Should the Bible be taken literally?

A common label thrown at Bible-believing Christians is that they are “Biblical literalists,” that is, they interpret every part of the Bible in a completely literal, rigid fashion. Sadly, this charge is often made within the church. I was in a class at my church last Spring where nearly all the members were shocked that I believed that the original writings of the Bible were inspired by God. I was accused of being a literalist (eek!).  I thought I had gone to the Unitarian church by mistake.

Sometimes the charge has merit, such as when someone takes a given passage in a wooden fashion and causes unnecessary divisions. Interpreting the Book of Revelation is an example, where in my opinion some are too literal with their end times predictions.  Sometimes people take verses out of context to “prove” something they favor.  Some Bible reading tips to help avoid this are located here.

But I think the charge is mostly aimed at those who take the Bible seriously and who believe that the original writings were inspired by God. The Bible claims to speak for God several thousand times, so one would think that anyone calling themselves a Christian wouldn’t find it controversial to claim that the Bible is God’s Word.

Jesus used hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration, in saying it was better to gouge out our eyes or cut off our hands if that would stop us from sinning (at least I hope He was exaggerating!).  He also said to love your enemies and hate your parents.  But the passage where he said to hate your parents is also hyperbole.  He was making the point that we should love him so much more than other people and things that relatively speaking it would look like hate.  He obviously didn’t mean that literally.

Sometimes the criticisms are leveled at those who think Noah and Jonah are real people. But when you read those passages, do they sound like allegories or real events? If God made the universe and everything in it, is any miracle in the Bible too hard for him?

Ironically, those who hurl the literalist label are usually the first to take a verse literally and out of context. The favorite verse of some Christians (and non-Christians) appears to be Matthew 7:1, where Jesus says, “Do not judge.” They use this as an excuse for any and all behavior and to deflect criticism. If they would keep reading they would see that Jesus meant not to judge hypocritically. There are plenty of verses teaching that we need to make sound judgments, such as John 7:24 (“Stop judging on mere appearances and make a right judgment.”)

In an additional irony, they use this verse to judge those who make judgments. If anyone ever throws that verse at you out of context, then just reply by asking, “If it is wrong to judge, why are you judging me right now?”

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Jonah 4

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 4.

Jonah 4 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

This would have been a good spot for Jonah to say, “Great point, Lord!  I have no right at all to be angry.  I should rejoice at your mercy and grace.”  But He didn’t say that. 

Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”

“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Note God’s amazing patience with Jonah!   

Just a little side note – God was concerned about the cattle as well as the humans.  Of course, He considers humans to be much more important, but this is one of many verses that display God’s love for animals.  I did a post on my other blog about “Who will you see in Heaven?” and we discussed the concept of animals in Heaven a bit there.

I find verse 2 to be one of the most interesting verses in the Bible:  “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. ”  While much of the world pictures God as angry and unforgiving, consider that one of his prophets was angry enough to die because he “knew” that God abounded in love, and more.

Consider how the story ends.  Jonah never does come around completely to God’s way of thinking (at least not in the portion documented in the Bible).  God has exercised remarkable patience with the Ninevites and with Jonah. 

Praise God for his incredible patience with us as we wrestle with him as Jonah did.  And pray that we let God transform our minds so we can think more like He does and follow Christ more closely.

 Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Psalm 4.  I thought we would do 3-5 Psalms, then a couple chapters of Proverbs, then I’m open to suggestions.

Jonah 3

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 3.

Jonah 3 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.

Now Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days. On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Note the simplicity and power of the message.  Jonah obeyed (finally!).  The Ninevites, including their king, believed God and repented.  God was gracious and merciful to them. 

Sometimes we can over-complicate the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ.  If you look at the book of Acts, which chronicles the early years of the church, the Gospel is shared thirteen times in a somewhat similar pattern.  People are made aware of their problem (sinners separated from a perfect, Holy, righteous God) and the solution (Jesus, the Savior of the world, who died in their place and who offers complete forgiveness and reconciliation if they will only put their faith in him). 

Sometimes we jump ahead and forget to point out that people need to know their problem before they hear the solution.  Otherwise, they don’t think they need the solution.

It is easy to be hard on Jonah, but then I remember how many times I have done the opposite of what God wanted me to do.  I praise him for his unending mercy and grace. 

Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Jonah 4.

Jonah 2

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 2.

Jonah 2 From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’ The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.

But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

“Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.” And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

The text isn’t crystal clear on the three day and three night timeline, but it appears that as soon as Jonah repented and prayed that God delivered him.  Jonah could have done this before he got on the ship, when he was on the ship, or immediately after being swallowed by the fish, but he waited until it was almost too late.  It reminds me of Daniel 9:23, where the angel says, “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given . . .”  God answers prayers with his perfect timing.  If an urgent answer is needed, then that’s what you’ll get. 

Verse 8 is very powerful and is a good one to memorize: “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”  When we cling to idols of pride, false religions, money, sex, work, power, relationships, entertainment, etc. then we are missing out on the grace that God offers.   Grace is the most unique feature of the Christian faith.  The complete, unearned forgiveness of sins and restoration to God is seen nowhere else.   Yet we may fail to embrace grace because we want to hold onto wordly things that don’t truly fulfil us.

Think about times when you cried out to God in your desperation.  You may be in that place right now, either through consequences of your own actions or due to things beyond your control.  Either way, He has all of eternity to answer a momentary prayer. 

Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Jonah 3.  Tune in to see if Jonah has completely turned around such that he sees the situation from God’s perspective, or if he still wrestles with wanting things done his way. 

Jonah 1

Greetings!  This reading is Jonah 1.

This is an action-packed book.  A lot happens in just four chapters. 

Jonah 1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

The Ninevites had a seriously wicked culture.  The prophet Nahumchronicled much of their evil – plotting against God, cruelty, exploitation of the helpless, idolatry, prostitution, withcraft and more.  But despite this God still wanted to reach them, just as He reaches out to us in our wickedness. 

Prophets typically just preached and prophesied to the Israelites.  In this case God wanted Jonah to go to the hated Ninevites and preach a message of repentance to them.  As Genesis 12:3 and other parts of the Bible note, the rest of the world was to be blessed through the Israelites.  Jonah didn’t like that idea so he disobeyed and went the other direction. 

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the Lord, “O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.”

I used to think that Jonah was finally doing something noble by offering to be thrown into the sea.  But James MacDonald pointed out that Jonah was basically saying that he would rather die than obey God.

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.

There is the fish part.  No drama, just a ho-hum notation that God provided a great fish to swallow Jonah. 

Although “three days and three nights” sounds like three literal 24 hour days, it was actually a Hebrew figure of speech meaning any part of a day.  Therefore, Jesus was buried mid-day on Friday and arose on Sunday but it was still referred to as “three days and three nights.”

Note how these pagans had more compassion than Jonah.  Jonah had put their lives in danger and they wanted to spare his life, but Jonah didn’t want the Ninevites to be saved.  The sailors were convinced by this miracle and vowed to follow God. 

We can’t run from God and expect to receive his blessings.  Are there any parts of your life where you are running from God?   

Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like. 

The next reading is Jonah 2.

Jonah overview

Greetings!  This reading is an overview of Jonah.

I am excited about this study of Jonah.  Many of us have heard about “Jonah and the Whale” so many times that we think of it as a cartoon, even though the text says “fish” and not “whale” and the text and the rest of the Bible point to Jonah being a real person.

Try to pretend you are reading it for the first time.  There is so much more to this story than just a big fish.  In fact, you may be surprised that the story doesn’t go as you remembered. This is a very short book and can be read quickly.  I encourage you to read it through once then come back through it chapter by chapter.   

Who wrote this and when was it written? Jonah, a prophet of God, wrote it around 775 B.C.  It is possible that someone else wrote it because it is written in the third person, but it is quite likely that a repentant Jonah wrote it himself.

Was Jonah a real person?  Did he really preach to the people of Ninevah?  He was referred to in 2 Kings 14:25.  And Jesus sure thought he was real:

Matthew 12:39-41 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.

Who was it written to?  Israel (the Jewish nation) and all followers of God.

Why was it written?  The Book of Jonah shows the message of God’s salvation to all people, not just the Israelites.  It also shows how God pursues us and how painful disobedience can be. 

Reflect on what stood out to you in this reading and share your comments and questions if you like.

The next reading is Jonah 1.

Listening to the Bible

Years ago a friend told me how he listened to the Bible when he commuted. I bought some tapes from a ministry called Faith Comes by Hearing and started listening to them. They have many versions to choose from. You can get tapes, CDs or MP3 files. There are many other organizations that produce audio Bibles as well.

No matter how busy you are you probably have time to listen in the car.  The whole Bible takes about 80 hours to listen to. With 15 minutes a day, you could listen to the Bible in a year, or the New Testament in just 3 months.  Just don’t shut your eyes to pray if you are driving. 

Sometimes I listen while in my car, exercising, or doing yardwork or anything mundane.  My youngest daughter is an auditory learner and she liked listening to the Bible when we tried it last week (we are in Leviticus, no less!).

Even if you like to read, give listening a try. You will be surprised at the things you pick up that you miss when you read (and vice verse).

Romans 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.