The passage that made me realize that one should not take the Bible literally is probably not the one you’d imagine. It isn’t about God making a woman out of a rib of a man. It isn’t about Noah having three kids when he was 500 years old, or the fact that he gathered pairs of every animal and hung out in an ark for 40 days to survive a flood that wiped out the entire earth. It isn’t about Moses separating a sea, or getting instructions from a burning bush, or hanging out in a mountain cloaked in a storm cloud for 40 days and nights.
It came in Exodus 31: 14-15, when God tells Moses “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.”
Death seems a harsh penalty to pay for working overtime on Sabbath — most of us (and by most of us I mean me) presume Sabbath to be Sunday, though I haven’t seen anything that explicitly states that Sabbath is Sunday, which I could be very wrong about, but for the sake of the story, let’s assume that by Sabbath, God means Sunday — doesn’t it? And anyway, some jobs – like my own, for instance – require us to work on Sundays. Does that mean we should be put to death? If so, then every NFL player, everyone who covers the NFL, everyone who is a cashier at stadiums and who helps clean up afterwards, is in for a brutal day of judgement.
We have since, of course, interpreted the Bible as it simply meaning to encourage us to rest on Sundays, to go to church, to honor God. And yes, it’s a bit humorous to joke that anyone working on Sundays shall be sentenced to an eternity in hell, but at the same time, it ushers in a host of questions ranging from funny to deadly serious.
Where do our interpretations begin and where do they end? What liberties should we take from the book? How do we choose who interprets The Bible and what it is actually saying? From what I understand, and with the guidance of my incredible friends, Joel Blocksom and Jordan Cheng, who are much more well-versed in faith matters than me, the New Testament takes care of a lot of these interpretations, revising the Old Testament a bit, letting us know that, no, you’re not going to hell if you have a tattoo — God, as my cousin, Josh, pointed out, was probably just protecting the B.C.-era folks from tattoos, since they were incredibly dangerous to get back then — and you won’t be sentenced to hell if you work a few Sabbath days. Because, you know, Jesus, the Son of God, who also, depending on your faith of choice, is God — it’s a weird thing to wrap my mind around still — healed on Sabbath days. So he technically worked.
So the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, it seems, isn’t meant to be taken literally. A.J. Jacobs, a writer and editor for Esquire who specializes in lifestyle experiments and writing about them, actually wrote a book on this very concept, titled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.
In the book, he quite literally throws stones at people he knew were adulterers, because the Bible says to do so. It didn’t end great. What he found was that taking the Bible literally is, in effect, a disaster, but when you boil it down to the principles – adultery is bad, for instance – the impact is, for the most part, a positive one.
But still, the question remains: How do we interpret the Bible? How do we choose who does the interpreting? What happens when two people we’ve elected, or have claimed to be chosen by God to interpret the Bible, disagree? I recognize that the New Testament answers some of these, but not everyone believes in the New Testament, and I’m also not there yet, so forgive my ignorance on all matters New Testament.
It’s also not lost on me that these questions have been asked for centuries, and millions of lives have been lost or forever altered when nations fight over who has the correct answer to those questions.
Since the coming of Jesus and the period of time known as A.D., there have been no shortage of individuals who have claimed to have felt the spirit of God, and that it was that spirit who has led to their new interpretation of, or revelations updating, the Bible. Most of you reading this are familiar with or have heard of The Great Awakening. There is also a Second Great Awakening, in an area coined the “burned over district” in western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century where an armada of new religious movements, including Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, took place.
Some of these men, like Joseph Smith, seem to have good intentions in place – the Book of Mormon can be boiled down to be humble, do good works, follow the example of Jesus Christ, repent. Maybe they actually did feel something, had something revealed to them, as Smith says he did when plates were revealed to him in a hillside, and he translated them, put it in a book, and then sent the plates back up to Heaven. That translation is now known as the Book of Mormon.
Or maybe, as many were discovered to be, they were conmen seeking power and followers, riches and a good laugh at the thousands they duped into believing them.
In Acts, as pointed out by The Lovely Delaney Knudsen, there is a kinda sorta vague answer. It states that “if their purpose or endeavor is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.”
But still, even with that in mind how do we know the difference?
How do we know if our, for example, Catholic priest is a good person, called by God to preach His word, interpreting it to the best of his ability, or if he’s one of the more than 3,000 priests charged with sexual abuse from 2001-2010 alone, using that power to get others to do their bidding? They failed, obviously, as predicted by Acts, but not before some significant damage was done.
So is it just a matter of time? Do we wait to see what rules stand the test of time, to be deemed of human origin, and what don’t?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but these were the questions that arose when I read that line in Exodus, and then virtually every line in Leviticus, about putting those who work on Sundays to death. It makes the Bible, in my mind, and those we put in charge to interpret it and teach it and update it with the times, and anyone who takes it too literally, an incredibly dangerous text.
I don’t know where the line is drawn, where we accept the Bible as fact and where there is a call for interpretation. I don’t know who gets the power to do said interpreting, or maybe that’s between you and God. It is these very questions that have swayed me from accepting any specific denomination, rather choosing a non-denominational church to attend regularly and forming my own relationship with God.
It is for these reasons, too, that I’ve never had a single problem with an atheist in my life. I’ve never had an atheist knock on my door and hand me a packet demanding me to join this group or that group, or else… I’ve never seen an atheist marching up and down the Huntington Beach Pier, demanding I repent, else I’ll be sent into the fiery furnaces of hell. Atheists, in my experience, just want to be left alone, not burdening anyone else with their interpretations of this or that and why people should act this way or that.
Tri, for example, doesn’t practice any particular religious faith. He just says he’s of the Religion of Life. I love that. He’s a good person, does things good people do, is happy, makes full use of this beautiful earth around us.
Who am I, or who is anyone, to say any different?
I ask questions. I look into paradoxes, of which there are many. Christians aren’t encouraged to get drunk, yet wasn’t Jesus the one who turned water into wine? We’re not supposed to question our faith, but wasn’t it Moses who told God to pick someone else?
I work on Sundays but I don’t feel God’s guillotine above my head when I do.
Some things I take quite literally in the Bible. Some things I don’t. I think to question it, to inspect it, to turn it over this way and that, to really examine it, is one of the most important things I’ve done for my faith, and I’ve hardly even begun this little journey.
I sent this draft to Jordan Cheng and Joel Blocksom before publishing, and I’ll share one of the points Jordan made: “I believe (in my opinion), that God reveals more of himself through his word when it is read in community than he does when it is read in isolation. (Ephesians 3:17-19″…that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
So I’ll continue sharing my thoughts and questions as I go, and I’ll hope you’ll share yours with me, whether you agree or disagree (especially if you disagree), are a church regular or not, believe in God or not.
Last week’s Bible study: Moses, and the concept of stillness
Favorite verses thus far
Genesis 14: 22-24: “But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have raised my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or a thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and share that belongs to the men who went with me – to Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Let them have their share.”
Genesis 18: 13-14: “Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.’”
Genesis 40: 8: “’We both had dreams,’ they answered, ‘but there is no one to interpret them.’ Then Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me your dreams.’”
Genesis 45: 4-8: “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now, there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all of Egypt.”
Genesis 50: 19-21: “But Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’”
Exodus 3: 13-14: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
Exodus 4: 8-12: “Then the Lord said, ‘If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first miraculous sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground.’ Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’”
Exodus 14: 13-14: “Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still.’”
Exodus 16: 16-18: “Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Each one is to gather as much as he needs.’ The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.”