No one reads or interprets the Bible literally – regardless as to what they profess. To do so is simplistic, if not dangerous. All of us read our bias, our theology, and our social location into the text. There is no such thing as an objective reading; all readings are subjective.
There is, however, the power for some to make their subjective reading objective for everyone else. Those with the power to shape reality can impose their reading of Scripture – a reading that justifies their privilege and lifestyle. For the marginalized to accept the predominant Eurocentric reading of Scripture, whether slaves of old or the disenfranchised of today, is to participate in their own self-policing.
Although the mythology of taking the Bible literally must be sustained so as to maintain a privileged social location, I will wager that those who insist on objective literalism have never bothered to live their lives according to such a literal, exhaustive reading. If they did, they would live illegal – if not immoral lives. To prove my point, I prepared a pop quiz:
1) True or False – The Bible makes provisions for offering a sacrifice to the demonic god Azazel.
2) The biblical definition of a traditional marriage is one between a man and: a) many wives or concubines, b) sex slaves, c) prostitutes, d) his harem, e) all of the above.
3) Homosexuals, according to the Bible, are to be: a) tolerated, b) encouraged, c) killed or d) banned.
4) Capital punishment applies to: a) those disrespecting parents, b) those committing adultery, c) those working on the Sabbath, d) those cursing God’s name, e) all of the above.
5) Women are saved: a) through baptism, b) by reciting a sinner’s prayer, c) through child-bearing, d) accepting Jesus, who died for their sins, as Lord as Savior.
6) Every year, one must take a tithe of all that the land has yield and: a) give it to the priests, b) give it to the church, c) give it to the poor, d) convert it to cash and buy wine, strong drink or anything else their heart desires.
7) God tries to kill Moses, but does not because God is appeased by Moses’ wife Zipporah, who: a) cuts off the foreskin of her son’s penis and rubs it on Moses’ penis, b) offers up a bull as sacrifice, c) takes a vow of silence, d) prays for forgiveness.
8) Who tempts King David to take a census of the Israelites? a) King Saul, b) God, c) King Solomon, d) Satan, e) b and/or d, depending on which passage you read.
9) Evil and evil spirits come from a) God, b) Satan, c) neither a nor b, d) both a & b.
10) The original concept of the people owning all possessions in common “each according to their needs” is rooted in a) Marxist ideology, b) socialist thought, c) the biblical church, d) liberation theology
11) True or False – The Bible advocates sending runaway slaves back to servitude.
12) True or False – Charging interest on a loan is congruent with the word of God.
13) A woman – like an ox, donkey, slave or house – is the possession of a man, and thus cannot be coveted.
14) If a husband suspected his wife of infidelity, she could prove her innocence by ingesting a bitter elixir before the priest. If she survived, then she was faithful. If instead the shriveling of her thigh or the swelling of her belly afflicted her, then she is guilty. Men, on the other hand, could have multiple sex partners in the form of wives or concubines. This practice was/is part of a) radical Islam, b) the Christian Medieval Church, c) the Bible, d) the Pharisaic tradition.
15) Judas, while in the sanctuary, cast down the 30 pieces of silver given to him to betray Jesus in accordance with the Prophet a) Jeremiah, b) Zechariah, c) Haggai, d) Matthew states it is Jeremiah, but the verse quoted is found in Zechariah.
16) True or False – Two different sets of Jesus’ ancestors are listed in the Bible.
17) True or False – Heaven is a place of eternal rest, where there is no more war.
18) My response to taking this test will be: a) stick my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “na na na na na,” b) question De La Torre’s salvation, c) ignore these parts of the Bible so I can maintain my literalism, d) read the text for what it says and struggle with it in the humility of knowing that a clear answer may not be evident in this lifetime.
3) c – Lev. 20:13 Is the killing, not converting or fixing or saving, of homosexuals the only biblical response for literalists?
5) c – I Tim. 2:14-15 If a woman is saved through childbearing, does this mean barren women are unsaved?
7) a – Ex. 4:24-26 What does it mean that God tried to kill Moses? Why did God fail? How does a child’s foreskin pacify God?
10) c – Acts 2:44-45 Could it be that capitalism is irreconcilable with the praxis of the early church?
11) True – Phm. 1:12 Was Paul wrong in sending slaves back to their masters?
12) False – Ex. 22:24 Can a banker be a biblical follower?
13) True – Ex. 20:17 If the bible defines women as possessions; is the biblical text misogynist?
14) c – Nu. 5:11-31 Why does the Bible provide a test for unfaithful wives but not for unfaithful husbands?
17) False – Rev 12:7 What does it mean that there is war in Heaven? Where does the concept of a peaceful ever-after comes from?
18) The choice is yours.
Score: If you got more than half wrong, how can you take literally that which you do not know?
Now, why would a Bible-believer like myself, who strives to live his life according to the biblical text, spend time showing that the Bible cannot be taken or followed literally? Because of the high regard I have for Scriptures.
Simplistic faith leads to easy answers to complex questions. In the name of Jesus, Crusades have been launched to exterminate the infidels; women seeking autonomy have been burned as witches; indigenous people who refused to bow their knees to God and king were decimated; the kidnapping, rape and enslavement of Africans was justified; and today, the pauperization of two-thirds of the world’s population is legitimized so that a small minority of the planet can consider themselves blessed by God.
When Moses cured the Israelites by placing a bronze serpent on a stick, it wasn’t long before the people started worshiping the serpent on the stick rather than God (Num. 21:4-9; II Kings 18:4). We humans have a tendency to fall into idolatry quickly. Idolatry is always wrong, even when worshiping objects that point to God. Many worship the Bible, rather than the one to whom the Bible points.
Only God should be worshiped, not the book that reveals God. In spite of some minor contradictions and several immoral regulations or commands that appear in the Bible (as the pop quiz demonstrated for those who have eyes to see), it still remains the testimony of those who saw God move in their lives and in history. And, like all testimonies, it is subjective. As important as the Bible is in my life, to worship it and give it equal standing with the Creator would be blasphemous on my part.
Faith that is uncritical is childish. For some, holding on to a childish faith means that the Bible must be fully accepted or wholly rejected as untrustworthy if an error is found. Well, I pointed to several questionable or even clearly erroneous passages – yet, even after compiling the above “pop quiz,” I hold the Bible to be trustworthy for my life and faith. Why? Because as Paul reminds us, we must but away childish things and progress from milk to solid food (I Cor. 3:1-3).
This is what it means to worship the Lord your God with all of our minds! For to worship the Lord your God with all your mind is to wrestle with the text, demanding to see God’s face, even if at times, like Jacob, one walks away limping.