Taking the Bible Literally

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We need to understand not only the context of the verses, and the history and the culture; we must also understand that not everything in the bible was meant to be taken directly. We need to pay attention to the genre of each part of the bible.

 

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Understanding the Bible #6

We’ve considered the origins of the bible. We’ve established it’s historicity and reliability. Last time we began to learn a few simple rules for reading the bible and understanding it properly. The first rule was to read the bible in context. It is rarely helpful to read a verse or two, without understanding what came before it. What comes after all increases our understanding. We also need to read the bible in its historical and cultural context. In other words, we ought to understand what it really meant to the people who first heard it or read it, in their culture, before we will be able to properly apply it to our own lives.

Today, I want to look at another important principle of reading the bible: Pay attention to Genre. Another way to look at this rule is this: What kind of writing are you reading? There are many different kinds of literature (writing) in the bible. We need to be aware of them, and consider the writing style before we try to apply the bible directly to our lives. We have already learned that the bible is actually sixty-six different books, written by dozens of different people from dozens of different walks of life. Some parts of the bible are laws. Others are records of family history. There is also great deal of official “court” or government history. There are genealogies – lists and records of family names. Some of the bible is prophecy, and there are at least two different kinds of prophecy. There is a great deal of poetry and song in the bible. The book of Proverbs is mostly made up of, well, proverbs – wise sayings. There are four accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus (we call them “gospels.”) Within Jesus’ teachings are a unique kind of literature called parables. There are a number of letters written by Jesus’ apostles to anyone who wants to follow Him.

I have just listed ten major genres, or types of writing, found in the bible. We need to pay attention to these when we read the bible. We will need to read poetry with a very different approach than we use when we read one of Paul’s letters to Jesus-followers. When we read a historical section, we ought to treat it differently than we treat a prophecy.

I will deal with laws in a sermon all by itself. Today, let’s consider briefly how we might approach the other different genres in the bible.

History: This includes both family history and court/government history. Historical narrative is the record or “story” of real people and real events. As we learned previously, there is no reason to doubt the bible when it gives us historical narrative, and plenty of reasons to believe it. So we read it as a record of something that actually happened. We can get spiritual lessons from historical sections of the bible, but we ought to keep in mind that history isn’t primarily a parable, or an allegory – it is a record of what happened. Because of that, history isn’t always ideal. David committed adultery and murder. The record of those sinful actions is not a teaching telling us that it is okay for leaders to do such things. It is simply telling us what David actually did, not what we ought to do, or even what he ought to have done. In the historical situations, we look at how God dealt with people and nations in the events of their lives, and learn how God may deal with us at times. We look at mistakes and failures, and learn lessons concerning what we ought to avoid. We look at victories, and learn how to trust God to work through us. We see God’s faithful love at work in the past, and take encouragement from it.

Genealogies. I admit, this is the hardest genre for me. Lists of families and names just don’t seem to bring me a lot of spiritual benefit. But every so often, God blesses me through one of the genealogical lists in the bible. For instance, when we start to look at the genealogy of Jesus, listed in Matthew 1:1-17, and investigate what the bible says about some of the ancestors of Jesus, it is a blessing. Many of the physical ancestors of Joseph (in other words, Jesus’ earthly family) and even of Mary (she was related to Joseph) were scoundrels. Two of the women were prostitutes! Yet we see that God gave them grace, and used them anyway. He removed their shame and through them, brought the Messiah into the world. I have found similar lessons in other genealogies. The trick is to look up the people listed, and see what you can learn about them.

Prophecy: I’ve mentioned before that reading biblical prophecy is like looking at a range of distant mountains. From a distance, the mountains look like they are all right next to each other, but when you get closer, you find they are a series of ridges and peaks that go on for some time. The mountains aren’t all lined up side by side, as it looks from a long ways away. From the prophet’s perspective (which is how it is written down in the bible) it looks like all of the future will happen at one time. In reality, as you get closer, some things are fulfilled centuries before other things. So Isaiah talks about the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened 200 years after he prophesied), the return of the exiles from Babylon (which happened 70 years after the destruction of Jerusalem) the coming of the Messiah (which happened about 700 years after he prophesied) and the end of the world (which, as far as I know, hasn’t happened yet). These prophesies about various times are jumbled in amongst each other.

Prophecy also has a message to us in the present, regardless of the predictive element of it. Most of the prophets spoke to people about how to relate to God, and how God loves us, and longs to forgive and care for us. These words are still relevant today. So the comfort spoken to the exiles who would return to Jerusalem is also spoken to us, who seek peace and comfort in the Lord today.

Prophecies are not direct teachings however. We need to understand them in their historical context (as we spoke about last time) and be careful with directly and literally importing everything a prophet says to our own time.

Apocalyptic Prophecy: Parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation contain a specialized form of prophecy called “Apocalyptic Prophecy.” This genre features vivid imagery, key numbers and tends to be extremely confusing. Apocalyptic often reads like someone’s strange dream. Almost nothing in apocalyptic prophecy should be taken at face value. The images and numbers are usually symbolic. For instance in Revelation, the number twelve is very significant. There were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. There were twelve apostles. Therefore, the number twelve is a symbol for “the people of God.” It’s like a code. In Revelation chapter 7, it talks about 144,000 people who were sealed. This just means “the entire amount of God’s people from both Israel and the Church.” 12 tribes of Israel (representing God’s people before the time of Jesus) times 12 Apostles (representing the church, God’s people since the time of Jesus). 12 x 12 = 144. Get it? You will need help to understand what the images and numbers in apocalyptic prophecy mean. And to be honest, there are still things in apocalyptic literature that no one really understands for sure. A study bible will help, but more than anything, let the clear portions of the bible lead you in understanding what is not clear.

Gospels. There are four books that give us historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We read these as we would read history, with two exceptions:

1. When the gospels record the teaching of Jesus, we understand it as teaching. In other words, it isn’t just history. It is also the teaching which Jesus Christ intends us to learn, understand and follow. We must learn it context, like everything else. But it isn’t just a historical curiosity. We are meant to learn it and follow it.

2. Jesus used parables extensively. Almost always, a parable is a story that is not supposed to be taken literally, and it makes just one (at most two) main points. Don’t follow rabbit trails when you deal with a parable. Stick to the main one or two points. So, consider the parable of the good Samaritan. The main point of the story is that the Lord wants us to look after anyone in need – even our natural enemies. He wants us to treat all the people we encounter as “neighbors.” The parable is not there to teach us that priests are all naturally bad people, or that we should regularly travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, or that we should pay for homeless people to stay in hotels. Stick to the main point.

Letters. Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by the apostles to Christians. These letters generally contain teaching, exhortation and encouragement. We are meant to receive them as teaching and instruction. Generally, once we understand the historical and textual context, we take these things basically literally.

Poetry and Song. Poetic language is often not supposed to be taken literally. For our scripture this week, let’s look at Psalm 19.

1 The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky1 proclaims the work of His hands.

2 Day after day they pour out speech;

night after night they communicate knowledge.2

3 There is no speech; there are no words;

their voice is not heard.

4 Their message3 has gone out to all the earth,

and their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens4 He has pitched a tent for the sun.

5 It is like a groom coming from the5 bridal chamber;

it rejoices like an athlete running a course.

6 It rises from one end of the heavens

and circles6 to their other end;

nothing is hidden from its heat.

First, notice that this is laid out like a poem or song. In fact, in the heading of Psalm 19, there is the note: “For the Choir Director.” Most modern bible translations will lay out poetic language in this way, even though we have no music for it, and it does not rhyme in English. This layout is the translators’ way of showing us it is a song, poem or poetic prophesy. Much of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Job is laid out in this way. This lay-out is our first cue for how we should interpret the passage.

Now, in the case of Psalm 19, the writer (David) even tells us the language is poetic. In verse one, he says the heavens declare God’s glory, and pour forth speech. In verse two, he clarifies that we aren’t supposed to take that literally – it’s a word-picture, a metaphor. The sky doesn’t actually talk.

In verses 3-6 David describes the sun. Now, think for a moment. Does this mean that the Bible teaches us that the sky is an actual covering like a tent? Do these verses teach us that the sun actually rejoices? Does it mean that no place on earth can be cold when the sun is out?

The answer to all of those questions, is, of course, no. The language is poetic. We aren’t supposed to take it literally. The point is that God created the sky and all we observe in it, and by the things he set in motion in the sky, we can learn about God. This isn’t a straightforward teaching. It is a song, with metaphors and similes and creative ways of expressing things. We can learn things from it (that God sends messages to us through his creation) but we get that message differently than we do when Paul says the same thing in Acts 14:15-17 and Romans 1:19-20

What can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20, HCSB)

This verse from Romans says basically the same thing as Psalm 19, but in a very different style. That is why genre is important for understanding. Many people make grave mistakes about the bible when they don’t consider the genre. We don’t have to. It is mostly common sense, but we simply have to remember to pay attention.

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