Welcome to Stuff I Learned Yesterday. My name is Darrell Darnell, I have visited 23 of the US states, and I believe that if you aren’t learning, you aren’t living.

Welcome to the month of May! Here we are on the first Monday of the month, which means today’s story will be about my Christian faith. I hope it’s an interesting episode for you as today’s topic is one of the inspirations for me bringing back SILY. I’d already been feeling the urge to bring back the podcast, but a conversation on this topic that I had in September of last year further bolstered that desire. 

During a recording session for my Twilight Zone podcast, Entering the Fifth Dimension, my co-host and I were talking about the possibility of intelligent life existing somewhere else in the universe. Robert, my co-host said, “If you have a literal interpretation of the Bible, then there’s not a discussion about anybody else but us.” I found his comment to be interesting for a couple of reasons. First, what does it mean to have a literal interpretation of the Bible? Second, does having a literal interpretation of the Bible really disallow for any possibility of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe?

You can listen to episode 60 of Entering the Fifth Dimension if you’d like to hear that full discussion, but I responded by saying I do take much of the Bible literally, and I also think there’s no way to rule out the possibility of intelligent life existing somewhere else in the universe. Once that episode aired, we received feedback from a listener who said, “curious and I’m not being snarky- what parts of the Bible do you take literally.” It’s a good question and one that I’ll try to tackle today. 

First, I think it’s important to make a distinction in believing the Bible is true, and that the Bible should be taken literally. What I mean is, it’s possible to believe that the Bible is inspired by God, written down under inspiration by humans, and therefore, true (or inerrant). It’s also possible to simultaneously believe that the Bible should not be taken literally. Or better said, it’s possible to simultaneously believe the Bible should not always be taken literally.

The fact that I don’t take everything in the Bible literally is not an indictment of my faith nor does it mean I pick and choose from the Bible what I want to follow. Rather than taking the Bible literally at all times, I would argue that the Bible should be taken as it’s intended. That is, metaphors are taken as metaphors, other figures of speech taken as figures of speech, and the things that seem to be factual statements or historical statements about reality are taken as factual or historical statements about reality unless the context gives us good reason to take it differently. 

This is the way we read most literature. If I’m reading an article on ESPN about the NBA and it says Lebron James threw down on Kevin Durant, it is most likely a metaphor which means Lebron had a massive slam dunk on Durant. If I’m reading an article about the UFC and it says Jon Jones threw down on Alexander Volkov, it most likely means he literally threw punches down onto him. Even then, there’s nuance depending on which exact definition of throw is applied. Multiple definitions could be applied accurately where one could be more literal, while another could be more figurative.

There are a few easy examples we can look at in the Bible that make this point very clear.  In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God told the Israelits he would lead them to the promised land, which was a land described as flowing with milk and honey. If I take this literally, I must imagine a land like Charlie and the Chocolate factory except that instead of a river of chocolate, it’s a land with rivers flowing with milk and rivers flowing with honey. Or maybe it’s a river that mixes together milk and honey? Neither makes sense. Milk and honey is a metaphor to describe the abundance found in the land. In the New Testament book of John, Jesus describes himself as a door and those that follow him as sheep. A literal interpretation of this passage requires Jesus to be an actual door and all of his followers, of which I am one, to be a literal sheep. 

The Bible has all types of literature and literary devices within it: history, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, parables, analogies, metaphors, hyperbole, allegory, etc. Sometimes passages are to be taken literally, and other times they are not. As a general rule, I think when the Bible is describing something that happened historically, it can be taken literally. When it’s giving an account of how the Israelites left Egypt and eventually conquered the promised land, I think all of that can be taken literally. When God gives Moses all of the laws and establishes all of the rituals that the Israelites were to follow, I think he meant to literally follow those laws and rituals.

Other passages aren’t so clear. The book of Job, for example, gives us a very interesting story that examines faith, tragedy, human suffering, betrayal, and human relationships. It also gives us a look at the dynamics of the spiritual battle waging around us that we can’t discern. Some argue that the story shared in the book of Job is an allegory written to help us understand these issues and answer questions mankind has been asking for millenia. Others argue the book of Job tells the story of real events surrounding a real man named Job that happened early in human history. The book is often dated to have preceded even the lives and events of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which are found within the book of Genesis. I’m not sure which of these viewpoints are correct, but not knowing doesn’t matter. Both options allow for the lessons in the book about humanity as well as the lessons about God and the spiritual realm to be true. My point is, we don’t necessarily have to know whether or not the story is literal or not in order to understand its meaning and authority.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Martin Luther is credited with saying, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” I first heard that quote when I was 19, and it has stuck with me ever since. The Bible isn’t a simple stodgy book written in the ancient past and irrelevant or outdated today. In future episodes I’ll talk about how we can know the Bible is reliable. I’ll also address passages thought to be contradictory and passages that are often misunderstood. In fact, if you have passages that falls into these categories, send them to me. I’d love to address them down the road.

But when you account for the nuance of language and translation, and understand that the Bible is made up of different types of literature, it’s easy to see that not all passages within it are meant to be taken literally. It’s also important we don’t try to make the Bible something it’s not. While it contains historical accounts, it’s not a history book. While it contains scientific information, it’s not a science book. 

For example, when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, is he giving a lesson on botany, or is this an analogy about faith? Some look at Jesus calling a mustard seed the smallest seed as one of those aforementioned contradictions or errors. To those people he was speaking to, it WAS the smallest seed. In the context understood by his intended audience and within their culture, referencing the mustard seed as the smallest seed gave them immediate understanding so that they would then understand the analogy and thus understand the faith lesson he was giving. If Jesus had used the jewel orchid’s seed as his example, they would have had no idea what he was talking about, and thus his point would have been lost.

I like the way RL Solber says it when he says, “The Biblical text is to be interpreted according to the plain meaning that’s conveyed by its grammatical construction and its historical context.” 

Historical context and cultural context are often very difficult for us to understand, especially without doing a fair amount of research and study. As our culture and historical placement takes us farther and farther from the historical and cultural context of the Bible, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand…or so it may seem. Fortunately, we live in a day and time where more information and teaching is available than ever before. If you’re listening to this episode, you have all you need to become informed and educated on Biblical history and context. There are podcasts, YouTube videos, libraries, and websites available to you for free!

You can also go to your local Christian bookstore and find many Bibles that have notations and commentary from Bible scholars. These Bibles, called study Bibles, are designed to help you read the text and scholastic commentary side by side so you can learn to understand the Bible properly. If you want recommendations, I would suggest the Life Application Study Bible or the ESV Study Bible.  

If you’ve been frustrated trying to figure out the Bible or don’t know where to begin, let me encourage you to don’t give up. Download the free Bible app. Try a daily Bible podcast like those from Daily Audio Bible. Check out a YouTube channel like those from Brian Winger or Voddie Baucham. If you’re looking for a place to start reading the Bible, start with Proverbs, Luke, John, or Romans. I encourage you to take a moment to simply ask God to help you understand and guide you to truth as you read. Take your time, write down questions, make notes, read the notes from scholars, and genuinely seek to understand. Let me know if you have questions, desire prayer, or need help. There’s much I still don’t know, but I’ll help in any way I can. Let me know if you want your message to remain confidential, or if it’s intended to be shared on the podcast. In the book of Jeremiah, God said, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” My prayer is that each of us will take this passage literally and experience a life full of God’s presence.

I’m Darrell Darnell, and this has been Stuff I Learned Yesterday.

I want you to be a part of the next Monday Mailbag on July 29th! Monday Mailbag is your opportunity to Share what YOU’VE learned, so that other listeners and I can learn from YOU.  It can be a message as short as 30 seconds or several minutes long.  It really doesn’t matter just as long as it’s something that will benefit others.  You can send in questions or responses to my SILY episodes, and I’ll respond to them via Monday Mailbag episodes. You can participate in Monday Mailbags by visiting the Golden Spiral Media listener feedback page at goldenspirlamedia.com/feedback.