When I was in my late teens, I recall my parents going away on holiday and leaving behind my younger sister and me to fend for ourselves for a few days. To prevent arguments from occurring, my sister and I had our own separate stash of food in the fridge. We agreed that I wouldn’t touch her food, and she wouldn’t touch mine.
However, when it comes to teenage boys, there is no end to their appetite. Consequently, I ate through my share of the food rather more quickly than perhaps I should have. Upon returning to the fridge later and finding my shelf completely bare, I naturally turned to my sister’s supplies. Among them was a rather tantalizing bunch of grapes that I thought might satisfy my craving.
But, of course, I needed an explanation — or perhaps a justification — for my willing theft, and so did what men have done for millennia in such situations. I turn to the Holy Scriptures. I swiped my sister’s grapes and left in their place a short, hand-written note with the words of Dueteronomy 23:24 on it, that rather helpfully say: “You may eat as many grapes as you wish.”
Who am I to argue with Scripture? How could anyone disagree since it’s in the Bible — plain as day — in black and white. You can’t miss it!
The Bible is clear!
Almost every time I write about religion, I am greeted with a comment from some well-meaning Christian who is determined to save me from my wicked Biblical liberalism: “The Bible is clear,” They say.
Recently, I penned a couple of pieces about Hell. I expressed my doubts about whether a loving God would send any of his children to a place where they would burn for all eternity. This attracted the ire of quite a number of readers, like this guy:
Despite the confidence of his rather uplifting take on our eternal future, I was not convinced of the Bible’s “clearness” on this matter. In fact, I was writing about hell in the first place because it was not clear to me — even though I hold a theological degree.
For some reason, Christians like to use this throwaway line — “The Bible is clear” — as if it ends all arguments. In fact, all it does is make the person who says it sound arrogant — as if their understanding of a particular Biblical text is the one, true and correct one. It is a statement that is dripping with condescension. You might as well say, “What the Bible says is obvious, you idiot! You’re so dumb for not seeing it as I see it!”
As likely as I am to change my mind by being given such a loving and compelling exhortation, it doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is NOT clear about many things on which people THINK the Bible is clear. In fact, reading the Bible at face value and taking a literal view is fraught with danger.
Why, everyone might end up taking everyone else’s grapes! Can you imagine?!
The problem with taking a literal view
According to Wil Gafney, associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, “Literal readings of Biblical texts can also lead to fraudulent readings, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims, and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.”
In other words, when it comes to reading the Bible, you ought to take a more nuanced approach than merely accepting everything you read as fact, or else you’ll end up looking a little bit silly. Here are a few really good reasons to be a little bit less confident in your ability to see the clear, intended meaning when you read the Bible:
1. Your worldview is different
As a white male living in a 21st century western nation, I have no idea what it was to be an ancient Jew living in first-century Palestine. And unless you’re an ancient Palestinian Jew who has somehow time-traveled to right now, then you don’t either.
Not only that, I do not know how they viewed the world back then. I understand little about what they believed, their culture, their social structures, their systems, or the things that troubled them in those times.
Consequently, when I view these ancient Biblical stories through the lens of a 21st-century worldview, I am bound to distort those stories in some way, or at least understand them differently from the way they were intended to be understood.
2. Literalism fails the language test
The Bible is full of all kinds of nuanced language. Some of it is poetic. Some of it is symbolism. Some of it is hyperbole. You’ll find irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, and quotes in and out of context in the Bible. What is more, I reckon if you were to sit and listen to Jesus live with an ancient Palestinian worldview, you may well have found him hilarious because he definitely used humor as well.
So, when Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away,” do you think he literally wants you to do that? How many one-eyed people would we have walking around if that were true? Or do you think it possible that Jesus was exaggerating to make a point?
3. Context is king
My theology professor always used to say, “If you take a text out of context, then you are left with a con.”
That is how I ended up taking my sister’s grapes. You see, the verse in Dueteronomy that says, “You may take as many grapes as you wish,” was actually part of an ancient welfare system for caring for the poor and needy. In those days, poor people were allowed to go into their neighbor’s vineyard and pick and eat grapes, so they didn’t go hungry. They were allowed to fill their mouths, but not their baskets — a ground-breaking social welfare reform in its day.
The fact that I used this verse to flog my sister’s grapes demonstrates how I can take a verse and make it mean whatever I want it to if I remove it from its context. All Biblical texts have their context in their original culture and the verse, chapter, and book they are a part of. And, all parts of the Bible must be viewed within the overarching metanarrative of the whole Bible. When you pull out various parts to prove some point, you are taking a text out of its context and trying to sell us a con.
4. All rules have exceptions
It is wrong to assume that all rules are always correct in all circumstances. The fact is that most rules have exceptions. Each law is meant to apply to cases under certain conditions, but when those conditions are not met, then the rule is inapplicable.
For example, one of the Ten Commandments — “Thou shall not kill” — when taken literally, would make it immoral to kill someone, even in self-defense. However, other passages in the Old Testament seem to allow for the killing of another person in a variety of situations — not to mention all the times that God apparently sent his people off to war.
So, we see the danger again in applying the Bible literally. All biblical commands need to be read in the broader context of the many books of the Bible — and those books often call for exceptions to the general rules.
Remember that every time God chooses mercy — say in choosing to forgive — he breaks his own rules that demand justice. The rules demand that the woman caught in adultery ought to be stoned to death, but Jesus lets her off Scott-free!
5. There are parts of the Bible you can’t explain
Adam and Even were apparently the first two human beings on the face of the earth. They had two sons — Cain and Abel. They had no daughters.
How did humanity survive since — as far as I know — women are required for procreation? The answers are a bit troubling, aren’t they? Either the boys had sex with Mom, or God created a few wives for the boys. Unless you can think of another explanation, that’s really what it comes down to, right?
After Cain kills Abel, he is banished but then a few verses later, he returns — not by himself — but with a wife. Where did he find her? You can’t explain it, can you? The Bible doesn’t tell you.
What can you conclude from this? The Bible doesn’t tell the whole story. There must be things that are true that are not in the Bible.
6. The Bible is someone’s interpretation
Imagine that what you are reading in the Bible is literal historical fact (which some people will argue black and blue is the case). Many people fail to realize that what is recorded in the Bible is still someone’s interpretation of what happened.
The author has written down their understanding of events that they have witnessed. Are they capable of spinning a story a certain way? You bet!
Don’t believe me?
Have you heard of King Josiah? If not, you should have because whoever wrote about him in the Bible said of him, “There was no king like him.” He was apparently Israel’s greatest King! The problem with that is that the Bible also said exactly the same thing about King Hezekiah a few chapters earlier. How could the Bible call two different kings the greatest?
It’s simple. Who is the greatest is not a matter of fact. It’s a matter of interpretation.
7. The Bible is an unfolding revelation
The revelation of God is dynamic, not static. Many things that were practiced particularly in the Old Testament — that even appear to be condoned by God — would be considered morally reprehensible today.
In fact, we see a moral progression in humans even between the Old and New Testaments. For example, Christians in the New Testament had dispensed with many of the questionable practices in the Old Testament — like polygamy, for example.
Instead, they used their good judgment and, dare I say it, the guidance of the Holy Spirit to progress humanity. That is precisely as it should be. As we continue to learn about our world, we continue to develop new understandings of his divine will — as we must.
Slavery is another example of something that appears to be ordained by the Bible but is universally condemned today as a violation of Christian values. Moreover, it was Christians, like William Wilberforce, who led the abolition movement. Similarly, many today recognize the need to reconsider ancient attitudes towards homosexuality expressed in the Bible.
Just because something was written down thousands of years ago does not make it unchangeable, universal, moral law. The Bible is full of cultural laws that have changed — and must continue to change. Even Christians must concede that there are many ancient laws in the Bible that we have dispensed with — and rightly so.
A different approach to the Bible
Personally, I believe that the Bible is a literary masterpiece — a 66 book compilation written over thousands of years by dozens of authors that somehow manages to tell one coherent and compelling story.
I read it, seek to understand it, wrestle with what it says, discuss it with others, and try to let its words shape me into a better person. I love the Bible, and I take the Bible seriously — But I don’t take it all literally.
What is more, there is absolutely no way that I am going to go around pretending that my interpretation of the Bible is clearly the correct one — no matter how much I hope that it is. That is simply because I am far too capable of reading my own meaning into a text, only to confirm my own biases. It’s not that I don’t trust the Bible. It’s that I don’t trust myself.
Therefore, when it comes to the Bible, I’m going to take a gentler approach. I’m going to speak of my understanding of the Word of God as one who has opinions rather than facts. I’m going to speak of the Word of God as one who appreciates mystery as much as knowing. And I am going to speak of the Word of God as one who trusts the God described within its pages more than I trust my ability to interpret those pages.
Now, I’m off to get some grapes.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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