If we truly understand and preach that the Bible is to be read with a grammatico-historical hermeneutic then we must take two areas into serious consideration when reading the text.
The first area to consider is the semantic domain. The semantic domain of a word can be defined as the realm of possibilities that a word can mean. For example, when I say, “The sky is blue” we must understand that to mean the sky is some shade of blue for one reason or another. We cannot assume by this statement that the sky is orange, red, yellow, green, or otherwise. Blue, while it has a realm of possibilities of being different shades of blue, must still be blue. In other words, when I say, “the sky is blue” we could include the possibilities that the sky is sky blue, navy blue, royal blue, or any other variant of blue. To put this subject into more practical and helpful examples we will take our study of semantic domain into the text of the Bible beginning with the word “day” or יום. This word is used 2,301 times in the Old Testament, 1,889 this word is translated as “day”, “days”, or “day’s”. Some of the other usages of יום in translation are “daily”, “today”, “years”, “year”, or “yearly”. This is the point in the article where you may be thinking, “You’ve just outed yourself! You said יום can mean year.” However, before any argument can be finished let’s look at the specific Hebrew words that are translated as year, years, or yearly. In the two most popular formal equivalence English translations of the Bible, NASB95 and ESV, the NASB translates the root יום twenty-six times as year and the ESV does so eleven times. The most important thing to note in these usages is the glaring truth that not one of these times is the singular translated as year. Each of these cases in the examples of the ESV and NASB the root word יום is in its plural sense ימים or the plural construct ימי giving a clear indication that while the root of יום has a semantic domain of being able to be translated as year, years, or yearly but only manifests itself in the plural and plural construct of the noun. So, as we begin to grasp this concept of semantic domain we can clearly and blatantly see its importance as we read any given text so that we understand words to function within their confines.
The second order of business is to tackle the issue or syntax. Syntax can be defined as the lexical relationships that are shown in a given sentence, paragraph, or book. The reason syntax is so important is because semantic domain alone is not enough for us to understand what an individual word means. When we do a study of semantic domain we find ourselves wanting. All that semantic domain does is tell us the realm of possibilities that a word can mean. Syntax is what tells us what a word does mean in the immediate context of the text we are reading. Again, we will return to our text of Genesis 1 as we seek to find a better understanding of syntax. When we look at the introductory verses of God’s Word we find an interesting pattern.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. Genesis 1:1-5
These first five verses of the biblical account provide a great context for us to examine this area of syntax. There is a clear motive that is being employed even in the first verse where we see time, force, action, space, and matter all coming together to compose all that is in the universe. Furthermore, we see in verse five the conclusion of the first day defining the very meaning of a twenty-four-hour period since this is the first time that it has happened. Unlike the rest of Genesis 1 and the other days of creation, day one uses the cardinal number as opposed to the ordinal found in verses 8, 13, 19, 23, 31 and 2:1. This usage of the cardinal, one, defines for us a single twenty-four hour period that consists of “evening and morning.” It may be easy to say, “but how would we know that verse five is defining a twenty-four-hour period” and that is when we must understand the context of the rest of Scripture that aids us in shedding light on this subject.
We must always remember the principle of biblical continuity, the truth that the Scriptures do not contradict themselves, while we read a given text. If we hold to an inerrant, infallible, trustworthy Word of God that has been given to us by the instrumentality of men carried along by the Holy Spirit then Scripture is the best tool that we have when interpreting Scripture. Looking at the Hebrew understanding of a twenty-four hour day evening and morning is the typical way to describe this kind of a time period. Additionally, throughout the Old Testament, there are several usages of “day” + a number and not a single instance is referencing something other than a literal twenty-four hour day. Yet, as a society, we have found it an acceptable interpretation to say that “day” could mean an undisclosed amount of time because we don’t know how to reconcile supposed scientific claims that the world is millions or billions of years old. I have said it before and will continue to hold to this premise; if we start with Scripture and reason from it then doubt, anxiety, and spiritual darkness will not be tolerated by the believer. However, we have seen quite the opposite as we live in a society that is plagued by depression, anxiety, and lives that are lived in fear of everything and the church is not exempt. This disheartening realization that we see in the church today can be traced to two areas of failure, a highly literate culture that fails to read the Bible, or really anything else outside of social media, and those who do choose to read Scripture often do so through the lens of a faulty hermeneutic.
As we began talking about the grammatico-historical hermeneutic so shall we close. If we dismiss the lexical and syntactical elements of God’s Word we fail. If we dismiss the genre and authorial intent of a passage then we fail. If we disregard the intertextuality and innertextuality of God’s Word then we fail. This makes the task all the more difficult because we are constantly wrapped up in our sinful inclinations and want to get the fast-food version of Bible study since we are Americans after all. Lets put the STUDY back in Bible study and remember that poor interpretation of a single text is rarely isolated, so rather than taking the easy road of reading culture into the Bible why don’t we let God speak for Himself.
New American Standard Bible, 1995 Edition: Paragraph Version. (1995). (Ge 1:1–5). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.