DISCLAIMER: This blog post will refer to passages of the Bible that use ungodly sexual language that is innappropriate to ever talk about.
(I’m being sarcastic of course, making a point of how context matters and speaking of certain subjects, even in mixed company, is not always innappropriate or ungodly, since God Himself uses such language…)
Now, it has been said by some believers (much more so today than throughout time) that the Bible must be completely literal. After all, it is God’s infalliable word to mankind, so it must mean exactly what it says. Also, since it is for all people, God mustn’t use figurative language or metaphors that would not be readily understood by everyone. If we don’t read it literally, how can we ever know what it really means? How can we really know if something is figurative vs. literal? And what would keep someone from just saying anything they don’t like is just figurative (like most unbelievers do when they talk about Jesus as a great guy who didn’t really die and rise from the grave)?
This comes up a lot for me, being a partial preterist, because I believe that in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, Jesus not literally talking about the end of the world, stars falling, etc. Instead, I have the nerve to suggest that Jesus was using figurative language from in the Old Testament to vividly describe the coming fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple to His totally Jewish disciples who had began that very conversation by asking about the temple…
Now, being as literal as possible may sound good in soundbites and platitudes, but there’s several problems with this idea of super literalism:
People Have Never Spoken or Written In A Completely, 100% Manner
This one is relevant to believers and detractors of the Bible alike: Even today, we use figurative language and metaphors and idioms all the time without thinking about it. We do it because we know that the listener will understand what we are saying even better than if we said it literally. We’re not liars while we do it; we are expressing the truth, just in different words that are meant to be understood as such. Why do we assume that God could not possibly have communicated His message in such a way to its original recipients.
For the Christian, I should note that this also occurs in church services, where the word of God is being explained to people.
Like anything message we would give to anyone today, the books of the Bible had a specific audiences (which is why they were written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, not English…sorry King James only crowd).
The Assumption That Everything in God’s Word Must Be Simple and Easy For Anyone to Understand is Untenable
If we insist that God must have made the scripture so that anyone could understand it without needing to know any background, we have a bigger problem than just the existence of idioms and metaphors. How many people know ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic? Not a lot, and those who do had to make a special effort to learn them. If God must have written the scriptures so that anyone could naturally understand them in any time or place, why were the actual inspired writings not written in every language that would ever exist from their composition to the end of the world? Why were they not written in some universal language? Idioms and symbols may elude some people on occasion, but if you don’t understand the language, you won’t get a single word out of it.
If we are going to play this “if you don’t take it literally how do you know what it is really saying?” game, we argue into absurdity
(Yes, I am fully aware that the whole Christian message is absurd to outsiders, but bear with me here).
What would the Bible teach if everything were meant to be taken literally?
– God is often described as a Father (e.g. Hosea 11.:1, Isaiah 63:16. Matthew 10:32-33, Luke 11:13). I guess that means that the Quran is right: the God of the Bible must have had a human wife, since He has sons…
– Ancient Egyptians had the genetalia of donkeys and horses (or at least as pronounced as those animals): Ezekiel 23:10.
– The sea was born from a woman (since it was born from a womb): Job 38:10.
– God has physical body parts (e.g. Exodus 33:10, Deuteronomy 11:12, 1 Samuel 5:11, Psalm 10:11). I guess the Mormons are right…I should note that several times in the New Testament, this is said distinctively of God the Father (therefore, not Jesus) (e.g. Matthew 18:10, John 10:29, Romans 8:34, Hebrews 10:31).
– Those who willfully sin after following Jesus are able to physically trample Him under their feet: Hebrews 10.29.
– Our hearts can be made clean by being sprinkled with something (Hebrews 10:22). Does that happen in our sleep, because I don’t seem to be aware of God opening up my chest and washing my heart…
– God rides his angels like horsies: Psalm 18:10.
– God has wings (e.g. Psalm 17:8, 36:7, 57.1, Isaiah 40:31).
– The wind also has wings: Psalm 104:3.
– God has feet (e.g. Psalm 18:9, Ezekiel 43:7).
– Wealth can sprout wings and fly away: Proverbs 23:5
– Perhaps ancient historians just overlooked this but when was God ever seen riding a cloud over Egypt? And do we really think large numbers of people died from their hearts melting? And, how can idols tremble? (Isaiah 19:1-2).
– The king of Tyre is a literal cherub who was in the Garden of Eden: Ezekiel 28:11-19.
– The psalmists sure are concerned with how well they walk…(e.g. Psalm 17:5, 56:13, 66:9).
– Psalm 58 sure is bizzarre. First, David talks about unjust rulers, and then the wicked. So far so good. But then he says that the wicked have venom, like cobras (Verse 4). I wouldn’t want to be bitten by those people! Then in verse 6, the psalmist calls on God to break their teeth. He immediately, however, asks God to defang some lions. What lions? He doesn’t say what lions or who they belong to. Maybe he means all lions, I don’t know. Either way, that psalm just goes all over the place, as do many psalms…
– God, when rebuking his people, has a tendency to interrupt his thought completely and start talking about individual people who have nothing to do with the Israelites. In Ezekiel 16, he talks about some girl named Jerusalem. God found her left for dead as a newborn infant, and took pity on her. He raised her as His own. For some reason he only decided she needed to wear clothing at puberty. Then she became a whore and worshipped idols. In Hosea 11, God starts talking about his son, a young man named Israel, then inexplicably starts talking about some plural group of people.
– The nation of Edom floats high in the sky: Obadiah 4.
– “The nations” will drink large quantities of some beverage on Mount Zion until they dissappear: Obadiah 16.
– God’s wrath is concentrated into a liquid that people, even the people of entire cities and nations, drink from (e.g. Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 25:15).
– Has anyone ever met this person named “Wisdom” in Proverbs 8?
– The book of Revelation….need I say more?
Not even the most die-hard literalists take the above to be literal, as far as I have read. But why not? They are part of God’s word…Is it because maybe, just maybe, we all know that to some extent, even Holy-Spirit inspired writers might use the same linguistic and literary tools that people have used throughout all of history?
Similar to number 3: We are also faced with many challenging Bible difficulties under this interpretation as well
– When God brought judgment on Babylon, stars and heavenly constellations, even the sun, were all supposed to be darkened (Isaiah 13:10). Babylon was destroyed long ago, as God promised, but the stars didn’t black out for any length of time.
– The stars were supposed to dissolve entirely when God stuck down Edom. Too bad Edom was taken out over 2000 years ago (as God promised), but the stars are still here.
– The book of Zechariah was written well after the fall of Assyria (I’m not saying Zechariah didn’t write it; but nobody places his life or book before 600 B.C.). And yet, he sure talks a lot about God defeating the Assyrians in the future…
– Similar, if Micah 5:6 is talking about literal Assyrians when it speaks of “the Assyrian,” then we have quite a problem if we also say that the person in Verse 2 is Jesus…
– I’m pretty sure that the earth is mostly spherical, yet the Bible speaks of the “ends of the earth” (e.g. Psalm 22:17, Isaiah 52:10, Jeremiah 10:13, Matthew 12:42).
– I know of no neurologist who thinks that the hearts or the bodily core is where are thoughts and emotions come from…
You get the point.
Does this mean that the Bible is flawed or not inerrant? Of course not. Just because it doesn’t mean exactly what its words literally say, that doesn’t mean that everything it says cannot be true in what it, ya know, actually says.
(Originally published 07/19/2011: http://3-ringbinder.blogspot.com/2011/07/literal-and-innerrant-are-not-same.html. Immaterial changes have been made).