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.