A Failure of Biblical Literalism

Exodus 1: 15-20

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.

Revelation 21:6-8

6He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life. 7He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liarsβ€”their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

I was reading Exodus the other day and was struck by the account of the Hebrew midwives and their interaction with the Pharaoh. He gives them instructions, they disobey his instructions, he asks them why they’ve disobeyed, and they lie to him in order to avoid a punishment. Yes, they were doing a noble thing by subverting the Pharaoh’s instructions to kill all male newborns, but they also lied to the Pharaoh. What’s fascinating is God’s reaction to the midwives. He was pleased by the conduct of the midwives and rewarded them despite their dishonesty.

Then we fast-forward to Revelation and we read about the fate of “liars” and other evil doers. Their punishment for their failure to be honest will be their placement in the “fiery lake”.

So if I am supposed to read these scriptures literally, then what are we to believe in regards to the fate of both Shiphrah and Puah?


18 thoughts on “A Failure of Biblical Literalism

  1. i think the important lense to read this through, and it is something involving “biblical literalism” (just not the strawman version that you MIGHT be hinting at), is that we are talking about the spirit of the law. jesus is pretty clear about the intent and heart of the believer in his/her actions. and the jesus of the gospels is the same jesus of revelation.

    biblical literalism doesn’t mean that you reject literary conventions and genre.

  2. I don’t think I’m building a “straw man” here. I know you enjoy that term, you use it in almost every comment you post here, but I don’t think it applies very well here.

    Maybe I’m wrong but I would say that those who interpret the Bible literally while also considering “conventions and genre” are in the minority of Biblical literalists. To say that “biblical literalism doesn’t mean that you reject literary conventions and genre” totally overestimates the culture of Biblical literalism.

  3. Hopefully what Sean is saying, is that is the way it SHOULD be interpreted. That just because literalists don’t do a great job usually at bringing out the narrative, does not mean that the bible shouldn’t be taken literally, when read as a whole.

    Something about the baby and the bathwater.

    But you do make a good point. I have regularly in the past seen subjective verses taken WAY too literally and even to a point where lives are damaged.

  4. Zach,
    How do YOU read Rev. 21:6-8? What does “liars” represent in a non-literal reading? What does “fiery lake” represent?

  5. I love that passage because it points out how complex morality is. I get tired of people telling me to just “dig into the word and I will find the answer,” like it is some sort of How To Manual. I’m sorry but I run into moral problems on a daily basis where I can find verses that could lead me in two different directions.

    It is like the priest and the levite in the story of the Good Samaritan. Everybody hates on them because they stepped over the dying fellow, but they were simply following Lev. 22:4, which does not allow a person to eat of the sacred offering (which is what priests and levites ate from) if they had touched bodily discharge (i.e. blood). On the other hand, Lev. 19:18 says to love your neighbor. So this is a moral dilemma which sounds strangely familiar to situational ethics.

    But what I think the true beauty of both of these stories is that they reveal God’s character. In the amazing story about Shiphrah and Puah, it shows that our Lord values Life. That their is a hierarchy of moral law and lives are higher up. A hierarchy sounds lame, but it functions much like our laws. i.e. It is illegal to run a red light, UNLESS it is an emergency.

    But to answer your question, it is not just an equation. Lying does not necessarily equal Liar. This sounds crazy but it is much more complex than that.

    Where in the passage or anywhere in the Bible does it mention “the spirit of the law.” Just wonderin’.

  6. What I think is amazing here is that so many times people make these claims out of the bible in the name of God that go against all common sense. People act like God doesn’t have a third graders sense of situational ethics.

    This observation could go into deep issues if you wanted it to… what else could God be pleased with I wonder….

  7. some great thoughts here… i’m glad i stopped by. My take is simply that the bible allows for many exceptions… for example you can kill in war-time… but remember “thou shalt not kill” – I think the lying issue is very, very similar… remember the story of Rahab?? there’s lying in that story that’s not condemned by the author.

  8. Matthew, I read the entire book of Revelation as a warning from John to the seven churches to be wary of the comforts and seduction of the Roman Empire. It is a style of writing that I believe is to not be interpreted literally. Instead it is an account of a dream or vision that appeals to our imagination rather than our logic.

    “Liars” in this case refers to people who lie, i suppose.

    A “fiery lake” for me represents some from of separation form God.

    And you?

  9. I think communication is dangerous stuff from the get-go. Take any message, verbal or non-verbal and we’re presented with strong problematic possibilities, because A communicator can NEVER insure that his intended message will be interpreted just as he desired. This is the essense, the nature, of communication. It is a flawed and a dangerous medium we work with, where intention is often overshadowed by individual or corporate interpretation.

    No matter your take (literalism or otherwise) you’ll eventually hit this bump in the road.

    For me, often times I find my biblical views, or approach to biblical interpretation, to be informed by a sort of fear of the “slippery slope”. We say, “oh-this way of looking at the scriptures could be dangerous, this isn’t a cut and dry method, this could present inconsistancies, and at times unpredictability, and we could be wrong”. And so we end up with these narrowly defined strategies of interpretation where we feel like we’ve got to exact a kind of formuala on how things are to be read and understood.

    So we’re left with…Either an ALL is Literal
    or All is liquid type of decision.

    But I guess for me, what I’m saying is that, just because we have the propensity to misunderstand, misinterpret, or see a teaching for what it isn’t- doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer wouldn’t have written that way.

  10. Zach,
    I’m with you as far as the referents for “liars” and “fiery lake”. (I would say that if the “fiery lake” is not a literal “fiery lake,” then what it represents metaphorically must be far worse and must necessarily contain writhing and agony. Obviously any “seperation from God” would be unimaginably miserable!).

    I’m just curious as to what everyone on here means when they say “literal”? (please respond, anyone) It is kind of a slippery term. I’m assuming everyone reading this would agree that even those things that are read metaphorically and figuratively represent an actual, quite literal, reality. Is this correct?

    Basically, I’m just trying to get a handle on what people are talking about here…

  11. Fisher, thanks for the thoughts and I must say that I think I’m in complete agreement with everything you wrote. Obviously, we can’t interpret all of the scripture literally and we can’t chalk it all up to metaphor. There are parts of scripture that are to be taken literally and parts of scripture that should not be taken literally. When Jesus says to Nicodemus that one needs to be “born again” in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he obviously did not intend for that to be taken literally. Unfortunately there exists a bizarre culture within American Christianity that gobbles up 60 million copies of a book series that propagates an overly literal approach to interpreting the Bible. Tim LaHaye’s own golden rule of Biblical interpretation according to his book “Rapture Under Attack” is as follows:

    “When the plain sense of the Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at it’s primary, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise”

    You may write this off as one man’s approach but I would suggest this is approach is overwhelmingly popular in the conservative, evangelical church. 60,000,000 copies! This approach is, in my opinion, dangerous, confusing and problematic. For instance, only when something doesn’t make common sense does that open the door to symbolism and metaphor. The problem with that is so much of the Bible doesn’t make “common sense”. God creating the universe out of nothing or Jesus rising from the dead both don’t make common sense. So would LaHaye suggest those are both just symbolic events? In the mean time, we can all make sure we are “Rapture Ready”! πŸ˜‰

    Food for thought I guess.

  12. zach,
    i didn’t think i used the term “straw man” that often. and while i know that there are people out there that may not understand what “biblical literalism” is, i don’t think that the overarching majority of christians have that problem. i personally came from a “rapture ready,” “left behind” loving church, and that did make me sick. however, i’m pretty sure that they aren’t the majority. they are just the people that make the most noise.

    and to whoever mentioned that the term was heavily used in christian circles, i actually picked it up from various journals, books and articles within the discipline of philosophy, not conservative evangelicalism (which i didn’t know used the term very often until recently). just wanted to throw that out there.

    i never said that “spirit of the law” was a literal term used in the bible. however, it is a principle that is easily elucidated by reading the gospels (especially the sermon on the mount). and the phrase “worship in spirit and in truth” happens to be very similar and apply in this context. that’s good “biblical literalism.”

    and to read something literally does not mean to read it by taking the sitz im leben to correspond philosophically on a one-to-one ratio with its subject matter. it means to read things in a manner contrary to the alexandrian school of interpretation (re: origen), where there was ALWAYS a “hidden” or “spiritual” meaning behind the text. a very gnostic way or reading the bible.

    there can be a metaphorical message to the text, but that is normally made clear by the genre of the text (i.e. revelation is a piece of apocolyptic literature, which is why so many dispensationalists get it wrong, because they don’t know how to interpret apocoplytic literature. and that’s understandable, since we have so little of it in the bible itself). when there is no indication that a metaphorical interpretation should be had, then that means that the author of the text assumed we would interpret the facts in a literal sense. the very use of the term “literal” is problematic. sometimes the “literal” meaning of the text is the “metaphorical” meaning presented.

    this is most clear in the book of genesis. it’s hard to tell what is meant in the creation narrative, because in the first 10 or so chapters of the book, it’s literary conventions seem more oriented toward poetry than historical narrative. however, by chapter 11, the book has turned into a clearly historical narrative with real historical qualities.

    check out richard bauckham’s new book on eyewitness testimony and the gospels. he thoroughly trashes form critical methods.

  13. I guess that’s what happens when people attempt to make everything in the Bible fit into a nice, neat, perfect little system πŸ™‚

    p.s. by the way, downloaded the Clarity album from i-Tunes the other day…hope you are rich now πŸ™‚ I love that album…couldn’t find my old CD of it…chilling and listening to it

  14. I had an uncle who was born again. We had a very one sided discussion on the theory of evolution one day when he finally looked at me and said…believe in monkeys…go to hell.

    Ya, that was the loving God I had come to know.

    Being a ‘jack catholic’ one of the things that annoyed me the most was that most of us really don’t know what the church believes. After Vatican II, the church acknowledged much of the bible is symbolism and stories as opposed to a factual account to be used by historians.

    Revelations was, according to my teachers, written in code of sorts so while John was imprisoned. 666 was not the devil as many believe, but actually Caeser Nero. Of course, over time things take on their own meanings and now just as the pagan tree is now our christmas tree, 666 is the devil.

    There is only one thing I know for sure about religion…none of us will REALLY know until we draw our final breath, until then, live your life well so that if you backed the wrong horse, at least you have a good argument πŸ™‚

    and as long as we are mentioning songs…I still hold out hope I may see Rollerqueen & nightdrive performed live one day πŸ™‚

  15. Keith,
    I’m sorry about your unfruitful(and probably annoying) conversation with you uncle. I do encourage you however to not allow that the disuade you from taking seriously the claims of Christ or His statement that we must be born again. I know that many are turned off by Christians, but consider this. I’ve had a bad meal at a restaurant, but I didn’t hold it against all restaurants everywhere! I probably wouldn’t go back to that particular one, but I still go try others, and I deffinitly didn’t stop eating because of it. Consider this, and consider that Jesus is our pure spiritual food. Anywhere that serves it is going to be flawed, but don’t let it keep you from the good stuff.


  16. Keith,
    I’m not sure what a ‘Jack Catholic’ is but it sounds fun, I’m pretty sure the Church is down with evolution as long as we believe in the creation of the soul. (Humani Generis claimed this back in the early 1900s). And may I recomend Jesus as a pretty good horse to bet on, at least he’s definitely in the payout places.

  17. There is no conflict here whatsoever. A lie is a statement told by a person with the intent to deceive another for personal gain. One of the ten commandments says thou shalt not bear false witness against another–in a court context to cause hurt or injustice to an innocent person. If a person comes to your home with the intent to kill someone in your family and asks if that person is home, the right thing to do is try to deceive that person for the sake of saving a life, of doing good. God smiles on “lies” like this that are designed to promote good not self-serving evil. The Revelation passage speaks to people who make a lifestyle of telling lies for self-aggrandizement, not using untruths to save lives. As always, God looks to the heart.

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