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.
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.