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Bible: Fantasy-Land?

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

Christians who argue that the whole Bible should be interpreted in a literal, historical fashion have a few tricky verses to contend with:

  • in the book of Revelation, John recounts “out of [Jesus’] mouth came a double-edged sword[1];

  • in Isaiah, God is described as “our eternal rock[2];

  • in John’s Gospel, Jesus said He “is the vine and [we] are the branches[3];

  • and in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said that His followers are “the salt of the Earth[4].

It is obvious these verses have metaphorical meanings. Therefore, the whole Bible was never intended to be subjected to a ‘one-size-fits-all’ interpretative model. The Bible contains a variety of literary devices, such as eye-witness biographies; prophetic writings; symbolic imagery; prayers; poems; laments; narratives; law books; personal letters; and ancient history. The historical parts of the Bible reflect a different style of historical writing that was favoured thousands of years ago. The earliest biblical writers aimed to "render an account" of the past in a way that adequately explained the present. They stressed things that were important to them, rather than giving a full factual account of every objective detail. These biblical writings are now judged through today’s modern lens, according to how well it documents proceedings in an unbiased manner. Any sign of historical writings that offer moral/spiritual interpretations of the recorded events are treated with distrust. But is the modern historical model superior to the ancient approach?

What’s the point in merely recording a blow-by-blow account? Unless you subject these findings to ethical analysis, the mistakes of the past can be easily repeated. For example, what use is a historical dossier that outlines the details of the UK's arms deals with Saudi Arabia that are being used against Yemen, unless we go on to ask whether this should be allowed to continue? Biblical history cannot simply be deemed unreliable because it prioritises different details compared with the modern approach. Indeed, it may actually provide invaluable insights which the modern version neglects.

This example highlights the importance of assessing how the original writers intended each section of the Bible to be interpreted, rather than automatically processing them through our modern inclinations. We may miss the deeper meaning of the text if we read into it with the wrong ‘lens’. It seems obvious that when Isaiah declared God is "our eternal rock”, he wasn’t giving a literal description of God’s material composition. Or Jesus declaring Himself as “the Vine” does not entail that He was in fact a plant! But what of larger passages in the Bible, or even whole books within it – how are we meant to discern the intentions of its early writers and which genre it exhibits?

It’s not as hard to decipher as you might think. We are very good at spotting metaphors and similes with little training. And when I studied the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, it was blatantly clear that they were intended to be read as historical documents that utilised the biographical writing style common at the time[5]. The Gospels contain unique emphases that the four writers wished to communicate and deemed important. This explains some of the minor differences between them. For example, Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience, so he included many Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, but this would have meant little to a non-Jewish audience whom Luke was writing to, so he left them out.

What of the Creation account in Genesis chapter one? What genre does this portray? The chapter describes God’s creative acts taking place over seven days forming "the heavens and the earth"[6]:

  • Day One begins with God speaking light into existence;

  • Day Two, the waters above separate from the waters below to make the sky and sea;

  • Day Three, dry land appears with plant life forming;

  • Day Four, the sun and stars are made;

  • Day Five, sea creatures and birds enter the scene;

  • Day Six, the land animals and humans are created;

  • and Day Seven, God rested.

This account reads like a poem in terms of its repetitive structure: “there was evening and there was morning[7] is a summary line found at the end of each day. Each section also ends with the proclamation “and God saw it was good[8]. Some may question if a poem can have such uneven, lengthy detail in places, so maybe it was intended more as a narrative. But either way, compare this conclusion with a mini thought experiment:

Imagine God inspired the ancient writer to transcribe Big Bang Cosmology because the aim was to provide a literal, factual account of Creation. "In the beginning, God created all matter which was compacted into a single point with infinite density and intense heat called a singularity. 0.01 seconds after, protons and neutrons were fully formed. After a full second, the nuclei of light elements like hydrogen, helium, and lithium were produced…" and so on for a full dissertation length essay. That style of reporting may not mean much to the ancient listeners and not even to many of us nowadays.

Genesis One is so simple and clear that even children can understand it. It has been translated with ease into hundreds of languages without losing its meaning. Now we are in a position to enquire what God aimed to impress upon us through this stunningly simple account of Creation. What is its deeper meaning?

Literal and purely factual reporting is not necessarily the gold standard for conveying Truth. Truth is vast in its broadness and complexity. Poetry and narratives can often express truth at a deeper level which resonate with our human nature. When grieving the passing of a loved one, what excerpt would we read at their funeral to convey the gravity of the situation? Would we choose a scientific description of clinical death and the decomposition that happened to their body? Or would we choose a poem, such as W. H. Auden’s ‘Stop all the Clocks’: “he was my North, my South, my East and West, my working week and my Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.[9] Which option best conveys Truth in this situation? A scientific definition of death is factually true and literally explains what happened to the deceased. But I would argue that the grief-filled poem, which therapeutically explores the mysterious nature of death and loss, is also true in a factual way of its own. The emotional loss suffered is just as real and needs voicing alongside the clinical facts. Both genres have a role to play in describing accurately what happens when we experience the death of a loved one.

God created the whole Cosmos and every type of knowledge within it, so they should all point to Him if He is real. God used a wide variety of literary devices when inspiring the Biblical writers in order to speak Truth at every possible level. If Genesis One is infused with poetic/narrative imagery, that doesn't have to lessen its importance or significance. You just have to ask different questions:

  • what was the writer aiming to portray?

  • what was God revealing about Himself through this story and why?

  • what are humans designed to fulfil?

And yet, I want to present in the next post, my reasons for believing that Genesis Chapters 1-3 should not be interpreted as poetry/symbolic narratives but as true accounts of Creation…

References [1] Rev 1:16 [2] Isaiah 26:4 [3] John 15:5 [4] Matthew 5:13 [5] See my posts “Reason 1 and 2: Eye-Witness Testimonies and Investigating the Witnesses”. [6] Genesis 1:1 [7] Gen 1:5 [8] Gen 1:10 [9] W. H. Auden – Funeral Blues ("Stop all the clocks") | Genius

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