In earlier posts, I’ve discussed if the Bible itself is trustworthy, what to do with the Old Testament in a New Testament Church, how to evaluate the translation process, and other matters of hermeneutics. Today I want to discuss one question I seem to be asked with increasing frequency: can we take the Bible literally.
It’s pretty easy to see how this particular question came to such prominence in people’s minds. The debates on evolution and the age of the earth have given rise to any number of books on either side and places such as the Creation Museum. The creator of the latter continues to showcase the literal reading of Genesis with a full-size replica of Noah’s ark, the case for a global flood writ large on the northern Kentucky landscape contra those who believe Noah’s flood was either local or non-existent. The questions arising from how to properly read Genesis are seemingly endless — and that’s just a single one of the Bible’s sixty-six books. True, fewer issues pop up about things like the atonement or David and Bathsheba, but there are many who would claim things such as the miracles, the Virgin birth, and even the resurrection are either allegory or fiction. (And don’t get me started on nine-tenths of Revelation.)
In true Me fashion, let me say that the answer to “Can we take the Bible literally?” is yes . . . and no. Before you rally the lynch mob or form a posse, let me further state approximately zero percent of its readers takes the Bible 100% literally. If we did, passages such as this from Song of Songs would be either incomprehensible or horrifying: “Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. . . . Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim” (SoS 7:2,4b). Consider also this portion of the Song of Deborah: “At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet, he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell — dead” (Judges 5:27). I think we can all agree Solomon’s lover was not a construct forged of drinking vessels, grain, flowers, and geographic features. Similarly, since his death in Judges 4 never mentions multiple resurrections or a staircase, it’s safe to say Sisera didn’t sink and fall repeatedly after Jael drove a tent peg through his head as he slept.
We can easily recognize both of those passages — and many, many others — as poetry, things said for effect and not to be taken literally. Solomon’s depiction of the Shulammite woman is a very imagetic metaphor; Deborah’s description of the death of Sisera utilizes parallelism to make her point. It’s obvious we take things like form and genre into consideration when reading our Bibles, even if only unconsciously. And the distinctions make a world of difference in our interpretations of those passages.
So when genre and rhetoric would indicate a passage is not to be taken literally (as in poetry and apocalypse), we read it with symbolism in mind, decode the sign systems, and gain meaning from the text. When they seem to say it’s a literal depiction of events (narrative and law, for example), we interpret things literally. It really is a both/and sort of thing.
The hard part is figuring out which is which.
It’s easier for things like most of the wisdom books or Revelation. The imagery alone is enough to tell us they can’t be taken totally literally. But what about Job? Jonah? Miracle accounts? Genesis? Those are harder for some people to figure out. There are arguments to be made on either side, and they get increasingly complex as you go. Taking Jonah as an example, some say it’s an extended parable or a morality tale because of things like the whole fish food incident. Others say it must be literal because it mirrors features of the other prophetic books and there are other biblical references to a prophet named Jonah son of Amittai.
And we all know the Genesis debates.
In the end, will there be a “more correct” way to interpret problem passages? Probably. But since God alone has all the answers, our job is to make a solid biblical and theological case for why we choose to interpret certain passages as literal and others as more symbolic. Once our evidence is in, we take our stand. But no matter how we view a few texts, we can always take comfort in one thing: Jesus literally died for our sins and literally was raised the third day. Rejoice that salvation has come!