Sunday, February 10, 2013

The top 10 Biblical arguments against Biblical literalism

I've been thinking a lot lately about the Bible: its nature as God's word, how to read it, and the view of truth that is presented in it. I am still very much on on the way to arriving at conclusions, a journey that might take my whole life, and right now, though trusting in Christ like I may never have before, I feel sure of very little else. Below is one quick "bread crumb" from the journey I've been on. My old philosophy for Biblical hermeneutics (interpreting a text) was to "interpret the Bible as literally as possible." The biggest problem with this (qualified) statement of Biblical literalism is, as Matt Chandler would put it, the Bible. Below are the ten best arguments I could find from the Bible alone (not bringing in historical, scientific, etc. evidence) against the categorical belief that the most faithful reading of God's word is the most literal.

...and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. - Matthew 1:16
Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli... - Luke 3:23
So whose son is Joseph, anyway? Unless there is some way that the father-son relationship is not symmetric. And this ties in with the next one...

And do not call anyone on earth 'father', for you have one father and he is in heaven. - Matthew 23:9
Keep in mind that this was written in Greek, so it likely isn't exclusive to the single English word "father". If you've ever called your...well, the man who conceived you "father", "dad", "papa", or any equivalent, you have broken this command of Jesus, as interpreted literally. This is especially interesting considering that Matthew wrote this and earlier called Jacob the father of Joseph (and many other people "father" as well), indicating that he was not taking Jesus' command literally, while inspired by the Holy Spirit to write his gospel.

Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. - Psalm 26:1
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. - Romans 3:23
Now, you could argue that David simply hadn't sinned yet and Bathshebagate hadn't happened, but seeing as he was probably at least twenty when he wrote this, that is very difficult to believe.

Because on [the Day of Atonement] atonement will be made for you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. - Leviticus 16:30
Because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. - Hebrews 10:4
Did the Israelite's God-given rituals for atonement of sin work or not? Is there a difference between being made clean from all your sins and having them taken away?

Leave [Shimei] alone; let him curse [David], for the Lord has told him to. - 2 Samuel 16:11b
For I [Shimei] your servant know that I have sinned. - 2 Samuel 19:20a
When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. - James 1:13
Is telling someone to sin different from tempting them to sin? I am of the view that God telling someone to sin is the same as Him causing someone to sin since He gives them the impossible choice of obeying Him by sinning, or sinning by disobeying Him.

He [Solomon] made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it. - 1 Kings 7:23
This one is an old favorite of skeptics. But seriously: did Solomon, one of the wisest men ever to live, believe that π is exactly 3, and that God has created our mental faculties in such as way as to be unable to do math or basic observation correctly to confirm this fact?

Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. - Leviticus 19:19b
Make the ephod of gold, and of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen--the work of a skilled craftsman. - Exodus 28:6
So that's gold, linen, and yarn (which may have been made of linen). It is true that God tells the Israelites to disobey this commandment before it was technically given, but this is hardly an explanation since God is eternal and does not change (Malachi 3:6); as well, this commandment was given (relatively) shortly after the Mt. Sinai episode, when the priests were still going strong in their ministry, and for God to condemn the priests' attire which He had previously prescribed is...difficult to accept.

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes. - Proverbs 26:4,5
No further comment.

I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commandments, my decrees, and my laws. - Genesis 26:4-5
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. - Romans 4:13
Were Abraham and Isaac blessed because of their obedience to law, or not?

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. - Deuteronomy 30:11-14
And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness. - Deuteronomy 6:25
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. - Romans 3:20
This is the question that shattered the last figments of my own belief in Biblical literalism. Moses tells the Israelites that the law is already in their hearts so they can obey it and be righteous; Paul writes that no one can be made righteous by the law and no one can even love God or obey Him until God writes His law in their hearts. (Which apparently has not happened yet). There is simply no way to affirm both of these passages if they are interpreted literally.

I am not presenting these difficulties with the intent to show that the Bible is false or contradictory. My point is that in a strictly literalist system for interpreting the Bible that doesn't have its head planted firmly in the sand, these questions and many others become impossible to ignore. From the plain-faced, "objective" reading of the text that the literal view espouses, these really are contradictions, and Christians do themselves and their witness no favors by ignoring this fact.

Of course, there are many ways to resolve these conflicts, but they all involve moving away from a purely literal interpretation. For the conflicts between the genealogies, for instance, many commentators argue that Matthew presents Jesus' legal lineage through Joseph, and Luke His actual lineage through Mary, which is certainly possible, but the fact is that the text really says that Joseph is the son of both Jacob and Heli, and this harmonization disagrees. Or for #4, you could argue that the priestly garments were exempt from the law against wearing heterogeneous clothing, but, again, the text itself contains no hint at such an exemption.

This is understandably disconcerting for someone from an evangelical background such as myself. It feels wrong or disrespectful to God to treat what He seems to be saying nonliterally as if dismissing it--and yet, the text demands it. We misuse God's word if we expect it to be other than it is, namely written so as to conform to modern/postmodern conceptions of truth and objectivity, hermeneutical and interpretive methods, and scientific knowledge that did not exist when it was written. This is a form of eisegesis--reading meaning we want to see into the text, instead of allowing it to read into us. I'm still working through the implications of this and will likely be doing so for a while, but I think it's a step on the journey toward a God who is (thankfully) too huge for me to comprehend.


  1. Hi David,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on the Word. I know what it's like to have faith and reason try to coincide. I have my own top ten lists to deal with. I may be able to dispel at least some of your top ten. As for your #7, it is possible to be completely clean yet temporarily, which is why the Jews needed constant rituals. Jesus cemented the cleanliness and made it permanent. As for #6 I simply read the surrounding text again: "If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” (David is asking a question, not yet affirming it HAS to be of God)
    11 David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, my own flesh and blood, is trying to kill me. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. (Now he seems to affirm but look at the next verse:)12 It may be that the Lord will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today.” (CONCLUSION: if this is from the Lord then it is a TEST which is totally different from TEMPT). #5 deals more with the symbolism behind numbers and the shadowing of Christ in the Old Testament than about pi.#2 can be summed up by saying they were indeed blessed by faith which naturally resulted in obedience of the law. Can't please God in sincere obedience without faith. So yes to both, they go hand in hand. #1 was of particular interest to me, and I agree it is your best argument of your top ten. I hope at least one of your top ten was eliminated. Maybe you can rid me of some of mine.

    1. Your response demonstrates the kind of "tricky" thinking that necessitates reading all kinds of subtext into the Bible to keep it all coherent. David was actually wrong when he said God told Shimei to curse him, even though the immediate context makes no suggestion of this; being clean from all your sins is different than having your sins taken away; when God says He will bless Abraham's descendants for his obedience, He actually means for His faith, etc. Evangelicals often refer to this principle as "scripture interprets scripture", but I really don't think it's supposed to work like this, like basically undermining one verse with another. Eventually I got so suspicious of this kind of reading that I stopped doing it.

  2. Old Testament TOP TEN in no particular order

    1) Exodus 21:8-11 8 If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. 9 And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. 10 If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. 11 And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money. (Basically as long as I feed clothe and have sex with them I can keep my slaves?).

    2) Exodus 21:20-21: 20 “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. 21 Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.

    3) Exodus 21:32 32 If the ox gores a male or female servant, he shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned. (Was God familiar with inflation? So it was worth 30 pieces of silver for the life of a human.)

    4) Leviticus 21:18-20 18 For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, 19 a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, 20 or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch. (I realize this represents how perfect we must be before God to approach Him, but people imperfect in heart were still allowed to come near. It just makes no sense).

    5) Leviticus 25:45-46 45 Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. 46 And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.

  3. 6) Numbers 31:17-18 Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known a man intimately. 18 But keep alive for yourselves all the young girls who have not known a man intimately. (Have sex with the women…yet God didn’t want intermingling of nations…)

    7) Deuteronomy 21:10-14 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, 12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. 13 She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her. (WOW!!)

    8)Deuteronomy 22:13 “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, 14 and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ 15 then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 And the young woman’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as wife, and he detests her. 17 Now he has charged her with shameful conduct, saying, “I found your daughter was not a virgin,” and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; 19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days. 20 “But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you.
    28 “If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days. (So in days of old if I rape a girl I am then forced to marry her? Wow)

    9)Deuteronomy 25:11 11 “If two men fight together, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of the one attacking him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the genitals, 12 then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall not pity her.

    10) Judges 21:20-23 Therefore they instructed the children of Benjamin, saying, “Go, lie in wait in the vineyards, 21 and watch; and just when the daughters of Shiloh come out to perform their dances, then come out from the vineyards, and every man catch a wife for himself from the daughters of Shiloh; then go to the land of Benjamin. 22 Then it shall be, when their fathers or their brothers come to us to complain, that we will say to them, ‘Be kind to them for our sakes, because we did not take a wife for any of them in the war; for it is not as though you have given the women to them at this time, making yourselves guilty of your oath.’”
    23 And the children of Benjamin did so; they took enough wives for their number from those who danced, whom they caught.

    1. I'm going to write a post about the issues you raised. Sit tight.

  4. David,

    Your summary is interesting:
    "We misuse God's word if we expect it to be other than it is, namely written so as to conform to modern/postmodern conceptions of truth and objectivity, hermeneutical and interpretive methods, and scientific knowledge that did not exist when it was written. This is a form of eisegesis--reading meaning we want to see into the text, instead of allowing it to read into us."
    If I understand what you are saying, it seems that we need to take the Bible for "what it is", and that applying a "hermeneutical method" to it violates that objective. This is not logical - anyone has to apply a hermeneutical method. We have to admit that the Scriptures were written in a certain historical/geographical/etc. context that affects the interpretation. It is reasonable that a 21st century, "western", American, Gentile person will not immediately discern the exact meaning of every part of the text (without further study).
    The "Scripture interprets Scripture" argument is, at least in part, an extension of the belief that the preserved Word of God, properly understood, is coherent. That is, there is a way to explain apparent contradictions - i.e. God's promise to give Israel the land not being a promise to ME personally to give me land (or any allegorical interpretation thereof).
    Lastly, I would mention that your definition of "literalism" begets many of the problems ("inconsistencies" or whatever you may call them). I cannot speak for all others, but when I speak of the literal interpretation of Scripture, I am speaking of taking the text in its plain sense. This still allows for figures of speech, similes, etc. (just as we use in speaking and writing today). I believe that God did not write in "code"; I do not have to read a clear text as an allegory.
    I do not claim to be able to answer every alleged inconsistency at the moment, but that does not mean that I am wrong. I do not know where you place yourself on the literal vs. allegorical interpretation spectrum, but I would be curious to see how it is that you DO find a coherence in the Scripture without eisegesis.
    I would agree, David, that our God is too big to comprehend; however, this does not mean His Word is too confusing to understand . . . if we apply the most appropriate, logical method of interpretation.
    Thanks for taking time to read.

  5. Sorry to take so long to notice this--not used to getting many comments.

    Of course everyone applies a hermeneutical method--but is your criteria for an interpretion being "correct" its degree of conformity to that method? The Pharisees were masters of Biblical interpretation, but they got it dead wrong where it matters. Was this just because their method was wrong, or because of something deeper gone wrong?

    I agree that it's easy to take "Biblical literalism" to mean a variety of things. Likewise, the "plain sense" of scripture can mean different things to different people. I am speaking roughly of the interpretive method that insists on the plainest, simplest, most obvious-to-the-layman meaning of a text (as opposed to, say, a "figurative" or "allegorical" meaning) that can be reconciled with the rest of scripture.