September 13, 2014 § 226 Comments
Biblical inerrancy is one thing. It means that there exists a true (corresponds to reality) and correct (corresponds with what the author intends to say about God and salvation) meaning or interpretation of Biblical texts. That is really all that it means, which is not enough to solve the ‘problem’ of interpretation. That a true and correct interpretation exists doesn’t imply that some specific interpretation is true and correct.
Note that inerrant meaning is ascribed to the author of the text, not the characters and people who are the subjects of the text. That the sacred author’s meaning is inerrant does not imply that King Saul, in his actions and words, was infallible. A true and correct history of the words and deeds of Thomas Jefferson does not imply that the words and deeds of Thomas Jefferson were infallible. Furthermore Scripture gives no list of characters to whom infallibility is to be attributed nor any criteria for determining when their actions or words are infallible.
So when it comes to Scriptural inerrancy there is much less there than meets the positivist eye.
Biblical ‘literalism’ is another thing entirely. It assumes (incoherently) that Scriptural text in itself completely determines meaning, and asserts that the putative ‘literal’ interpretation is true. This isn’t just wrong: it is rationally incoherent, because any text of sufficient complexity always underdetermines theories of what the text means.
Biblical literalism has a long pedigree, probably because the great majority of human beings throughout the great majority of history have not understood the limitations of text and meaning. Text and meaning are just things we take for granted and don’t think much about in themselves. The longest lasting institution in all of history, the Roman Catholic Church, however, has always implicitly functioned on an understanding that literalism is incoherent. One might be tempted to attribute this to supernatural grace.
Attempting to interpret the Bible ‘literally’, then, is not something which I take particularly seriously, nor do I think anyone should take it particularly seriously. On the other hand, when talking to a whole society of people in the grip of a basic epistemological error you have to sometimes speak in terms that they can understand.
If I attempt to interpret the book of Deuteronomy like a literalist – and start at the beginning so that I am not pulling things out of context – I find that Moses attributes some things to the Lord and many more things to himself. He doesn’t explicitly assert any claims of infallibility for himself. Here is the first bit (Douay-Rheims), into which I have inserted the referent (Moses or the LORD) in [square brackets] in a number of places:
 These are the words, which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan, in the plain wilderness, over against the Red Sea, between Pharan and Thophel and Laban and Haseroth, where there is very much gold:  Eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Cadesbarne.  In the fortieth year, the eleventh month, the first day of the month, Moses spoke to the children of Israel all that the Lord had commanded him to say to them:  After that he had slain Sehon king of the Amorrhites, who dwelt in Hesebon: and Og king of Basan who abode in Astaroth, and in Edrai,  Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab. And Moses began to expound the law, and to say:
 The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough in this mountain:  Turn you, and come to the mountain of the Amorrhites, and to the other places that are next to it, the plains and the hills and the vales towards the south, and by the sea shore, the land of the Chanaanites, and of Libanus, as far as the great river Euphrates.  Behold, said he, I [The LORD] have delivered it to you: go in and possess it, concerning which the Lord swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he would give it to them, and to their seed after them.  And I [Moses] said to you at that time:  I [Moses] alone am not able to bear you: for the Lord your God hath multiplied you, and you are this day as the stars of heaven, for multitude.
 (The Lord God of your fathers add to this number many thousands, and bless you as he hath spoken. [Moses speaks a blessing])  I [Moses] alone am not able to bear your business, and the charge of you and your differences.  Let me have from among you wise and understanding men, and such whose conversation is approved among your tribes, that I [Moses] may appoint them your rulers.  Then you answered me: The thing is good which thou [Moses] meanest to do.  And I [Moses] took out of your tribes men wise and honourable, and appointed them rulers, tribunes, and centurions, and officers over fifties, and over tens, who might teach you all things.
 And I [Moses] commanded them, saying: Hear them, and judge that which is just: whether he be one of your country, or a stranger.  There shall be no difference of persons, you shall hear the little as well as the great: neither shall you respect any man’ s person, because it is the judgment of God. And if any thing seem hard to you, refer it to me [Moses], and I [Moses] will hear it.  And I [Moses] commanded you all things that you were to do.  And departing from Horeb, we passed through the terrible and vast wilderness, which you saw, by the way of the mountain of the Amorrhite, as the Lord our God had commanded us. And when we were come into Cadesbarne,  I [Moses] said to you: You are come to the mountain of the Amorrhite, which the Lord our God will give to us.
The entire book of Deuteronomy is like this, recounting the words and deeds of the man Moses, as spiritual and political leader of the Israelites, interspersed with specific things attributed by Moses to the LORD. We are given no recounting of how in particular the attribution is made, etc — whether it came in a dream or was recorded onto an SSD recorder at the site of the burning bush or whatever.
But in general it makes no sense in reading Deuteronomy to attribute things to God that Moses himself doesn’t attribute directly to God. (I am sure that God alone actually could ‘bear their business’ if He chose to).
Given that background we can look at the ‘offending’ passages in Deuteronomy 20 where Moses orders the genocide of the Canaanites.
 [Moses giving orders] But of those cities that shall be given thee, thou shalt suffer none at all to live:  But shalt kill them with the edge of the sword, to wit, the Hethite, and the Amorrhite, and the Chanaanite, the Pherezite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee: [After the colon, the command Moses attributes to the Lord]  Lest they teach you to do all the abominations which they have done to their gods: and you should sin against the Lord your God.  [Back to Moses giving orders] When thou hast besieged a city a long time, and hath compassed it with bulwarks to take it, thou shalt not cut down the trees that may be eaten of, neither shalt thou spoil the country round about with axes: for it is a tree, and not a man, neither can it increase the number of them that fight against thee.  But if there be any trees that are not fruitful, but wild, and fit for other uses, cut them down, and make engines, until thou take the city, which fighteth against thee.
As a literalist I had better not attribute things to God which are not explicitly attributed to Him. The text doesn’t say that God was giving orders, it says that Moses was giving orders. This is clearly Moses speaking and commanding, much as he did when he told the Israelites that he (Moses) could not handle all the work of judging their disputes and appointed leaders to do that on his behalf. God did not come down from the mountain and appoint the leaders, and it wasn’t God whose capacity to judge disputes was limited and required more manpower. The thing Moses himself attributes to God is that the Israelites should not learn pagan ways and worship pagan gods. Moses himself doesn’t in any direct way attribute the means that he (Moses) chose to God.
Of course there are other ‘problemmatic’ passages which present different interpretive ‘difficulties’ for the literalist.
But if they are a problem for you, the problem arises not from Scripture or inerrancy but from the fact that you are a literalist. A literalist is a kind of positivist, a person who is committed to the idea that text does not underdetermine meaning. But the way the world actually works, meaning actually is underdetermined by text.
So the thing to do isn’t to wrestle with conundrums like a literalist. The thing to do is to stop being a literalist, because literalism rests on a false understanding of reality.