Most of the religious traditions I have been exposed to promote a literal view of Scripture. Most people in these traditions are quick to point out that a literal view is not a wooden view. Jesus doesn’t literally believe he is a door – it’s a metaphor. I agree, we certainly must account for figures of speech, original language, setting, context, type of literature (just to name a few). But sometimes that’s not enough – occasionally there are still inconsistencies that make us wonder whether the literal approach is best.
One such instance is in the Old Testament (2 Kings 1), where Moab rebels against Israel. When their king is sick and wants to know if he will recover, he sends messengers to ask the god of Ekron to make the call. Apparently, this upsets the angel of the Lord who sends the prophet Elijah to ask him, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron.” And by the way, he also adds “you shall surely die” to the prophet’s message. It sounds fairly normal so far, except that God seems to go out of his way a little just because he didn’t get consulted. It gets worse.
After Elijah delivers the message, the king sends a captain and fifty men to invite Elijah to come visit with these words, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” Apparently, that is the wrong thing to say to a prophet because he responds, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” And, according to the account, that is what happened. Over react much? The scene is repeated for the second squad of fifty, but narrowly avoided in the third regiment because the third captain begs for his life. His men are spared, and the angel instructs Elijah to take the time to deliver the message that the king is going to die because he ignored God.
I don’t know about you, but this leaves me with a few questions. First, is this story true? If it is literally accurate? Is it what we are supposed to do? And, more importantly, is it an accurate representation of what God is like?
If only we could find an example in the Bible that would clear this up. My professor also used to say, “Let the clear interpret the unclear.” Consider this account of James and John while traveling with Jesus (Luke 9). When a village of Samaritans refused to provide traveling accommodations to Jesus and his group, James and John wondered, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” This was a great teaching moment for the disciples. In their minds, this is what God does when someone disrespects Him. Jesus brings clarity with a simple statement, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are, for the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Jesus indicated that God does not do drone strikes on people just because they ignore or offend Him. His purpose was to save lives, and apparently, that included physical ones.
Scripture is important, but it must be viewed through the lens of Jesus. When we start with a rigid, literal view of Scripture, we sometimes elevate the Bible above Jesus. Jesus shows us what God is like which often challenges our beliefs and drives us toward a higher standard. If we are honest, to take the Bible literally we often pick and choose what we are literal about. Many issues like slavery, diet, roles in the church, gender expectations and approaches to ministry become much more complicated (not simpler) when we approach the Bible with a literal view. When we start with Jesus and let him tell us (literally) where to go with Scripture, everything seems to come into focus.
Idols are not only statues and our favorite possessions. Idols can be the Scriptures themselves and the doctrines WE have developed. Sometimes, it’s better to have a little less certainty and lot more curiosity. When we look inquisitively through the lens of Jesus we see His love and His grace and His mercy and we find a greater peace. According to Jesus, retribution and retaliation are not the nature (spirit) of God or His disciples. Apparently, He is into saving (delivering) people. Who knew?