a more technical term which refers to premeditated murder, manslaughter, killing for revenge, and assassination. It does not refer to judgment by God for horrible sins.

A more common supposed contradiction is “where did Cain get his wife, if Adam and Eve were the only other people on earth?” Again, a careful, objective look and the context makes the solution apparent. The Bible doesn’t say how old Cain was when he killed Abel or when he married. After Adam and Eve had Seth, their third son, according to Genesis 5:4, they had other sons and daughters. Adam lived 930 years so he could have fathered a lot of sons and daughters before Cain married.  Several million people could have been born by the time Cain died. Cain might not have been the first to marry, either. Of course, at first brother would have had to marry sister. But the gene pool would not have been corrupted yet and presumably this would not have caused problems. Later, God had to forbid marriage between siblings because the gene pool would have been deteriorating. So Cain simply married a sister or niece or distant cousin.

Another frequently cited difficulty is the seeming difference between the creation order of Genesis chapter one where man is created first and the statement in 2:19, “Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.” The solution here is two-fold. First, the verb ‘to form’ or ‘to mold’ can be translated as a pluperfect, “had formed,” indicating the animals had been formed previously. Second, the context of chapter 2, instead of showing the order of events or when something happened, is giving the content or detail of the events. These two, taken together, are strong evidence that there is no contradiction.

When critics list ‘contradictions’ in the Bible, they normally overlook or deliberately ignore context, copyist errors, differences in the way the Hebrew language expressed numbers, and many other possibilities. I have a theory that God allowed many of these confusions in order to give skeptics an ‘out.’ Although the difficulties can be explained, many do not want to hear. But those who come at the Bible objectively, with the patience to be fair, will be rewarded with revelation from the God of the universe.

I don’t know if I have solved anything for you or not. Let me know if you need me to elaborate. You also might want to try a book like “When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook of Bible Difficulties” by Geisler and Howe. 

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