25 Reasons not to Read the Bible “Just” Literally
Karl Barth once said that he loved the Old Testament too much to read it JUST literally. I feel the same way. It IS to be read — carefully, spiritually, joyfully, allegorically, and sometimes but NOT always literally. When do we not read it literally? Simple, whenever it literally attributes evil or wickedness to God, we KNOW that passage must be reinterpreted allegorically or figuratively.
There were six known Christian theological schools in the early church: Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Edessa/Nisbis, Ephesus, and Rome/Carthage. The early Church’s hermeneutic, except for the Antiochan school, largely held to a similar multi-level hermeneutic.
Clement of Alexandria, in order to ensure that Christian allegory would not follow the arbitrary nature of Gnostic allegory, proposed that Christian allegory must be interpreted 1) in a manner worthy of God, 2) consistently with the Bible as a whole, and 3) in conformity to the church’s traditional rule of faith (cf. Str. 7.16.96-104).
Other church fathers and writers who advocated this way of reading include Ignatius, Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Clement, Valentinus, Heracleon, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Ambrose, Ephraem the Syrian of Edessa/Nisibis, Philoxenus of Mabbug, and Saint Augustine.
“Saint Ambrose (and Augustine) took Paul’s statement ‘the letter kills but the Spirit gives life’ as a slogan for allegorical interpretation.” A. Berkeley Mickelson, INTERPRETING THE BIBLE, Eerdmans Publishing, 1963, page 34. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan was one of the four great doctors of the western church.
The great eastern church father Origen, wrote, “Ignorant assertions about God appear to be nothing else but this: that Scripture is not understood in its spiritual sense, but is interpreted according to the bare letter.” (On First Principles 4:2.1-2, 4).
Gregory of Nyssa wrote that “allegory” allowed certain OT Scriptures to be converted from the raw and indigestible state of their literal meaning into a wholesome and healthy intellectual food. (Hom., in Cant., prol.).
The great western father Augustine taught that the harmful husk (literal reading) of Scripture had to be removed so that the valuable kernel (allegorical meaning) could be consumed. (On Christian Teaching, 3.12.18). Saint Augustine said, “If a passage seems to endorse wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid selflessness or kindness, it is figurative and not to be read literally.” He believed that all Scripture must be interpreted through the love of God and neighbor, on which all the law and prophets hang. Matt. 22:37-40. (Source: On Christian Teaching, see 3:10.14; 3:11.17; 3.16.24).
Augustine used the Rule of Divine Character when allegorizing, which essentially holds that the character of God revealed in Jesus cannot EVER be violated by the literal reading of ANY Old Testament Scripture. If the passage “appears on its face” to attribute unworthy motives, brutal behavior, cruel intentions, hypocritical conduct or coercive attributes to God, then it must be read allegorically and NOT literally.
“Wherefore, in the Old Testament there is a veiling of the New, and in the New Testament a revealing of the Old. According to that veiling, carnal men, understanding things in a carnal fashion, have been under the dominion, both then and now, of a penal fear. On the other hand, spiritual men… have a spiritual understanding and have been made free through love which they have been gifted.” Saint Augustine (On Catechizing the Uninstructed 4:8; NPNF 1/3:287).
“Beyond the literal sense to the deeper meaning of the Scriptures. The sacred Scripture, taken as a whole, is like a human being. The Old Testament is the body and the New is the soul, the meaning it contains, the spirit.From another viewpoint, we can say that the entire sacred Scripture, Old and New Testament, has two aspects: the historical content which corresponds to the body, and the deep meaning, the goal at which the mind should aim, which corresponds to the soul. If we think of human beings, we see they are mortal in their visible properties but immortal in their invisible qualities. So with Scripture. It contains the letter, the visible text, which is transitory. But it also contains the spirit hidden beneath the letter, and this is never extinguished and this ought to be the object of our contemplation. Think of human beings again. If they want to be perfect, they master their passions and mortify the flesh. So with Scripture. If it is heard in a spiritual way, it trims the text, like circumcision. Paul says: `Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.’ [2 Cor. 4:16] We can say that also of Scripture. The further the letter is divorced from it, the more relevance the spirit acquires. The more the shadows of the literal sense retreat, the more the shining truth of the faith advances. And this is exactly why Scripture was composed.” Maximus the Confessor (Translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI – Spencer, MASS, 1994).
Why? Why were these church fathers so adamant? Well, its the exact same reason WE must be adamant about it. Because IF, IF, IF we read the Old Testament JUST literally, ONLY literally, and ALWAYS literally, THEN we must acknowledge that God is a vengeful, brutal, hostile, and homicidal child-killer, man-torturer, and woman-afflicter.
I simply am unwilling to admit that God has EVER done ANY those horrible things to His children. Satan, yes certainly, but never God. Satan was the real destroyer in the Old Testament, just as He is in the New Testament. Jesus revealed a better image of God, a higher image, a deeper image, a truer image, purer image.
What follows below are 25 reasons we must not read the Old Testament literally, “by the letter” in other words, but instead read it “by the Spirit” as 2 Corinthians 3:6 instructs us. Again, if we DO read them literally, then Jesus is not only a child-killer, but a woman-killer, and a man-killer, and a bringer of cursing, disease and affliction, all of which He takes great delight to utterly destroy us. I hope these will serve as “smelling salts” which awaken us to a better way to read Scripture, a God-honoring way, a non-literal way.
1) “The LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nothing.” Deuteronomy 28:63. WHAT????
2) “The LORD shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee.” Deuteronomy 28:21. YIKES!!!!
3) “The LORD shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish.” Deuteronomy 28:22. OUCH!!!!!
4) “The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee until thou be destroyed.” Deuteronomy 28:24. GULP!!!!!!
5) “The LORD shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. And thy carcass shall be meat unto all fowls of the air, and unto the beasts of the earth, and no man shall fray them away.” Deuteronomy 28:25-26. EEEWWW!!!!
6) “The LORD will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the hemorrhoids, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed.” Deuteronomy 28:27. GROSS!!!!
7) “The LORD shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart: And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways: and thou shalt be only oppressed and spoiled evermore.” Deuteronomy 28:28-29. OMIGOSH!!!!
8) “The LORD shall smite thee in the knees, and in the legs, with a sore botch that cannot be healed, from the sole of thy foot unto the top of thy head.” Deuteronomy 28:35. SHEESH!!
9) “The LORD shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone.” Deuteronomy 28:36. HE MAKES ME SERVE OTHER GODS??!!
10) “Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed ; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the LORD thy God , to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee: And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed forever.” Deuteronomy 28:45-46. ON MY CHILDREN FOREVER AND EVER??!!
11) “Because thou servedst not the LORD thy God with joyfulness , and with gladness of heart , for the abundance of all things; Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger , and in thirst , and in nakedness , and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee.” Deuteronomy 28:47-48. HE CONTROLS MY ENEMIES??!!
12) “The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth ; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand ; A nation of fierce countenance , which shall not regard the person of the old , nor shew favour to the young : And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee…. And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body , the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the LORD thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee.” Deuteronomy 28:49-51, 53. HE WILL SEND AN ENEMY WHO CAUSES ME TO EAT MY OWN CHILDREN???!!!
13) “The LORD will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. Moreover, he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of; and they shall cleave unto thee.” Deuteronomy 28:59. WONDERFUL PLAGUES???!!
14) “Moreover he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of; and they shall cleave unto thee. Also every sickness , and every plague , which is not written in the book of this law , them will the LORD bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed.” Deuteronomy 28:60-61. DESTROYED BY GOD???!!
15) “The LORD shall give thee thee a trembling heart , and failing of eyes , and sorrow of mind : And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night , and shalt have none assurance of thy life : In the morning thou shalt say , Would God it were even ! and at even thou shalt say , Would God it were morning ! for the fear of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear , and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see.” Deuteronomy 28:65-67. THE LORD MAKES US FEARFUL AND MISERABLE FOR NOT LOVING AND OBEYING HIM??! !
16) Jesus killed a nation full of Egyptian firstborn infants and children during the well-known Exodus story.
17) Jesus killed a huge city full of children of all ages in Sodom and Gomorra (not to mention all the other children killed in the flood, or at God’s express command in the various Biblical bloodbaths, including even rebellious Israelite children under God’s “no exception” stoning law). God burns these two cities to death. In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
18) God has 42 children mauled by bears. In 2 Kings 2:23-24, some youths tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to dismember them. (Newer cosmetic translations say the bears “maul” the children, but the original Hebrew, baqa, means “to tear apart.”)
19) God drowns the whole earth in Genesis 7:21-23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children, and fetuses.
20) God kills half a million people 2 Chronicles 13:15-18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
21) God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
In Numbers 16:41-49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
22) Genocide after genocide after genocide. In Joshua 6:20-21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32-35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children. In Deuteronomy 3:3-7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7-18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1-9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites – men, women, children, infants, and their cattle – for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years earlier.
23) God kills 50,000 people for curiosity. In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant. (Newer cosmetic translations count only 70 deaths, but their text notes admit that the best and earliest manuscripts put the number at 50,070.)
24) God orders 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a false god. In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are bored, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” Around 3,000 people are then brutally killed.
25) The Amorites are destroyed by sword and by God’s rocks. In Joshua 10:10-11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by the sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
Had enough yet? There are MANY, MANY, examples. So, what is the reason for these misstatements about God’s character?
All the violence, plagues, killings, oppressions, curses, afflictions, destructions and damning which the Old Testament says comes from GOD must NOW be re-evaluated with New Testament light. We must look at the particular Old Testament passage which is attributing “evil” to GOD and ask if it is referring to THE GOD OF THIS WORLD or is it referring to THE GOD OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.
The problem was that the Old Testament had an “undifferentiated” view of God. They lumped Satan into their image of Yahweh. They simply did not differentiate God from the Devil in any meaningful way. The result? A bipolar God who is up and down, good and evil, hateful and loving, cruel and gentle, vengeful and forgiving, murderous and peaceful.
The Old Testament certainly has many accurate and priceless versions of the wondrous acts of the true Yahweh, THE GOD OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. The Old Testament frequently reflects the riches of Jesus’ love, virtue, blessing, mercy, miracles, and generosity. But, not always. Too often, because they are largely clueless about Satan’s identity, the Old Testament mars and deforms the image of God by attributing the works of Satan to God.
Jesus came to heal and reveal. He came to heal our image of a wrathful and hateful God by revealing His Father-God to be ALL love and ALL light. Jesus came to teach us how to differentiate the works of the true God from the works of Satan. Jesus IS that differentiation. Satan, as the FALLEN GOD of this FALLEN WORLD, operates in all forms of stealing, killing and destroying. God, on the other hand, as fully revealed by the RISEN CHRIST of the RISEN FATHER, operates only in forms of life — the giving of it, the protection of it, the blessing of it! John 10:10.