Part 4 in the series, “How Reasoning Reinforces My Faith”
The Bible has some strange stories. Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale only scratch the surface. Did you know Elisha summoned bears that mauled little boys who made fun of him? Did you know Balaam talks to a donkey just like Shrek?
Even for a believer, there is material in the Bible that can raise an eyebrow. So what are we to make of it? I like how a friend of mine posed this question:
"Saying, 'Nah, dude. Literally, Elisha literally summonsed two literal bears to kill 42 snot-faced boys for making fun of his bald spot'... I just can't convince myself that air, molecules, energy, or bears literally work like that. And, if that passage is not all literal, then it's unclear to me who has the authority to say which parts should be followed literally and which shouldn't."
I used to have all sorts of complicated explanations to address this concern until I finally found the answer in the Bible, delivered by Jesus himself. It's so remarkably simple and it's reiterated throughout Jesus' teachings.
"Whoever has ears, let them hear."
This is not a redundant statement. Jesus knows his audience has physically, literally heard his words, yet he delineates between using one's ears and hearing. Jesus also taught during a time when his audience included Pharisees, Biblical scholars who prided themselves in interpreting the Tenach literally and truly. They believed their righteousness came from their devotion to carrying out the law to the letter, yet Jesus says it is possible to believe in every word of the Bible yet not hear anything.
In other words, if you are questioning which parts of the Bible are supposed to be interpreted literally and if you are spending time trying to figure out which laws to follow, though you might not be doing a bad thing, Jesus says you are kind of missing the point. What the Bible says isn't nearly as important as what the Bible "says".
This is what I believe. First, I fully believe God is capable of doing every miracle, no matter how bizarre. If he can invent physics and the universe, he can make a donkey talk. Secondly, I don't put a lot of stock into believing every miracle in the Bible happened precisely according to the simple, children's Bible version of the story. If science or historical evidence or the advent of a time machine were to reveal that an event in the Bible (excepting one) did not in fact happen exactly as it was recorded, the new evidence would have no impact whatsoever on what the story really says. Finally, I believe the only Bible story that must be interpreted literally is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the cornerstone of the Christian faith (also the subject of the next essay in this series) and can only have been a literal event. Among Bible stories, it is also exceptionally well documented.
In other words, I don't put my faith in the facts of the Bible, but what it says about who God is and who I am. I don't need to belittle God by reducing the stories to allegories or metaphors, but at the same time, I don't really care if to spend any time trying to prove them. Take a look at the explanation Jesus gave his disciples. Even though Jesus is specifically referring to his own use of parables, I think what he says is transferable to the Bible at large:
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’"
I have only one answer to the question of whether or not a Bible story should be interpreted literally: don’t allow your perceived improbability of any part of the Bible prevent you from hearing what it says.