I read a personal confession on social where the writer admitted to a bias. When someone claimed the Bible was literal, he immediately classified them as an ignoramus.
I’m sure he’s not the only one. But essentially, this bias is framing the question, “Is the Bible literal, yes or no?” That’s like asking, “Is your car made of metal, yes or no?” Since a car is mainly metal, but not all metal, a correct response is impossible.
Even though the entire collection of Scripture testifies to a literal God, the writings, known as “books”, span several genres. These genres are as follows:
Historical narrative; such as the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. These narratives are literal. The New Testament equivalent would be the book of Acts.
Books of Law; Such as the last half of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These books are literal as far as they are mandated literal practices for a specific culture in an established point of history.
Books of Wisdom; Such as Job. Many see Job as an actual event but as the oldest writing in the Bible, it is actually written in the form of a morality play or extended parable. There may have been an actual Job, but the agenda of the writing was to highlight the sovereignty of God. From what we know, it is fair to see it as a “screen play based on actual events.” Not likely literal history.
Other books of wisdom are completely literal such as the book of Proverbs. This book is one instruction after another. All instruction is literal, based on the design and values of a perfect God.
Books of Poetry: Such as Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations. This genre deals with the inner life of the writer; their thoughts and emotions. Like all poetry it is meant to resonate with the inner life of the reader. It certainly rests on love for a literal God, but it is subjective, not objective.
Books of Prophecy: Books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and more, and Revelation in the New Testament are God’s response set against the backdrop of the history, law, and wisdom already established. In fact, the greatest concentration of prophetic writings revolve around the fall of an unfaithful Israel of ancient times.
Prophecy proclaims what God is doing, going to do and why. Even New Testament prophecy is based on the Old Testament genre of prophetic writing. It is highly symbolic but as understandable as code with the proper cipher. The writer is explaining hard things in symbols that were readily understandable and compelling to the contemporary hearers.
The thing is, those of us in later times must go back to the mind and times of the original hearers to understand the symbolism. In large part, that is why the Book of Revelation is open to some wild interpretations. It takes time and effort to research the symbolism of an ancient and foreign culture. Prophecy is for the most part, symbolic speech which presents the literal actions of God.
The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This genre recounts the actual life of the man Jesus, who came as the Messiah or Christ. Only the most ardent sceptics attempt to disprove His literal existence. There are plenty of extra-Biblical writings of the time that refer to Him, from a neutral perspective, such as Josephus Flavius, and incidental writings of Roman officials such as Tacitus and Seutonius.
The Gospels recount a Jewish person communicating within a Jewish culture which adds a layer of challenge to the question. Jesus lived in a literal place. He literally healed, but He often taught in parables like a rabbi would do with Jewish listeners. He sometimes used a figurative phrase to get the attention of His listeners. Serious students of Scripture have very concise tools to discern the literal from the figurative. Explaining those literary tools is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say, they do exist.
Epistles: Epistle means letter. Of the 27 books of the New Testament, 21 are epistles. Most are attributed to the Apostle Paul, but not all. They focus on guiding the churches. They are the business of the day and in that regard, they are extremely literal.
So if someone demanded a yes or no answer to- IS YOUR CAR METAL? -How would you respond? Personally, I’d say yes because the majority of my car is metal, and the core components are metal. That’s how it functions.
I answer the Bible question in the same way. Even so, I have to humbly contend, if there is an issue of ignorance, it isn’t betrayed in the response, it lies with the question. …So how would YOU respond? It’s certainly food for thought.