Wednesday, October 22, 2014

When I Don't Read Scripture Literally

About a week ago, I blogged about an article my friend asked me to read about a "progressive" approach to reading scripture. The author talked about a "canon within the canon" approach. And about not taking the Bible literally. All of which make me think and made me squirm . . . because I find myself too often conceding minor points to such people but unable to swallow their arguments as a whole.

Let me tell you about the Book of Job.

The Book of Job, from the Old Testament, was the first piece of literature my students studied in Freshman English this fall. Most Christians (and many non-Christians) are familiar with the basic story. Satan essentially makes a bet with God that devout Job would curse God if his many blessings were taken away, and Job proves Satan wrong.

But those basic plot points happen only in the first two chapters and the final chapter of the book. There are thirty-nine more chapters in between that people rarely read -- partly because they are written in narrative verse and are much more challenging reading, and partly because if you do challenge yourself with the reading, you find your whole impression of the Job story challenged as well. Job is not the patient Job we all think of: he gets very angry and, in the words of my students, comes dangerously close to crossing that line of cursing God. And when God finally comes to speak to him, His answer seems less than satisfactory to the modern ear, although it fully satisfies Job.

I bring up the book to address this question of taking the Bible literally. Because if one were to ask me if I take the Bible literally, I would generally answer yes. But that requires some explanation in some instances, like the Book of Job.

For example, I do believe that there was a historical man named Job who seems to have lived around the time of Abraham, and who was very rich and blessed, lost it all, and was known for his continued faith in God through all his suffering. There are other passages in scripture that refer to Job as an actual historical figure and not as a character in a narrative. (As the author of that article said, we need to use scripture to interpret scripture.) So, I believe Job existed.

However, I don't believe that Job and three of his friends sat together on a pile of ashes and pontificated to each other in metrical verse for thirty-seven chapters worth of material. The Book of Job is a narrative poem, and it seems clear to me that the author took the raw material of the story and put it in the form of that genre for artistic effect.

I'm also not sure that Job actually had three specific friends named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar (although there's evidence such people may have existed) who sat with him during this time and made these specific arguments to him. It's certainly possible, but their arguments seems to center around specific humanistic themes in a way that looks to be molded by the author. (As the creationists are wont to say, evidence of design implies the presence of a designer.)

I'm not uncomfortable with saying that I look at the Book of Job as possibly being like what we would currently call historical fiction -- based on a true story with liberties taken by the author to shape the details into a good narrative. In that sense, I guess you could argue that I don't take everything in the book literally.

On the other hand, I absolutely believe the book to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that every truth communicated in there is Truth. I don't take the Good Samaritan story or the rest of Christ's parables "literally", but they are inspired Truth nonetheless.

It is also important to note, as I emphasized to my students, that while the Book of Job contains God's Truth, what it contains is incomplete truth. There is almost no mention at all in the book of the love of God for his people -- one of the most important things we need to know about God. One cannot build an accurate theology around the Book of Job alone (or around any small part of the Bible); it must be informed by the whole of scripture.

All this to say, the progressives do make a point about considering the genre of the section of the Bible you are reading, and reading it intelligently in light of that genre. And they make valid suggestions that there are other passages of scripture that fundamentalists interpret "literally" that might be written in a genre that doesn't allow for that.

I don't have time to address all of those here. I'll just close with two points:

1) Fundamentalists need to be less arrogantly dismissive of such arguments made by the progressives, because they make valid points and we only denigrate our case by being unwilling to seriously consider the opposing view.

2) In my serious consideration of opposing views about such passages of scripture, I have yet to be convinced to jump on board with a progressive interpretation. So when, for example, friends ask me to read the creation story in Genesis 1 as a poetic account of the beginning of time, with spiritual truth to be gleaned from it but without literal facts at its base, I recognize this as a valid idea to consider -- but when I have considered it, I cannot yet buy the argument.

And I may have to take another post sometime to further explain why that is.


Marshall Webber said...


I label Job a comedy. Look at the structure long enough, and you'll see it.

- Job is mentioned in passing only two times outside of the book itself, and only concerning his reputed righteousness and steadfastness. There are no quotations from Job anywhere else in the Bible.
The dialog between YHWH and Satan is not relayed in a vision by the author, it is stated as prologue.

To me those three facts, represent strong circumstantial evidence that Job is a dialectical construct by a poet to explore the attributes of life on earth, and YHWH who is not out of touch or silent on the subject.

Does this matter greatly to my Theology whether Job was a historical person about whom a poem was written? Or a dialectical construct? Nope. Neither way. I got the message of Job, so the author has done what all authors seek to do: Communicate their views.

But while we're here, let's turn this on its head and see if the equation for determining literality in reading work both ways: In Jude 9, there is a really odd snippet about the Archangel Michael contending with Satan over the body of Moses. Jude references this as a supporting argument to a screed he's in the middle of. What is this?
It's from a contemporary book (written in Jude's lifetime) called 'The Assumption of Moses' which purports to be a record by Joshua of what Moses said as he died. It is both apocryphal and pseudepigraphical, being neither a historical work, nor by the author it purports to be by. Jude using this work is on the level with someone writing a serious letter about faith and using an example from Anne Rice's book "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" which is written in the first person with Jesus as the author. A contemporary work.

So does it work both ways? Is the truth of Jude tainted by his use of an apocryphal 'fake' or is the truth still in Jude? I would say that the truth is still in Jude. What would you say? Would this change your perspective on Job, if we are agreed on its meaning and in disagreement on its historicity?

Thanks for posting Gwen. You're one of the few people I know who are looking for Truth, not just facts.


Angie Thier said...

Ok, so I've been chewing on this one all day as it coincides with an ongoing discussion I've been having with someone...I'm totally with you, in that I CONSIDER other factors in interpreting Scripture, such as genre of literature, context/historical setting, etc. I agree with the idea (I learned thru Precepts Inductive Bible Study Training) of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. And there's an art and skill to all that, and I surely don't have all the answers. I do feel like the "don't take it literally" can go too far at times, also.

Here's another instance: In seminary, a professor told how scholars and theologians would often take theory that Jonah was a myth. Not that there weren't principles to be extrapolated, but there probably was no Nineveh. Everything in the story is BIG which lends itself to a tale. However, in the last century, archaeologists discovered Nineveh, complete with many artifacts that proved they worshiped a "fish" god.

There's so much that we can stand on as factual evidence, that have learned not to be progressives or fundamentalists. I do love that the Word is a deep well of knowledge, yet we still only see dimly. I can only imagine what life will be like when we get the full picture.

Such great thoughts, Gwen! Are you in a Bible study? Because I'd love to join you!!