The Second Commandment and Biblical Literalism

The Second Commandment and Biblical Literalism December 12, 2008

The second commandment (on the counting of some this is the second part of the first commandment) as found in Exodus 20:4 reads as follows:

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Then you take a look at the bumper of the car of your average person who claims to be a Biblical literalist and see this:

I wonder what a so-called Biblical literalist would say if challenged about this. Perhaps that the symbol doesn’t really look like anything that could actually swim? But the verse is pretty clear – don’t make any likeness of anything that is in the water under the earth (which of course reflects as well a certain ancient view of the world, but let’s not get sidetracked onto that subject).

Perhaps they might point out that elsewhere in the Bible we see evidence that this commandment was not observed strictly. But that just shows the problem with Biblical literalism – there are conflicting statements and inconsistencies in practice.

Perhaps the appropriate thing to do would be to point out the consequences of making such an image. And then, just before going on your way, you might want to let them know that you have no intention of stoning them to death – because you aren’t a Biblical literalist…

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  • Anonymous

    Didn’t you forget something?Exodus 20:5 (New King James Version)you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God …

  • …giggle…

  • stephen

    I’m having trouble figuring out how you can have “water under the earth”. Seems an odd concept, unless you believe the earth is flat, and sits on water. Literally.

  • And that is precisely what many ancient peoples believed. And so why should we assume that they all were literally mistaken about matters of cosmology, but the ancient Israelites used the same language and yet were not mistaken and didn’t mean it literally?

  • Er… not “carved”?

  • Yummy. I’m going to have to remember this one….

  • James, I not clear on what you mean in your comment.And so why should we assume that they all were literally mistaken about matters of cosmology, but the ancient Israelites used the same language and yet were not mistaken and didn’t mean it literally?Isn’t this precisely the position of the moderate or sophisticated theist. (I have never been particularly clear on your faith stance.) Is this an argument against a metaphorical or non- literal reading of the bible? I don’t mean that you are suggesting that the bible should be read literally, it seems to me you are suggesting that the literal meaning is what was believed at the time the bible was authored and that there is no reason to believe that the literal meaning was not he intended meaning. If this is what you are suggesting, I entirely agree. If not, could you clarify.

  • I do think that the ancient authors of the Bible almost certainly assumed that the description of the cosmos (with a dome over it holding up the waters above, waters under the earth, and so on) was an accurate factual description. It is interesting to see how readily later authors modify their cosmological and anthropological language based on the best understanding in their time – as, for instance, when some early Christian authors mention multiple heavens, having shifted to a Ptolemaic view.The problem is not with ancient authors who expressed their view of the world in the context of and using the language of the best understanding of the world available in their time. The problem, as I see it, is with people who misguidedly seek to force the Bible to be right about such stuff when it isn’t. As for the Bible being “literal”, here I think the key point is less about whether ancient authors and readers assumed their depictions of the world were factual because they didn’t know any better. I think that some evidence, such as the placement of creation stories side by side that have conflicting orders and details, shows that even when differing views on cosmology arose, there was a certain degree of agreement that such details were not the point of these stories, and that one could appreciate these stories and what they had to say in spite of conflicting details of these sorts.I’m not sure whether that clarifies things – I suppose more succinctly I could say that my view is that the Bible is indeed wrong on factual details, and that its wrongness about various matters historical, scientific or even moral need not detract from the fact that it also offers some very exalted moral principles that it challenges us to live by. It just means that not all the authors of and characters in the Bible managed to live up to those principles.

  • James, it also offers some very exalted moral principles that it challenges us to live by.You have made this point before. What exactly are these exalted moral principles? That being angry with someone makes you the moral equivalent of a murderer? I can’t find this moral wisdom you re talking about. With the exception of the golden rule (a solid bit of moral advice) even the teaching of Jesus leave a LOT to be desired.

  • The Golden Rule is itself worth its weight in gold, as it were. But certainly there are others. To start with the example you mention, the call to examine our thoughts and not merely avoid illegal actions is not without merit, in my opinion. And in ancient Israel the laws about ethical treatment of foreigners living in the land, to give one example, seems to have been progressive for its time.I try to show my appreciation for these texts by seeking to be progressive with respect to the treatment of other human beings today in the way these texts did, at times, in relation to their own day and age. You are certainly right that the moral teachings are not undiluted goodness, when viewed from our perspective. And (before you have to say it) the vast majority of the ethical teachings are not, at their core, unique to the Biblical tradition. But that is a positive thing. I would expect the best insights into human existence, as also into the natural world, to be confirmed by others approaching the same questions or the same evidence from a different angle.