To interpret literally or liberally?

I was raised to believe that everything the Bible says is literally true, and as a nonbeliever I still tend to interpret the Bible pretty literally. Here’s why:

Literalism is the natural form of religion that results from reading the scriptures. When people read the Bible with no preconceived ideas about what it should say, they will tend to assume it means exactly what it says. I wouldn’t expect it to even occur to anyone that the Bible might not simply mean what it says, unless someone else told them to think that. Or unless they were unable to accept what they were reading because they already had other, more strongly-held beliefs that were incompatible with the Bible.

Non-literalist religion is a self-deceptive phenomenon that results when people consider themselves religious, but also have beliefs and values that conflict with the scriptures. If they don’t want to outright reject the Bible or admit that their values don’t come from their religion, they have to make up metaphorical interpretations of the Bible that agree with what they already believe, and ignore what the Bible actually says.1

In a lot of cases, what the Bible says was meant completely literally, and was originally interpreted literally, and no one saw a problem with that. But as humanity’s knowledge of the world and standards of morality have improved over time, it has become increasingly clear to most people that what the Bible says literally is absurdly wrong. So those who can’t admit that the Bible is wrong have had to increasingly reinterpret it figuratively. Some take it so far that they’re basically atheists in denial.

Even literalists are now so used to thinking of certain concepts and expressions used in the Bible as figurative that it might not even occur to them that those things might have once been meant literally. But compared to what the writers intended, literalists aren’t literal enough! Like most people in ancient times, the writers of the Bible actually believed that people literally thought with their hearts. And their kidneys.2

Continue reading To interpret literally or liberally?
Share this post:

How many men were possessed by the Legion of demons?

Three of the gospels tell this story: Jesus crosses a lake and meets a violent man who is being controlled by a group of demons, who call themselves Legion. The demons assume Jesus is there to banish them and torture them. But they convince him to just send them into a herd of pigs instead. The man regains his sanity, and the pigs kill themselves. The locals make Jesus go away so he’ll stop pointlessly destroying their livestock. And everybody forgets about the demons, who are now homeless and on the loose.

Continue reading How many men were possessed by the Legion of demons?
Share this post:

The Story of Joseph and his Brothers
The Interpreter of Dreams

How God got Joseph into Egypt

Jacob made a fancy robe for his favorite son, Joseph. This made Joseph’s brothers jealous. Then Joseph started having dreams about his family bowing down to him. This made his brothers hate him. So Joseph’s brothers stole his robe and dipped it in goat blood, so their father would think Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. They sold Joseph to some merchants, who took him away to Egypt and sold him as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of the guard.

Inmate interprets increasingly insane imaginings

Potiphar’s wife kept trying to get Joseph to sleep with her, but he refused. Then she accused him of trying to rape her, so Potiphar put him in prison. Two other prisoners, who had been Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, got Joseph to interpret their dreams for them. Pharaoh’s cupbearer had dreamed about bearing Pharaoh’s cup, which Joseph said meant he would become Pharaoh’s cupbearer again. And it was so. Pharaoh’s baker had dreamed about birds eating Pharaoh’s bread out of a basket on the baker’s head, which Joseph said meant the baker would be executed. And it was so.

Later, Pharaoh had a dream about seven skinny cows eating seven fat cows, and a dream about seven thin heads of grain eating seven full heads of grain. None of his magicians and wise men could tell him what his dreams meant, so his cupbearer suggested asking Joseph. Joseph said both dreams meant that there would be seven years of abundance, and then seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed by this claim that he put Joseph in charge of all of Egypt, without even bothering to wait and see if Joseph’s prediction was accurate.

Do not worry about tomorrow

During the seven years of abundance, Joseph took away all the grain that was grown in Egypt and stored it up, so the people could starve sooner rather than later. Then during the seven years of famine, he sold grain to everyone who needed it in Egypt and Canaan. Joseph gave the Egyptians food (that he had stolen from them) in exchange for all their money, all their livestock, all their land, and their slave labor. He also made them give a fifth of the food they were able to grow to Pharaoh, so that they could have food.

Continue reading The Story of Joseph and his Brothers
The Interpreter of Dreams
Share this post:

Will there be death and curses in the new heaven and earth?

The Bible says after the world ends, God will create a new heaven and a new earth. Things will be different then: There will be no more death, pain, sadness, etc. And there will no longer be any curse, such as the painful curses God inflicted on humanity when Adam and Eve sinned.

God will dwell among people, so they can see his face. But wait… No one can see God’s face and live! So I guess everyone who serves at God’s throne in the new Jerusalem is going to die.

Continue reading Will there be death and curses in the new heaven and earth?
Share this post:

Good deeds for bad reasons

The Bible describes and promotes a lot more evil behavior than you would expect from a “good book”. Not all of it is like that, of course. But even when the Bible talks about good behavior, the reasons it gives for behaving that way are usually all wrong.

There’s a Bible verse that addresses the issue of doing things for the wrong reasons. Paul thinks that as long as you’re doing the right thing, it doesn’t really matter why you’re doing it. Well, I disagree. Reasons are important. Your reasons for doing things influence which things you choose to do. If you’re not doing things for the right reasons, you’re probably not going to consistently do the right things.

What would be a good reason for, say, showing hospitality? Why should you provide people with lodging and food? In the past, one good reason was that it took a long time to travel, and there weren’t a lot of commercial hotels around. So the only way travelers could get shelter at night was to rely on strangers to offer them a place to stay.

The Bible’s justification for promoting hospitality, on the other hand, doesn’t even have anything to do with helping people! Instead, the Bible says you should let people stay in your home because your guests might actually be angels. That’s a dumb reason, isn’t it? How is it in any way better to provide for angels, who don’t need your help, than to provide for humans, who do?

Continue reading Good deeds for bad reasons
Share this post:

Why did God leave some nations among Israel?

According to the Bible, when God brought the people of Israel into what would become the land of Israel, there were other nations already living there, so God had to get them out of the way. He thought those nations were terribly wicked, so he drove them out and destroyed them. Except he didn’t get rid of them completely. He let some nations survive and continue to live in the land among the Israelites. Why did he decide to do that? The Bible gives four reasons, but they can’t all be true…

Continue reading Why did God leave some nations among Israel?
Share this post:

The Story of Judah and Tamar
Somebody Get Me Pregnant Already

Jacob’s son Judah had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. God killed Er because he thought he was wicked, so Judah told Onan to have children with Er’s widow, Tamar. But if Onan had children with Tamar, they wouldn’t be considered Onan’s children for some reason. So he refused to do it. God thought it was wicked to not impregnate your brother’s wife, so he killed Onan too. Tamar wanted to have children, but Judah wouldn’t let her marry his last son, Shelah.

Continue reading The Story of Judah and Tamar
Somebody Get Me Pregnant Already
Share this post:

Should we follow God’s example?

The Bible says we should follow God’s example. That makes sense, because God is perfect, and everything he does is right. God is love, and we should walk in the way of love. We should be holy as God is holy, and perfect as he is perfect. We should speak the way God would speak. We should think like Jesus and follow his ways.

Paul taught his followers to transform themselves and become like God, because God wants his people to become like him. Paul followed Jesus’s example, and we should follow Paul’s example, so that we end up following Jesus’s example too.

How can we follow God’s example, though? I mean, if we can’t see God, how can we know what kinds of things he does, so that we can do the same? We can find out what God does by reading stories about God in the Bible. That includes stories about Jesus, since according to the Bible, Jesus is God.

So, here are some things we should do in order to follow God’s example, according to the stories about God in the Bible:

…Wait a minute. Those are all things the Bible says we shouldn’t do!

Continue reading Should we follow God’s example?
Share this post:

The Story of Dinah and Shechem
Somebody's in Canaan with Dinah

Jacob ran away from his angry brother, and married his cousins Rachel and Leah and their servants Bilhah and Zilpah. They had twelve sons and a daughter named Dinah.

Shechem, the son of a ruler in the nearby city of Shechem, raped Dinah. When Dinah’s brothers heard about that, they were furious, because Shechem had sex with Jacob’s daughter. Nobody should have sex with Jacob’s daughter!

Continue reading The Story of Dinah and Shechem
Somebody's in Canaan with Dinah
Share this post: