The Bible: Literal or Literary?

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.

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11 responses to “The Bible: Literal or Literary?

  1. Found your blog sort of by mistake, but I really enjoy and appreciate your perspective. This post on scripture has summarized beautifully where I am in my current relationship with the Bible.

  2. Pingback: » The Bible: Literal or Literary?

  3. To me, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. God did not physically pen every word that is recorded. God, thru the Holy Spirit, inspired men to record the words written there. The four gospels are filled with accounts of what men witnessed while walking with Christ. Why are the accounts different? Each one wrote from their own perspective. If four different people witness the same car accident, each person would have their own experience of what they saw and experienced.
    There are several differing prayers that are recorded in the Bible. Each prayer recorded was for that specific situation. The prayer of Jabez was one such prayer. I certainly don’t say the same prayer that I pray over my food when I pray for my family. The prayer of Jabez was used to bring our attention to the fact that we are not to live in bondage, but in freedom and blessing. It was a for a certain situation and time.

  4. You covered a lot of ground, Kelsey. And you did it well. I particularly liked your introduction of the term “narcigesis”; I had not encountered it before. It is a very useful term for a prominent approach to the Bible, which is often encouraged in books for daily devotions.

  5. Just great stuff, like here: “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.” As an English major and someone who reads extensively, I often see metaphors and allegories at work exposing deeper meanings of the text. Such literary devices serve to keep the text fresh and alive, too.

    Bookmarked. 🙂

  6. April, sorry this reply is so long. I just started reading your blog, and this entry really resonated with my own experience. I just got here a day ago, following an internet rabbit trail, trying to figure out what has been happening in my town of Moscow ID, during the 2 months I’ve been away. Thanks for all of your thoughtful posts about that.

    My life also has changed so much since I let go of biblical literalism. I actually read the Bible much more now, because so many things I had found baffling have actually started making sense. I’ve also realized how important historical and narrative research is, and that has opened up new worlds of meanings in the ancient world for me.

    For example, I recently read a careful analysis by Ched Myers of this passage in Mark:

    [Mark 8:14-21 — Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’]

    Everything is figurative here, and the symbolism eludes even the disciples. With the feeding of the 5000 on the Hebrew side of the Sea of Galilee, after breaking the 5 loaves (5 for the books of the Torah), there are 12 baskets remaining — enough left for all the 12 tribes of Israel. With the feeding of the 4000 on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee, there are 7 baskets left — enough left for all the peoples of the world, not just for the Jews. (In the ancient world, 7 often represents the entirety and completion of all creation). Jesus’ one loaf, this spiritual food, is not only sufficient for all Hebrews, but indeed for all peoples. Yet from both the Hebrew and Gentile power structures are yeasts that threaten to spoil this one loaf: the exclusionary purity of the Pharisees and the oppressive Roman imperialism Herod enforces.

    Anyway, before I let go of biblical literalism I never would have dreamed that such meanings were reflected in a passage like this. I would have just shrugged and said, “That’s cool, Jesus can do magic.”

    All of it is because, as you said, the Bible is too important to take literally.