The Bible – for some it’s a book full of fairy tales, for others it’s a book full of history. Some find moral ideas, others eternal truths. Some built their whole life on its content, others have no idea what all of it even means. Some say it’s the Word of God and for others it’s a piece of world literature at best.
There are a lot of facts about the Bible, but that doesn’t help in figuring out how to understand it. Even Christians have different opinions in this, even if most say it really is the Word of God. But if someone believes that there is a living God behind this book, then it’s important to understand how to deal with its content. Christians need to figure out how to deal with this foundation of their faith.
Do I need to take everything I read in the Bible literally?
Better question: Do you know anybody, who actually does that? There are many who want to take the Bible word for word, but I don’t know anyone who actually practices that. Furthermore: Which translation do I need to use then? And what is about other languages or the original version in Hebrew and Greek?
Taking the Bible literally means not only keeping the Ten Commandments, but also dealing with a lot of “difficult” issues. For example, Jesus taught his disciples to give the Caesar what is his and God what is God’s (Matthew 22:21). If this comes from Jesus himself and I want to take the Bible literally, then I have I problem: I’m a Caesar short! As much as I would like, I could not do this and as soon as I translate it into modern times with democracy and taxes, I stopped taking it word for word and started translating and interpreting the verse. And this is just one of many verses where this applies.
Conclusion: We cannot take the Bible literally as in “word by word”. It is a book translated in hundreds of languages and containing 66 books with stories, genealogies, songs, prophecies, speeches, analogies and more.
But if it’s impossible to take God’s Word literally, even more problems arise: What do I have to understand in which way? What is important for me today and what was only for the people of Israel at that time? Where is the line between “I believe in what it says” and “it didn’t happen this way, it’s only to make a point”? It’s complicated.
I don’t think that God meant for it to be complicated to confuse us, but to give us more opportunities, which would not be possible with a literal translation. Here are some:
Everybody reads and understands the Bible in a different way – and that’s great!
Different people see the same verse in a very different way. If you read texts about the same verse from different people, not one is like the other. In one verse people find varying aspects and bring their own background to the table. But this is not a weakness of the Bible, it’s a strength! We can discuss, share and show each other how much more there is to this book than we find in it.
The Bible is a living book.
Every living thing is constantly changing. Tomorrow you will be different than today, even if you won’t look completely different, your body will be a day “older”. The Bible is the same: it won’t change completely, but over time some things have to be seen in another light. Just because it says that slaves should listen to their masters gives us no right to have a slave of our own to command. It was meant for the time it was written, not for today.
Also, this vibrancy helps us to always discover more and have verses apply in certain situations.
The Bible is a personal book.
Most of the books in the Bible were written by one author only, so they include the view of that person. When Paul writes about Jesus and John describes the revelation, both take the pictures and descriptions they know, to get their point across. But the Bible is not only written by individuals but also meant for individuals. Every reader finds something else that is important for him or her. For some it is important that God is our father, because they’ve never had a loving father. For others, God’s grace is most important, because they need so much of it. Others feel unloved and the love of God speaks to their hearts the most.
Nothing is more important than the other, but different things appeal to different people.
The Bible contains truth which we will never fully comprehend.
There are only two possibilities: Something is true or it is not. That does not, however, mean that we always see the whole truth. That is why in court there are different witnesses seeing the same situation in different ways – they perceived it differently. The Bible describes truths about God, but we will never comprehend or understand it all, if we could, we would be god ourselves.
The Bible was “arranged” by God.
Just because the Bible wasn’t dictated word by word doesn’t mean God didn’t arrange for it to be written. – on the contrary. God gave the writers his Spirit, so they can see the truths about God and write it down for others to read. So people can see the right way and be encouraged to live a life after God’s will (see 2 Timothy 3:16).
The Bible is God’s Word – but in a different way than we think.
I found this quote by the German author Alfred Christlieb (1866-1934), translation by me:
It’s not God’s Word because the word God is used a lot and not because these words come from God’s mouth either. It’s God’s word because we can see God himself through these words, how he interacts with this world and with humanity. You can see into his heart and realize that it beats for us. And through his Word we can grasp him and have fellowship with him.
The Bible is not about who wrote it, when it was written or what the exact phrasing is. It wants to talk about a God who loves humanity and wants to have a relationship with each and every one of them. The Bible is not a manual to be followed step by step to get everything right and into heaven – it’s a love letter from God for humanity to show that he keeps his word and does everything to show his love, even if we can’t see or understand it.
Yes, it’s not always easy to understand the Bible, but that’s not the important part anyway. The most important thing is to get to know the God of the Bible, to experience and love him. That’s why it is best to read the Bible with your head and your heart and to talk about it with others.