The Bible As Literature

April 30, 2013

One of the things I’ve been tossing about for the last couple of years is the concept of how we read, interpret, and apply the Bible. For anyone who treads beyond the typical fundamentalist/evangelical answers regarding Biblical authority, this becomes a very sticky subject fraught with crazies on either side.

On the one hand, I no longer take the Bible strictly literally. Meaning, I do not believe that every bit of it historically happened… I’m not denying the historicity of Jesus, or even the necessity of the resurrection (the New Testament makes no sense if that was not a historical event). But other things, usually the older stories like the flood, are not strictly necessary for belief in and an understanding of Christ.

On the other hand, I do not hold that the Bible is strictly metaphorical, or even largely metaphorical. Was there a guy named Moses? Oh, most likely. I don’t think he would feature so prominently in a culture’s writings if he hadn’t been so central to their formation.

What I think most Christians lack, and I think where I have landed, is accepting and understanding the Bible as a work of literature, based in history, but still requiring a significant amount of effort to approach it and understand it effectively.

This is not at all unlike what it requires to just be able to read it – very few Christians can read and understand Greek (though some of us like to pretend we do by picking up some good New Testament Greek dictionaries, or interlinear Bibles), and even fewer have any ability to sort out the ancient Hebrew language.

The first several chapters of Genesis – up until Abraham enters the scene – have always fascinated me, particularly in the way that Christians cling to it and define their faith by it. Since studying it as a teenager, I’ve always found it to be largely mythological. Which is not to say that the pre-Abraham elements are strictly false, but they are not a part of Israel’s history, per se, but is part of their mythos. They form the backdrop against which Abraham is introduced as a character of historical significance. The degree to which the mythos accounts are accurate is not important.

I recently picked up an amazing book by John H. Walton, called The Lost World of Genesis One. In it, Walton speaks of the difference between translating the text or culture and entering the text or culture. For instance, to fully understand the Hebrew text, you need to think like an ancient Israelite:

When people want to study the Bible seriously, one of the steps they take is to learn the language. As I teach language students, I am always faced with the challenge of persuading them that they will not succeed simply by learning enough of the language to engage in translation. Truly learning the language requires leaving the English behind, entering the world of the text and understanding the language in its Hebrew context without creating English words in their minds. They must understand the Hebrew as Hebrew text. This is the same with culture. We must make every attempt to set our English categories aside, to leave our cultural ideas behind, and try our best (as limited as the attempt might be) to understand the material in its cultural context without translating it. (Walton, p. 9)

When it comes specifically to the creation account, Walton argues that we miss the point by reading it as an account concerning material origins, and it is far better understood as an account of functional origins, and that the account’s climax is actually God taking up residence on the earth (gods “rested” in their temples when the temple construction was complete) to rule and direct the functional processes of the earth.

The Israelites were much more attuned to the functions of the cosmos than to the material of the cosmos. The functions of the world were more important to them and more interesting to them. They had little concern for the material structures; significance lay in who was in charge and made it work. As a result, Genesis 1 has been presented as an account of functional origins (specifically functioning for people) rather than an account of material origins (as we have been generally inclined to read it). As an account of functional origins, it offers no clear information about material origins.

The key features of this interpretation include most prominently:

  • The Hebrew word translated “create” (bara’) concerns assigning functions.
  • The account begins in verse 2 with no functions (rather than with no material).
  • The first three days pertain to the three major functions of life: time, weather, food.
  • Days four to six pertain to functionaries in the cosmos being assigned their roles and spheres.
  • The recurring comment that “it is good” refers to functionality (relative to people).
  • The temple aspect is evident in the climax of day seven when God rests – an activity in a temple.

The account can then be seen to be a seven-day inauguration of the cosmic temple, setting up its functions for the benefit of humanity, with God dwelling in relationship with his creatures. (Walton, p. 161-162)

By focusing on reading Genesis from our own viewpoint (which is from a material perspective), we miss the essence of the account (which is from a functional perspective), and even the primary point of it.

To me, this shift in focus applies to nearly the entire Bible, not just the mythology described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. We fail to understand the Bible appropriately when we inject our modern expectations and contexts upon it.

Judaism struggled with this shift for centuries with respect to the Mosaic Law, even during the early years of the early Christian church. While the Jews in Jerusalem were dominated by fundamentalist sects (such as the Pharisees) that demanded strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, there were large Jewish populations scattered throughout the Roman Empire that took a more balanced view, still believing in God, but understanding the Mosaic Law as inappropriate for their time and place, yet still instructive. (Sociologist Rodney Stark discusses this in chapter 3 of The Rise of Christianity, another fascinating book.)

This is precisely what Paul is indicating in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 when he says that “all scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” Far from a proof text for describing the New Testament as infallible, in this verse, Paul is talking about the Hebrew scriptures and encouraging believers to not ignore them.

Judaism continued to struggle with this balance, even in more modern times. A particular fascinating quote from rabbi Samuel Holdheim, during the reformation movements in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, expresses the thought that divine “laws” are inherently tied to their surrounding context, and may, in some cases, no longer be applicable:

A law, even though divine, is potent only so long as the conditions and circumstances of life, to meet which it was enacted, continue; when these things change, however, the law also must be abrogated, even though it have God for its author. For God himself has shown indubitably that with the change of the circumstances and conditions of life for which He once gave those laws, the laws themselves cease to be operative, that they shall be observed no longer because they can be observed no longer. (Samuel Holdheim, 1845, as quoted by Stark, p. 53)

Judaism in the United Status went through similar reforms, as expressed by the Pittsburg Platform in 1885:

We hold that all such Mosaic and Rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state.

What would this mean for Christians to engage in the same kind of evaluation of what is contained within the Bible, and rather than try to apply the specific moral results from ancient days, struggled to understand the underlying Spirit at work behind them and apply that for our time? I believe such a view is supported by the New Testament itself. First, in how Jesus approached and employed the Old Testament while also blatantly disregarding many of the Mosaic Laws. Second, in the way the letters of the New Testament focused far more on the underlying Spiritual realities than on the immediate moral results of them.

For me, there’s a space that exists between a literal approach to the Bible and a metaphorical approach… Unyielding application of individual “Biblical” precepts in a literal way results in much abuse, but a figurative approach gives no firm foundation for belief or practice. A literary approach to scripture is a far more difficult one, but in the end, less lazy than either extreme and far more rewarding. To me, it represents a dedication to the authority of the Bible, yet also understanding its role in history as literature.