Is This Bible Verse a Metaphor?

Is This Bible Verse a Metaphor? December 22, 2013

Terry Firma shared the above image. It helpfully illustrates what is really going on in fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Their view should never be referred to as “Biblical literalism” since it only insists on the Bible being literally true when it is desirable to do so, and not where it is “obviously” a metaphor, such as the dome over the Earth, or in its teaching about gluttony or giving up all your possessions. Calling the fundamentalist view “Biblical literalism” makes it seem as though they have a high ground of sorts, however dubious it might be. But it is not as though they are being consistent while others are not. Quite the contrary. Indeed, that fundamentalists have managed to convince so many people (including themselves!) that they are in fact “Biblical literalists” deserves to be acclaimed as one of the greatest PR exercises in modern history.

As a liberal Christian, while I am always willing to consider the possibility that the ancients were using metaphors in a particular instance (they were capable of doing that, you know), even so in some instances the Bible is clearly wrong. A failure to admit that is not to uphold the Bible’s authority, but to reject the real-life Bible we have, and substitute in its place an imaginary one which is said to be inerrant, with the help of smoke and mirrors and a sincere hope that no one looks too closely at the claim or the evidence.

Thankfully, many people are looking closely at the claim and the evidence, and noticing that the Bible is appealed to in an effort to condemn others, but often ignored when it condemns oneself (an approach which, ironically, is itself condemned in the Bible!).

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  • Glenn Peoples

    I like the fact that fundamentalism and liberalism are the only options.

    • There is no intelligent thought or moral backing to liberalism. You can be a Christian and be liberal, but you cant be a good one. Liberalism is the greatest atrocity in human history

      • Such statements sound more persuasive – and less like troll comments or mere insults – when one actually offers evidence.

        Personally, I find genocide (any example will do) to be a far worse atrocity than the activities of liberals to try to foster mutual understanding among human beings in order to prevent such things. But feel free to offer evidence for why I should reverse my values in this regard!

        • Most genocides are the works of left wingers. Joseph Stalin, murdered 6-10 million ukrainians in a single year in 1932/1933. Mao murdered upwards of 50 million with some estimates of his numbers closer to 100 million. Che Guevara the butcher of Havana…oh and what was that guy’s name smitler? Rudolf? Oh yea Adolf hitler: hated worship of anything other than him, obsessed with race, redistribution of wealth, and looked to create a worker’s paradise. Then there was the mass murders of the French Revolution…Bastille day should be right up there with night of broken glass, and others.

          • holly bilski

            LOL, Stalin, Mao, Hess, Hitler, and all those other freaks were not liberals! But you are hilarious. Keep it up!

          • Ah, I understand now. When you refer to the “Left” you are referring not to what most other people mean by “the Left” – those whose political and economic views are more liberal – but ruthless dictators and revolutionaries. That one can find such examples across the spectrum (Hitler is the antithesis of what those who self-identify as liberal stand for, at least nowadays) suggests that you may have misunderstood what people are talking about here, since you are using language in your own idiosyncratic way.

          • Ian

            Hitler’s ‘national socialism’ was about as socialist as the ‘democratic people’s republic of Korea’ is democratic.

          • jdh

            Ooooh! I like that Ian. I might have to steal it 🙂

          • uwtartarus

            Hitler and the Nazi’s practiced what was called “The Third Alternative” to capitalism and communism and in fact HATED communism. Before the Nazi’s took power they fought numerous skirmishes against the Communists of Germany. Stalin and the Soviet Union, while engaged in pseudo-Leftist efforts economically, actually perpetrated atrocities as a brutal dictatorship. Authoritarianism isn’t left-wing. It’s right-wing, such as Pinochet.

          • Lucy

            Surely it was liberals who banned the slave trade, got women the vote and gave fair pay to the workers? And the conservatives who vehemently opposed that? Atrocities in deed.

          • Dain Q. Gore

            Actually, it was the Republicans (under Lincoln) that abolished slavery. They were founded due to a battle between the Abolitionists and pro-slavery wings in the Whig party, which formally (and quickly) dissolved as party as a result of the schism.

            Since the Democrats endorsed slavery (and were anti-Reconstruction as far back as Hayes), I guess, by extension, one could have called the Republicans “liberals” at the time, considering the alternative was quite unpleasant. That’s the funny thing about history, it really is quite relative.


          • Hulahoop24

            During the Civil War era, Republicans were the liberals and Democrats were the conservatives. They slowly evolved over time to be the opposites they are today. So yes Liberals were still responsible for abolishing slavery.

          • jdh

            A perfect example of why labels are a fool’s errand. I frequently see comments from Conservatives (Republicans) who say “Democrats did this and Democrats did that” when it’s 200 years later. Wow. Enlightening.

          • guest

            Maybe in America, but it was liberal Christians who were at the forefront of abolition in Britain. The Quakers, for example.

          • Dain Q. Gore

            It doesn’t really matter which brand of boot is crushing the face in the mud.

          • Most genocides are the works of left wingers.

            Yeah, because the problem with totalitarian hellholes is way too much freethought and humanistic sentiment.

          • John Berg

            GW, Cheney, Rove.

          • jdh

            I literally, almost word for word, saw this same statement from a Libertarian “friend” of mine on Facebook. In fact, maybe it’s you.
            The fact that anyone would use a simple word (label) to brand an ideology that does not in any way represent what you are asserting is the epitome of ignorance. “The Left”, as you call it, in America does not represent the ideology you put forth in your comment. So stop being silly.

          • guest

            None of those people were liberal christians. How many genocides have been caused by liberal Christianity?


        Christianity only exists because of Jesus’ liberality. Conservative Christianity is an oxymoron.

      • Shockster, are you on Rush Limbaugh’s mailing list?

  • guest

    The main problem I have with fundamentalists is that they refuse to accept anything in the bible can be debunked by science. So the flood and the garden of Eden are totally true. It’s only hard moral teachings that are metaphors.

  • Just Sayin’

    It seems to me that this is very often the way that reverse fundies such as the New Atheists look at Bible texts too. Hence they are happy to be “bloody heathens.”

    • Too easy.

      New atheists respond to fundamentalist views of the Bible because it is fundamentalist views of the Bible that threaten science education, marriage equality, and other liberal political efforts.

      It’s true that new atheists don’t often address liberal Christian arguments for God. I think this is largely because they don’t see liberal Christian ideologies as a threat to society; although Sam Harris does argue that liberal religion can empower fundamentalist religion through association and notions of religious tolerance – even when religious tolerance is used to trump human rights.

      • Just Sayin’

        Yes, the New Atheists tend to argue that non-fundie Christians are “enablers.”

        • Whether or not the new atheists are right about liberal Christians, it is fundamentalist Christians that are responsible for promulgating huge social injustices in the world – not new atheists. Comparisons between them are ridiculously out of proportion.

          • Just Sayin’

            The post’s not about injustices or whatever you want to talk about, it’s about how people interpret the Bible. In that respect fundies and New Athiests are often eerily similar, thus my comparison is perfectly valid.

          • How on earth are they eerily similar? New Atheists don’t find the bible literally credible in any way whatsoever.

          • Just Sayin’

            The post is about interpreting texts, not about believing or disbelieving them.

          • Tell that to a fundamentalist Christian. Anyway, whatever you have decided “this post” is about, “this blog” brings up the social injustices perpetrated by fundamentalists all the time, largely the result of the way that they interpret texts.

          • Just Sayin’

            I haven’t “decided” what this post is about: it’s obviously about interpreting the Bible, as the poster specifically says so. That’s what I’ve been posting about in response. You seem to want to post about something else.

          • Even on the simple level of interpreting the Bible, I don’t buy the argument that new atheists are literalists or fundamentalists. How do new atheists interpret the Bible literally or fundamentally?

            But I also don’t think that it’s such a simple matter to separate biblical interpretations from the way believers treat humanity, as this post demonstrates. The graphic makes a clear point about how interpretation is influenced by the question “do you want to follow it yourself”. The question of of whether someone follows a verse in life is not a matter of interpretation, it is a matter of belief and application – something that has direct social impact. That’s the ironic point of the graphic – that interpretations are influenced by how fundamentalist believers wish to behave, rather than the other way around.

            As James McGrath sums up this post:

            “the Bible is appealed to in an effort to condemn others, but often ignored when it condemns oneself.”

          • Just Sayin’

            Please don’t take offence, but I don’t care whether you “buy” the simple point I made or not. Reading the New Atheists clearly reveals that they are frequently biblical literalists.

          • No offence taken!

            But, having read all the leading New Atheists,Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens, I can tell you that they are not Biblical literalists, and it escapes me how they can be so categorized?

            The New Atheists I’ve read, as do many liberal Christians, recognize that the Bible is a human text written over centuries by a variety of communities and individuals with very different premises and purposes.

            Fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, think of the Bible as the text of a single voice, inspired by the Holy Spirit throughout the centuries, and consistent from cover to cover.

            How are New Atheists literalists?

          • Just Sayin’

            Once again, in interpretation (the topic of this post), not origins, or morality, or belief, or anything else.

          • You still haven’t explained how New Atheists are literal interpreters of the bible, certainly not as this post describes literal interpretation: “It’s the literal word of God”.

            And if you don’t think that origins, morality, and belief are not intrinsically bound to interpretation, then you are confused about the meaning of biblical interpretation.

          • Just Sayin’

            Yeah, whatever. The comment I made is hardly original, or controversial but you appear to want to make a big deal of it.

          • I agree that your comment is not original. You’re not the first to claim that New Athiests are “reverse fundies”, and I’m not the first (by a long shot) to say that it is a meaningless comparison. New Atheists would be the first to tell you that they are not biblical literalists (and have already); fundamentalist Christians, on the other hand, embrace the term, and would gladly be called biblical literalists.

          • Just Sayin’

            Well, of course the reverse fundies don’t own up to it!

          • Wow, you still can’t provide any evidence that New Atheists interpret the Bible literally. You just like to hear yourself repeat it ad nauseum.

            Of course, fundamentalist Christians totally own up to being Biblical literalists; they take pride in it.

          • Just Sayin’

            As I’ve already explained, I’m not interested in “providing evidence” or trying to convince you. The only thing I’m having to repeat ad nauseum is that I simply don’t care whether you “buy” the simple point I made or not.

          • Yes, it’s clear that you don’t care.

  • Peter Kirby

    Purely pedantic point: By having two points of entry, this flow-chart-like image contradicts itself depending on where you start, in cases where the first question is answered “yes” and the second question “yes” or when both are answered “no.” (Intentional? Maybe.)

    • Dain Q. Gore

      Indeed. “I guess” as an answer may as well be the kind of data that allows for Agnotsics to be considered “Nons.”

  • Metaphor – good word but must not be asked to bear more than its fair load. James, I think you have something important to get to – but snippets like this (besides Peter’s good point about 2 entry points) don’t get there for me.

    There is a traditional pardes pattern for interpretation (see e.g. here at my favorite Rabbi’s blog): pshat- the ‘plain’ meaning (loaded words both of those), remez, figurative meaning (including metaphor+), drash (seeking out the ‘meaning’) and sod (that which is hidden yet knowable). So apply these 4 (4 are sufficient I think – otherwise too many table legs) to a verse and let’s see.

    For fun let’s take Gen 1 – somewhere somewhen – hmmm – how about verse 4: And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. Ouch, ouch, ouch – my speech act theory shoes are already pinching.

    Pshat – God sees the light. There is a distinction between L and D that we also can see (literally).

    remez – the figurative is played out throughout Scripture – need to illustrate with a distant verse – e.g. Psalm 139:12 Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee. Hmm – how does God ‘see’? Clearly in any light. Also consider God is light – John somewhere.

    drash – Read John 1 of course (see Boyarin’s article on John 1 as Targum and drash).

    sod – what is the ‘secret’ of the separation of L and D? Is it so that mercy becomes possible? If I could say it in so many words, it would not be secret any longer.

    I struggle with finding balance – as I expect we all do. I would like to get beyond the liberal / fundie divide. It seems to me that like light, wisdom cannot find a home here.

    • Dain Q. Gore

      Bob–do you have a blog? If so, I would very much like to follow it.

  • Dan Thureen

    How about this thought? “Yes, this Bible verse is a metaphor (Yes, all of them). And some of them may even be historically or scientifically accurate.” But the metaphor and its meaning is always the important part.

  • David Beddow

    As my wife will testify, I am a hoarder. I keep things long after their practical use has expired, and have many items I own solely for the sentimental hold they have on me. Hoarders are classed as mentally ill, which I accept and acknowledge. There are several levels of hoarder, the details of which I will not go into here as it isn’t relevant.

    What IS relevant is the effect these possessions have on me. Context is vital when looking at scripture. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to give away all his belongings it was because he, like me, placed more value on them than his relationship with God. The young man went away saddened because he had much to surrender. This is something I experience only too well.

    Taken in context, the entire Bible should be accepted as God’s word. It was written in terms understood by the people of the time. Why should the “Dome over the Earth” simply not be a reference to the edge of earth’s atmosphere? It is, after all, a dome of gasses ensuring the survival of life on this planet.

    I consider myself to be a contextual fundamentalist. That means that when taken in context, we should literally accept what is written as infallible. Covering heads in meetings for women had nothing to do with their heads. In the context of first century judaism it simply meant “don’t dress like a prostitute” – something both men and women today should consider.

    Contextual fundamentalism provides both a rational explanation for some of the statements – the “scientific” minds today fail to grasp the deeper meaning in the scripture and take their facts too seriously – and the spirit in which they were written, as well as the Spirit by whim they were inspired.

    Parables and metaphor are useful teaching aids, and were used by prophets and Jesus Himself to make points to individuals, but God generally speaks to His Children – you and me – palinly so we can understand. In short, it takes teaching from a theologian to misunderstand the Bible. It’s too simple otherwise.

    • In short, it takes teaching from a theologian to misunderstand the Bible. It’s too simple otherwise.

      I couldn’t disagree more. There’s nothing I find more fascinating than how complex the Bible is. You have to understand history, textual criticism, and philosophy to be able to approach it with any realistic hope of comprehending it.

      And you basically agree with me in that you mention context. Scripture isn’t just pretty words and simple messages. If we don’t consider when the pieces of the Bible were written and assembled, and the profusion of literary styles at work, we’re not making an honest effort to understand it.

      • David Beddow

        The issue at the heart of this is literalism. I agree, and am fascinated by how God can show me so many different things from a single verse of Scripture when I apply it to my life. The Bible is a Living thing, but it is an unchanging work as well.

        Without context one could build a suicide doctrine from the verses “Judas went out and hanged himself” and “Go and do as he did”. Clearly that is not what is intended, and no sane Christian would disagree with that argument.

        The simplicity is in the message of God’s Love for His people, not necessarily the entire book. The entire Gospel is summed up by Jesus Himself in John 17:1-3 “Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The most profound sayings of Jesus have been hashed about and kicked around until the meaning in the original language has been hermenutically, philosophically and theologically transformed away from the clarity with which it was given. “All who ask receive” “All who seek find” and so on.

        I don’t need to understand the political situation that led to the invasion of the Northern Kingdom and the loss of the 10 tribes associated with it. I do need to understand the lesson that it teaches me in the context of my life – and that it may be different to the lesson it is used by the Holy Spirit to teach you.

        So yes, I agree the need for context is incredibly important. I wasn’t trying to disagree there. I agree that as a historical document the Bible is an immensely complex book written over the course of two thousand or so years by many, many human hands and at different geo-political stages meaning the metaphors within the script are different.

        But the overall message: God Loved us so much He first had to show us we couldn’t reconcile with Him by our own strength (Old Testament) so He came Himself, bore our Sin on the Cross and was Raised from the Dead allowing us to have a restored relationship with Him (New Testament). That’s simple. We over-complicate things and try to box God into something we fully understand when He’s given us eternity to get to know Him.

        I agree we can gain a greater understanding if we look at the various stylesat work, but if that’s all we look at we are in real danger of missing the wood for the trees.

        I’m not a historical scholar. My Grandfather was a Minister, and he wasn’t a history scholar either. He was a blue-collar working man who joined the Salvation Army when Jesus got into his heart. He lived for Christ for another 64 years before he passed away and never studied the history once, but I’ve not known many people who were able to express the Love demonstrated in scripture as accurately as he could. I hope one day that someone can say that of me.

        I enjoy a friendly exchange of views, and intellectual argument. Thanks for your response.

        • The Bible is a Living thing, but it is an unchanging work as well.

          Well, how we relate to it certainly changes. The more we understand about empirical inquiry, the more we realize that the Garden of Eden and the Flood are myths that aren’t meant to be taken literally. The more we progress in creating fair and just human societies, the less the Bible authors’ attitudes toward women, gays, and the institution of slavery seem like ones we should emulate.

          But the overall message: God Loved us so much He first had to show us we couldn’t reconcile with Him by our own strength (Old Testament) so He came Himself, bore our Sin on the Cross and was Raised from the Dead allowing us to have a restored relationship with Him (New Testament). That’s simple.

          That doesn’t seem as simple as you make it sound. There are a lot of different interpretations of what the Bible’s overall message is, or what its messages are. People’s experience of the transcendent is as personal as it is universal, the same as all human experiences.

          • David Beddow

            Yes and no. The simplicity is summed up by Jesus Himself when He declared He was the only way to God. That being the case, the simplification is as I previously said.

            There are, however, moral absolutes. Scripturally speaking, there are some things mentioned which are clearly shown by the writers of both the Old and New Testaments as being moral absolutes.

            I acknowledge that eating shrimp is mentioned as an abomination in the Old Testament more than homosexuality, but Peter’s vision of animals coming down and being told to rise, kill and eat despite the animals being unclean shows that part of the Law of Moses was abolished in the New Testament. Had the vision instructed him to indulge in homosexuality then there may be an argument, but (and I’ve been called homophobic before for saying this)the New Testament still condemns sexual immorality – that being meant as sexual relations outside marriage: and Marriage in a Biblical sense is between a man and a woman. Refer back to Sodom and Gomorrah and read the story carefully. God didn’t destroy them because homosexuality was practised. If you read it in the context and the Spiritual understanding of the text God’s Judgement fell because homosexuality and pedophilia (important to remember both were practised there) had ceased to be considered sinful.

            At the same time as saying one sin is now acceptable because man has changed himself, why do we then imprison killers? One is now socially acceptable behaviour while the other is not. But where will the line be drawn?

            The West (I grew up in the UK but now live in South Africa) thrives on greed and gluttony – excesses which would have appalled even the Pharisees are the norm while 66.6% of the world goes to bed hungry and education levels amongst the poorest of the poor are so low that they believe HIV can be cured by showering.

            I do agree that the historical text is complex, but Jesus intended the message to be simple. That’s why he talked to fishermen about fish and shepherds about sheep. He spoke to the poor about losing a single coin, then likened them to that coin, and Himself to them searching for it.

            Universalism is a dangerous path. Not all religions lead to the same place. Jesus’s own teachings make that clear, and as CS Lewis pointed out, any man claiming to be what Jesus said He was had to be one of 3 things: Lunatic, Devil or exactly what He claimed – God Himself.

            I am, as I said, something of a Fundamentalist. I believe in a seven stage creation. I didn’t before a friend studying geology told me that before this one there have been six major goelogical “ages”, and then another friend who studied ancient hebrew texts told me the word translated “day” can also mean an indeterminate period of time or era. Suddenly Genesis 1 made more sense.

            And I try not to confuse “profound” and “simple”.

            After almost 30 years as a Christian I learn new things about my faith every day. My late Grandfather called me only a week before he passed away to share a new insight he had found in a passage he’d been reading for almost 70 years.

            Salvation is a simple concept, but it requires something profound to accept it. We have need to recognise that we need Salvation. I accept that. I am not a perfect man. I am a hoarder with a bad temper that I try to control (mostly) and I am often less than patient with people, but I try every day to hand these aspects to Christ for Him to purify. I cannot clean myself whilst standing in mud.

            The New Testament cannot stand without the foundation of the Old, and the writers, largely St Paul but also the Gospel writers and the writers of the other letters in the Canonical text, believed wholeheartedly that Jesus had come in the flesh, died for their sin and that His sacrifice allowed them to receive God’s fullest Blessing both in this world and the next. It’s simple, but I acknowledge it’s not easy, particularly from a universalist perspective.

  • John Berg

    What a stupid, narrow minded chart of idiotic proportions.

  • ChildOfTheOneTrueKing

    Just because people misrepresent the Bible doesn’t make the Bible wrong, it makes the PEOPLE wrong.

    • jdh

      Agreed, but a tremendous amount of The Bible is symbolic: poetic and metaphorical. It is far too frequently taken literally and out of the context within which it was written (historically and geographically and politically, for example). I can’t comprehend literalists or inerrants when The Bible itself contradicts the same stories within its own pages. How can one reconcile vastly different accounts or teachings of the same thing if they take The Bible as literal and inerrant? It’s impossible without a great deal of brainwashing.

  • Timothy Philip-Paul Thibault

    I’m a little behind I guess. What evidence has proven the flood and even to be mythical?

    • Well, there’s not much evidence for a worldwide flood, particularly where you’d expect to see it, in the chronicles of civilizations like the Egyptians or the Chinese who kept really good records. There are similar myths of localized floods in the lore of other nearby cultures, a predictable phenomenon considering how much damage variations in the water level must have wreaked in the Mediterranean and Near East at the time.

      And the notion that so many species were reduced to a pair sometime in human history is something that should be obvious in the genomes of these species. But nowhere in nature do geneticists see such a bottleneck.

    • The geological record shows that there has never been a global flood. There are flood stories older than the Bible – do you not consider the Epic of Gilgamesh to be mythological? And the Biblical flood story itself can be seen to be non-factual: just calculate how much fresh water would have been needed on the ark and you will realize that it would have sunk it.

    • Timothy Philip-Paul Thibault

      Ok, so I’ve always been told that it actually happened so I wanna know more about this. So these are questions/arguments for knowledge, not for a debate cause whether or not the flood really happened doesn’t affect my faith. Its a non issue I’m just curious.
      Pertaining to the records, wouldn’t it make sense for there to be localized accounts only if it were worldwide? The flood would have killed off anyone else so all people on the earth would be in the same place. As they branched out the stories would be recent to the direct descendents but as time progressed and people kept moving further away they may have lost the stories?
      And for water, there are ways to remove salt from water. Ways that dont require modern technology. Though that being said its a slow process and to continually provide enough for all those animals would be problematic. I guess for the for the days it rained you wouldn’t need water, only for the days after it stopped raining. Is it also possible that there was very little salt in the water before that time?
      I’ll have to do some more thinking about them reduced to a pair cause that is a good point and I don’t know enough about it to even comment.
      I guess my question is does the story mean as much if it never actually happened?

      • I don’t think you are taking seriously what it would mean for the entire planet to be covered with water, and yet for there to be no evidence of it in the geological record. The Bible’s account reads as the monotheization of an already-famous story. Why try to turn it info history when every single piece of evidence points to it being something else? You can always come up with implausible ad hoc solutions to problems if you really want to, but why do that to defend your assumptions instead of following the evidence where it naturally leads?

      • I personally prefer the Gilgamesh version of the story, in which the gods are berated for punishing humans in a manner completely out of proportion to their wrongs.

        Another major problem with the Noah tale is that ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians and the numerous Native American civilizations apparently lived right through the worldwide flood without noticing it.

  • newenglandsun

    This is why Catholics engage in Tradition (patristic and historical Church tradition), Authority (magisterial decision making), and Reason (natural theology, or philosophy of God) instead of this “Bible crap”.

    The magisterium has also stated firmly a definition of Biblical inerrancy.

  • I think even claiming to be liberal and christian falls short of pragmatism but we’re at least getting closer to enlightenment.