Years ago when my kids were small, I had a conversation commiserating with another young mom about the constant laundry that small children create. Referencing my son, who had been known to spill a juice box or two on his shirt, I lightheartedly joked, “That kid has a hole in his lip.” It was a colorful expression I had picked up from a friend raised in the South, but the young mom I was talking to had grown up on another continent. She stared at me in stunned horror, and stammered, “That’s terrible; is he okay?”
I think about this disastrous conversation every time I hear someone assert that we should read the Bible literally. I understand the good intention behind such statements—the desire to avoid a drift into reading the Bible as myth or fiction. But as my own miscommunication demonstrates, a literal interpretation of someone’s words doesn’t always render the meaning that the person intended. Often, Bible readers interpret a literal reading to mean that the language of the Bible should be read woodenly, at face value, without what we might call a literary imagination.
Here is a detail we are prone to overlook: The Bible is literature. It is certainly more than just literature, but it is at least that. And because this is true, we should strive to navigate its pages with more than just a literal approach. Rather than a literal reading, we should employ a literate one.
Idioms like the one I used with my friend are famous for creating communication errors when taken literally. When we use idioms, we assume the hearer will understand them as such. Telling an actor to “break a leg” before a performance is understood to be a wish for good luck, not a wish for a tragic accident. As long as everyone understands the rules for how an idiom is being used, meaning is communicated without impediment and with a little bit of linguistic artistry.
Or consider different forms of poetry. The first time I read a haiku poem in elementary school, my Dr. Seuss-like sensibilities were offended by its odd structure. Why didn’t it rhyme? Where was its rhythm? But once I learned the unique rules of haiku poetry, I not only appreciated the form, I employed it in my own poetic attempts. Language obeys different rules in different contexts, and the language of the Bible is no exception. A literate reading takes these rules into consideration.
But before we abandon the term “literal reading of the Bible,” let’s capture what is good in it. Yes, we should look for the plain meaning of the text. The Bible was written to be understood. It has a meaning it means to convey. Interpretation is the work of uncovering the meaning that was placed there by the biblical author, under the inspiration of the Spirit. Meaning is determined by the author and discovered by the reader. The reader does not assign a meaning to the text, but rather works to understand what meaning the author intended to be drawn from the text. Interpretation takes into consideration authorial intent.
But we cannot grasp authorial intent without grappling with the different forms of literature the biblical authors employed. The Bible contains a number of different genres of writing: historical narrative, law, wisdom literature, poetry, prophecy, epistles, and apocalyptic writing, to name a few. When an author chooses to communicate through a particular form, they do so for a good reason. They believe that particular form will best communicate the meaning they intend. The way that biblical poetry uses language is different than the way that historical narrative does. Prophecy uses language differently than a law code. And so on.
Consider wisdom literature as an example of why a literate reading is needed. You are probably familiar with Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (ESV). I’ve known many an earnest Christian parent to claim this verse as a promise for a wayward child. But proverbs are principles, not promises. They teach wisdom principles that are generally true. Proverbs 22:6 is not promising a certain outcome. It is saying what is wise to do, and what generally happens when the wise path is taken.
This is why we desperately need a literate approach to the Bible. A woodenly literal reading of a proverb can result in a black and white application that is profoundly unhelpful. In the case of Proverbs 22:6, it leaves good parents questioning the goodness of God who seemingly isn’t fulfilling a promise. When we understand the rules of wisdom literature, we are able to read and apply them according to their intended meaning.
Wisdom literature is also prone to using extreme language to make a point. Perhaps the most famous example of this occurs in the Sermon on the Mount, in a passage that severely tests our commitment to read the Bible literally. In Matthew 5:29, Jesus instructs His hearers to gouge out their sinful eyes and cut off their sinful hands. Because we understand that He is using hyperbole, we don’t rush for a carving knife upon reading these words. Rather, we take a literate approach to interpreting His words by recognizing the way He is using language.
Or consider the way that the biblical writers employ numbers. Numbers like 7, 10, 12, and 40 are used to communicate specific ideas. Because the original audience would have listened to passages read aloud versus owning a copy in writing, the repeated use of specific numbers would have helped with memory retention. In Acts, Luke records the life of Moses in 40-year increments because the number 40 signified the length of one generation to a Hebrew. Whether Moses was literally 40 years old when he left the house of Pharaoh is less important to Luke than the idea that an entire generation had passed since his birth. A listener can easily recall the major events of Moses’s life at age 40, 80, and 120 in a way that would be impeded by having to recall exact ages, and the beauty of a life that spans three generations is clearly communicated. A literate approach to reading historical narrative pays attention to how numbers are being used to communicate ideas.
And yes, in many cases, the literate approach to reading is indeed a literal one! God is the literal Creator of all things seen and unseen. Jesus literally died on a cross and rose from the dead. David literally killed Goliath. We should literally not murder or bear false witness or take the Lord’s name in vain. Paul went on literal missionary journeys to literal churches in Asia Minor. Jesus will literally return one day.
You may be wondering, “Where can I become more familiar with the ways that the Bible uses language?” Several good places to start are How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart, and Literarily by Kristie Anyabwile. Most study Bibles also contain help for reading literary genres according to their rules. Once we begin to approach the Bible as literature, with our literary imagination informed and engaged, discovering the meaning of a text begins to become more intuitive, and more consistent with the way language is used throughout the Bible.
And like haikus or colorful idioms, as our appreciation for the forms employed deepens, we come to understand the Bible as a book that is not merely plain-spoken truth, but truth adorned—communicated beautifully and memorably, with exquisite skill.
Jen Wilkin is the author of Women of the Word, None Like Him, In His
Image, Better, God of Creation, God of Covenant, Sermon on the Mount, and 1
Peter. She lives in Dallas, Texas. You can find her at JenWilkin.net.