Taking the Bible a Little TOO Literally

I apologize for the extended absence. I have had a few things going on lately – including illness and depression. I think I’m over the illness, but if anyone is willing to pray for me for what God knows that I need most right now, I’d appreciate it.     ~Heather

Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, “O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There was no day like that before it or after it, when the Lord listened to the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel. (Joshua 10:12-14, NASB)

The general principle or hermeneutic of reading the Bible is as follows:

  1. Read it in context of the surrounding passages. Don’t cherry-pick verses and use them out of context.
  2. Read it in the context of the entire Bible. Don’t cherry-pick individual passages or even chapters to mean something contrary to the rest of teaching of Scripture. (“Scripture interprets Scripture.”)
  3. Read it in the “common sense” and generally literal meaning.
  4. Don’t read meanings into Scripture that aren’t there, although there may be multiple applications of a portion of Scripture.

Now, that’s a very general way to go about reading the Bible, but it’s safe and I think that is how most pastors, scholars, and Christians in general go about it. Most of all, I don’t think anyone would specifically suggest otherwise, even though many people do otherwise, as is evidenced by the wide variety of interpretations. (Not Bible versions, but how people interpret what they read.) Any time a text out of context – even for books other than the Bible – misunderstandings and confusion are inevitable.

Now, that is the primary means of interpreting the Bible and will generally help to gain understanding without ending up with a wildly different interpretation. But, there is still another place where people get fouled up in reading it.

When people assume that the authors of the Bible were too primitive to write decently, then they run afoul of the wordplay that is actually included in the Bible. There are metaphors and similes in the Bible (i.e. Jesus is not a literal door) as well as word-pictures, poetry and other wordplay that is lost on an English-speaking audience.

One of the clearest evidences that I see of this is when people believe that the Bible teaches that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth.

Now, when I originally learned that people inferred this from the text of the Bible, especially the flat-earth idea, I was amazed. I kept thinking to myself, “Is there something I missed? How do people come to this conclusion?” I’ve even seen where scholars mention this as a point having to be dealt with scientifically! So I researched what some of the verses are that supposedly teach a flat earth or the earth revolving around the sun, and the verses that I opened with are some of those quoted.

What’s the Problem?

Clearly the above verses from the Book of Joshua describe Joshua instructing the sun to stop in the sky, and that certainly makes it sound like Joshua believes the sun is what’s moving while the earth remains still, right?

So, why do I insist that doesn’t support that the Bible teaches that the sun revolves around the earth? Isn’t the Bible inspired and inerrant? How can it teach something that we’ve seen scientifically isn’t true?

Well, let’s take a closer look at this.

  1. The Book of Joshua describes Joshua instructing the sun to stop in the sky.
  2. Joshua clearly appears to believe that the sun moves around the earth.

So, is there really just something I’m missing?

Taking a Closer Look

To better understand this situation, we have to consider who Scripture is being written for and to. It’s being written for everyone and to everyone. Everyone – throughout decades, centuries, and even millenniums! That means it had to be understandable to the people who were reading it back when it was first written, as well as to people reading it 2,000+ years later.

In God’s omniscience, He knows all those people throughout all of time and what will work best. Because He knows literally everything (and everyone), He also knows what His chosen writers would write, how they would write it (their personal writing style) under His inspiration and oversight, and how that would impact current and future people.

First off, we have to notice that what is written is a description. This is describing what Joshua sees. Joshua did not say that the sun is revolving around the earth. He said that the “sun stopped in the sky”. This is an observational statement.

If the Book of Joshua said, “The sun stopped revolving around the earth,” we would be dealing with a substantially different issue and it would be fully justifiable to question the inerrancy of the text. But, that isn’t what it says at all.

Secondly, if Joshua believed that the sun revolved around the earth – so what? If all the people believed that the sun revolved around the earth because they didn’t know any better at that time – so what? The problem here isn’t that the Bible actually teaches that the sun revolves around the earth, the problem is that people infer that based on what Joshua observed.

What About a Flat Earth?

We’ve taken a look at the idea of the sun revolving around the earth, but what about a flat earth?

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. (Revelation 7:1, ESV)

I was somewhat astonished to learn that this is one of the primary texts that people use to support their claim that the Bible teaches that the earth is flat. I think there is another (besides Psalms 75:3), but I have heard of this one the most.

For starters, the entire Book of Revelation uses a great deal of symbolism and imagery. For example, there is a woman, and a dragon, and neither refer to an actual female or an actual dinosaur or other reptile. They are symbolic of Babylon and Satan, and even Babylon is used symbolically itself. So, to say that the “four corners of the earth” implies a flat earth is, to me, already a stretch.

As detailed in the Got Questions page on the idea of the Bible teaching a flat earth, this merely represents the compass points of North, South, East, and West. Furthermore, it again does not state, “The earth is flat.” If that statement was made, we’d have fully justifiable reasons to question the Bible’s inerrancy and teachings.

Instead, we’ve got an inference that is not supported by other texts in the Bible and is far more symbolic, descriptive, and observational than it is a scientific statement of facts.

Another TOO Literal Inference

There is one other “too literal” part I wanted to bring attention to. I was listening to a podcast where the guest speaker was a “Textual Expert”. I’m not trying to lessen his expertise or education in any way, but he said something that I was surprised by.

He said that one of the words that was used to imply deep feelings or deep love was, in the original language, “entrails”, but it was translated as something like “heart”. Though I can’t recall the exact verse or even words he was speaking on, I do clearly recall him saying, “Your translators were helping you!” That is to imply, the actual word used was entrails and the translators corrected it to a more appropriate word to signify what it meant.

The interesting thing about that is that in the King James Version, the English word “bowels” is used much more often than I have seen in other versions. Well, it certainly looks like what he said is true, and it very well might be, but there is something to note.

When looking into the ancient Hebrew, it’s interesting to note how broadly any individual word (and even letter) is used. Take a look at the variety of meanings! So, it seems to me that the word may be “entrails” but has a broader, multi-use meaning to express “deep down inside”. That is, perhaps the word literally is entrails, but it has other meanings that do not come through in the English when using the most literal translation of the word.

The Hypocrisy in Taking It Too Literal

Taking the Bible too literally clearly causes us to infer things that aren’t clearly expressed, and it can cause misunderstandings in abundance. However, there is something more shameful about this behavior – specifically the behavior of taking portions of the Bible too literal and then rejecting it on the notion that the entire book must be nonsense. Not only is that basically creating a straw man argument, it’s also total hypocrisy.

Don’t believe me?

Think with me about a hypothetical 1,000 years into the future, and somehow looking back into texts from our current day. Let’s imagine that we are able to be a fly on the wall at some future researcher reading about the culture of our day. 

Let’s imagine that this researcher is reading some of our news articles, weather reports, email communications, etc. What would they think that we thought with phrases like this?

  • “The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west.”
  • “I am speaking to you from the bottom of my heart.”
  • “My gut tells me to buy it.”
  • “The sun is at high noon.”
  • “My heart is breaking.”
  • “Listen to your gut instinct.”
  • “Just follow your heart.”

Now, anyone in this day clearly knows what these statements mean and has most likely used one or more, if not all, at some point. However, we never stop to think about what we are actually saying.

  • When is the last time your gut literally spoke to you?
  • Why did the sun last move high up over the earth?
  • Has your heart ever literally broke?
  • Does the sun actually rise, or for that matter, set?
  • Don’t you think with your brain, and not with your heart (or your stomach)?

How come we don’t say what is really happening? Why don’t we say, “Well, the earth has rotated to the point where our specific location is aiming at such and such an angle to the sun at this moment, indicating 12pm”?

Who would ever understand it if we did?

We don’t frequently stop to think about it, but we all use this kind of descriptive and observational language to explain the world around us, and even our own feelings. We use “gut” and “heart” to describe our “deep down” and “innermost” feelings. Even saying, “deep down”, and, “innermost”, aren’t accurate in a literal sense because our emotions don’t come from say, our pancreas or our small intestine.

The point is, we use the exact same type of language as they do in Biblical texts to mean the exact same types of things as the Biblical authors did. The difference is that we hold them to an entirely different standard. Or, we view them as being so primitive that they couldn’t possibly use the same type of descriptive language that we do.

It ultimately doesn’t matter if Joshua did literally think that the sun revolved around the earth or even if people thought that the earth was literally flat. The important thing is that we look at what the Bible actually says, not what we read into it and infer from it. The important thing is that we interpret what the Bible says in the context of all of Scripture.

The important thing is that we understand that when we overcome these hurdles, we can see the truth in Scripture, and that is the truth about our Lord Jesus Christ. All of Scripture is about Him, and He is all that matters – not all these misunderstandings.

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