How the Bible Reads the Bible
The bible doesn't always take itself literally, and neither should we.
One of the weird things about the success of a particular strain of conservative American Christianity is that the vast majority of people, Christian or not, seem to have agreed on the "natural" way to read the bible. In this reading, the bible intends to be a sort of "instruction manual" that tells us how to live our lives, and as such the natural way to interpret it is with a wooden sort of literalism: the events described happened exactly as described down to the last detail, the commands (at least those in the New Testament) are intended to be followed without question, and the values implied by the text are intended to reign supreme. The fact that nobody read the bible this way until three or four hundred years ago is not typically noted.
This has led to a somewhat questionable state of affairs, including some really terrifying events:
American slavery was supported by the majority of the white American church, who pointed out that the bible did not explicitly condemn slavery. Similarly, the genocide of Native Americans was justified using the book of Joshua, which depicts the mass slaughter of Canaanite "pagans". In both cases, a minority of white Christians objected on the grounds that these clearly evil deeds violated the spirit of the text, and were accused of "having sold out to the world" or "not being true bible believers" and ignored.
Today, the church grapples over questions like the holiness or sinfulness of LGBTQ relationships, and (particularly shamefully) the rights of women to preach in church. The debates over these questions (at least in Evangelical circles) rarely get at the heart of what is just, or good, or holy, but instead get hung up on intense but ultimately futile squabbling over how to interpret a handful of Greek words or the particular historical setting of first-century Ephesus.
When we declare a specific way of reading the text "the right way", it often leads to the exclusion and "othering" of those who read it differently. In my own church, I have not found it uncommon to hear majority-white churches referred to as "biblical" or "with real preaching" for their commitment to a specific historical method of reading the bible (and a specific, European-rooted way of doing theology), while historically black churches are viewed with suspicion. The "prosperity gospel" that has wreaked havoc on poor communities is certainly dangerous, but so is the affluent gospel that says a life of comfort is fine as long as I give a pittance to the poor.
As I have written about before, the literalism of a six-day creation account has led the majority of white Evangelicals to reject the science of evolution, which has since evolved into a full-scale rejection of things like climate science, racial justice, basic facts about the news, and election results. What seems like an oddity in beliefs about the distant past has had real, dangerous effects, and people are dying as a result.
In this post, I don't intend to give a fully fleshed out account of a "right" way to read the bible. I don't even want to say that reading the bible literally is "wrong". I just want to defend the point that typical Evangelical readings of scripture are not the only way, or even the most natural way, and that we know this because the bible itself doesn't read scripture this way. In particular, reading the bible metaphorically or critically examining commands that might not make sense in our day doesn't mean we're taking it less seriously, nor does it mean we're challenging the bible's authority -- it means we're reading the bible the way the biblical authors themselves did! In this post we'll look at a few examples to get the idea. In a future post, we'll look more carefully at how the bible reinterprets and reinvents its own ethics, which has a lot more applications to the problems facing the church today.
1. The Biblical writers do not see stories as "literal transcriptions of what happened".
How do we know this? Because sometimes writers from the bible use other parts of the bible as sources, and they're comfortable changing the details! We see this most clearly in the books of 1st and 2nd Chronicles, which rewrite the history of Israel using the books of 1st and 2nd Kings and Samuel as a source.
In 2nd Samuel, we learn that David's sinful census (long story) was instigated by God.
Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.
2nd Samuel 24:1
The Chronicler, who used 2nd Samuel as a source, was evidently uncomfortable with the idea of God causing a person to sin, so he rewrites the story to make Satan the villain:
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel
1 Chronicles 21:1
Little examples like this are all over the bible, because the writers understood history the way all ancient people did: not as a fixed account of what literally happened, but as stories that could be shaped and reshaped as people learned to understand themselves, God, and the world around them. The deep respect for and knowledge of God's word the ancient authors has doesn't show itself in rote repetition of old facts, but in a creative reimagining and reinterpretation of tradition in deep communion with God! So again in Genesis, we see God commanding Noah:
You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive
But just a few verses later, the command has changed:
Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.
Why have two birds become seven, and why the sudden unclean/clean distinction? Because (confusingly) Genesis 6:19-20 was written after Genesis 7:2-3, and the author of the former (usually called a "priestly source") wants to clarify that the clean/unclean distinction didn't happen until God gave the Torah to Moses, and changes the story accordingly!
Evidently the contradiction did not particularly bother whoever finally compiled the sources into the book of Genesis (often assumed to be the priestly source, but not necessarily), because they recognized what we so often do not: stories are more than a list of details, and even contradictory details can piece together into an informative story. The Bible provides different perspectives on events, because the world and theology are complicated and can't be reduced to neat bullet points of context-free facts.
2. The "fulfillment" of prophecy often has nothing to do with a literal prediction
This happens most commonly when the New Testament cites the Old Testament, often with reference to Jesus: the citation is not merely a reference to a previously agreed-upon set of facts, but a way of breathing new life into and showing continuity with a living, faithful tradition.
The Gospel of Matthew writes:
So he got up, took the child and his mother by night, and withdrew to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
This is, if taken literally, a particularly odd "fulfillment". Matthew is citing Hosea 11:1, which is not a prophecy about the future, but about the past:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
Hosea is writing about the Exodus, the freeing of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt a thousand years before Jesus. If we view Matthew's writing as referring to a literal "fulfillment", we would be forced to admit that Matthew simply got it wrong: this was not, in fact, a prophecy about the future.
But Matthew is not writing for an American fundamentalist audience. Matthew is writing as a first-century Diaspora Jew, and he is making a typological claim: just as God rescued Israel from Egypt, so he rescued Jesus to, and later from, Egypt. Thus he emphasizes the fundamental continuity of the ways God acts, as well as establishing Jesus as a representative for Israel, which will be important for the rest of his gospel. It is only by losing the literal sense of "he fulfilled a prediction" that we arrive at Matthew's deeper meaning, and can begin to wrestle with what it means for our faith.
The bible itself alludes to this sort of complexity later, in the book of Acts:
Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else? Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus
Acts 8: 32 - 35
The passage the eunuch was reading, in its original context in Isaiah, unambiguously refers to a person from Isaiah's time. Isaiah is meditating on the unjust suffering of somebody (potentially himself), and finding solace in the fact that God will reward those who suffer for or from the sins of others.
At the same time, Philip correctly notices that the passage also applies to Jesus' suffering. This does not sit well with the American Evangelical tradition, where a passage has a single "correct" interpretation that we must find. Philip identifies the passage as God's word, and constructs an alternate interpretation that fits his own experience and uses it to teach a genuinely good message to the eunuch.
If the American church is to continue, we must also be like the eunuch, willing to learn from those who have seen life in the text where we ourselves have inserted death. When Latino liberation theologians found a deep biblical vein of justice for the poor, we ought to have heard them. When slaves and other black theologians found their cries for freedom heard in the Exodus story, we ought to have come alongside them. And when our indigenous siblings find their theologies of creation and the environment breathing life into texts we've too long made toothless, perhaps we will finally start to listen.