Literal History Versus Objective History

I did not watch the debate between Ken Hamm and Bill Nye. At this point, I have witnessed or listened to a dozen debates between these two sides and they all come out the same. Both sides claim victory, everyone that paid attention only sees what they want to see, and those of us that don’t fit neatly into one of two extremes get left out of the conversation.

At some point, I need to write my blog post about why the Bible does not confirm nor deny the possibility of evolution if you read what it says literally and don’t add anything to it. But that will have to wait for another day.

The debate has made me very uncomfortable identifying as one that reads the Bible literally, because as I have examined before, you have to add a lot to the Bible to come to a young earth creationist (YEC) belief. To me, there has always been something… off… about those that describe themselves as Biblical literalists yet come to a YEC belief. They never seemed quite truly… literal… to me.

Reading an interview with William Dever, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona finally shed light on where my discomfort lies:

We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

There you have it – people that call themselves Biblical literalists are actually not that at all. When defining the word literal, the second most common definition is usually attributed to translations: “representing the exact words of the original text.”

The exact words of the original text of Genesis or any other section of the Hebrew parts of the Bible were never meant to be objective history, since that concept did not exist in the minds of the people writing them. “Biblical literalists” are actually “objective historians,” seeking to pull a concept out of a text that was not written that way in a culture that didn’t understand that idea. Denver continues by saying:

The Bible is didactic literature; it wants to teach, not just to describe. We try to make the Bible something it is not, and that’s doing an injustice to the biblical writers. They were good historians, and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that.

Reading the Bible literally would mean representing the words in the Bible exactly as they were written, and they were written to tell a story. So it really doesn’t matter if Genesis is proto-poetry or historical narrative. Either style would have been used to tell a story, not record exact historically objective events. Modern minds are interested in objective histories; ancient minds were not.

The great Achilles Heel of old earth creationists is that even when reading Genesis as proto-poetry, that still doesn’t nullify the term “yom” used for day. Proto-poetry could have still been used to describe a real 7-day creation week. The Achilles Heel of young earth creationism is that the creation order is full of logical holes and contradictions from an objective history standpoint. Some YE Creationists attempt to fill those holes with concepts about Gap theories and two floods and two separate creation of man – all of which require one to add a massive amount of thought to the Bible that is not there to make it all work. Didactic literature means that neither side really matters in the “Big Picture.” Genesis is true and literal and poetic and it did happen but the details were left out because they didn’t matter to the story.

While we are at it, can we just acknowledge that there is no way ancient man would have understood a 14 billion year old universe… or even what a universe was for that matter. So at best you can prove that God simplified the creation story so that ancient man would understand it. Kind of in the same way we simplify and cut down all kinds of facts to help our children understand them as they grow and mature. This idea would have been fine in Hebrew thought.

metamodern-faith-avatarBut to say that the Earth has to be 6000 or 10,000 years old because Genesis says so, when there was no option at all for God to even explain the concept of a big bang 14 billion years ago? Come one – its not even fair to make such absolute claims like that. That’s kind of like saying no one in the world was having sex the first years of your life, based solely on the “proof” that you had no idea what it was, and therefore it must not have happened anywhere at all.

Representative Metaliteralism

One of the more well-known debates in the Church is the infamous “creationism vs. evolution” debate. I know that many people see this as a debate between Science and Religion, but the Truth is many Christians believe in Science and many Scientists have some kind of religious belief in a higher power. So the debate usually falls between those that feel that all words in the Bible should be translated literally and those that feel that certain passages were written metaphorically and not historically.

There are two issues here that cause problems for both sides. The first is that not all parts of the Bible are meant to be read literally as there are parts that are poetry and metaphor. Most people agree with that, but you still have to bring it up when people swing too much onto the literal side. The other is that even if a something is a metaphor, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be historical or real. As the scholar Jerry L. Walls once wrote: “a metaphor communicates because the reality it depicts is similar to the image that is used.” So the conundrum is that Genesis 1-3 are not historical chapters just because they are presenting events in a historical fashion (metaphor can also do that), but if they are metaphorical poetry that doesn’t mean that the Earth wasn’t created in seven days (since metaphors can still rely on historical facts).

But beyond this we are still faced with one larger issue in how to look at the Old Testament – the presentational style of the story (whether fiction or non-fiction) does not change radically from Genesis up through Acts (which skips for wisdom literature like proverbs and some of the writings of the Prophets that detailed Gods prophecies of the future and not chronicles of the past). In other words, if Genesis was not historical then where does the history start? Some also write off Moses, Judges, David, and a few of the Israelite kings as metaphorical, also. Some don’t even stop there and write off the whole Bible as complete morality tales based on fictional characters. We run into a problem that there is not a clear line where metaphor ends and history begins if we start grouping such large parts of the Bible in the metaphor category.

So am I trying to make a case for a literal interpretation of every line of the Bible? Not really. I believe there are many metaphors in the Bible. I also believe that most of them have fairly clear beginning and ending points. Some don’t, of course. But as I have stated, using a metaphor or poem does not necessarily mean that the events described did not occur. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.

So I started searching for some kind of position that matches what I believe – that takes into account the possibility of metaphor and historical accounts both being in the Bible, and both often in the same passage. I came across the term “metaliteral” at Urban Dictionary: “when a statement is both metaphorical and literal at the same time.” I know that urban dictionary is not exactly the pinnacle of scholarship, but that just shows the concept of mixing metaphor and reality is out there.

But to be honest, my problem in the whole debate is with the literalist side taking a weird angle on the idea of literalism. I came across these two parts of the overall definition of “literal”:

  • (of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text.
  • free from exaggeration or distortion.

And right there is probably my problem with the literal creationist side of the debate: they have to add many things to the Bible to support their literal 7 day creation narrative. I have previously looked at how reading the Bible literally does not lead to a 7 day creation week unless you add ideas into the text that are not there. Other famous examples of this issue are things like Gap Creationism or the problem of dealing with Adam & Eve’s children marrying other people that were already there (I’ll look at these in the future). Ideas like this involve adding exaggeration or distortion to the story. It also doesn’t always represent the exact words of the original text. One could also argue that saying something is literal when it was written as metaphor does not “represent” the exact words, it “modifies” them into a different genre.

So all of this leaves me in a bind when it comes to how I view the scriptures, caught somewhere between literal and metaphorical. I couldn’t find a view that matched mine, so I just came up with my own term. Since my desire was to faithfully represent what the scriptures are meant to be, even if they could be both literal or metaphorical or either one, I just went for “representative metaliteralism.”

I know – I use a lot of “meta” around here. I need to stop that – its pretty cheesy. But at least the “meta” in metamodernism and metaliteralism mean different things 🙂

metamodern-faith-avatarI will keep going through various parts of the Bible to explain how I look at things from this “representative metaliteralist” position. I already started with “When Literal is Not Literal Enough: The Genesis of a Creation Myth.” I will continue on looking at other issues through out the Bible where I don’t feel like either the literal or metaphorical interpretation really fits fully.

Click here to see a list of posts in the category “Representative Metaliteralism

When Literal is Not Literal Enough: The Genesis of a Creation Myth

Genesis: literal history or creation myth? To be honest, the more I dig into this question, the weirder it gets, and the more confusing my own answers become. Do I believe that Genesis is to be read literally? Yes. So does that mean I believe that the Earth is only 5,700-10,000 years old? No.

I know, I know… Most people usually answer either yes or no to both of those questions. But they never mix their responses. Confused yet? It will probably only get worse from here on out. You have been warned.

I think I should throw in here that this is no mere hobby for me, either. I am certified to teach both Geology and Art in Texas public schools. I took every Geology course that a Geology major would take in college, went on all the field trips, read all the Darwin books, you name it. So I don’t come at this issue as a Science skeptic. Or a Bible skeptic for that matter (that was an earlier stage of my life). I come at this issue as one that has embraced both, putting me in a rather small minority of a rather small minority.

Never Be Afraid To Be In The Minority

First of all, I have to say that one of my pet peeves in this whole debate are people that have to exaggerate the opinions of critics, scientists, and experts to seemingly lend more weight to their beliefs. This is usually evident when the word “overwhelmingly” is added to any statement. When this word is actually true – like the research that has found that 99.6% of all relevant scientists believe that the Earth is older than 6000 years – then I am fine with people using it. But when people also say that an “overwhelming majority” of Biblical scholars believe that the first few chapters of Genesis are poetic myth… that is not the case. The scholarly field is still very split on this issue.

If you go against the majority belief on something… there is nothing wrong with that. There are still some scientists that believe the universe has no age (it has always existed and was never “created”). You are entitled to choose what you believe – don’t make up statistics to manipulate others into believing that you actually have this huge team of experts on your side. Just graciously explain why you differ and move on.

Young Earth Creationists typically have this gracious explanation thing down, because they are used to being in the minority (yes, I know – some don’t always do it graciously, but most do). Its the evolutionary creationists that I find who need to understand this one more. Any scientist that uses the word “clear” or “overwhelming majority” too much in anything they write is probably not a good resource to listen to.

Dealing With Problems

Let’s face it – there are problems with Genesis no matter how you slice it. Many people are familiar with the Hebrew word yom, which is translated in English as ‘day.’ I read once that the debate over whether yom is supposed to be a literal day or a long span of time has been raging since before the time of Jesus. So we have to recognize that even those who knew the language of the Bible weren’t sure exactly what God was talking about. Or maybe not… we’ll look at that in a little bit.

What I have found, though, is that the idea of Genesis being poetic in nature is a fairly new idea. As far as I can tell, it can be traced back to 1924 and a man named Arie Noordtzij. Many proponents of the “Genesis as poetic myth” idea have admitted that they believe the idea just because they are tired of everyone taking Genesis literally. Some scholars have found some interesting evidence on this front – but a new idea is a new idea.

Recently Rob Bell and others claim that a “majority of theologians” think that Genesis is poetry. Is this really true? Not really. According to James Barr, a well known Hebrew scholar, almost every expert at every “world-class” university believes that Genesis is historical narrative. Barr is unique in that he doesn’t believe the Bible to be true – so he would benefit most from Genesis being poetry. But he apparently still sticks with what he thinks to be true on this statistic. I am inclined to believe him.

To me, the points made by the Genesis as poetry experts are good, but usually speculative and brief. The Genesis as historical narrative side makes a much better, detailed, and exact case. I can’t find a reason to disagree with them, so I go with the “Genesis being historical narrative” camp. But in my reading of Genesis, most of the “literal” interpretations of Genesis are not literal enough. They still have to add some things into the scriptures that just aren’t there. Because, let’s be honest here: there is not a lot “there” period. Whether you believe the Earth is 5000 or 4.6 billion years old, it is all crammed into one book or so of the Bible. That is a lot of summarizing… even at 5000 years you still have to speculate a lot to come up with a comprehensive history of the Earth from so brief an account.

All of this is to say, I believe that Genesis should be read literally, but that reading it literally should not lead one to a Young Earth Creationist view. What do most Young Earth Creationists miss? Well, it all comes back to that pesky word yom.

Pull Out Your VHS Recorders

In all instances of usage, day is a relative term. It tells about the passage of time that we notice relative to where we are. A day on Earth is 24 of our hours. But a day on Jupiter is 9.8 Earth hours. A day on Venus is 243 Earth days. When you are talking about the universe, “day” is technically a literal term… but it still means different lengths of time depending on where you are in the universe and who is the central character from your point of view.

The ancient Hebrews might not have been scientific, but they weren’t stupid. They knew that humans measure days based on the rising and setting of the sun – two objects not created until the fourth “day” of creation. So anyone listening to the Genesis story (since it was probably passed down orally before it was written down) would have known that the “days” mentioned in Genesis were not human days. But they would probably think of them as literal, so what else could they be? Well, there is only one other character in the Genesis account, and He just also happens to be the central character. So these “days” that are referred to are days in relation to God and his time frame, not ours.

Why didn’t they use different word for day there? Well, the whole point of Genesis is to relate to human kind how they are connected to God. So they probably just used words they already had as much connection as possible. You see this in many other places in the Bible, where God or a prophet or someone else uses words that already existed and “re-purposes” them for the sake of the message. Besides, why make up a word when people needed to know that God created everything, not the exact amount of time that it took?

I know many scholars have made detailed cases for why the word yom is supposed to mean 24 hours. Many of those are very intelligent, but also very speculative. This is where I disagree with the literal young Earth viewpoint. Nothing in the original language suggests what kind of day was referred to by yom. It is just rather generic… and hence all of the debate through the centuries.

So the questions remains… how old is the earth? Did it take 6 days to create or 4.6 billion. The answer is… yes. To both. What? Think of it this way.

Do you remember recording TV shows on VHS tapes? Taping a show was pretty easy, but sometimes there would be an all day or night event on New Years or Labor Day that you wanted to see just one part of – maybe, say, your favorite band was performing a song or something like that. You couldn’t stay there waiting to see when they would play, so you would pop in the VHS tape, hit record, and head out the door. When you came back, there would be 6 hours of video for you to dig through. And your favorite band usually played somewhere near the end. So, you would hit play and then fast forward, watching 10 minutes of people skipping around on hyper-speed until your favorite band appeared. The same six hours of time passed by to the people on the tape, but you sped through most of it in 10 minutes to get to the end.

When some people read “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years” in 2 Peter 3:8, they usually do some kind of substitutionary formula. One day = 1000 years, so creation could be 7000 years or so, making the earth close to 12,000-15,000 years old.

But what if this is not a literal exchange formula, but a way of saying that one day and a thousands years are the same thing to God? While the Earth is experiencing a huge amount of time, God is only going through one of His days. The earth is on fast forward in front of him, going through thousands and millions of years while He experiences one day – kind of like the way we experience fast-warding a VHS tape (or DV-R if you want to modernize this idea).

Why would I say millions of years when the scripture clearly says 1000? Well, we all know that numbers are symbolic in the Bible. Peter is probably not trying to give out a specific number, just a figurative statement that says that God lives on a different time scale than us, where a huge amount of time passes to us while one day passes by to God. To Peter, a thousand years was a huge chunk of the known history of the universe, but to modern man that would be closer to hundreds of millions of years.

The important point to note here is that I don’t believe that God is literally “fast-forwarding” the universe. That is just a metaphor to help visualize how He is experiencing the universe on a different time scale. We all know that He created time and is therefore outside of time (as far as we know). But He also choose to have “days” of some kind from the very beginning.. so I think a combination of what we know of God from Scripture and what we know of the Universe from Science would come together to tell us that God experiences days on a different time scale than us.

Creation was six days to God, and 4 billion years to us. Both at the same time. I told you it gets weird.

We can’t deny the fact that so many things on this earth are very, very old. Millions of years old. Some people would say that God created them to have the appearance of age. I just don’t buy that God would deceive us like that. He is not the Deceiver, Satan is.

The next issue for concern is the fact that God would miss so much if He has the Universe on “fast forward” (so to say) to get to the good part (the creation of humans). If He was human, that would be true. But He is not, and His mind is so much more infinite than ours. I think this might be the meaning of the second part of 2 Peter 3:8: “a thousand years are like a day.” God’s mind is so much more infinite than ours, even if the Universe is on “fast forward” to Him, he can still examine the details of each human day as if He had a thousand human years. Ever wonder how He can number the hairs on everyone’s head? Maybe this scripture is telling us how God experiences time different than we do, but can also still have enough mental capacity to dig through every detail He wants.

Kind of gives you a new perspective on anything that mentions “the day of the Lord”, huh? Also makes me wonder – what “day” of the Lord are we on right now? 9? 10?

The other issue we have to be concerned with is how the Biblical order of what was created on which day does not match with the Scientific view of the order of how things came to be on the Earth. How can plants exist before the sun since they need the sun to live? Stars were created after plants, but Science says that many stars are older than the Earth? And fish and birds are created on the same day – before the day that reptiles were created on land – but Science says that fish evolved into reptiles that evolved into birds? Does this disprove the whole notion I have been discussing?

Well, if you make God out to be a man, enslaved to our linear concept of time, yes. But if you think a bit about how God created time and exists outside time, other possibilities open up.

I think of this in terms of comic book creation. When a team comes together to create a comic book, it is often created in many different orders. Basic images are sketched first, ink next, color next, words next, computer effects maybe added on top, etc. Specific scenes are focused on early to make sure they “look right”, even though they may come near the end of the story. To the characters in the story, everything happens in chronological order. To the creators of the story, different parts happen on different days. Now say it takes six days to create a comic book. If you tell the story of that comic from the view of the characters in the story, you have to go chronologically based on the story being told. If you tell the story of the creation of that comic from the creators perspective, you are going to tell it chronologically in the order that they created it. Both are true and accurate. But the order still comes out differently. We have to remember that the creation account in Genesis tells the story of creation, not of the created. To some degree, once we get to the part of getting kicked out of the garden, the story switches from a story of creation to a story about the created. But until the creation is finished, the account is of the creation and not of what was created.

Once we get out of the garden, things start to get hairy with this “fundamentalists / hyperliteralists are not literal enough” idea of mine. Did people really live for hundreds of years? Where did all of these other people mentioned in Genesis 4 come from? Did any of the people in the Bible really exist, or were some of them symbolic? I have answers for all of that, but my head is full just typing all of this…. so that will all have to wait until I get inspired on this topic again.

metamodern-faith-avatarBut the main point is that the hyperliteralists are not really that literal at all, and actually take a very liberal view of the scriptures by adding in ideas and concepts that are not contained in the pages of the Bible. But to be fair, what I have really unfurled here is a way to look at the creation account as figurative metaphor that is also historical narrative. Looking at God as a comic book creator who can simultaneously watch things in fast forward and slow motion on the worlds largest VHS machine is, of course, a figurative and metaphorical view at its core. But the idea is that metaphor and history don’t have to be at war with each other.