Should We Read The Bible Literally?

There is often a question in reading the Bible about the “literal” meaning of the text. Stemming from controversies with fundamentalist readers, we find ourselves wondering…

Did God create the world in 6 days less than 6000 years ago?

Was there really an ark that held all every single creature in it?

How accurate are the numbers when they claim tribes and armies in the tens of thousands?

How could Jonah survive in the belly of a giant fish (and what fish in the world is large enough to swallow a man) for three days?

Who was Cain’s wife?

…and so on. Reading many of these things “literally,” by which I mean at face value without any recognition of rhetorical device, leads us to some bizarre and difficult interpretations.

Which is why I present this week’s Catholicism in Focus on that very topic. How do we, as Catholics, read the Bible?

In addition to this video, I would like to offer to additional bits of information: 1) an explanation of why it’s difficult to use the word “literal” (and why it’s in quotes), and 2) scriptural examples of what I speak about in this video.

So first, the word “literal.” Since the 19th century and the rise fundamentalism in Christianity, we have had Christians claiming to read the Bible “literally,” but the fact of the matter is that we have always used this term… only it meant something different. For Catholics, we may become confused by this term in our own writings because the Church still refers to the “literal meaning of the text.” When we say this, we do not mean the reading of the text stripped of rhetorical device but simply “what the human author meant.”

For instance, numbers are often very symbolic in the Bible. In the book of Revelation, we read that there are 144,000 in the kingdom of heaven. Fundamentalist Christians reading literally would say that there are exactly 144,000—not 143,999, not 144,001. They take it without any symbolic understanding, without any regard to what the author meant, just what it says. For Catholics (and many other mainline Christians), we say we read this literally to mean that it refers to the 12 tribes of Israel, times 12 (a number of completeness in the Bible), times 1000 (a number often used to show a great, incalculable multitude, much like we would say, “There were like a million people there.”) What the author meant to say in this symbolic statement, the literal meaning of the statement, was that the kingdom of heaven with consist of people from every nation in such great number that it is impossible to count. The author did not mean that there is a counter at the gate ready to close the door at 144,001.

We use the same word “literal,” but in different ways. Yes, confusing. (But we said it first…)

Second, a few examples of how the Historical-Critical method helps us to understand the text beyond the face-value meaning.

Why not start from the beginning. The very beginning. In Genesis 1, God speaks and things are created. Out of nothing, things come to be. Man and women he creates them. In Genesis 2, God is very human-like, planting a garden, forming man out of clay, breathing life into him. To read this literally, we need some major mental gymnastics. How can God create man and women at the same time simply by speaking and then go and create man first out of clay? How does God speak the world into creation and then go plant it himself later? The more we read, the more we realize that the two chapters represent two different stories written hundreds of years apart. What the authors represent, and why the editor(s) decided thousands of years ago to include both stories, is not because they thought it was scientific fact without contradiction, but because both stories poetically capture truths about God. On the one hand, God is powerful, distant, all-knowing, and beyond creation. On the other hand, God is gentle, near, intimate, and relational. Both sets of statement are true but impossible to convey in one story.

That… and how can we know what happened before we were even created? Really. These passages are not to be taken “literally” because they weren’t meant that way. (For more on this topic, St. Augustine wrote a great explanation in the 5th century.)

Take, then, the passage from Exodus: “But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” At face value, it may seem like God is willing revenge or that attacking the guilty is the right thing to do. Sort of. Until you get into the culture of the day and realize that there was no police force, court system, or prison, and that most cases were handled by people taking the law into their own hands. Someone steals your cow? Well, you go and kill his whole family. Not the greatest… Within that context, a law that says that the penalty is to be the same as the injury is not to be read as giving license to revenge, but rather putting a limit on retribution. You can only do this much, and then move on.

How about Abraham being told to go sacrifice his son Isaac and then being stopped just in the nick of time by an angel. At face value, it may seem very strange God. Why would he ask this terrible thing of Abraham? Did God change his mind at the very end? It just seems bizarre. Until you read some of the writings of the other cultures and religions of the time and realize that human sacrifice to the Gods was not uncommon. Within that context, the story means something different. Abraham, just getting to know this new God, “the LORD,” obeys his order because he accepts that this is what the gods want. But then, after he shows his loyalty, God steps in and emphatically stops him, showing that He, the true God, does not require human sacrifice. The story reveals that this God is different, that he will not stand or accept those sorts of sacrifices. You can almost picture the ancient reader hearing this story. “Yup, sounds normal. This god wants a sacrifice. Yup, Abraham obeys. Wait! What?? He said no to the sacrifice?” When it stands in such a contradiction to what the reader would otherwise hear in his/her time, the passage bears  a lot of meaning. Within our own context, that meaning might be difficult to see reading it just “literally.”

Finally, an attempt at redeeming our good friend St. Paul. In Ephesians 5, he famously tells women to be subordinate to their husbands and for husbands to love their wives. Not exactly the sort of family structure most of us want to hear. And yet, many throughout history (including the Catholic Church) and even up to today, read this passage out of context and at face value: women, in every place and every time, you are at the mercy of whatever your husband says. Be subordinate. But we don’t read things out of context. We read this text as it would have been heard in the 1st century, male-dominated culture that it was first heard. “Women be subordinate to your husbands” was as normal and uninteresting as, “Make sure you stay hydrated.” Duh, they would have said. But the second part, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself,” now that‘s where we get somewhere. This passage is not elevating men over women but raising women to the importance of men. In a culture in which the women were property, in which they were totally at the mercy of whatever the man wanted to do, this passage must have been controversial and ahead of its time: “Men, you cannot treat your women as less than yourself, you should treat them as your treat your very selves.” Out of context, we might focus on the first part. But that’s not the purpose of the passage. The purpose of the passage is to remind men that women are equal to them and deserve their love.

I hope this clarification and these examples help, and I hope that this video can offer greater tools in understanding and reading the Bible. If you have any questions about specific passages, be sure to go to my Facebook page and ask me in the comments or personal message!

2 Comments on “Should We Read The Bible Literally?

  1. This has inspired me to take up an 8 week course entitled, ”How To Read The Bible.” This course is close to my local area and run by a Redemptorist priest.

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