When biblical literalists aren’t really biblical literalists

Biblical literalists, like everyone else, take the Bible literally only some of the time.

I talk a lot about biblical literalism on this site. It’s a preferred term for the most frequent philosophical opponents to the views generally espoused here, perhaps even more so than “creationist” or “young-earther.”

There are several reasons as to why that is, mainly that the age of the earth is a scientific question — one that’s already been thoroughly settled by the scientific evidence and one that I (not being a scientist) am no real authority on. I feel I might serve simply to point readers in the direction of the folks who know what they’re talking about, and any information I have on the matter is freely available to all.

To be completely honest, I haven’t received much formal training in ministry or Bible scholarship either. But it is an area I’m far more knowledgeable and comfortable in. I can point out the scriptural and logical failings of the young-earth faction’s hermeneutic, and I’m happy to do so.

And so, I call out “biblical literalists” as my chosen foe.

But I may have to stop.

Because, as my blogging friend Dr. James McGrath correctly pointed out on Facebook the other day, biblical literalists aren’t really biblical literalists, and they don’t deserve to be described as such.

James McGrath

Now, to be clear, the literalists are “more literal” than I am when it comes to the overall interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, in that they think it generally describes, in historical detail, the specific actions of God and the specific timeframe in which he accomplished the actions, whereas I see a deeply symbolic and beautifully poetic account of God’s work in creation.

However, both my literalist brethren and I are “equally literal” when it comes to the “firmament” God created on the second day, which is to say, neither of us takes it the slightest bit literally. Now, I’m well aware that evangelical young-earthers favor the more loosey goosey translations that render the Hebrew “raqia” as an “expanse” or “canopy,” rather than firmament, so let’s address that real quickly.

The ancient Hebrews, like the other cultures in the Ancient Near East from which sufficient records survive, thought the sky was solid. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia makes this clear in its description of ancient Hebrew cosmology: “The Hebrews regarded the earth as a plain or a hill figured like a hemisphere, swimming on water. Over this is arched the solid vault of heaven. To this vault are fastened the lights, the stars. So slight is this elevation that birds may rise to it and fly along its expanse.”

But one need not leave the biblical text to find evidence that its early authors, truly, put the “firm” in “firmament. Consider, for example, Job 37:18, which asks, “Can you join [God] in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?” The very word, raqia, suggests solidity, being derived from the root Hebrew word “raqa,” meaning to hammer or “beat” out like a piece of metal (cf. Exodus 39:3 and Numbers 16:39 for biblical examples of the most common use of this word).

Genesis 1:6-7 is not talking about the sky as we understand it today, with its multilayered atmosphere of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and trace gases being all that stands between us and endless space. It is talking about an impermeable dome, strong and solid enough to hold up a whole mess of water (remember, Genesis 1:7 says the firmament separated “the waters above” from “the waters below”) and complete with “floodgates” (much like a dam) that God can open for the rains whenever he chooses. Anyone who reads the passage and comes away with any other interpretation is not a true literalist.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the things the Bible says that your run-of-the-mill biblical literalist doesn’t take literally. I doubt, for example, that you’ll find too many literalists who read the bulk of the Day 4 text literally. That’s because if they did, they would have to hail the moon as a source of light, much like the sun (only to a lesser degree), which we know is patently untrue. Yea, though the author of Genesis 1:16 called the moon one of “the two great lights,” we know — thanks to science! — that the orbiting rock is no more a “light” than the sun-warmed desert sand is an independent source of heat.

We now know that even the sun’s classification as a “great light” — clearly of a different category than the stars, according to scripture — is dubious. The sun is certainly “greatly” important to our little corner of the cosmos, but there are plenty of stars that are hotter, brighter and bigger than our guy.

And, since we’re on the subject of Day 4, you may have been surprised to learn the sun did not even exist until midway through Creation Week. It was not until then that God was said to “separate” day and night, thereby establishing the regular cycle we’d recognize today. Thus, if one reads the account as history, it seems virtually undeniable that the literalist must acknowledge the first three “days” were not and could not have been 24-hour, sunlight-defined days as we’d understand them.

But, of course, no literalist would ever admit that. They are uncomfortable with the “days” of scripture being read as anything other than ordinary days. Well, you know, with the exception of Genesis 2:17, in which God warned Adam he would die “the day” he ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Which he didn’t. In fact, he lived to the ripe old age of 930, according to Genesis 5. The literalists deal with this by one of two appeals to a non-literal device; they either take the word “day” figuratively in this instance, or they take the “death” figuratively (saying, Adam only “began to die” that day — whatever that means).

Try asking a literalist this one: Was Adam really made from the dust of the ground? They will say yes, so then ask them why the mineral components of our bodies are so different than the mineral components of your average soil. Where’d all the carbon come from, I’d like to know. Incidentally, since the bulk of soil carbon is introduced to the earth from the decay of plant and animal matter, the “dust” from which God supposedly formed the first human body would have contained much less carbon even than it does today (which is still way less than the amount present in organic life forms like us). Not to mention that several common soil compounds would kill us were they present in our bodies at the same level they are in the earth’s crust.

I’ve never gotten a literalist to continue with me down this path for very long (they tend to shy away from the logical consequences of their own worldview like the plague), but if you have better luck than me, let me know what you find out.

Once you get outside of Genesis, the literalists — in terms of the “literality” of their exegesis — are basically non-distinguishable from any other conservative Christian (even flaming heathens like me). We all take most of the Psalms, Proverbs, prophetic books (including Revelation) and the parables of Christ as truth couched in metaphor and other literary devices.

And, just like those of us who read the first part of Genesis symbolically, the literalists trip over each other to take figuratively those parts of scripture that plainly teach that the earth is flat (see the dozens of passages that reference the “ends” or “corners” of the earth, like Rev. 7:1, or verses like Dan. 4:11 and Matt. 4:8, which describe tall objects visible anywhere on earth — only possible on a flat plane) and orbited by the sun (1 Chron. 16:30, Psalm 96:10, Josh. 10:12-13 and Ecc. 1:5).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Everyone who reads the Bible, interprets the Bible. What’s so messed up about these chuckleheads is that they accuse other believers of spitting on “biblical authority” for doing the exact same things that they do: INTERPRETING THE TEXT, often in ways that go outside its most straightforward meaning.

I think I can conclude nothing more than that Dr. McGrath is correct: The “literalists” aren’t really literalists. So, what should we call them instead? I was going to suggest “biblical convenience-ists,” meaning those who interpret the Bible literally only when it conveniently fits their preconceived theological constructs, but I found that to be kind of a mouthful. No doubt you agree. So then I toyed with “semi-literalists,” which I thought could be workable, though truthfully, such a term applies just as well to my view as anyone else’s. As I’m sure I’ve made painfully clear, everyone interprets some parts of the Bible literally and some parts figuratively; the only thing we differ on is which parts are which.

I’m partial to the term “Hamites,” in honor of Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham. It’s simple, easy to remember and has got that Old Testament flavor that you know the young-earthers will love. But I can’t in good conscience encourage people to inflate K-Ham’s ego more than it is already.

Yeah, none of those really work. So, maybe, instead of trying to invent a new word, we could just call them what they are — what Jesus himself might have even called them: hypocrites.

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at tyler@godofevolution.com.

  • Nancy R.

    Unfortunately, biblical literalists are encouraged by some aspects of translation that are a bit shady. The 1984 NIV translates “raqia” as “expanse” rather the clearly more accurate “firmament.” When we read that word, we think of the sky, or atmosphere, rather than a hard dome And so readers of this translation are encouraged – and misled – to believe that the ancient Israelites saw the world in much the same way we do. But not only did they see the world as having a hard blue dome overhead – so did Europeans, until the 1600s – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firmament

    • Right, and it’s not just the NIV, but a number of modern translations that use “expanse” or “canopy.” To be completely fair, “firmament” is really a derivation of the Vulgate’s firmamentum rat her than a true translation of “raqia.” I don’t think there is any direct translation for “raqia” in English, though, as you mention, “firmament” is probably more faithful to the original concept than the other two.

  • Alan Christensen

    I’ll stick with the NRSV, which straightforwardly uses “dome” to translate raqia.

    • Yeah, I think that’s a pretty honest translation as well, in my unlearned opinion. I mean, really, even “canopy” and “expanse” aren’t necessarily incorrect. “Canopies” generally are solid, albeit flexible and permeable, and “expanses” often refer to solid things like land, mountains and forests. However, it is the imprecision of these terms that causes trouble. It allows the fundamentalists to comfortably take the text literally when they are, in fact, completely ignoring the original author’s intent and vision in using the language he did.

  • truecreation_dot_info

    Love the article. However, just a minor nit, unless I misunderstood what you are saying. Carbon wasn’t introduced to the soil by decaying organic matter, per se. Decaying organic matter only recycles the carbon that was already present. Elements are only created by means of nuclear reactions, not chemical ones. The carbon present in the Earth’s crust was created aeons ago in the heart of a star (or stars) by nuclear fusion, released into interstellar space with a supernova explosion at the end of that star’s life, and it coalesced into the Earth along with most of the other elements that are currently here.

    Gives me a greater appreciation for the lengths God took to create me. From the dust, indeed. Stardust. 🙂

    • Hey True! You did not misunderstand me, and I believe you are quite correct that I was mistaken. Incidentally, I had been reflecting on this post yesterday and — having remembered the carbon cycle from school — I suspected that this point was in error. However, I hadn’t yet had a chance to rectify it. I appreciate you correcting the record in such an eloquent and thought-provoking way 🙂

    • However, I was correct that carbon is present in our bodies at a much higher rate than it generally is in soil, was I not?

      • truecreation_dot_info

        Yes, certainly the high concentrations of carbon that we find in the soil are due to animals and plants that have already died and turned into fossil fuels. I’m certainly no expert, but I would think that the carbon found elsewhere (e.g. in igneous rocks, carbonaceous chondrites and other rocks outside of fossil fuels) is of relatively low concentration.

  • Jonathon von Tischner

    I’s great you care about God and His Word. I am so happy you love Jesus, and when He said in Mark 10 that at the beginning He made them male and female, I happen to believe Him. You said yourself, and perceptively so, we only differ on which parts are literal and figurative. As we are both, and as all scientists are lay people when it comes to science (outside of their own field), and many intelligent, honest, and dedicated Christian scientists and theologians have interpreted the data to the best of their ability to come to a young earth conclusion, is it really Christ like to ridicule them mercilessly when you could just as easily be wrong? Would you like it if they were correct and they mocked you for the sheer joy of it, and took delight in your error, and publicly at that? Maybe a better way to do it, would be to make one certain argument, and wait for a response, and you know, have a rational discussion. You know, instead of coming off like a dick. Saying they have preconceived notions that blind them to the truth is an arbitrary statement and completely reversible, so wouldn’t it be in your best interest to stay away from arguments, really statements like that? Thank you for your time and patience. For the record, I am open to Theistic evolution, but it seems to me the stronger case is for YEC (I did translation work, studied ancient manuscripts for about 8 years now, finished the Dead Sea Scrolls and working on the Septuagint now, and I won a scholarship in Chemistry. I don’t know everything and I am always willing to learn, but when I see Christians make posts the exact same way as the world does, it makes me wonder if the Holy Spirit is truly in that work). I wish you all the best, God bless and Shabbot Shalom.

    • I believe you are mistaken on several points. First of all, most young-earth “scientists,” including those employed by AiG, freely admit that their views are based in their interpretation of the Bible, not the scientific evidence. In terms of evidence, all they can say is that “it’s a matter of interpretation.” The most honest young-earthers, like Kurt Wise and Todd Wood, acknowledge that the evidence, objectively interpreted, points to evolution and an ancient universe, but they feel compelled to ignore that because of their theological beliefs, and simply hold out hope that one day new evidence will come to light. For my part, I prefer truth that does not come via disingenuous, tortured mental gymnastics or willful ignorance.

      Secondly, I welcome dialogue from any and all fronts. I have personally invited the likes of AiG to dialogue with me on behalf of the theistic evolutionists they describe as compromisers, and I constantly engage in conversation with people who disagree with me both in the comments on this site and through email (my email is included on every article I publish). “Making a certain argument” and inviting responses and dialogue is exactly what I do on this website. It’s not my fault that you don’t like my tone or approach.

      Thirdly, thank you for your work in linguistics. It is always great to see more believers engaging in scientific and other academic fields.

      • Jonathon von Tischner

        Thank you for responding to me, and for your continued efforts for God and His Word and for truth in general.
        One the first point, everyone has a worldview.
        YEC: I believe the Bible, so I will look at the evidence this way.
        This can’t rule out obvious facts, like variations within a kind, no matter how hard you interpret it away.
        Theistic Evolutionist: My scientific worldview comes from science. I’m interpreting the science correctly because of other science.
        It seems to be the fossils date the rocks argument. They must have had a worldview before they did any observations. Now I understand they are working with obvious facts too in their terms, I just wonder if they don’t mix the line between theory and fact and a lot of needless anger and confusion comes from this. Often I see people rage because they think YEC deny micro-evolution, when they really don’t as you yourself know. In terms of evidence, they can point to animals reproducing after their kind, for example. Obviously they would prefer truth that does not come via disingenuous, tortured mental gymnastics or willful ignorance, so again, the statement is arbitrary and reversible (wastes times, and you’re just going for the emotional point.)

        I thinks its so good you engage in open and honest discussion, I have seen some of your posts, and I hope your discussions with AiG go well. 1 Peter 3:15 Aramaic Bible in Plain English But hallow THE LORD JEHOVAH The Messiah in your hearts, and be ready to return a defense to everyone who requests a statement from you about the hope of your faith, in meekness and in reverence, Regular translations have something like with gentleness and respect, which it very evidently lacking in your approach (just in this last message of yours you called them fake scientists despite the good work they have done for all humanity (MRI machine for instance), liars, dumb on purpose. This is not very gentle or with respect. Galatians 5:22-23King James Version (KJV) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. I’m not saying you are a terrible person or anything, I hope you can see that this is constructive criticism, and I try to sandwich it with things I do truly think are admirable about you, but it’s not my approval you should be trying to win, your tone or approach should line up with God’s Word.

        Thanks for thanking me! lol Someone asked me how I know the Bible really says that, and I had to admit I didn’t. Then someone asked me how I knew the Bible hadn’t been changed over time, and I had to say I didn’t (I have to say drastically changed at this point lol, it is still mostly the same). I did it for similar reasons like you, I want to know the truth even if it is different from what I believe. I honestly don’t know how old the earth is and everything, but I always will listen to a good argument, it’s a good way to learn (even Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons make good points sometimes lol though obviously they’re way off.) Keep the faith :), and I do wish you and yours all the best. God bless you.

  • Corey

    I’d love to sit down and have a chat with you…my faith has been rocked for decades over this very topic.

  • Charles Weston

    Human bodies are mostly water. Wikipedia has a good entry:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composition_of_the_human_body

    Also, you barely touched on the sunrise/sunset literal problem.

    But very good post!

  • Sugarsail1

    No theory of science is thoroughly settled. Science is not based on dogma, it’s based on empiricism. As a scientist (and no I’m not a bible toter either), I must caution those that cite scientific EXTRAPOLATION or PREDICTION as “fact”. Yes the big bang is a logical extrapolation that fits with our current understanding of the universe, and thus, I BELIEVE it, but it is functioning as much or more as a Creation story for scientists than it is any empirical “fact” that is reproducible and testable. Same with the “prophecy” of global warming…the narrative that the sea levels are going to rise and wipe out civilization due to mankind’s sin is a timeless religious narrative. We should beware when science strays from the immediate reproducible empiricism of the present, it starts to become as subject to our religious projections as any mythological narrative in any religion. Science becomes scientism, and its believers, become dogmatic zealots claiming “truth” of their doomsday prophecies.

  • ezra

    Great article. I like the term “literal meaning” .. which means you try to figure out the intent of the writer. We all say the sun rises and sun sets, but we all know it does not actually do that. Yet, to understand what someone means when they say the sun set, is taking their intent literally. So seeing the creation story in that light, means you are taking the text literally when you try to determine what the intent of the original story teller was. I really dont think the writer was giving us a technical historical scientific account..

    • Josh Hauck

      When we say that we take a statement “literally,” we usually mean that we are taking it at face value, without metaphor or allegory. An astronomer talking about the setting sun might back up and say, “I don’t mean that literally.”

      So why, in this context, do we use “literal” to mean “in accordance with the intention of the author”?