We all know the story, Galileo Galilei had the audacity–church leaders at the time regarded it as hubris–to say that the earth rotated around the sun and not vice versa as many assumed. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this today since we live in a world that sent telescopes into orbit and peers into the human body with magnets, but many in Galileo’s day thought that the Bible contradicted a heliocentric view of the world and they deemed Galileo a heretic for saying otherwise.
Verses like 1 Chronicles 16:30b seem to represent a fixed earth, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Yet, Galileo observed that the Bible often means “things which are quite different from what its bare words signify.” He went on to elaborate:
Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error…Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands, and eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of things past and ignorance of those to come. These propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities of the common people, who are rude and unlearned (From Galileo’s “Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany” translated by Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo [New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1957], 173-216).
Regardless of whether we agree with Galileo here (I for one do think that biblical authors believed that God got angry, repented, etc., but I digress), what’s important to notice is that Galileo was a sensitive interpreter of Scripture. He tried to listen to the text and go deeper than the surface. He tried to understand the particular genre of a passage before he presumed to know what it meant. That is, he tried to understand the macro-syntax of passage to see if it might affect meaning on the level of the sentence.
Galileo wasn’t the first to under go duress at the hands less scrupulous students of Scripture because of his nuanced reading strategy and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. But Galileo’s observation that words sometimes mean the opposite of what they say is foundational to a mature reading strategy.
If you’re interested in this topic, particularly as it applies to the interpretation of Genesis 1-11, you’ll be happy to hear that I’m editing a book on the implications of genre for the interpretation of the Primeval History. We’re still in the process of writing it, but it should be out sometime next year.