The inspiration of scripture: divine dictation

Charlton Heston as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten CommandmentsNote: If this is your first exposure to this series, I’d appreciate it if you’d start with the introduction to the series so that you’re able to put this post in context.

I grew up with the notion that the phrase “God inspired the Bible” was functionally equivalent to “God wrote the Bible.” In my young mind, the biblical writers were essentially stenographers, more or less taking dictation from God. In the churches that nourished my childhood faith, the phrases “the Bible says” and “God says” meant the same thing.

As it turns out, the Bible does in fact portray divine dictation as one way in which the creation of a text might be prompted and guided.

The parade example of this would, of course, be the Ten Commandments. According to the story in Exodus 31–34 (and remember, I’m only interested right now in what the texts say on their face or imply, not whether they “tell it like it really was”), Moses received “the two covenant tablets, the stone tablets written by God’s finger” (Exod 31:18 CEB). In all of scripture, only these two tablets merit a claim of direct divine authorship—but as you probably know, Moses smashed those tablets upon seeing the golden calf (Exod 32:19). Later, “Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first ones” (Exod 34:4), and he “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words” (Exod 34:28) that the Lord had dictated to him (Exod 34:27). Now, I am well aware that specifying the putative contents of both of these tablets presents many problems (such as the difference between the “Ethical Decalogue” and the “Ritual Decalogue,” the apparent length of the text on the tablets relative to the length of the Decalogue in Exodus 20, the uncertain connection between the tablets’ text and the tabernacle-building instructions, and so forth). Setting those problems aside, readers can hardly come away from Exodus 34 without the impression that God dictated a text to Moses, who chiseled that text onto stone tablets.

A search of the Tanakh (using Accordance) for imperative forms of כתב (“write”) yields fourteen hits outside of Exodus 34. A search for second-person yiqtol (imperfect) and second-person weqatal (irreal perfect) forms yields five more for each of those forms, but only once is each form used imperatively by God. (In case you’re wondering, there are no cases that I can find in the Tanakh where God initiates writing activity using a jussive verb.) Focusing only on those verses in which a specific string of words to be written is quoted yields the following:

  • Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder on the scroll and read it to Joshua: I will completely wipe out the memory of Amalek under the sky.” (Exod 17:14)
  • Speak to the Israelites and take from them a staff from each household, from each of the chiefs of their households, twelve staffs. Write each person’s name on his staff. Write Aaron’s name on Levi’s staff, for there will be one staff for the leader of each household. (Num 17:2)
  • The Lord said to me, “Take a large tablet, and write on it in ordinary letters, For Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” (Isa 8:1)
  • Human one, write down today’s date, because today the king of Babylon has set up camp at Jerusalem—today! (Ezek 24:2, not returned in the Accordance search because Accordance searches on the kethiv, which has an anomalous infinitive here; the qere, though, has our imperative form)
  • You, human one, take a stick, and write on it, “Belonging to Judah and to the Israelites associated with him.” Take another stick and write on it, “Stick of Ephraim belonging to Joseph and everyone of the house of Israel associated with him.” (Ezekiel 37:16)

A search of the deuterocanonical books, in Greek, for imperative forms of γράφω yields nothing.

A search of the New Testament for imperative forms of γράφω, limited to verses in which God, the exalted Christ, or an angelic figure tells a human to write, and quotes a specific string of words to be written, yields the following nine verses, all from the book of Revelation:

  • “Write this to the angel of the church in …” (Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14)
  • And I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Favored are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” (Rev 14:13)
  • Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Favored are those who have been invited to the wedding banquet of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9)

Both the Tanakh and the New Testament also contain verses where God (or a closely associated heavenly figure, such as an angel) gives someone a command to write (using כתב or γράφω in the imperative) but doesn’t quote a specific string of words to be written. I’ll address this phenomenon in a later installment.

For now, let’s observe how very infrequently scripture actually portrays God, the exalted Christ, or an angel dictating words to a human amanuensis. We have a brief oracle against Amalek, Moses’s second pair of covenant tablets, Isaiah’s “for Maher-shalal-hash-baz” tablet, the date on which Nebuchadnezzar’s army began besieging Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s sticks, the letters to the seven churches of Asia, and two blessings in the book of Revelation. The biblical writers obviously had the concept of divine dictation within their cultural and religious repertoire, but they actually claimed divine dictation only for very short texts that are embedded within their larger works—not for the larger works themselves. For example, Exodus 34 claims that the text of the two covenant tablets was dictated by God to Moses, but not that the story of God dictating the covenant tablets to Moses was dictated by God to the author of Exodus 34 (be he Moses himself or, as seems more likely, someone else living significantly later). My youthful belief that “God wrote the Bible” simply does not survive contact with the actual biblical text. In sum, no biblical writer claims that God wrote or dictated the book they wrote, though they may claim that for very short texts that they quoted in their books.

The obvious shortcoming in the foregoing discussion is that it lacks any real treatment of prophetic sermons. Don’t worry; I’ll address prophetic sermons and the books that transmit them in a future installment.

שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם

10 thoughts on “The inspiration of scripture: divine dictation

  1. Pingback: The Bible, Inspiration, and Fundamentalism

  2. Mike Gantt

    Could you give a sense of the outline you’re following in the subsequent posts? That is, some of us might like to comment along the way but wouldn’t want to prematurely raise an issue.

    1. Chris Heard Post author

      Well … I’m not opposed to giving an outline in principle, knowing that it’s subject to change. The next post will probably focus on prophetic oracles, then we’ll move to (prima facie) historical narratives, psalms, and then didactic materials (like epistles and wisdom literature). Somewhere in there, I’ll offer some reflections on 2 Tim 3:15–17 and 2 Peter 1:20–21, I suspect.

      In that light, here’s a little guide to optimal use of comments. Comments in the form “Yes, you’re absolutely right” are, of course, always appropriate. Comments interacting with material that’s in any given post is also always appropriate, even if it’s not unadulterated praise. Comments about texts and topics not discussed yet in the series are probably best put on hold until a more opportune time. Questions in the form of “Are you planning to discuss P?” probably wouldn’t take the comment stream too far afield, though.

      1. Mike Gantt

        That’s helpful. Thanks.

        I cannot find, however, a function on your blog that allows me to sign up to be notified when comments are added. (I just happened to remember to come back here today.)

        1. Chris Heard Post author

          The function to receive updates when posts or comments are added isn’t a standard option on self-hosted WordPress blogs. However, pursuant to your comment, I did some poking around and discovered a plugin/extension (by WordPress, as it turns out) that provides that functionality. I’ve installed and activated that plugin. I hope it meets your needs!

  3. Dr. David Tee

    There is a very good reason why God wrote the Bible and used human stenographers. If the Bible was a human product then its content could be dismissed without consideration and replaced with other human thoughts without worry.

    Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, the emperor of Japan and so many other dictators would not be challenged because there would be no higher moral standard to judge their works against.

    There would be no salvation option as that hope would be of human origin and not true. There would be no God, No Jesus and His sacrifice, no hope, no Israel and on it goes.

    When dealing with inspiration there is a bigger picture to view first before coming to any conclusion.

    1. Chris Heard Post author

      Dr. Tee, you’re putting the cart before the horse. Even if there exists a proposition P such that believing P to be true has salutary effects, that is not sufficient justification for believing P to be true. Suppose that Pat McGillicuddy sincerely believes that screaming banshees will torment him all the rest of his life if he murders his hated rival Bobby O’Leary. This belief has the salutary effect of keeping Pat from murdering Bobby, but this salutary effect does not mean that there really are such things as screaming banshees. (In passing, I will note that it’s not particularly difficult to achieve higher moral standards than Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, with or without religion at all, let alone Christianity specifically, let alone any particular theory of inspiration.)

      By the same token, no matter how beneficial the belief that “God wrote the Bible” might (or might not) be, those benefits cannot be the basis for embracing (or rejecting) that belief—especially if the biblical writers themselves say otherwise. If the Bible itself testifies that God did not “write the Bible”—that is, if the biblical testimony distinguishes between “inspiration” and de facto “authorship”—then “Bible-believing Christians” must reject either (a) the formula “God wrote the Bible” or (b) the biblical testimony itself.

      I hasten to add that, as of the end of my “divine dictation” post, the end of the matter has not yet been heard. This post is only the beginning of a significantly longer presentation.


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