Friends and I were talking over the weekend about someone we know who insists that the Bible is literal truth. A 2006 Rasmussen survey found that 54% of American voters believe this; this percentage is highest among evangelical Christians, lower among Catholics, and lowest -- of course -- among us Godless liberals in the Northeast.
A literal interpretation of the Bible is not only lazy but presumptuous. If God is a being all-present, all-knowing and all-powerful -- as the Catholic catechism says and as I, in fact, believe -- how could God's vast revelation possibly be distilled into a single set of documents, filtered and edited and translated again and again over centuries?
What this survey says to me is that most Americans haven't read the Bible. If they had, they might find themselves wondering about the literal truth of these verses, among others. (All quotations taken from The Jerusalem Bible, (c) 1966, 1967 & 1968 by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd. and Doubleday & Company, Inc.)
1. Exodus 21:7. "If a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not regain her liberty like male slaves. If she does not please her master who intended her for himself, he must let her be bought back: he has not the right to sell her to foreigners, thus treating her unfairly." So for future reference, fathers, you can rest easy knowing that only you have the right to sell your daughter. Go ahead and try it. The Bible says it's okay.
2. Leviticus 11:10-11. "But anything in sea or river that has not fins or scales, or all the small water-creatures and all the living things found there, must be held detestable. You must hold them detestable; you are not to eat their flesh and you must avoid their carcasses." Leviticus 11 is the basis for kosher food laws, and made a great deal of sense for a nomadic people living in a hot climate. Camels, hyraxes and pigs are unclean; locusts are quite all right. I often wonder why the fundamentalist Christians who insist on the literal truth of the Bible don't keep kosher, or follow the restrictions on cutting one's hair.
3. Deuteronomy 21:10-11. "When you go to war against your enemies and Yahweh your God delivers them into your power and you take prisoners, if you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and find her desirable, you may make her your wife." What's a small thing like the Geneva Convention against the literal word of God?
4. 1 Corinthians 8:12. "That is why, since food can be the occasion of my brother's downfall, I shall never eat meat again in case I am the cause of a brother's downfall." Paul is discussing the danger of eating meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol. I wonder what he'd have made of the Golden Arches. To be fair, some Christian sects (such as the Seventh Day Adventists) do espouse vegetarianism, but I don't think it's caught on among the Southern Baptists.
5. Luke 18:22. "And when Jesus heard this he said, 'There is still one thing you lack. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." This, as far as I'm concerned, is the tactical nuclear weapon against the self-righteous fundamentalist. Jesus says to his believers -- literally -- "Put your money where your mouth is." A few verses later he relents a little, because his followers point out that this is simply not possible for most people: "'In that case,' said the listeners, 'who can be saved?' 'Things that are impossible for men,' he replied, 'are possible for God.'"
And I guess that's my point here. The Bible is a book of marvels and great wisdom; in addition to some scary stuff about slaves and uncleanness and the role of women in a household, it is also full of powerful truths about the way we ought to treat each other in war and peace, responsible land use, childrearing, and a host of other issues. If you read the entire Bible, instead of cherry-picking the bits and pieces that support your own religion's point of view, you see a God we cannot hope to understand except, in Paul's words, "through a glass darkly." At best, the Bible is that glass, but the image is still pretty muddy.