Whatever you do, do not take everything the Bible says as literal truth and/or direction. Don't get me wrong, the Bible is a beautiful, complex, brilliantly-composed collection of profound scripture. It is the very breath of God (2 Tim 3:16). It holds the keys to living a full, meaningful life, but that is not what you will get if you read every word as if it should be literally applied to your life.
Let me explain. There are clearly passages in the Bible that make no sense if taken literally like this vivid example from Revelation:
"But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth." (Rev. 12:16)
Dragons? Really? No. Of course not. It is talking about something deeper, it is using symbol and metaphor. The author obviously didn't intend for us to take it literally. But, what about the passages that WERE intended to be taken literally, but don't seem to work now? Leviticus is full of them:
“‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord.’” (Lv 19:27-28)
Likewise, Deuteronomy has some excellent advice on parenting teens:
"If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, 19 his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death." (Dt 28:18-21a)
Those were definitely meant to be taken literally by the author but would devastate the Schick company and land just about every american parent of a teen in prison.
That's not even mentioning the whole books that confuse even the most brilliant scholar as to how to interpret. Take, for example, this insight from Ecclesiastes:
"A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything. " (Ecc 10:19)
What makes that verse even harder is that the whole book of Ecclesiastes is like that. It claims to be insight from a sagely king, but puts forth very strange advice... What do you do with that?
The first step is letting go of the guilt you may feel when you realize you cannot take a passage as literal. After that, there are some simple questions:
- Did the author intend it to be taken literally? If so, it may be an indication that you are to follow their wishes as long as you think through question 2.
- Are you the intended audience? Some of those are: Jews, Believers in Jesus, religious leaders, and the whole world. If you were not the intended audience, then it is likely that you will have to take the words somewhat figuratively to allow them to speak into your life.
- Is it part of a diet and purity code? If you are not Jewish, then these laws should not be taken literally, but still can offer insight into your life if you spend time thinking of how they can speak to your situation in more broad ways.
- Is it universally true, or has it changed with culture? Some things were not aimed at you, but are true no matter where you go or who you are for example, “You shall not murder” Ex 20:13. Other things have changed over time with culture like the way we understand slavery.
- Has it changed as a result of clearer discernment or a drfit from God? This is subjective and must be discerned in community with other believers who have different perspectives from you, but it is how you answer the literal/figurative question when things change over time in relation to culture.
In a very un-me style, I made a little decision tree to help bring these questions into a visual form. If you would like to check it out, you can click here to see the pdf. If you'd like to see a teaching on this, it is live right now on the "Questioning God" series page .