It’s Like, Literally…

If there was any question before, let me put it to rest: I despise the word literally.  In most cases, it’s either used incorrectly or it’s unnecessary.  But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.  Um, literally.

Nope, today it’s all about Biblical literalism.  Now, I’m sure this is going to land me in hot water with more than a few people.  But I’m laying it on the line.  I suppose it’s on my mind because I had to teach a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds a literal interpretation of Job.

While I take Job very seriously, I don’t take it as strictly factual information.  It’s a great story, but there are a lot of problems with it.  Allow me to list some of them:

-God makes a bet with Satan
-God gives Satan free rein in this guy’s life for the sole purpose of finding out whether he will stay faithful
-Job gets better than a fairytale ending

I don’t know about you, but I’m not fully at ease with the idea that the Creator of the Universe likes to play games with our souls.  If indeed God loves us, that’s not much of a way to show it.  Speaking only for myself here, I don’t do that to my kids.  I have no reason to think that God treats us worse than we treat our own children, especially since Jesus says just the opposite.  I’m inclined to trust Jesus on this one.

My next problem is the idea that bad things are just the work of the Devil.  That’s quite a stretch.  And again, that sounds like Cosmic Forces playing games with tiny little humans as pawns.  That really doesn’t sound much like the God featured in the rest of the Bible, nor the one we encourage people to trust.  We arrest humans who do that to their kids.  Just sayin’.

Finally, that better-than-it-was ending is just kind of…crap.  It reads like a tack-on, something someone threw in there so that we wouldn’t get all depressed reading about poor Job.  It’s also pretty misleading.  God lets Satan screw with us to prove a point, then makes it all better by replacing everything?  Yeah.  Right.

Now, that’s all based on a literal, historical reading of the text.  It’s what one gets with the idea that Job was a real person and every event laid out in the book is factual exactly as it is written.  In other words, it’s the belief that God did indeed make a bet with Satan over the soul of a human being.  I think there are much better readings, which leave it as poetry, allegory, and a sort of morality play.  When taken as a whole, rather than individual fact bites, it’s clear that there is a larger purpose to the story.

I always leave discussions on Biblical literalism feeling at least a small amount of rage under the surface.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the words, “It’s literal unless it’s obvious it’s not or the text says it’s not.”  Well, that sure clears things up.  What one person believes to be “obvious” may not be to someone else.  A good deal of that is left to interpretation.  This is, of course, why some people take the Bible’s account of creation strictly at face value, and others see it as more poetic and nuanced.

This problem occurs in several well-known Bible stories: Adam and Eve, Noah, and Jonah, to name a few.  I think that one reason people feel so attached to literalism is that there is this fear that if we can’t believe in the Ark, we won’t believe in Jesus.  This is not at all true.  But what happens is that there are incredible stretches of the imagination in order to plug the holes left by literal interpretation.

For example, Noah takes two of every animal (and seven pairs of some) on the Ark.  Does that include polar bears, raccoons, and kangaroos, none of which are native to the Ancient Near East?  If Noah included those exotic animals, how did they get there?  How did they migrate their entire populations to the regions in which they now dwell?  Did those species arise later?  If so, then why is evolution false, or did God just magic them out of thin air?  The phrase “doesn’t bear close inspection” does not apply here.  Inquiring minds want to know: How does this all fit together?  To say it isn’t important brushes aside very real problems that must be addressed if one insists on taking everything as historical fact.

If, on the other hand, we take those stories not as absolute truth that must be defended but as insights into the nature of our relationship with God, we can have a much more generous approach to the text.  Instead of asking, “Well, what about…?” we can ask, “What does this mean?”  We can lay aside petty concerns about fact versus fiction in favor of developing understanding of God’s character and ours.  It doesn’t matter if the story happened just as the text suggests, because we’re concentrating on the key points—God wants us to trust and follow, even when it’s scary or strange, and that marvelous things happen when we do.

So getting back to Job, it seems as though a more responsible way to read the text is not to insist on literal interpretation, but to concentrate on meaning.  Some good things to come out of the text:

-Just because we experience bad things, it doesn’t mean we displeased God
-We don’t understand everything God does, but we can trust that God cares for us
-Eventually, all things will be made right (even if not in this lifetime)

Now, those are lessons I can get behind.


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