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My Hermeneutical Pet Peeve

By David Kowalski

hermeneuticsMy pet peeve in others' misinterpretation of Scripture is one that involves no false doctrine -- just a popular misinterpretation of a passage that should not be so difficult to understand. While the improper treatment of the passage involved does not lead to heresy, it does keep us from hearing God's Word accurately at that point and it reflects a careless treatment of Scripture that often leads to significant heterodoxy through the misinterpretation of other passages.  The passage is Genesis 3:1-6, and the misinterpretation begins with verse one, which reads in the NASB as follows:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, 'Indeed, has God said, "You shall not eat from any tree of the garden"?'

A popular interpretation of this verse is to say that when the serpent said, "Has God said?" he was tempting Eve to doubt God's Word. Read the verse above again and then read what God actually said earlier in Genesis 2:16-17 NASB below:

The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.

Had God said Adam and Eve should not eat from any tree of the Garden? The answer is that He had not. God had said they could eat from any tree of the garden with the one exception of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve answered this question appropriately when she replied to the serpent:

The woman said to the serpent, 'From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, "You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die." (Genesis 3:2-3 NASB)

While we should never doubt what God says, the serpent was not tempting Eve at this precise point to doubt God's exact words because, as Eve recognized, God had never said what the serpent quoted Him as saying. This was much craftier than a simple temptation to doubt (so crafty that many people still miss the point!). The serpent actually distorted God's Word in a very clever effort to get Eve to rebel against God.

The serpent's voice can be heard still today with questions like "Has God really said you cannot have fun?" The implication here would be that God is such a stick in the mud that one should not want anything to do with Him. This is not a temptation to doubt God's Word; it is a clever effort to tempt rebellion through a distortion of God's Word.

The serpent's first, clever attempt to provoke rebellion through distortion of God's Word failed, so he tried again:

The serpent said to the woman, 'You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.' When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:4-6 NASB)

At this point many interpreters say, "The serpent is tempting the woman to elevate herself to divine status." Many people have used this verse in reference to the New Age Movement, saying the movement is echoing the serpent's lie that "You shall be as God." The New Age movement is, indeed, guilty of inciting rebellion against God through usurpation of His, unique deity; and though it is certainly wrong for any of us to claim equality with God, seeing a call to such a claim in  this passage is a hasty misread of these particular verses. As with the first verses we looked at, read these verses directly above again and then read God's response to the rebellion in Genesis 3:22 NASB:

Then the Lord God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'

God said the man and woman had become like Him but not like him in his divinity -- they had become like God in the one aspect of knowing good and evil. Whereas the man and woman had previously depended on God's revelation of what to do and not do, they now became the governing authorities of their own lives. Innocence had been lost in a man-centered assumption of the reigns of life. The man and woman had not claimed divine status -- they had declared independence from the divine One.

Apparently the serpent was so clever that many people still do not catch the subtlety of his deception in Genesis 3!

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

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2 Responses to “My Hermeneutical Pet Peeve”

  1. Jeremiah Eric Lewis says:

    Your point about people misinterpreting the words of the serpent " shall not eat...." is nitpicking at best. I personally abhor the misinterpretation of scripture, this is a silly point to try to make this point, simply because when you take those verses of scripture as a whole, that is exactly what the devil does. He simply did it in a couple of stages.I am not a learned man such as yourself, but I would personally pick points in scripture that are more serious in their misinterpretation, because they would seriously compromise how people see and walk in their salvation and their relationship (or lack there of) with God.

  2. David Kowalski says:

    Jeremiah: If I understand your criticism correctly, you are saying you find no fault in anything I said in the sense that you disagree with me. Your complaint is that the issue is relatively small -- something I point out myself at the beginning of the post. I noted at the beginning that the misinterpretation of Scripture I was critiquing did not lead to any false doctrines. Furthermore, I would add here that I do not think that interpretation of this passage should be an occasion of acrimony. My point in this post is that God's Word should always be handled accurately. Though the misinterpretations cited in my post lead to no false doctrines, they are irresponsible misinterpretations, as a close examination of the passage clearly shows its true meaning. What this careless mishandling of a passage reveals to me is that many believers are not always using due care and diligence in trying to understand God's Word. My contention is that in all passages of Scripture, we should use utmost care to represent the real meaning of the text. The specific issue at stake here is small, indeed (as I conceded from the beginning), but there is an important principle at stake that should not be so easily dismissed -- the proper treatment of Scripture. To me, the complete misunderstanding of a clear passage of Scripture reveals a flaw in our approach to the Bible, and this flaw is likely to show up in other passages (indeed, it does). The intent behind my post is that we should always treat God's Word carefully and handle it accurately. If someone feels otherwise, I will respectfully disagree. As to addressing more serious issues, I have many articles and books in print that do so. Again, this post is about a small issue that reveals a problem with a principle that is quite important.

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This post was last updated: Oct. 19, 2013