Reading the Bible Literally

Some years ago I read something scoffing at Christians for taking the Bible literally. One example the author used was the Bible’s speaking of the sun rising and setting, because of course we know that the Earth revolves around the sun: the sun itself doesn’t rise and set. Yet meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset every day. We understand in the English language what those terms mean while not taking them literally.

Taking the Bible literally means we don’t interpret it as myth or stories, even though it contains a few stories in it. But we understand the Bible uses different expressions of literature which are not strictly literal without detracting from an overall literal approach to the Bible. What are some of these literary devices?

Idioms. Terms like sunrise and sunset, as mentioned, or phrases like “kick the bucket,”  a somewhat slangish euphemism for dying. Making a “bucket list” capitalizes on that idiom to mean having a list of things one wants to experience or accomplish before dying. On a side note, I was amused recently to see someone take that a step further in an article on “my bucket list for the summer,” apparently not knowing the significance of the bucket in that phrase.

A couple of Biblical idioms:

  • The land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” We understand that to mean plenty, not literal rivers of milk and honey.
  • To be “stiff-necked” or to stiffen the neck indicate stubbornness, not a need to see a chiropractor.

Metaphors. A simile compares two things using the phrase “like” or “as”: “Her smile is as bright as a summer day.” A metaphor does the same thing but without “like” or “as.” In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we have this famous metaphor: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

A few Biblical metaphors: ‘Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song of Solomon 1:15b. “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to something not human. “The flower lifted it face to the sun.” “The wind roared.”

Biblical examples: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Bible says that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and as such does not have body parts as we know them. Yet to communicate with us in ways we can understand, the Bible speaks as if He does. “ And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5). Psalm 17:6 says, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.” Deuteronomy 33:27 says, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” We understand that to mean that God’s care is just as real as if He were literally holding us in his arms.

Personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, meaning to treat something abstract or inanimate as if it was human. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems personifies death: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”

Biblical example: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:20-23).

Hyperbole exaggerates something for effect. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Biblical examples: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). “The cities are great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28b).

Poetry uses many of these devices, but poetry itself is often phrased in a non-literal way. To quote Emily Dickinson again:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Biblical examples: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God didn’t actual send in giant birds, a la The Lord of the Rings, but His care of them was just as if He did. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10).

Parables are very short stories with a moral or religious meaning, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They differ from fables in that they have human characters and are plausible, whereas fables use animals, sometimes inanimate objects or nature, and are usually obviously fanciful.

In the Bible, Jesus’s teaching abounds with parables: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the sower, the good Samaritan, etc. But there are parables in other parts of the Bible as well, especially among the prophets, like the one Nathan told that convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.

Symbols involve an item being used to represent something else, like a newscaster referring to the White House and meaning the government: “The White House issued a statement today…”

Revelation is full of symbols. The dragon and the beast, for instance, are not animals but evil people whose characters are represented by those beings. There has been argument over the elements of communion, or the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s table, for years, but it makes the most sense to believe that the elements of bread and wine are symbolic rather than actually containing the body and blood of Christ. One indication of this is the reaction of the disciples as they listened. They were not above questioning and even arguing with the Lord, but no one batted an eye at His statements at the last Supper, indicating that they didn’t think He was advocating cannibalism.

When we listen to the news, read nonfiction, or hear a speech, we can easily discern these literary devices, and we don’t dismiss everything else the speaker or writer says as symbolic or untrue because they use anthropomorphism or an idiom or a metaphor. We’re able to discern from the context whether certain phrases are literal or figurative, usually without even thinking about it, and we get the message the communicator is trying to convey.

I, for one, am glad the Bible uses different literary genres of devices rather than just giving us lists of facts and truths and teachings. Many of us “get” truth in different ways – some prefer it plainspoken, some benefit from a story or illustration. Hearing the same truth in the law, in a parable, in poetry, in prophecy, in an epistle, reinforces that truth to us.

The Bible uses these devices, but the Bible is not wholly a story or parable or fable. There are some who interpret the first two chapters of Genesis or all of Genesis or even the greater part of the Old Testament as myth. But much of the OT is literal history.

The better way to read the Bible is in an ordinary way like you would any other nonfiction, taking it as meaning what the words would ordinarily mean unless the context indicates it is figurative speech. For instance, there is nothing in the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation that indicate anything is meant other than normal 24 hour days. Sure, Peter says “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” but that doesn’t mean every time you see the word “day” in the Bible that it could possibly mean 1,000 years.The ordinary reading of this passage would indicate that creation took place in the span of a week. That’s certainly not beyond God’s power to do. Good people differ on this, and I don’t think anyone’s salvation hinges on whether they think the days in Gen. 1 and 2 are 24-hour days or eons. But I have read accounts where this is taken as mythic or symbolic that then skew other parts of the Bible to mean something quite different from what a more literal reading would indicate. Though good people can differ here and there on some of the fine points, overall a literal approach (except where obviously figurative) is the best.

And by saying that we read it in an ordinary way, I am not discounting that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to open our understanding. The Bible is a supernatural book and we need God’s help to understand it rightly. I just mean that we read it as literal unless it’s obviously figurative.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I am way past the time I allowed for this post, and it’s plenty long already.

A couple of other helpful articles are Taking the Bible Literally (though I’d disagree with him on a couple of points, like hell) and Do Faithful Christian Take the Bible Literally?

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Tell His Story)

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Once again, here are some of the reads I found thought-provoking this week:

How to Read the Bible For Yourself.

Walking in the Spirit. Probably the most helpful explanation I have seen of this. I had long ago noticed the similarities between being filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18-33 and letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly in Colossians 3, and wondered how that worked together. This is the first time I have seen it explained.

How Can I Forgive Myself, HT to Challies. “You do not need to supplement divine forgiveness with any self-forgiveness. Your forgiveness in Christ is complete. Receive it. Remember it. And rejoice in it. If your testimony is, ‘God has forgiven me,’ that is enough!”

For the mom who doesn’t have time to read her Bible. Love this. “Bible time is not only an hour at the crack of dawn, or an intense evening devotion, or a dedicated small group meeting.”

Michelangelo’s David and the Gift of Limitations, HT to The Story Warren.

Do Visitors From Your Church Really Feel Welcome? HT to Challies.

No Time For Widows, HT to Challies. The best part: “Every widow is an individual person. No one likes being lumped into a group and having assumptions made about them based on demographics. The only way to truly help a widow is to get to know her.”

Some questions I’m asking while off to my white evangelical church, HT to Challies.

An Open Letter to the Person Caring for a Loved One With Dementia, HT to True Woman. My own m-i-l was not one to “explode” in anger as is mentioned here, but I know some of you have dealt with that.

It’s Never a Good Time to Invite Kids In.

27 Things People Don’t Realize You’re Doing Because You’re a Highly Sensitive Person, HT to Lisa. I could easily identify with about half of these, and somewhat identify with more.

And a few words of wisdom from Pinterest:

Happy Saturday!

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Book Review: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth

In How to Read the BibleHow to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart attempt to help the reader understand and interpret the Bible with particular consideration of the genre of each book. They explain that the “Its” of the title is deliberate, rather than “It Is,” saying, “‘Its’ is a deliberate wordplay that works only when it appears without the apostrophe; and in the end our own emphasis lies with this possessive. Scripture is God’s Word, and we want people to read it because of its great value to them. And if they do it ‘for all it’s worth,’ hopefully they will also find its worth.”

The first chapter covers general principles for reading and understanding the Bible: exegesis, “the careful, systematic study of Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning,” which involves learning “to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text,” questions of context (historical and literary) and content; interpretation, and hermeneutics, learning “to hear that same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day.” They insist, several times over, that we must understand what the text meant to the original readers before attempting to apply it to ourselves.

The concern of the scholar is primarily with what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error—because it lacks controls. Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical skills—common sense.

Whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to think that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Let it be said at the outset—and repeated throughout—that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before. Interpretation that aims at, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task. The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.”

Because the Bible is God’s Word, it has eternal relevance; it speaks to all humankind, in every age and in every culture.

The second chapter deals with the different translations of the Bible. You may not agree with the one they feel is best (I later learned one of them was on the translation committee for it), but this chapter will help you appreciate the difficulties involved in translating and the reasons there are so many translations, but will also reassure you that we have a few today that are especially accurate and trustworthy. There are a number of considerations, but the main differences in translations are those which use formal equivalence, “the attempt to keep as close to the ‘form’ of the Hebrew or Greek, both words and grammar, as can be conveniently put into understandable English”; functional equivalence, “the attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way of saying the same thing in English” at the time of the translation, and free translation (or paraphrase), which is more concerned about translating the ideas rather than the “exact words of the original.”

The problem with a “free” translation, on the other hand, especially for study purposes, is that the translator updates the original author too much…On the one hand, these renditions often have especially fresh and vivid ways of expressing some old truths and have thus each served to stimulate contemporary Christians to take a fresh look at their Bibles. On the other hand, such a “translation” often comes very close to being a commentary, but without other options made available to the reader. Therefore, as stimulating as these can sometimes be, they are never intended to be a person’s only Bible; and the reader needs constantly to check particularly eye-catching moments against a true translation or a commentary to make sure that not too much freedom has been taken.

The rest of the book’s chapters discuss the different genres of literature in the Bible: epistles, narratives, Acts, the gospels, parables, the law, the prophets, the psalms, wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon), and Revelation.  They apply the principles they discussed in Chapter 1 to each and also discuss their forms and the particular difficulties or concerns in reading and interpreting each one. For instance, concerning the epistles, the authors  “offer the following guidelines, therefore, for distinguishing between items that are culturally relative on the one hand and those that transcend their original setting on the other hand and are thus normative for all Christians of all times.” Of the OT narratives, they say:

Our concern in this chapter is to guide you toward a good understanding of how Hebrew narrative “works,” so that you may read your Bibles more knowledgeably and with greater appreciation for God’s story. Unfortunately, failure to understand both the reason for and the character of Hebrew narrative has caused many Christians in the past to read the Old Testament story very poorly. If you are a Christian, the Old Testament is your spiritual history. The promises and calling of God to Israel are your historical promises and calling. Yet, in our experience, people force incorrect interpretations and applications on narrative portions of the Bible as much as or more than they do on any other parts. The intended value and meaning are replaced with ideas read into rather than out of the text.

Old Testament narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings…[and] are not intended to teach moral lessons. The purpose of the various individual narratives is to tell what God did in the history of Israel…

However, even though [they] do not teach directly, they often illustrate what is taught explicitly and categorically everywhere.

One crucial thing to keep in mind as you read any Hebrew narrative is the presence of God in the narrative. In any biblical narrative, God is the ultimate character, the supreme hero of the story.

Even though the chapters on the different genres make up the bulk of the book and I have multitudes of places marked in them, for the sake of space and time I’ll stop there.

They have an appendix for “The Evaluation and Use of Commentaries” and their recommendations for good ones.

Overall, though I would not agree with every little point, I found the book very helpful. Though there is value in reading it through as a whole, I think there would be more value in reading the chapter on a particular genre just before reading that genre, and I may try to do that, or at least refresh myself on some of the applicable points, on starting a new genre in my own reading.

The authors are scholars who try very hard to make their points readable and understandable to the average layperson, and they mostly succeed. I don’t know if this is a book I would give to a brand new Christian right off the bat, though. It might be overwhelming, like trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant. But maybe not. Maybe it would help people get off on the right foot.

One frustration was that the authors often referred to what they called “How to 2” for further reading or for information they evidently didn’t want to reprint here. Since this is a third edition of the book, I thought they were referencing the second edition, and wondered why they didn’t just include that information here. But as I reread the first part, “How to 2” is referring to a different book of theirs, How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

I got this book on a Kindle sale because I had seen it referred to often, and it happened to be the third edition, which apparently is no longer available in the Kindle format. There is now a fourth edition, though, available both for print and ebook form.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, and Carole’s Books You Loved)

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I usually go a couple of weeks or more between these, but had so many, I decided to go ahead and list them. These are all thought-provoking reads found in the last week or so.

Believing in the somehow.

God’s Work in Your Bible Reading. “The Bible was precious because it mediated a sight of God, and a relation to God, which are sweeter than any other experience. This was the spring of what Sweeney called ‘Edwards’s lifelong love affair with Scripture.'”

Rethinking Phil. 4:13. It’s for far more than positive thinking and winning ball games.

How many days would it take to read through the Bible? A friend and missionary tried reading straight through the Bible in a week and discussed it here, then followed up with Meditations on binge-reading the Bible afterward.

Friends your age are not enough. We need friends of all ages.

#NotMyPresident. I’ve been appalled at some of the reaction to the president-elect. Many of us weren’t happy with the last two elections, but we didn’t act like this. I don’t agree 100% with everything about Trump, but, as a Christian, I appreciated this perspective.

Why Kids Ask Why (and How to Respond Lovingly)

Want to raise successful boys? Children, especially boys, learn better when they have more opportunities to move around than the average school gives them.

Must Christian Homeschool? Well thought-out response from Rebekah.

More than slightly Christian novels. Yes! This resonated with me.

Writing tips from Charles Spurgeon, HT to Challies.

And finally, someone posted this on Facebook, and I found it adorable:

Happy Saturday!

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I found quite a bit of good reading the last couple of weeks. Hope something here piques your interest:

Grace Incognito. “What if the point isn’t sprinting across the finish line in record time, but knowing God in every halting, baby step along the way?”

Grace-paced Living in a Burnout Culture. The “Mrs. Grace” illustrations were probably the best I’ve seen showing what life lived with an overflow of God’s grace to us is looks like.

What Should Be One of My Chief Aims at Church?

3 Ways Understanding Jesus’s Cultural Context Helps Me.

Here’s How I’m Fighting the Lies of Self-pity.

19 Spurgeon Quotes for Coping With Stress and Anxiety.

When the Doctor Says to Terminate.

Children and Sleep-overs: What Parents Need to Know.

Master Your Time: 5 Daily Scheduling Methods to Bring More Focus to Your Day, HT to Challies.

The Things All Women Do That You Don’t Know About, HT to Lisa. Sad, but true. (Warning: a bit of bad language).

Here’s What Goodwill Actually Does With Your Donated Clothing.

5 Reasons You Need Fiction, HT to Lisa.

Did you know they were making a new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast? With Dan Stevens (Matthew on Downton Abbey) as the Beast? Here are some photos from it, HT to Carrie. This is one of my favorite fairy tales and the Disney film one of my favorite Disney movies. I hope they do this well and don’t toss in anything objectionable. Looks good so far.

And finally, my oldest son posted this video called “Unsatisfying,” and right at first I thought it was frustrating, but before long I was laughing. Some of the little touches, like the squeaky windmill, are great and the soundtrack, though I love the piece (Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings), is perfect.

Happy Saturday!

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Here is a short but good list of reads discovered in the last week or so:

How We Read the Bible Matters, HT to True Woman.

5 Ways to Wound Immature Believers.

Love Ain’t Easy, Part One: Making Changes. I’ve been enjoying Melissa’s series this week on “Love Ain’t Easy,” particularly this first segment.

Bathsheba’s Legacy – The Woman Behind Proverbs 31. Loved this look into Bathsheba’s teaching to her son. I also liked the balanced way David and Bathsheba’s sin was discussed here. I’ve seen/heard the fault for it blamed primarily on one or the other, usually through speculation rather than Biblical revelation, but there was likely fault on both sides.

The Great Parental Freak Out. Loved this.

Let Them Wait: 5 phrases that are OK to use (and your child will survive!)

5 Pieces of Writing Advice from Some of The Most Influential Christian Writers Alive.

And don’t forget the giveaway for Adam Blumer’s great mystery, The Tenth Plague.

Happy Saturday!

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It’s a busy time of year, but I’ve found a bit of good reading online that I can recommend to you:

The Need to Be Prepared Robs You of the Delight of Doing. Nothing wrong with preparation, but sometimes we miss out by not being spontaneous.

Ten Ideas For Helping Children Fight Greed at Christmastime.

You Don’t Need a Date Night. Nearly everything you read about marriage says you do, but what you actually need is focused time together, no matter what you do. Date night work best for some couples, but other activities work better for many.

Good King Wenceslas. I love this carol and found this background to it very interesting.

Plan Your 2016 Devotions With a Bible Reading Calendar.

Should I Curtail Grandparent Gift-Giving?

Writing For an Audience of None.

Finally, someone posted this on Facebook, and I thought it was pretty funny. 🙂

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This too…

Happy Last Weekend Before Christmas. 🙂