Monday, December 08, 2008

Literal poetry taken literally

(Here's my response to the claim that "The Genesis account is written as poetry, and should not be taken literally.")

Just thought of this, and thought I'd share...

Just because something is written as a poem doesn't mean it's not literally true.  When something is written in verse (as poetry), it can be literal or metaphorical.  When Psalm 139:23 says "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts," I don't have to wonder whether this is simply a beautiful, poetical but only metaphorical phrase.  When David wrote it, he literally wanted God to test him and his thoughts.  If I wrote a poem to my mom on Mother's Day and worked the phrase "I love you" into it, she would be right if she understood it literally.  She wouldn't need me to write out my meaning in prose to be sure that I really meant what I'd said.

It's amazing how much of Scripture is written in verse, and how much of that verse describes historical events.  For example, Miriam and Moses composed a song about the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.  What they wrote was historically accurate, but it lends rhythm,  expression, and dramatic emphasis into what they are singing about.  Even the Book of Numbers, which I associate with bookkeepers (not poets), in the midst of a straightforward accounting of facts and figures, indulges in poetry about historical events now and then (e.g. Numbers 21:27-30).  In the books of prophecy, God's spokesmen often denounce a country through verse.  When Isaiah delivers the message (in verse) that "...the Lord's anger burns against His people; His hand is raised and He strikes them down..." (Isaiah 5:25) the Israelites might have preferred to interpret the words metaphorically, but God meant them literally and carried them out literally.

Similes and metaphors can be used in prose or in verse.  (For example, when Jesus talks about being a gate (John 10:9) or being bread (John 6:51), He's speaking in prose, not verse).  When we're reading the Bible, we've got to keep our wits about us and pray to the Holy Spirit for insight into whether the meaning of a given passage is literal or metaphorical.  And if there's a debate about whether or not a particular passage should be understood metaphorically, it's important to understand the presuppositions, motivation, and reasoning of the differing parties.

When it comes to Genesis, the fact that the creation account was written in verse does not automatically mean that everything in it is metaphorical.  That might be an attractive possibility, but it's not a foregone conclusion.  Two Christians going through the Genesis account might not end up agreeing on which portions are literal and which are metaphorical.  But they jolly well should know WHY they're marking each passage as one or the other! 

Here's one question that helped me put this issue in perspective: Was there pressure to interpret the creation account metaphorically before the theory of evolution became popular?  If the answer is no, then I am led to believe that men are bringing a presupposition ("evolution happened") to Scripture, and attempting to force-fit Scripture's account into the evolutionary model.

Obviously, I don't believe that the creation account should only be thought of as a nicely written allegory.  I like to think about possible reasons why God might have written the creation account in verse instead of prose.  For one thing, the parallelism of the account heightens my awareness of the symmetry of God's actions during the creation week.  Each day has the contrast of sameness and variety.  While each day begins and ends with the same phrases ("And God said, "Let..." to "And there was evening, and there was morning -- the ____ day."), each day brought its own new and glorious innovation.  The crescendo of each day of creation is beautifully communicated through the medium of verse, and I begin to see God as the model of craftsmanship and intricate design.  Not only does he craft a universe from nothing, but He creates it and describes it to us in a symmetrical, rhythmic, purposeful way.

Another reason I'm interested in this is because of a conversation I had with a United? Methodist pastor in town.  We weren't talking about creation vs. evolution.  We were talking about homosexuality, and God's view of it.  I asked her what she thought of God's choice to create a man and a woman as the first people.  And she calmly stated that the account in Genesis is a story (she might have used the word "allegory" or "myth," but I don't remember).  It didn't really happen, but God can use that account to teach us some things.  It's definitely not a referendum on God's preference for people's pairing up.

I was amazed by her dismissive attitude, and today it makes me think how much "easier" my life would be if I could simply dismiss the passages that I disagree with or don't yet understand.  If I dismiss a certain interpretation of a passage (for example, if I dismiss one Mormon's view that the "other sheep" mentioned in John 10:16 refers to Mormons and not Gentiles generally), I've got to know WHY I'm dismissing it.  Am I trying to justify an assumption that I had before I even looked into the Scriptures?  Or am I letting the Holy Spirit guide me into all truth?

.Tension between possible interpretations of Scripture and the latest experimental theory can be a rich source of inquiry and discovery.  It's selling God short to artifically limit the areas we allow Him to speak to through Scripture. 

Have an awesome Monday!

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

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