Literal Intrepretations of the Scriptures

by Allen Leigh, contributor

I believe that a basic reason why some people feel there are conflicts between science and religion is because those persons interpret the scriptures literally in attempts to have the scriptures give the “how” of creation in addition to the “why” of the creation. In this post, I discuss why I believe in many cases the scriptures shouldn’t be interpreted literally.

Many years ago, while I was a LDS missionary in West Virginia, I had the opportunity of talking with a Methodist minister. I explained to him the Biblical reasons why I believed there was a falling away (apostasy) from the church that Jesus Christ had formed, and that a restoration of the gospel and church to Joseph Smith had occurred. The minister understood what I was saying, and he commented that ones interpretation of Biblical passages depended on how literal one interprets the verses. In looking back at this event, I’ve come to realize there is truth in his comment. I grew up in a LDS environment in which stories and teachings from the scriptures were taken literally. It seemed natural to me that the verses from the Bible meant exactly what they said, or at least what I thought they said. However, since that time, I’ve come to realize that many passages from the Bible aren’t meant to be taken literally (other passages are meant to be taken literally, of course).

The manuscripts that were canonized as the Bible were written by ancient people whom we believe were prophets and were inspired by God. We believe these men didn’t take dictation as God revealed word for word his message. It is likely these men wrote in the style of their time. This implies that we can study other ancient documents and gain insight into the meaning intended by the prophets.

Model of the Universe Used by Ancient Writers

According to Wikipedia, ancient people considered our universe as having two layers. The lower layer was the earth. Above the earth was the firmament. The sun, stars, and angels existed in the firmament. There was no rotation of planets around the sun. This is depicted in the following image, taken from Wikipedia.

The ancient prophets apparently had no concept of planets orbiting around the sun. To these men, the earth was flat and was the center of the universe, and the sun and stars moved within the firmament above a stationary earth. It was thus a simple thing for God to change the movement of the objects in the firmament.

Creation of the Earth as Viewed by Ancient Writers

For years I’ve been trying to fit the Biblical description of the creation  with our scientific description of how the earth was created. The two descriptions just don’t fit. In the Biblical description, there are events that just couldn’t have happened that way. Now, that I understand the model of the universe used by ancient writers, I see a good fit between the Biblical description and that model. That model is not an accurate model of how the universe actually exists. This tells me that the Biblical description of the creation can not be taken literally from our viewpoint. It can be taken, though, as a figurative description of the creation that shows the power of God in creating the universe. Let’s review the Biblical description of the creation of the earth to see how well it fits with the model of the universe used by ancient writers.

The Biblical description begins with the earth being without form, and everything was dark. The Lord created light and separated the light from the darkness. This light was not light from the sun but was light from an unidentified source. At this point the ancient model of the universe consisted of one layer that was all water. In addition, there was a repeating cycle of light and darkness. Next, God separated the water by creating a firmament in the water.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. (Genesis 1:6)

At this point, the model now had three layers: water above the firmament, the firmament, and water below the firmament. The repeating pattern of light and darkness was still there. God gave a name to the firmament and called it Heaven.

Next, God separated the water below the firmament and caused dry land to appear. This dry land that appeared was called earth, and the water that was separated was called sea.

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.

And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:9-10)

The model now had two layers, the firmament and earth. Earth consisted of dry land and seas. The repeating cycle of light and darkness still existed.

In subsequent verses, God caused plants to grow on the earth. From our viewpoint, these plants would need energy for photosynthesis to occur, and that energy came from the repeating cycle of light and darkness. That energy did not come from the sun, because the sun was not yet created in the firmament.

After creating plants, the Lord created the sun and the moon to control the repeating cycle of light and darkness.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:14, 18)

Next, God created fish of the sea and fowl of the air. This was followed by the creation of animals on the dry land.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. (Genesis 1:20-21, 24)

As his final act of creation, God created man and later woman and placed them in the dry land.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26)

Except for the plants coming before the animals, this description of the creation does not agree at all with our description from science how the earth was actually formed. This description does, however, agree very well with the model of the universe used by ancient writers.

Other Biblical Verses Reflect the Model Used by Ancient Writers

We can see the ancient model of our universe in other writings in the Bible. For example, in Revelation John spoke of the four corners of the earth. I’ve always thought he was speaking figuratively, but his comment, I now believe, reflects the belief at that time of a flat earth.

And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree. (Revelation 7:1)

In Joshua we read that the sun stood still while the Israelites “avenged themselves upon their enemies”.

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. (Joshua 10:3)

That verse makes sense when we realize the author of the book believed the earth was stationary and the sun and moon moved within the firmament, but it makes no sense today when we realize the earth is rotating about its own axis, and in order to give the image of the sun standing still, the earth would have to stop its rotation, and the moon to be stayed would have to stop its rotation about the earth. Objects on the surface of the earth are moving about 1000 miles per hour, and if the earth were to stop its rotation, these objects would continue moving due to their momentum, and the result would be the equivalent of a hurricane with 1000 mph winds.

Of course, there is always the possibility that God caused the rotation of the earth and the moon to stop and then exercised higher laws of physics to prevent high winds from developing. People who believe in literal interpretations (from our viewpoints) apparently believe that God did invoke higher laws to keep undesirable effects from happening. I prefer to believe the statements were literal in the context of a flat earth and a firmament, and that we interpret those statements as figurative in order to understand them in the context of today’s universe.

The Story of Noah and the Flood Can’t Be Taken Literally

The story of Noah and the flood is another story of the Bible that can’t be taken literally. That story might have been given in the context of a flat earth, if we assume the flat earth had low mountains, and in that case the story would be reasonable. However, if the earth that is described in the Bible had high mountains, as we know today it does, the story definitely can’t be taken literally. In addition, the size of the ark given in Genesis is way to small to hold all of the animals that would have existed during the time of Noah. I’ve discussed this story in detail in another blog and won’t repeat my reasons for believing the flood was either an allegory or at best a regional flood.

The Scriptures Can’t Be Viewed Literally in All Cases

The examples I’ve given above help me realize that we can’t interpret literally many of the stories from the Bible, because they were written in the context of a different model of the universe, a model that does not accurately describe the universe as it really exists. So, if the scriptures aren’t to be taken literally in all cases, how do we tell which parts are to be taken literally and which parts are to be taken figuratively? That’s a good question, and there is no simple answer to it.

In the case of scriptural verses that pertain to the earth, science is a good “measuring stick” for determining if those verses are to be interpreted literally according to our model of the universe. For example, if Noah were to build a ship that would contain pairs of all the animals and birds in existence, plus food and water for those animals (and his family), a much larger ship would be needed than the ark as described in Genesis.

In many cases, we need to remember that the ancient prophets were writing from their viewpoint not from ours. For example, when Moses wrote that the flood covered the whole earth, did he mean the whole planet as we think of it today, or did he think of the earth that he knew, his immediate surroundings.

Finally, we have our personal prayers and inspiration from the Holy Ghost to help us understand the scriptures correctly.

As I’ve said, being able to say that particular verses are an allegorical description and not a description of real-life is a difficult thing to do. I can see that a description of a flood could be an allegory, or it could be based on a model of the earth being flat with low mountains, or it could be based on a regional flood that happened. I really can’t say which, and I don’t think it makes a lot of difference. The value to me of the flood-story is a story of faith, obedience, and salvation, and my life can be enriched whether the story is literally true or not.

Conclusion

If scriptural statements agree with our model of the universe, which we think describes the universe as it actually is, we can probably take those statements as being literally true. If, however, those statements don’t agree with the universe as it really is, we must take those statements as figurative or allegorical statements.

Many people will disagree with the things I have written in this post, and that is fine. We each have our own viewpoints in our religious life, because we have our agency to believe and accept what we want.

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2 Responses to Literal Intrepretations of the Scriptures

  1. rogerdhansen says:

    The following is from an article by Michael Vinson in Sunstone (Aug 2013) titled: “Eve’s Faith Crisis”:

    “Traditionally, we think of the story of Adam and Eve in terms of the ‘fall,’ as though Eve did something irreparable in the soteriological history of mankind. But that is only true if we think of the story literally–an actual serpent tempted Eve, and sin and death were introduced to the world.

    If we think of Eve’s act of disobedience to God in other terms, though we can see it as a faith crisis. It would be difficult to imagine a better example of a faith crisis than having to decide whether or not to obey God, especially when your life depended on it.

    But what if we approached the story as a myth instead of as history, viewing it through the perspectives of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung? Specifically, what if we viewed this story as a metaphor for the journey each person needs to take in order to bring wholeness to his or her soul: the hero’s journey, the process of individuation?”

  2. rogerdhansen says:

    According to a movie review by Jerry Earl Johnson in the Deseret News (12 Oct 2013) “‘Gravity’ spins a celestial allegory:

    “[Allegories] are stories that shape-shift to suit our personal situations.

    In fact, I’m one of those people who believe many of the stories in the world’s sacred texts are more allegorical than literal.

    And, to my way of thinking, that doesn’t weaken those stories at all but gives them even more power and range.

    In the movie “Gravity,” I saw a full grab-bag of symbols and metaphors.”

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