Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation:
A Relevance Theory Approach

John Hilber


In order to reconcile the discrepancies between ancient and modern cosmology, confessional scholars from every viewpoint on the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis agree that God accommodated language to finite human understanding. But in the history of interpretation, no consensus has emerged regarding what accommodation entails at the linguistic level. More precise consideration of how the ancient cognitive environment functions in the informative intention of the divine and human authors is necessary. Not only does relevance theory validate interpretative options that are inherently most probable within the primary communication situation, but the application of relevance theory can also help disentangle the complexities of dual authorship inherent in any model of accommodation. The results also make a salutary contribution to the theological reading of Scripture.


John Hilber

John W. Hilber (PhD Cambridge University) serves as Professor of Old Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He is the author of Cultic Prophecy in the Psalms (Walter de Gruyter, 2005), a commentary on the Psalms (Zondervan, 2013), and his essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Oriental Society and Vetus Testamentum. He recently completed a year-long sabbatical as a Senior Fellow at the Henry Center where he worked on reading Genesis with relevance theory.


As with any archaeological dig, unearthing ancient Near Eastern backgrounds for Old Testament exegesis is a delicate affair, and those who attempt it quickly get their hermeneutical hands dirty. John Hilber brings a new tool, relevance theory, to the task, enabling him to sift through cosmological assumptions and identify the ones that are operative. What Hilber here discovers is not an artifact, but a precious interpretive insight that shines new light on the divine accommodation of Scripture.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

By engaging with relevance theory, Hilber has provided a dimension of comparative studies that was both lacking and sorely needed. This approach will help readers to understand the concept of a cognitive environment and how important it is for interpreting not just the opening chapters of Genesis, but the entire Bible. . . . Hilber’s judicious balance is evident throughout the book and his insights will become a fundamental aspect of my writing and teaching. Brilliant!

John H. Walton, Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College

How many adjectives can I pile up to describe the helpfulness of this work? In its content, it is knowledgeable, thoughtful, conscientious, and judicious. In its style it is clear, engaging, and inviting. . . . Professor Hilber has served us all well, and we owe him our thanks!

C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary

In communicating to ancient Israel, God accommodated his message to Israel’s cultural context. But what are the dynamics of this contextualization strategy and how does it impact our understanding of the Genesis 1 creation account? John Hilber tackles these issues with mature scholarly insight, using relevance theory to support his thesis. Along the way, one finds concise, well-researched discussions of relevance theory, ancient cosmology, and accommodation. This is a must-read.

Robert B. Chisholm Jr., Chair and Senior Professor of Old Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary

Book Reviews

Hilber’s volume is concise and adroit. He provides a user-friendly introduction to relevance theory. He demonstrates that it provides the needed “missing link” between the ancient Near Eastern cultural background for the Old Testament (which the historical-grammatical method already recognized) and the clear observations by Augustine and others on the need for divine accommodation in the text.

Ralph Stearley

Professor Emeritus, Calvin College

Calvin Theological Journal 56, no 2 (2021): 335–341.

Ancient readers would appreciate that they employed metaphor and symbolism and were not to be read as naively literal, though one might ask whose cognitive environment is envisioned: that of Moses, or a postexilic audience, and what difference might that choice make? This portion of the volume will provide insight for those interested in biblical creation texts themselves. The remainder looks at divine accommodation, making Godself understandable to humans. Since this discussion ‘presupposed that the Bible is divinely inspired’ (p. 136), it will mainly be of interest for those sharing that presupposition. They should find useful the survey of the development of the document through history as well as its relevance in several sample passages taken from both the Old and New Testaments.

David Baker

Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Ashland Theological Seminary

Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 45, no 5 (2021): 108-109.

John Hilber’s Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation: A Relevance Theory Approach presents a thoughtful and well-researched discussion of divine accommodation related to cosmology and provides an introduction to relevance theory.

Daniel E. Moore

New England Bible College and Seminary

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 64, no 1 (2021): 164–166.