Literal or Figurative?

When you read the Bible, do you believe that every, single reference to every single thing is meant to be taken literally?

When God said he created the entire universe in 6 days, is that literal?

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When we are told that the original 10 Commandments were written with the finger of God, did he really use his finger? Does a spiritual being even have fingers?

When Yeshua told Kefa (Peter) to feed his flock, did he really mean that Kefa was to give food to every, single Believer following Yeshua?

And what about Revelation? Is everything in there going to happen exactly the way John saw it?

The Bible is, first and foremost, subject to the personal knowledge and biases of the interpreter, and no matter how hard they try to make their interpretation as accurate and honest as they can, it is always subject to their abilities and knowledge.

Try this experiment next time you are at a party or gathering (assuming after this Coronavirus mishigas, we will be able to have parties again): tell a joke, a simple one, and let it circulate through the guests. Later, ask someone who didn’t hear you tell the joke to tell it to you, and I’ll bet you will be amazed at how much it has changed.

And let’s not forget that there are dozens of different versions of the Bible, each one must, by copyright law, be significantly different from all other versions.

Many things in the Bible are, obviously, to be taken literally, such as “Do not lie” or “Do not murder.” And then there are the obvious metaphors, although whereas they seem obvious to many, to others they aren’t. Such as the “lights in the sky” God created, as stated in Genesis.

Believe it or not, I have read postings from intelligent people who, in their desire to accept every word of the Bible as the absolute truth, state that the moon creates its own light and is, in fact, transparent. They also say the earth is flat. Their reasons for this? Well, that’s the way they interpret what the Bible says. And when shown scientific proof against that belief, they say that the proof is fabricated.

There is the story in Acts 10 about the sheet lowered three times onto the roof, and Kefa is told to eat unclean foods. He refuses each time, and each time God says not to call unclean that which he makes clean. This has historically been misinterpreted to mean the laws of Kashrut (Kosher) are no longer valid, but, in fact, it was never meant to be taken literally because it was a metaphor. God wasn’t talking about food, he was talking about the three Roman visitors (who Jews considered to be unclean) who came to bring Kefa to the house of Cornelius. It was all about giving the Holy Spirit (a spiritual cleaning) to the unclean Gentiles, and nothing to do with food or Kashrut.

Here is another example in Jeremiah 1:11-12:

And the word of the Lord came to me, asking, “What do you see, Jeremiah?” “I see the branch of an almond tree”, I replied. You have observed correctly,” said the LORD, “for I am watching over my word to accomplish it.”…

In the Hebrew,  Jeremiah replies using the word “shaked”, meaning almond tree, but when God answers him, he uses “shoked”, meaning watching. So, although Jeremiah sees an almond tree branch, God’s meaning is that he is watching his word to make sure it is accomplished and had nothing to do with trees or branches.

We see this also in Amos, Chapter 8 where Amos sees a basket with summer fruit (in Hebrew, kayitz) but God says the end (ketz) has come for his people.

Just as with Jeremiah, God is using a play on words, shaked vs. shoked and kayitz vs. ketz, which proves that not everything we read in the Bible is to be taken literally.

Visions are almost always a form of metaphor or figurative and are not to be taken literally.

The hard question for all of us is: “When it is literal and when is it figurative?”  

The only answer I can give is that we have to consider a few different things when trying to answer that question.  One thing to consider is does it make sense, both within the physical world and hermeneutically?  We next ask whether or not this is a vision or dream, or is it happening in the “real” world?

And finally, we should ask God to guide our understanding through his Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, to show us what he wants us to know.

The Bible is the word of God, at least, that is what I have heard it called all my life. Probably because that is what people have called it since it was first given to us by God. And it IS his word, but for the most part, it is his word translated or interpreted by people with personal bias, limited understanding, and (all too often) a personal agenda.

And let me add, as for the Talmud, also known as The Oral Law, well…if you did the experiment I suggested above, imagine that not just being done by a handful of people at a party, but by many people over thousands of years.

Read the Bible and trust in what God says, but also realize that what you are reading is not always exactly what God said. You must not just accept anything and everything in the Bible literally: you need to use ein bisschen seykhl (a little common sense) when you study the Bible, as well as becoming familiar and comfortable using Bible study tools, such as hermeneutics, Circles of Context, a concordance, the Interlinear  Bible, a Hebrew version of the Tanakh, and a good Hebrew-English dictionary (unless you happen to be fluent in Hebrew).

Don’t take anything at face value, even within the Bible, and always question everything.

Let me finish with this last piece of advice: asking God to give you the understanding he wants you to have is the best way to make sure that when you read God’s word, you will understand what God meant.

Thank you for being here and please subscribe, share these messages with others, and if you aren’t familiar with the Bible study tools I mentioned, please comment to let me know and I will tell you what and where to get them.

Until next time, L’hitraot and Baruch HaShem!


Comments welcomed (just be nice)