Brickical Literalism

The pastor of my church has been preaching through the plagues in Exodus, and has been sharing from The Brick Testament as a way of introducing the stories.

Today’s subject was the plague of hail, and The Brick Testament nicely highlights the absurdity of some details in that story if you’ve been taking the language of earlier plagues literally:

It even depicts some Egyptians dragging their dead livestock into their homes to protect it from the hail:

But while it is probably true that Biblical literalism is best treated with humor, it has a very sinister side, and can turn the already disturbing depiction of God in some stories into one that is even more horrific.

For instance, the author of the Exodus story has perhaps forgotten that, in Exodus 1:21, God is said to have rewarded the Egyptian midwives with families (including children) of their own. But when we are told in Exodus 11 that every Egyptian household will suffer the death of the firstborn son, presumably that includes some of those midwives. Does anyone really want to depict God as rewarding the midwives with children only to take them away tragically as part of a collective punishment on the Egyptian people? Perhaps thinking about such things is a good thing – it will reinforce for some of us the need to no longer treat pestilence, weather and tragedy as divinely-afflicted, and remind us that the fact that these stories are certainly not factual in any straightforward sense should be comforting rather than troubling.

The church youth leader asked me today about another passage in Exodus, the story in Exodus 4 in which God decides to try to kill Moses. The story is bizarre enough anyway (and is thus unsurprisingly included in The Brick Testament). But which is worse, if one is a Biblical literalist? That God apparently tries to kill Moses and doesn’t succeed, demonstrating a lack of omnipotence? Or that God had just told Moses that those who were seeking to kill him were dead, apparently neglecting to mention that God himself was among those with (or soon to have?) a desire to kill him?

Biblical literalism isn’t just a problem in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, of course. There is lots of discussion concerning Jesus being wrong about the end of the world. But if one takes his prediction in Mark 13:2 and parallels concerning the temple literally, that “not one stone will be left upon another,” then the wailing wall is a testament to the failure of this prediction.

Fortunately for most Biblical literalists, they are persuaded that the text can’t possibly mean something that they don’t want to believe to be the case. And that’s why, in practice, there are no true Biblical literalists. But an exploration of what consistent Biblical literalism might look like makes clear why there shouldn’t be any Biblical literalists, and why we are perhaps fortunate that there really aren’t any.

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  • Anonymous

    Prof. McGrath,

    The plagues and other miracles aside, have even the basic claims of the Exodus, e.g. millions of slaves leaving Egypt, wandering through the wilderness, and militarily conquering much of the land of Canaan, not achieved the status of scholarly consensus opinion, and perhaps are they not even taken seriously at all?

  • John Anngeister

    I was looking at Mark 13 this month and pondered that Wailing Wall question myself.

    On the one hand, it appears to have been a retaining wall built by Herod the Great in order that the temple courtyard might be enlarged in his day.  It was not part of the stone masonry of the temple structure itself and possibly not even conspicuous at the time of its destruction, if its highest level was several yards away from the temple and no higher than the temple ground floor.

    On the other hand, If its continued existence on Mt Zion counted as anything during the era of Luke and the author of Matthew, we might like its power to indicate that Jesus actually made a statement such as Mark 13:2 – since by the criterion of ’embarrassment’ we would expect Luke to put some kind of qualifier in to account for the continued existence of the retaining wall.

    • John Anngeister

      James, did I make myself clear?  I am suggesting that your ‘wailing wall’ argument is toast.  But I didn’t express it very well while I had that last comment box open. 

      What I meant to say is that, if Luke did not have good reason to believe that Jesus had in fact uttered the prophecy in Mark 13:2, he would not have repeated it so exactly, but would have tried to make it conform to the facts on the ground after 70CE – as he did when he ‘corrected’ the strange allusion to desolation at Mk 13:14 with lines about armies, etc.

  • Paul D.

    I’ve studied the Ex. 4 passage a bit and I’m pretty sure it was Gershom that God wanted Moses to kill. However, Zipporah intervened to prevent it, making her one of he few true heroines of the Bible.

  • John

    I’m curious if you could post your thoughts on Michelle Bachmann’s answer to the question about submitting to her husband if she were president. She seemed to give a shallow response compared to her earlier statements about her life decisions being made because of her submission to her husband’s will for her.

    Shouldn’t someone ask her what she thinks about 1Tim 2.9-15?

  • James F. McGrath

    @geoffreycharles:disqus , there is definitely a consensus that the Exodus story as it stands cannot be reconciled with history. A good piece on the subject is Lester Grabbe’s – with a Latin title, but the subtitle “What if the Exodus from Egypt Really Happened?” He is working on the assumption that it didn’t, but taking the text literally, he explores how history should have unfolded differently if it had.

    There are some historians (e.g. John Bright) who have felt that some reminiscence of something historical should be seen in the Moses legends, primarily because it is felt that the Israelites would not have invented a history for themselves as slaves were there no truth in it whatsoever, and because it is felt that they would not invent the remnants of an Egyptian name (Moses) for their deliverer hero.

    It is perhaps worth mentioning that one could have been, in essence, slaves of the Egyptians without ever having to have left Canaan, since it was under Egyptian rule or control through much of its history.

    Genetically, what little forensic work has been done on skeletal remains suggests that the majority of Israelites were not a distinct people from the Canaanites, and Hebrew is on the Canaanite branch of the tree of Semitic languages. So a lot of evidence points to the majority of Israel having its origins in the land. 

    As for how to assemble all the data into a historical reconstruction, much depends on whether a particular historian makes some, little, or no use of the Biblical texts.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the reply, and for the source.  I will definitely check it out.

  • Gary

    I don’t know if this is pertinent, but apparently there were different views of slavery by different authors of the bible. “Who wrote the Bible?”, Friedman…”The J source usually refers to the Egyptians who oversee the slaves as “taskmasters”, but in a passage that appears to be E they are called “officers of missim”. (Ex 1:11). Recall that missim was the term for King Solomon’s forced-labor policy, a policy that was one of the main reasons for the secession of the northern tribes of Israel. The E wording appears to be an insult to Judah and its royal family.”
    Regarding Mark 13:2…I’m no scholar, and I don’t take the bible literally, but Mark 13:1 says “And as he came out of the temple… then 13:2, “Do you see these great buildings?” It doesn’t take much imagination for me to see Jesus was leaving the temple, and he was talking about the buildings of the temple (so inner temple, outer courtyard, etc? which? I don’t know). But I’ve seen the Wailing Wall, it it sure looks like a foundational wall, retaining wall, or fortification wall, and not part of the actual building structure. If it was, there would be rooms directly on the other side of the wall….but far be it from me to try and defend the actually “literal” wording. The whole temple mount was a building “complex”, which was effectively destroyed by Titus’s guys.

  • James F. McGrath

    I thought you were suggesting that the apparent imprecision of the prophecy is a good reason to think that it is authentic, or at least goes back to before the year 70.