Reading the Bible “Literally” or Contextually?

Reading the Bible “Literally” or Contextually? March 4, 2015
Credit: flickr/26869693@N00
Credit: flickr/26869693@N00

When reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Adam and Eve, a number of questions are sure to arise. Throughout this review series, we have seen Walton challenge many of the conventional assumptions people have about the Bible and how to interpret God’s word.

How should culture influence our interpretation of the Bible? Well, which culture do you mean? Ancient culture? Our church culture? The culture we presently live in?

One can feel tension emerge whenever these questions come up.

Do we interpret everything “literally”?

The word “literal” is problematic because it connotes different things to different people. For the sake of space, I’ll explore what it might mean to interpret Gen 1–3 “literally” according to the many people understand “literal.”

For many readers, we absolutely must interpret the Bible “literally,” which means the world was created in 144 hours (6 24-hour days), God used dust to create the first man “Adam,” and He cut into that man’s side in order to make Eve from a rib.

Before people get defensive, I would urge them to ask how one would interpret literally the following sentence:

“Whenever I think of 911, I get sad and angry.”

Literally speaking, “911” is a number that sits between 910 and 912. Interpreted in this way, we would naturally ask, “Why are you afraid of 911 but not 912, 632, 53 or other numbers?”

911_attacksOf course, we all know that “911” signifies far more than the sum of 900 and 11. Most people immediately recall the events on September 11, 2001, the day when terrorists used planes to attach the United States. This is why “911” is able to stir a variety of feelings, including anger and sadness.

It is worth mentioning that “911” can also refer to the phone number that Americans use whenever they face an emergency. Therefore, “911” could remind people of the day their father died of a heart attack. Perhaps, a son or daughter had to call “911” when they saw their parent lying on the floor.

In these examples, what does it really mean to interpret “911” literally?

Reading Genesis in Cultural Context

The meaning of words and images depend on context. How someone in one culture uses a phrase or metaphor may not correspond to the way people in another time and place use that same language.

When we overlook this seeming obvious point, we will inevitably misinterpret the Bible. This is beautifully illustrated in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. You can read my review of it by clicking here.

Walton urges readers to read Genesis from the perspective of its original ancient context. He puts it well when he says,

We therefore recognize that although the Bible is written for us (indeed, for everyone), it is not written to us. (19)

As some have put it, when we read the Bible, we are reading other people’s mail. Biblical scholars remind us of a principle that is easily forgotten: we assume our worldview is equivalent to that of the biblical writers. If we do, we will inevitably misinterpret Scripture.


Can’t it be both?

One might ask, “Can’t Genesis have functional or symbolic value while still being literally true?”

Yes. But it can’t simply be assumed.

Just as Walton makes effort to prove that Genesis gives a functional account of origins, so also interpreters must prove that Genesis gives a material creation. ( I talked about these options in a prior blog post).

In dialogue, we should be respectful and take care not to “demonize” others. There is no reason to question a person’s character or concern for the Bible simply because they hold a “functional” view of origins or does not interpret Gen 1 in terms of literal 7 24-hour days.

Walton’s book shows that exegesis can drive those conclusions, not the desire to appease non-believers or evolutionary scientists.

In the next post, I will consider Walton’s suggestion about how to read Genesis in a way that honors biblical authority. Then, I’ll explore some implications for contextualization.

Photo Credit (Assume): John Armato/flickr

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  • I’m looking forward to your next post. I agree that cultural context should be taken into account, and that we must read Genesis as an ancient text. I also agree that this means we shouldn’t interpret everything “literally.” However, I think Walton sometimes doesn’t allow the entire canon to influence his interpretation as much as he should. While it is appropriate to ask how an ancient author would have read Genesis 1, it is just as important to ask how Paul and the NT writers read Genesis 1, since as Christians, we abide by a full canon of 66 books and should allow Scripture more than anything else to interpret Scripture. Therefore, if it can be shown that the NT portrays Adam as a single human being, and in fact, the first human being, we should allow that evidence to factor in more heavily than the ANE context or other ANE sources.

    • I would disagree with your characterization of Walton prioritizing ANE sources over Scripture. I think he says the both canon and ANE suggest his conclusions. Also, recall that Walton affirms a historical Adam. Ask you read his book, you can see he simply says that Adam could be one man among many early people. Also, he notes the way writers refer to Adam, using him for theological purposes, which affects how we understand him in history. All that to say, I don’t think your ideas are in much tension with Walton.