Lately, I’ve been thinking about how Christians read the Bible.
I grew up in—and, in many ways, am still part of—a religious community that reads the Bible literally. According to them, the Bible is God’s Word. Every syllable is literal and true and can be objectively verified. They celebrate every time a new archaeological discovery is made that confirms biblical events.
But there are problems with always reading the Bible in this way.
The first problem is a tendency to engage in something called “narcigesis” (narcissism + exegesis)—believing that every verse in the Bible has some sort of great spiritual application for yourself. Remember the Prayer of Jabez that was so popular about 15 years ago? Prime example. Bruce Wilkinson took a 3-line prayer uttered by a hitherto unknown Bible character and sold it as a template for how all Christians should pray.
Yes, Jabez’s prayer appeared to be successful. But Jesus told us how we should pray, and it doesn’t look anything like the prayer of Jabez.
Reading the Bible literally often whitewashes it and strips it of its true meaning and context. We too conveniently forget that the Apostle Paul’s prohibition on women teaching in the church was given specifically to Timothy for the church in Ephesus to guard against a certain kind of false teaching. Too many pastors walk about with the assumption that every scripture is applicable to everyone at all times, fully authoritative, in every situation, forever. It’s just not so. And we do the Church and the gospel a great disservice when we treat the Bible with so little regard—while ironically calling it the highest regard.
The second problem is that reading the Bible literally is a relatively new phenomenon in our history, a gift bestowed upon us by the age of science and reason. Today, people demand evidence for everything. “If it can’t be proven, it’s not worth believing,” they say. “Pics or it didn’t happen.” But the ancient authors didn’t think this way. For them, the truth was much more than a sum of the facts. And that’s good, because rattling off a bunch of facts around the family fire would have made for an extremely boring oral tradition. Remember, the early biblical patriarchs didn’t exactly have paper and pens. Their accounts had to survive long enough to make it onto scrolls.
Have you ever played a game of telephone? How did that work out?
To help their accounts survive, the ancient authors wove them into a narrative. They told stories. If you read through the Bible, you encounter a great many motifs: 40 days, 40 nights, 40 years, 12 disciples, 12 baskets, 12 stones, 12 tribes, 3 days of darkness, 3 hours of darkness, 3 days in the giant fish, 3 days in the tomb. Read the plagues wrought on the Egyptians in Exodus side-by-side with the tribulation plagues mentioned in Revelation. They’re nearly identical.
Why? Because the authors weren’t objective observers recording scientific facts. They were giving firsthand (or secondhand, or third-hand) accounts of their experience of The Divine. The numbers don’t always have spiritual significance, but they do have rhetorical significance. As an ancient author, getting your account of God into the canon of scripture meant building on the stories that had come before. Jewish rabbis concede that Elijah’s journey to Mt. Horeb (a.k.a. Sinai) may not have taken 40 days as the story suggests. But the motif was needed to parallel his story with Moses, who spent 40 years in the desert.
The thing is, if you’re always reading the Bible literally, you’re missing the point of what the Bible is and what it is for.
The Bible is not a history textbook or a science textbook. It’s our illustrative guide to discovering God and communing with Him. We identify with Moses’ cynicism, Elijah’s depression, Job’s lament, David’s humility, Isaiah’s passion, Solomon’s lust, Esther’s fear, Ruth’s tenacity, Jonah’s rebellion, Peter’s doubt, Paul’s zeal, Mary’s submissiveness—and we see a God who loves all kinds of people and interacts with them in many wondrous ways. Many parts of the Bible were written to be chanted, read aloud, sung, and performed. Job is a play. Psalms is a songbook. The Song of Solomon is erotic poetry. Esther is a morality tale. Leviticus is a legal document. Most of the New Testament is personal correspondence.
That doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t true or any less inspired by the Holy Spirit. Of course it’s inspired. The prophets, apostles and patriarchs were real people who had real encounters with God. But if we’re looking to the Bible to provide some kind of scientific validation of our faith, perhaps we’re better off as atheists.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. ~ Hebrews 11:1
The Bible is mankind’s attempt to describe something that is, essentially, beyond our comprehension. A quick skim through Ezekiel 1 makes that quite plain.
The main problem is, we think of the Bible as God’s Word. We call it that. Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. But while the Bible certainly delivers to us God’s commands for righteous living, and is sufficient for all instruction and reproof (2 Tim. 3:16-17), it is not actually God’s Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. ~ John 1:1-3, 14
Jesus is the Word, the logos of God made flesh. When we call the Bible the logos, we put God in a box. We say that the subjective experience of God filtered through men is of greater value than that which embodied God and came directly from Him. We start looking for our purity and righteousness in the pages of scripture rather than the redemption of Christ.
The Bible is deep and beautiful and extremely important to my faith. I take it very seriously and strive to handle the scriptures responsibly. Part of that responsibility is being honest about how the Bible came about and what it really communicates, while keeping Jesus Christ at the center of my salvation.
In short, the Bible is just too important to take literally.