Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Biblical Literalism

Recently, I have been reading about different ways to view The Bible (particularly the Old Testament) and the one that confounds me the most is staunch literalism. Generally speaking, this is the idea that each and every line of scripture is the literal word of God and therefore, carries equal theological weight and authority. If the Bible says that God created the Earth in 6 days, then our world was spoken into existence during six sequential 24-hour periods. If the Bible says that it rained so much that every landmass on Earth disappeared, then that is exactly what happened.

This approach can become rather disconcerting when leafing through some of the more obscure passages of the Old Testament. Take this excerpt:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria. - 2 Kings 2:23-25

While male-pattern baldness is no laughing matter and one could reasonably argue that a large group of able-bodied young men should have done something more productive with their time, it is difficult for me to get on board with this narrative. Even taking into account that Elisha was a prophet (and the successor to none other than Elijah himself) I am still not sure that the ridicule of children necessitated a bear attack. After all, Jesus was constantly under the threat of death and I don’t remember any instances of the forest super-friends being called up to dispense woodland justice.  

The phrasing suggests there were more present than the 42 that were mauled, so why did the rest of them get off Scott free? Were they mauled in any particular order? How exactly is such a passage supposed to shape my theology? Even my study Bible only offered half-heartened conjecture. I certainly don’t see anyone claiming this as a “life verse”.

Song of Songs is another tough book to formulate theology from: 

Your stature is like that of the palm,
    and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, “I will climb the palm tree;
    I will take hold of its fruit.”
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
    the fragrance of your breath like apples,
and your mouth like the best wine.  - Song of Songs 7:7-9

Here we have some erotic poetry, attributed to King Solomon, which features more thinly-veiled sexual euphemisms than a Third Eye Blind album.  It appears to be a transcript of a conversation between an enraptured Solomon and his bride whom he refers to as “my perfect one” and “unique”. 

This is indeed ironic since scripture tells us that Solomon’s entourage included over 700 wives and 300 concubines. I can just see Solomon trying to change the subject a few weeks later when this young maiden confronts him about the fact that he told concubine # 237 the exact same thing last March.

Unlike say, the Ten Commandments, I have yet to hear of anyone fighting to have, “Your breasts are like two fawns” displayed in a courtroom or inscribed upon the walls of a public school. However, if the book’s inclusion in the Old Testament is indicative of its moral authority I see no reason it shouldn’t be.

For the third example, we again find ourselves in the Book of Kings where yet another prophet enforces death by quadruped:

By the word of the Lord one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, “Strike me with your weapon,” but he refused.

So the prophet said, “Because you have not obeyed the Lord, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him. - 1 Kings 20:35-37

Whereas the group of young men died for antagonizing a prophet, this unnamed traveling companion was killed because he refused to assault one. The prophet in question wished to disguise himself as a wounded casualty of war in order to confront King Ahab and needed to look the part. The Book of Kings appears to be sending mixed messages: Taunting a prophet is almost as dangerous as being reluctant to beat one. Doesn't the guy get a second chance? Doesn't the death penalty seem a little harsh for someone who needed a little coaxing to attack an innocent person?

In my opinion, a true Protestant Biblical literalist would be a rare animal indeed. Such a person would be required to keep the entire Deuteronomic Code (no bacon, insubordinate children would be stoned, and all debts must be canceled every seven years) and believe that God condones infanticide and violent abortions (Hosea 13:16). I do not believe that, therefore I tend to view the Bible as a much more complicated text that should be pondered within the context of the situation, the time period and the intended audience. While some might find this view of scripture offensive or even blasphemous, I am not sure Christians do ourselves any favors by adhering to blind literalism.     


  1. 2 Timothy 3:16New International Version (NIV)

    16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

  2. There are a few points that I believe you are missing especially with the accounts of the prophets. God deserves and demands our absolute devotion. At any point that this is not so, He is very clear on the punishment. Absolute destruction. On the contrary, absolute devotion to God grants absolute life. See stories of Elijah and Methuselah. There are times when God computed the sentence and there are times that is enforced immediately.

  3. Exceptional MediocrityAugust 21, 2014 at 5:01 PM


    There are two points about the 2 Timothy 3:16 verse:

    1. There is not complete agreement, even among Christians, as to what qualifies as “scripture.” For example, a Roman Catholic (who also accepts 2 Timothy as scripture) recognizes the Book of Sirach as scripture where a Protestant would not.

    2. If we take another example from the Book of Timothy and apply strict literalism to it:

    I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. – 2 Timothy 2:9-10

    This would mean that any woman, who had their hair done, wore any gold jewelry or pearl necklaces, or spent money on a nice prom or wedding dress would do so in defiance of scripture. Personally, I felt that the takeaway from this was to remind us that our faith and actions should define us more than our appearance. Of course, that would not be a strict literal interpretation.

    In regard to the prophets, if our only choices were between absolute obedience (which, if it were possible, would negate the need for a Savior) and absolute destruction I doubt any of us would have a chance. The most breathtaking aspect of God is his grace for a people that are incapable of absolute obedience.

    I would still argue that it is tough to base a good sermon or VBS curriculum around Song of Songs. Not because the material it contains is theologically flawed, but simply because it is a book about physical intimacy between two people that does not mention God.

    Thanks for the comments!


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