Bible Reading For Our Literalist Friends

Carrying Bowling Balls

Years ago I heard a woman on the radio talking about some students she worked with. Her class was made up of teens who had reading processing problems, and she used a lot of tools to work with them on it. One way was to read to them and then get them to talk about what they heard.

One story she read had a passage that included the line: “He carried his anger into the room and dropped it on the kitchen table like a 16-pound bowling ball.”

One student immediately asked, “When did he decide to go bowling? That wasn’t in the story before.”

Hermeneutical Bowling Balls

Hermeneutics is a broad name covering methods for interpreting or understanding a text, and while we usually read it in context of understanding the Bible it can apply to any type of text. It is a method for getting at the meaning of what someone else wrote. The student who asked where the bowling ball came from needed to develop a proper hermeneutic, although his teacher probably never used that word. I think this is the last time I will use it either, except to say that a lot of people in God’s kingdom seem to drop their hermeneutics on the table like a bowling ball.

On Taking the Bible Literarily

I’ve seen the phrase “For those who take the Bible literally” come up more than once recently, both in writing and a sermon. It’s not like I’ve never heard the phrase before, but what got me was that one speaker immediately amended it and said, “for those who take it seriously.”

Reading the Bible literally is a loaded concept, isn’t it? It sounds so simple at first, yet I’ve found that often two people can use it in the same conversation and mean two different things.

Do you mean giving the Bible’s words their plain meaning? Then you’ll have to tell me what you mean by “plain meaning.” Or perhaps you mean following the Bible’s instructions to the letter? Then you’ll have to tell me if your church lets men grow their hair long, or allows women to cut theirs short. (1 Corinthians 11:14-16.)

You see, for me taking the Bible seriously means taking it literally. But my sense of literal is more basic. I go back to the Latin root litteralis for the original meaning of pertaining to letters. I want to look at the meaning the original writers gave to the letters they put on the scrolls.

This can mean recognizing differences in genre. Hebrew poetry is a powerful way to write, but it’s a lot different from how we write poetry today – not that many people today even read poetry. (And a literal reading of biblical poetry like Song of Solomon leads to this beauty of a picture.) History, in turn, relates information in a different way from prophecy. Wisdom literature has still another literary purpose. Then there’s analogy, metaphor, diatribe, love song, lament, and more. Insights into the etymology of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words used can also be eye-opening. Add in the cultural, political and social contexts that applied over the ~2000 years of Bible writing and you have a bigger mix of things than one person could ever hope to sift through entirely.

The bottom line is that if I tried to read all these different types of literature as if they were the same, I’d be missing the point of the original letters entirely. So to read them literally means reading them in the genre of literature they originally occupied, with as good an understanding of the context I can muster. That’s why I’ve come up with a new word: I read the Bible literarily.*

Two Examples of Reading Literarily

Old Testament: In 1 Kings 18, there’s a showdown between Elijah, the Prophet of the one true God, and the prophets of the false god Baal. In verse 28 we read that the prophets of Baal “slashed themselves with  swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” It sounds rather gristly, and totally unnecessary too in contrast to Elijah’s later straightforward prayer to God.

But those false prophets weren’t merely acting on a hopeful whim. They were reenacting one of their ancient tales of Baal himself, where he died and was then mourned by two lesser deities whose mourning was accompanied by marring their own bodies. After these mourning ceremonies, the myth goes, Baal rose again and was given sovereignty over all. The false prophets with Elijah were trying to evoke the same response in hopes of showing Baal’s superiority to the Lord God. It didn’t work, of course.

New Testament: In Mark 11:12-14 and 20-21, Jesus sees a fig tree “in leaf” and, being hungry, approaches it to see if there is any good fruit on it. There isn’t any, because “it wasn’t the season for figs.” Then Jesus does a curious thing: he curses the tree and it withers to the root.

To understand why, we need to know two things. One is that this tree, being in leaf, displayed itself as if it did have fruit. Not only was it not the season for figs, it wasn’t the season for a fig tree to be in leaf. Later in the season, when the leaves come along, a fully leafed tree is a sign of a fully fruited tree.

The other thing to know is what happened between the cursing and the withering. In Mark 11:15-19 we read the familiar story of Jesus driving the merchants out of the temple courts.  The particular court they were in was the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost courtyard. This was as close as non-Jews who wanted to worship God could get. It was their worship center. The merchants, in the guise of selling animals acceptable for sacrifice to Jews headed further in, interfered with the worship of those who could go no further in. The merchants looked as if they were there to facilitate worship but really intended nothing more than to see what they could make off those trying to approach God.

Just like the fig tree, the merchants were full of nothing but false promises, fit to be cursed and driven from the roots of Jewish worship, the temple of God.

Literally Deeper

Which leads me to two questions:

Has reading the Bible literarily ever led you into a deeper relationship with God?

Is there a passage in particular that comes alive because you know the context?


*No, “literarily” is not a made up word. Then again, perhaps it is since all words are made up words. But you can find it in the dictionary as the adverbial form of “literary”.

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19 Responses to Bible Reading For Our Literalist Friends

  1. Jeannie says:

    So interesting, Tim. Just last night at my Beth Moore study (“Sacred Secrets”) we were talking about how we learn God’s secrets through the study of Scripture: how diligent study of the context, the way OT passages inform NT ones, etc., can teach us so much about God, His heart, His plan, and more. The examples you give of the Baal prophets and the fig tree are perfect examples of that. Our relationship with God can deepen and grow through this kind of reading — not just gathering new information but really coming to understand God better.

  2. Greg Hahn says:

    I maintain that nobody…NOBODY..takes the Bible literally. (Excluding the verifiably insane.)

    And for those who wish to argue the point: Paul said in Galatians 2:20 that he has been crucified with Christ. Does anyone believe that Paul was one of the two thieves crucified along with Christ, and then brought back to life to write Galatians? No.

    Psalm 119:105 says, “Thy Word is a map unto my feet.” Yet who doesn’t take a flashlight along when they go camping? reading that literally, one would not need a flashlight, only a Bible.

    A fun one: Catholics read John 6:53 literally. Fundamentalists do not.

    NOBODY is a literalist.

  3. Greg Hahn says:

    (When I say nobody takes it literally, I mean 100% of the time. EVERYbody chooses what is literal and what is not.)

  4. Has reading the Bible literarily ever led you into a deeper relationship with God? Yes, absolutely.

  5. Adriana says:

    “Literarily” is a good term. I like your examples too.

  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    “He carried his anger into the room and dropped it on the kitchen table like a 16-pound bowling ball.” What a killer line! Literarily, that is.

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  8. josh says:

    literal! 1 Corinthians 11 1-16. The literal interpretation is found in v16 where Paul states he is making no rules nor commands in regards to hair or coverings. Unfortunately when hermeneutics override simply reading of Scripture and become interpretive you end up with people thinking men need short hair and women need their heads covered. This even though Paul grew his hair long to have a Nazarene vow which requires men to not cut their hair till complete and the vow also is available to women which at the end would require them to be shorn (shaved). Making such a rule or command would make Paul a hypocrite and heretic as it would be overriding God’s call to the Nazarene vow for those called like himself. This is why in v 16 Paul makes no such rule/command. Just curious but how are you a teacher of the ways of Scripture interpretation? Thanks but I will stand with the original apostles and Berean’s who over 1600 years after Moses still only studied the Scriptures for their interpretation independently. However, please feel free to give me a hermeneutic to interpret the Scriptures, with or without an exegesis, that shows me from Scripture that a hermeneutic is needed to interpret the Scriptures so I can then begin a hermeneutic to rightly understand how the word of God is sharper than any two edged sword and how His word alone is perfect for reproof, but not without a good hermeneutic. It is no wonder the main line denominations are in such trouble.

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