Is All Scripture To Be Read Literally?

From time to time, I get the question of whether or not we should take the Bible "literally" and, if we don't take all verses absolutely literally, how do we discern. I want to give you an example of a verse that is very problematic if we interpret it "literally."

Deuteronomy 7:16
You shall eat all the peoples whom the Lord your God will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them, nor shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

Your version will probably obscure this text by translating the 3rd word in the translation as 'consume' or 'devour,' but the Hebrew word is אכל in the qal stem, which literally means "to eat." So, if we must understand the Bible literally, God is commanding that the Israelites must eat the Canaanites without pitying them! Is God demanding cannibalism?

Obviously the answer is a resounding no, but why? Because we understand the scope of Scripture and we know that YHWH is not a God that would demand cannibalism. Thus, this text cannot be taken literally. Obviously, אכל is employed as a figure of speech in this verse.

This verse is an obvious case, but there are many cases where figures of speech are employed that are not readily apparent to a non-native speaker. Without employing cultural studies, contextual studies, and Hebrew studies, a reader can easily jump to a wrong conclusion as to the meaning of a text and create a false doctrine. This is one of the reasons why Strong's Concordance is a potentially dangerous study tool if not used properly. Just consulting Strong's would have lead us to believe God was commanding cannibalism in Deut 7:16!

This is why it is important to understand and read the Scripture as a story, not as a collection of proof texts.

My hope is that this provides a good example to you to see that we must be cautious to proclaim a doctrine based on a literal reading of a verse, especially when that verse then conflicts with the rest of Scripture. For example, certain people use verses like "if you call on the name of YHWH, you will be saved" to proclaim that only those who properly pronounce the sacred name of God will receive salvation. This is proclaimed because "that's what the text literally says." Yet this doctrine flies in the face of the rest of Scripture where salvation is not about the words you say, but about whom you serve. This is because the idiom "call on the name" is not a reference to proper pronunciation, but is about placing yourself under the authority of God.

2 comments

  1. Ryan, Would “call on the name” also mean “crying out” to the name, or to YHVH in our time of trouble to save us?

    On the other, it would seem that simply understanding scripture in context of the rest of scripture would indicate that “eat” here does not mean literally consume their flesh. I was taught in the Baptist church that this is the first rule of interpretation.

    Thanks for sharing your insights with us! ck

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