We hear from both skeptics and biblical fundamentalists about taking the Bible literally. However, even those who claim to interpret the Bible literally often don’t, resulting in some ridiculous errors. Furthermore, those misinterpretations cause faith challenges for better educated young people because they realize that some things people ascribe to the Bible are not logically or scientifically possible.
To interpret the Bible literally, you must take the whole Bible and not cherry-pick individual passages to support what you already believe. It also means looking at the original language and asking how those to whom it was written would have understood it. Let’s take a modern example. What does the Spanish phrase “Juan tiene frio” mean? Translated literally, the words would mean “John has cold.” It could either mean John is cold or John has a cold – he is sick. How would you know what the writer intended?
Sometimes the wording looks like it is unrelated to what it actually means. For example, what does “Juan me cae bien gordo” mean? The words are “John me falls well fat.” So is this a comment about my waistline? My Spanish-speaking associates tell me it means “John really bugs me.” You would know that by understanding the culture and how those who speak the language would understand it.
This is also true of Hebrew and Greek. When the first chapter of Genesis lists the animals God created, the Hebrew words refer to creatures the readers knew. “Behemah” in verses 24 and 25 did not include dinosaurs, platypuses, giraffes, or elephants. People would have understood it to refer to the cattle the readers knew. “Remes” in the same verses would not have meant snakes and komodo dragons but rather the smaller examples of livestock like goats and sheep the readers knew. In Genesis 9:1-3, “remes” is included as an animal that God said would be food for the Israelites. We know that the Jews had food restrictions that would not have included snakes, worms, and komodos, so the meaning of “remes” is clear.
Those who attempt to include dinosaurs on Noah’s ark are not taking the Bible literally. When they do that, they provide fuel for those who say the Bible is a book of myths. We must understand what it means to interpret the Bible literally. We will deal with more on the dinosaurs tomorrow.
— John N. Clayton © 2022