We’ve probably all been asked at one time or another, ‘Do you take the Bible literally’? My advice? Never, ever, ever answer that question. Why not? Because the questioner is either naïve, or it’s a trap. The question is simply not legitimate. First, the Bible is not a book. It’s a collection of books – aka, a library. That’s actually what the Greek word biblia means – a library. Would anyone walk into a library and ask, do you take this library literally? Is this library really true? Do you believe the library? But because we’ve bound our mini-library into a single volume and put a cover on it, it looks like a book; and we learn from childhood – almost without question – to treat it as a book, in fact as the book, the word of God. Yes, the word of God – No, not a book. Sincere, but naïve.
The trap asks the ‘literally’ question with more devious motives. If you say ‘no’, you’re either a liberal or you don’t really believe the Bible is true. If ‘yes’, you’re either a fundamentalist or just plain thick regarding the nature of literature. When exactly do you plan to soar on your eagles’ wings (Isa 40:3)?
Treat it as a book, and therein lies the trap. The Bible is not a monolithic piece of literature. A library has sections: history, biography, philosophy, fiction, poetry, reference. The Bible has all these and more. Fiction? Absolutely. Jesus was a great storyteller. Poetry? Hebrew poetry is filled with non-literal metaphor; or will the trees of the field really grow hands and clap them (Isa 55:12)? Perhaps NASA will finally discover the tent God has pitched for the sun (Ps 19:5)? If this all seems silly – then so is the question. Today we say the sun will set at 6.05pm. Surely that’s a lie, because science has discovered the sun doesn’t set – the earth rotates! No, we innately understand that human language is not literal.
The question is not about the literalness of words, but about their meaning. We all know what’s meant by the sun setting. If I take history as historical and poetry as poetical, I interpret the Bible’s words in the manner they were intended. True, we don’t always know what that is! But that’s okay.