I don’t believe that the Bible was intended to be taken entirely literally.
A Word of Warning
Before I get into this, I feel like I should tell you that I absolutely detest arguing about beliefs. I won’t do it. I don’t care about your arguments. I don’t care about the facts you’ve Googled that support your position. (Give me three seconds and I could do the same for my own.) I‘m not interested in debating anyone.
Discussion, though? I’m all about discussion. Let’s stay up late and throw “What if?” questions at each other. Let’s speak our beliefs out loud so we can discover what we think. Let’s play with our ideas and see how they move and fit together. I am not trying to convince you I am right– I’m simply sharing my conclusions. I didn’t exclusively select my beliefs on the basis of logic and reason; I chose them because they reached down deep and made my soul sing a melody that I had never heard but still somehow knew. Maybe they’ll make your soul sing too? Or, maybe they’ll make it screech like an angry rat in a cage. Either way, it should be enlightening.
After growing up in the Church, I didn’t think to question the Bible’s literal accuracy until I was well into my twenties. Up until that point, I more or less accepted the scripture at face value. Creation in six days? Sure. Every animal on the planet inside a boat? Why not? If the Bible said it, that was good enough for me. I was more than happy to sling a Bible open and shove my context into the words on the page, regardless of whether or not it belonged there.
Over the past several years, however, my understanding has begun to shift. I no longer believe the Bible is to be understood as a literal series of facts and historic events. If that makes you uncomfortable, I totally understand. When I first encountered the notion that maybe the Bible wasn’t intended to be read as a textbook, I kind of went off the reservation. I had spent twenty years assimilating my spirituality and after doing some research I found myself trying to decide if those twenty years had been completely undermined. (Hint: They weren’t.)
Wait for the drop
My difficulties began when I took my first Hermeneutics class. If you’re not familiar with the strange word in the previous sentence, it’s basically the study of how we study texts. To say it another way, Hermeneutics examines the methodology used when we interpret something. Something like the Bible. The first day of class, I showed up bright eyed and bushy tailed just in time to have a bomb dropped on me: It turns out, that the Bible was not written for me.
Or us. The same way Shakespeare didn’t write his plays just to frustrate modern day high school students, the Bible was not actively written for a faceless future generation. It was written for the friends, family, and countrymen of the original authors; people that shared a language, a history, and a culture.
This means that in order for us to know what the Bible means today, we have to understand what it meant then. When we come to a problematic text, there is some digging to be done. The definition of the original Hebrew or Greek used, the historical context, the culture of the civilization in question, even the socioeconomic status of the intended audience all deserve to be examined. If this sounds like a lot of work–it is. But this research is the key to understanding the depth of meaning contained in the scripture.
The alternative is to simply approach the Bible as you would any other book. You bring your modern ideas and conventions and try to imbue the words with meaning that the author never could have intended. The problem with this method is that you are substituting the author’s intended purpose for whatever happens to sound good at the moment. (Not to mention how open this leaves you to misunderstandings.)
For example, I wrote a post a while back about a command in Deuteronomy to build railings around a roof. Without doing any of the legwork, this law is just another piece of easily ignored legalism hiding in the depths of the Old Testament. By doing the proper research, it became one of the most affecting scriptures I’ve come across to this day.
So, okay, historical research is great and all, but what does that have to do with taking the Bible literally? The question you have to ask yourself, is did the original author and their original audience believe that the passage in question was to be understood literally?
Let’s examine the creation story found in Genesis. God speaks, the world is formed, and here we are. The Bible says it took six days, science says it took eleventy-billion years(ish?). There is no shortage of Christians who believe that the Bible is providing us with a historic depiction of the creation of the world… It’s entirely possible you count yourself among them much as I used to.
Here’s the thing that shook up my worldview: It turns out that the Biblical account of creation isn’t terribly unique. At least not in the broad strokes. The Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish came centuries before Genesis was written, and bears a striking number of resemblances to the tale found in the Bible. (Matter exists and is ordered instead of brought out of chaos, darkness appears before creation, light appears before the sun or moon, there is a division between land and sea, etc.) If they’re so similar, why bother writing the account in Genesis?
Despite the similarities mentioned above, the narrative of the stories are completely different. The Babylonian story focuses on a dysfunctional family creating the universe through sex and violence. In fact, in most creation stories of the day, the world was born out of blood and terror.
But then there’s the strange God of the Israelites, Yahweh.
Yahweh is different from all of the other gods in the other creation stories. He doesn’t kill his competitors– who could compete with him? He creates something simply by speaking it, no brutality or physical consummation necessary. And then, most scandalous of all, not only does he go on to say that what he has done is good, he loves it. This was something new. Something unheard of.
The creation story isn’t about how the world was created; it’s about the God that created it. The author’s original intent wasn’t to explain the cosmos, it was to provide us with a glimpse of this strange, wonderful God who loved and enjoyed the things in His universe.
But maybe it could be both? That’s possible, I suppose, but… I’m skeptical. There’s nothing I’ve come across that would suggest that the Hebrews or even the Babylonians believed that their stories were true in the literal sense we think of it today. They were okay with hearing a story and examining it for the Truth, literal facts need not be involved.
So if that’s the case, if the creation story was canonized without necessarily being true, what about Noah? What about the tower of Babel? What about the Exodus? Jesus, what about Jesus? Yeah, all of those stories have to be re-examined. I’m not saying that they’re not true, mind you, simply that the context needs to be properly observed. But that’s so different from where we’re at today… How did we get here? Why is the mainstream understanding of the Bible one that is so based on literal fact and hard edged understanding? That story covers several centuries, and it’s an important one to be aware of. We’ll discuss that point next week, and if there’s time, we’ll look at the conclusions one can draw from a Bible that might not necessarily be a historical factual record of events.