Does the Bible lend itself to a LITERAL reading?
Is all the Bible to be read literally?
First off, let me perfectly clear – I’m not saying we are not to read the Bible. Gosh golly nooooo. Read the Bible. Wrestle with it. Struggle with the Word. Argue with Him until it becomes clear. Honestly, if this post is competing for time that you could be reading the Bible, shut me down! Read the Bible instead. It will do your soul good.
Now that you have understood my stance on Bible reading, I suppose I am simply asking that when you read the Bible (remember you should read the Bible), are all portions of the Bible to be read in a strictly literal manner?
Is it true that the best method of understanding the Scriptures is to interpret the message literally?
I suppose that depends.
First off, lets make sure we understand what the term “literal” means.
I checked the definition found on http://www.dictionary.com, and found the following information.
- in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.
- following the words of the original very closely and exactly: a literal translation of Goethe.
- true to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.
- being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy: the literal extermination of a city.
- (of persons) tending to construe words in the strict sense or in an unimaginative way; matter-of-fact; prosaic.
- of or pertaining to the letters of the alphabet.
- of the nature of letters.
- expressed by letters.
- affecting a letter or letters: a literal error.
- a typographical error, especially involving a single letter.
Like I said, reading the Bible literally depends on a number of factors. Let’s consider some of those factors.
The Genre of the Passage
Different genres demand different approaches to interpretation. Types of genres include historical narrative, law, wisdom, psalms, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel or epistle
In a historical narrative passage, such as the taking of the census before the birth of the Messiah, or the crucifixion of the Savior, literalness serves us well.
In an apocalyptic genre, such as in Revelation, where the writer describes scorpions with stinging tails, it would be wise to consider the genre before committing to a literal interpretation of the passage.
As an aside, it is not a literal interpretation to say that the apostle is describing fighter helicopters. That is an effort to interpret John’s vision by defining what he described as an object that is familiar to 20th century western culture. A literal interpretation will be that the scorpions are scorpions.
A Figure of Speech
Is the writer/speaker using a figure of speech. Some types of “figures of speech” are below with examples from the Bible
- Hyperbole– an extravagant statement; the use of exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis or heightened effect.
Jesus used hyperbole often to teach those listening.
Consider Matthew 5:29
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
- Irony/Sarcasm– The use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. A statement or situation where the meaning is contradicted by the appearance or presentation of the idea. When used to taunt or ridicule, it is called sarcasm.
When the Pharisees went to trap Jesus in His Words, John records their saying with irony. The Pharisees didn’t mean it but the irony is is that He is true, teaches the way of God, etc.
Consider Matthew 22:15-16.15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.
Or for a good example of sarcasm, lets take a look at Elijah
1 Kings 18:27
27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”
- Paradox– A statement that appears to contradict itself.
Jesus used this method in His teaching very often.
One example is in Luke 16:19-31
Those who live in poverty and destitution while being looked down upon by the rich and powerful are really the first in the Kingdom, while those who are rich and powerful while looking down on those who live in poverty are really last in the Kingdom.
The first will be last, and the last will be first.
Matthew 22: 1-141 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying,2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,3 and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’5 But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business,6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy.9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment.12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless.13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Just as those who are initially invited to the son’s wedding reject the invitation, those who are initially left out of the wedding plans are accepted as insiders at the wedding banquet. The insiders are out, and the outsiders are in. (If you desire to further study the paradoxical statements of Jesus, I would refer you to http://www.renewtheology.org/paperCFreeman1007.htm .)
- The historical/cultural use of a word/topic/phrase in the scriptures.
A good example of this is the phrase “an evil eye”. In my past reading of the gospels, when I came across the phrase “an evil eye” I understood it to refer to an eye full of hate or maliciousness. After considering the historical use of the term in the Old Testament, I now understand the term to refer to a greedy covetous person. Without the historical use of the term being considered, I could not have come to that conclusion.
Recently another good example of an incorrect use of a cultural phrase occurred in my office, when I noticed my boss had gotten a haircut. I made mention that he had “gotten his ears lowered”, without thinking that that phrase may be cultural. As a Canadian in Texas, this sometimes happens! I had to explain that his ears weren’t actually lowered but that his hair was higher’d, (huh?) Canadians can be so hard to understand sometimes, eh?
Our next post will continue considering the Bible’s message, specifically the intention of the Biblical message.
Hope you continue to visit and open up a discussion.
Thanks again for coming to visit. I hope you found something of interest in this post and would appreciate a comment, to begin a discussion.