When I was in Standard Three (equivalent to third grade in the U.S.), we were studying the biblical story of Cain and Abel. According to the lesson, Cain went to a land called Nod after he killed his brother. He got married and had a son called Enoch. Trying to understand the story better, I asked my C.R.E teacher whether Cain married his sister, because I assumed they were the only family on earth at that time. Instead of an explanation, my teacher caned my bottom and accused me of being an agent of the devil. “Who did you think you are to question biblical facts?” she yelled between thrashes. Reflecting back now, this is probably where I began questioning the veracity of Biblical literalism.
This is such a simple concept that I almost feel ridiculous writing about it, but YECs have swarmed this blog lately. I thought non-literal numbers in the rest of the Old Testament merited a mention.
Charles Isbell was my first professor of Old Testament (though I’m sure it may have grated on his nerves as a Jewish professor to teach a course called “Introduction to the Old Testament” at a secular university like LSU). One of the books assigned for this course was Isbell’s God’s Scribes. In that book, though I can’t put my hands on it anymore, I remember there being a chapter on non-literal use of numbers in the Hebrew Bible. Even as an evangelical, this chapter didn’t really bother me at all. People use non-literal numbers all the time. All that to say, Young Earth Creationism is absolutely lost on me.
I believe there are almost innumerable examples of non-literal use of numbers in the Bible. Here are a couple of candidates:
2.5 million people leaving at the time of the (Exodus 12:37) Not likely (though I also realize that some have argued that “thousand” may not really mean “thousand” there).
430 years of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:40-41) – Exodus 6:14-25 actually only calculates 4 generations between Levi and Moses. That this time period lasted 430 years seems doubtful to me.
The ages of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 20) – I’ve always wondered what the King of Gerar would have wanted with a perhaps nearly 90 year-old, barren woman, but maybe that’s just me.
Jeremiah’s 70 years (25:11) – Jeremiah said the people would serve the King of Babylon for 70 years after the land became a ruin and waste …. Nope, at least not if one reads the 70 absolutely literally.
Perhaps not all of these would work, but there are a myriad of other candidates. These are just the first that sprang to mind. I would obviously add to this list of non-literal use of numbers – 6 days of creation, the life spans of people in the book of Genesis, the numbers in the flood account (since they don’t all agree) … and, oh yes, the age of the earth if you calculate it based on the Book of Genesis.
Maybe the Brits don’t understand American Biblical literalism –
If you read the Bible asking: “What was St Paul saying to the Galatians?” all kinds of critical questions arise: How would first-century Asia Minor have understood these words? Would Paul have phrased it differently to a church he was less pissed off with? Would other witnesses have recalled the events he describes differently? But if you read the Bible asking: “What is God saying to me today?” it seems less appropriate to do anything but accept it at face value.
Funny, because some of the theological liberals who aren’t literalists ask ‘What is God saying to me today?’ Anyway…
Stephen Tomkins‘ title, How Biblical Literalism took root, is a mistake, as all he does is show a half-hearted understanding of biblical literalism and then disparaging those who hold to the viewpoint. If he would read Church History (ironically, he has written a book on the matter), he would see that many biblical literalists have existed and thrived in Christianity long before the 19th century’s reaction to German Higher Criticism. But, I don’t want to take away from his fun at jabbing the biblical literalists or anything…
He goes on to show his ignorance of the Reformation as well, stating,
Part of the problem is historical. The deification of the Bible is a result of the Protestant reformation. Before then, the final authority, the ultimate arbiter and source of information in religious matters was the church, with its ancient traditions and living experts. When Luther and friends opposed the teaching of the Catholic hierarchy, they needed a superior authority to appeal to, which was provided by the Bible.
It is a mischaracterization of both Luther and Rome to believe and to hold to as such. Instead, I suggest that Tomkins picks up a good Christian History book, or this one for the Reformation, before he embarrasses himself any further. Of course, I suspect that he is really confused and instead means biblical inerrantism, which again, shows his ineptness on the subject which he is discussing.
Bless his little heart…
Maybe he should have stuck to writing Monte Python instead…
“If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the man and the woman who have committed adultery must be put to death. (Lev 20:10 NLT)
File this under biblical literalism and just how far are you willing to go? Or maybe, ‘canon within a canon’, because believe it or not, Christians have a canon within a canon. We know that the Taliban makes a big deal about falling Islamic law which is similar, in vein, to Levitical precepts:
Horrific video footage has emerged of Taliban insurgents stoning a couple to death for alleged adultery in northern Afghanistan.
Hundreds of villagers can be seen on the video standing around as the woman, Siddqa, is buried up to her waist in a four foot hole in the ground.
Two mullahs pass sentence before the crowd begins to throw rocks at her head and body as she desperately tries to crawl free.
Anyway, it got me to thinking about the dispersions we constantly cast upon Muslims, especially the conservative to the Fundamentalists. But, aren’t they simply taking their sacred text seriously? And, more importantly, aren’t they taking the text in Leviticus serious? Are they in fact more literal than we?