A group of people are gathered study the Bible. Various opinions are exchanged. “I wouldn’t take that literally,” someone says finally. Often, that is the moment that people move on. Not taking it literally is very often the excuse not to bother to figure out what a Bible passage has to say at all.
Now before you decide that I’m a Biblical literalist, let me assure you that there are plenty of things in the Bible that should not be taken literally. But determining what in the Bible should be taken literally and what should not is a bit more complex than simply finding those passages that don’t make any sense, or that contradict modern science or historical knowledge, and then deciding that it’s not literal, so it’s OK. But what does “not literal” mean?
But first, let’s consider what “literal” means. It’s not quite as simple as some think it is. “Literal” is not a synonym for “true” or accurate, though it is often treated that way. In fact, it is very difficult to define “literal” very precisely at all. We can think of a continuum starting with the most literal speech. “I am typing on the computer keyboard” is a literal statement, and also obviously true (though it won’t be by the time you read this!). On the other hand if I say “the butterflies of delirious joy are flitting through my consciousness” nobody is likely to take me literally. There is a state of mind that is described by this statement, but my consciousness is not a space, and there are no butterflies flying there. Between that we have more and less literal ways of expressing things.
In addition to determining how literal or figurative the language is, we need to determine precisely what kind of literal or figurative language is being used. For example, Genesis 1 describes creation in seven days. It is important to know whether it is intended as a poetic description, liturgical language, or narrative history. It will mean very different things in each of these cases. Sometimes it is important to determine if a figurative passage is a parable, an allegory, a report of a vision, and whether it is poetic or not.
Even literal passages can have different styles, and different focuses. Consider the difference between Samuel-Kings and the gospels. Both are considered historical narrative by their authors in some sense, but the presentation is somewhat different. Chronology is a key issue in Samuel and Kings, whereas theological theme, and the logical presentation of the mission of Jesus is emphasized in the structure of the gospels. If you look at the events of the life of Jesus in the four gospels you will find many chronological discrepancies, but if you change your perspective and look at it from a thematic point of view, the arrangement will make more sense. Both Samuel-Kings and the gospels are historical narrative, but the types of answers you can expect from each are different.
The key point out of all that is simply that just because a passage is not literal doesn’t mean that it does not have meaning. Meaning can be expressed in many different ways. The problem for the interpreter is to be very careful to determine just what method of presentation the author is using. You will get the wrong message if you assume the wrong method of presentation.
So how do you tell just how literal or figurative a passage is? Here are some pointers:
- The key method is one we use in daily life. If the symbol won’t work or doesn’t make sense literally, it is likely to be figurative in some way.
People hesitate to use this method with reference to the Bible, but it is usually quite applicable. Since we know through scientific study that the world did not come into existence in six literal days, we can guess that Genesis 1 is not, in fact, literally true. (But see my discussion of a change of cultural context below.)
- Ask who the audience is, and what questions they might have wanted answered.
It is very unlikely that the author is going to be answering questions that did not interest his audience. Much lousy Biblical interpretation results from failing to consider this issue.
- Look first for the meaning of symbols in the cultural context of the readers.
Since we can generally assume that the writer was trying to communicate with his readers, we can also assume that he would use symbols that they can understand. Only when known symbols have been exhausted should we look for ones that range widely away from the immediate cultural context.
- Expect more symbolic language in poetry.
- Expect more symbolic language in prophetic oracles.
- Expect almost exclusively symbolic language in reports of visions and dreams.
- Don’t be afraid to use common sense and your knowledge of the physical world.
Many Bible students are afraid that if they compare Biblical statements to their knowledge of the physical world, they will be denying the Bible. But your knowledge of the physical world is also a part of the context of God’s communication with you.
- Ask others to justify their own conclusions on whether something is literal or figurative.
Don’t allow the assumption that a passage should be taken literally unless it can be demonstrated that it is figurative. Each passage should be considered starting from a neutral position.
I want to make one last comment about the changing context, because it applies directly to Genesis 1-11 (prehistory). It is quite possible that this passage was understood literally by those who first wrote, heard, and read it. There was no reason for them to believe that things had happened otherwise. The question for the interpreter is whether the passage is intending to provide us with the literal history. An alternate possibility, even probability, is that the elements of the story of creation were already present in the culture, and that the author of Genesis pulled these elements together into the story. For some discussion of the purpose, see my essay Genesis Creation Stories.
Bottom line: Don’t be forced into accepting any claim that a passage should be taken literally or figuratively.
Ask for supporting evidence.