Should we take the Bible literally? Well, that depends on what “literally” literally means. Do we mean that God—who is our rock—is literally an actual rock? Or that Yeshua—who is the door—is literally an actual door? Or by “literally” do we mean we believe that God literally created the universe in six days, that Moses literally received the stone tablets from God, and that Yeshua literally died, was buried, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, actually saving us from death, and providing a real way to live with Him forever? To take the Bible literally means that we accept what it says as factual and true—that even the most unbelievable things it says are trustworthy and real.
But this doesn’t mean that even though most of Scripture has a plain sense and face value understanding, it was written exclusively in non-figurative language. On the contrary, the message of God’s perfect word has been conveyed to us through the creative literary forms of man. And so that we aren’t confused or mistaken about what we read, we need to be aware of the types of literature and figures of speech that make up the Bible.
There are four basic literary biblical genres. The first is historical narrative. This type recounts actual events in history, describing for us what took place, as in the Torah or the Gospels. We’re meant to take such narrative literally, read as divinely inspired historical documents.
Next is prophecy, which generally speaks about the future and relays God’s warnings, thoughts and feelings to Israel. While the prophets foretell very real events, their plain language at times depicts extraordinary and symbolic things. This results in a text that can be as mysterious as it is incomprehensible.
The third main biblical literary type is poetry, which describes the style of writing more than the content itself. Biblical poetry doesn’t much resemble the rhyme and meter we’re normally familiar with, but has forms all its own. It is used essentially as a creative means of communication. The poetic style, however, in no way indicates that what the author is saying is any less accurate or true.
And last are the personal letters of Yeshua’s followers, such as those written by Peter and Paul. These are actual correspondence between the authors and either an individual recipient or a specific group of believers. They are generally instructive, corrective and exhortative in nature, with a plain, straightforward writing style.
There does exist a certain amount of overlap within the individual books of the Bible, but generally speaking, each book can find a home in one of these four basic literary genres. Yet even though the biblical books can be categorized this way, they can each still contain a wide variety of figurative speech, which is anything but literal.
While something written literally means that what the text actually says is what the text actually means, figures of speech are meant to convey and communicate ideas in a non-literal way. These use illustrative concepts to represent concrete ideas, thereby making a different kind of impact on the reader. We see this, for example, when Yeshua says in Matthew 13:31, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed,” or in John 6:51 when He says, “I am the living bread.”
Some of the many figures of speech found in the Bible include similes, metaphors, analogies (also known as parables), hyperbole, personification, allusions, allegories, idioms, sarcasm, and even literary devices such as parallelism. Knowing how to recognize and differentiate between the various figures of speech found in the Bible is vital to helping us avoid misunderstanding and misinterpreting God’s word. The failure to recognize the difference between literal and figurative can leave us disbelieving the truth, and believing in the imagined.
So should we take the Bible literally as factual and true? Of course we should. But never forgetting that some of that truth has been conveyed to us in the most creative, figurative, and non-literal of ways.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!