Dear friends,

Sometimes you will hear people say that, “unlike other churches, my church reads the Bible literally.” What does this mean? Does Messiah
take the Bible “literally”?  First. Reading the Bible “literally” has good intentions, but is an unhelpful choice of words. People who say they read the Bible “literally” have good intentions because they want to distinguish themselves from people who “read” the Bible poorly and misleadingly – usually on purpose. I heard a scholar teach that the Gospel of Matthew was midrash on the Christ event. In other words, Matthew was not telling us stories about Jesus; he was creating stories about Jesus to help us learn important truths about the Christ event. I heard another scholar tell us that the Gospel of Matthew was an early form of subversive literature. Matthew could not critique the Roman Empire and its class structure directly, so he wrote his gospel which, on the surface, is stories about Jesus; but if you understand their subversive nature, you can see it is really a series of critiques of Rome. Finally, for now it was all the rage for many years to say that miracle stories, including the resurrection of Jesus, were myths or parables – so Jesus did not physically rise from the dead.

In this context, the person saying they read the Bible “literally” is trying to reject these clever but fanciful, inaccurate ways of “reading” the Bible.  But this leads me to my second point. Though well intentioned, the problem with telling someone to read the Bible “literally” is that they may try to do this – and they will then inevitably misread the Bible. Here is an easy example from the Song of Songs. “Behold you are beautiful my love, behold you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves….your neck is like the tower of David built in rows of stone, on it hang a thousand shields…. your lips drip nectar my bride and honey and milk are under your tongue.”  Later is written, “Your belly is a heap of wheat…your nose is like a tower of Lebanon”. Now, obviously, these descriptions cannot be taken literally.   So, what are we to say?

The Bible is a collection of 66 books written in different genres. We are to seek to read them as they were intended to be read. Each part is to
be read in the obvious genre or form that they are written in. They are to be read according to their surface genre, without inventing or importing a genre which allows us to ignore or evade an inconvenient truth (like a miracle or an authoritative moral claim). In other words, we are to read the Bible seriously, as intended, being willing to have its truths challenge our prevailing culture’s beliefs. Please pray that we read the Bible well to the glory of God!

George +