Biblical literalism, the Great Gatsby and multiple levels of understanding

The God or Not carnival's topic for this week is Scriptural Literalism. So far, I have read some previews of what will be posted at the aptly named Uncredible Halq (personally, he has very little credibility with me) and at one of my favorite blogs, Prosthesis (who points out that there may be no Biblical literalists other than the straw men set up by those seeking to debunk the Bible). These two entries raised some interesting issues and I am sorry that I didn't find out about this carnival until after it was too late to submit an entry. (For the record, the next topic is "Definition of God" which is scheduled to be posted on January 31. Note to self: put on calendar.)

Literalism is not Inerrancy

First, Prosthesis author Macht is absolutely correct in pointing out that literalism and inerrancy are two different things. One does not have to be a literalist to be an inerrantist and visa versa. I recommend a review of the differences as detailed by Macht. I am personally an inerrantist, but I do not think that literalism is either necessary or even correct.

Some of the Bible is so clearly poetic and figurative that it begs common sense to read it too literally (and it seems quite apparent to me that the Bible is meant to be read from a natural, common sense point of view). Certainly there are places that the Bible is literal in meaning, but that does not mean that one should read the entire thing in a stilted literalism. The prophesies in Revelations are often images and symbols which cannot be taken literally. Jesus taught in parables which had multiple dimensions of meaning. The language of the creation account in Genesis 1 is plainly poetic in nature. If these Scriptures are obviously not to be taken literally, it is apparent that the interpretation of the Bible, taken as a whole, does not require that every passage be taken literally.

Jewish interpretation levels

Moreover, it is my view (shared by others) that even the historical accounts in the Bible may have multiple levels of meanings. For example, Genesis 14 is the account of the King/Priest Melchizedek. The Genesis account tells very little about him. He is called the King of Salem and a priest of the most high God. Melchizedek blesses Abraham, receives a tithe from him, and then feeds him bread and wine. That's all. Yet, he becomes a central figure in an argument constructed by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews in Chapter 7. How did that happen? It happened because the early Christians adopted the Israelite view that the Bible had meanings on different levels.

An essay by Dr. James Trimm of the Church of the Nazarene entitled "PaRDeS: The Four Levels of Understanding the Scriptures"highlights the four levels used by Jewish rabbis in understanding the Scriptures:

Pashat --
The PASHAT is the plain, simple meaning of the text; understanding scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the words being used, in accordance with the primary exegetical rule in the Talmud that no passage loses its PASHAT (b.Shab. 63a; b.Yeb. 24a). While there is figurative language (like Ps. 36:7) symbolism (like Rom. 5:14); allegory (like Gal. 4:19-31) and hidden meanings (like Rev. 13:18; see also 1Cor. 2:7) in the Scriptures, the first thing to look for is the literal meaning or PASHAT.

Remez --
This is the implied meaning of the text. Peculiarities in the text are regarded as hinting at a deeper truth than that conveyed by its PASHAT.

Drash --
this is the allegorical, typological or homiletical application of the text. Creativity is used to search the text in relation to the rest of the Scriptures, other literature, or life itself in order to develop an allegorical, typological or homiletical application of the text. This process involves eisogesis (reading of the text) of the text.

Sod --
This understanding is the hidden, secret or mystic meaning of a text. (See I Cor. 2:7-16 esp. 2:7).

The Great Gatsby and the green light

When I was in High School, my literature class read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. To this day, I still remember my literature teacher stressing that the green light that Fitzgerald repeatedly referenced in the work had a meaning beyond being simply a green light. It represented Gatsby's ulimate goal or aspiration. I remember that many of my fellow students in the class had difficulty accepting the fact that the author of the book would be throwing in metaphorical imagery when there was a plain meaning to the text -- the green light was a green light. But this was a stilted view of the creativity of the author and his ability to spin a deeper meaning into everyday objects in the book.

By the same token, it is certainly true that some accounts in the Bible could be taken as metaphorical -- even some of the more factual accounts can have a dual nature. For example, in Genesis 14, Abraham could have in actual fact and history met a King/Priest named Melchizedek who blessed him and gave him bread and wine. At the same time, Melchizedek could be a metaphor (put in place by the great author, God) for the perfect priesthood of Jesus who is the "King of Righteousness" (the meaning of the name Melchizedek), the King of "Peace" (the meaning of the name Salem), and who also served his disciples the bread and wine.

No "possible metaphorical meaning" to some Bible verses?

Which brings me to the Uncredible Hallq's rather uninspired contribution. In his none-too-enlightening post, he complains that literalism is not the issue. Rather, he says, "there are some passages that simply lack any possible metaphorical meaning", and proceeds to point to a couple of Biblical passages that he thinks supports this view. He starts with the account of the Israelite men who "played harlot" with the gods of Moab by worshipping and sacrificing to them. The text reports that God was angered and Moses ordered that all men who had "joined themselves to Baal of Peor" be slain.

I would like Hallq to explain exactly why he believes that this account has no "possible metaphorical meaning." Keep in mind, I am not saying it is not an historical account -- some of the people of God had turned from God and were bowing down to other gods, and Moses ordered them killed for violating the first commandment. That seems perfectly plausible to me. (Of course, the passage continues beyond the passages cited with other things happening that would take awhile to explain, but let's deal only with the portion Hallq identified.) Having recognized that it is an actual historical event as portrayed in the Bible, why is it necessarily the case that it is not also a metaphor for something deeper in the text?

The history of the Jewish people is a dual-layered event. Being chosen gave the Jewish people the privilege of being God's people, but at the same time, it placed them in a position of being the people through whom God communicated about Himself. He made it clear repeatedly -- if you follow Me and My laws, you will be blessed; if, however, you do not do these things, you will be punished. Did God punish the Israelites because it gave Him pleasure to do so? No, it made Him sad. But He punished the Israelites as a message to the world of the depths to which he hates sin and the severe punishment that follows from sin. If one sins, one can expect death.

Back to the Exodus story: cannot this event be seen as a confirmation of the depth of the sin that is revealed when the people of God worship other gods? But for the grace of God which follows about 2,000 years later when Jesus was crucified, isn't this a lesson about the severity of the sin that worshipping other gods brings?

Seeing a green light as a green light

I'm sure that Hallq is more like the people in my class who couldn't see that the green light in the Great Gatsby was anything more than just a green light. But the Bible is not always literal, and even when it appears to be literal, it is often capable of having more than one level. Thus, even the verses that appear historical in nature (and, in my view, almost certainly are historical) are capable of carrying an underlying message and meaning that was also intended by the great author, God.


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