Literal guidance

Letter to the editor

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2003

Sarah Wolf's recent letter questions taking the Bible literally. It quotes an e-mail retort to Dr. Laura's citing of Leviticus 18:22 as authoritative. The e-mail mockingly asks for advice in following other biblical passages from Exodus and Leviticus in several contrived situations.

The starting point for an answer is the questioner's heart. Try contrition instead of contriving. "Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked." (Galatians 6:7)

For the benefit of readers who sincerely would like to know how to resolve the apparent Scriptural anomalies, I recommend the relatively short book "Making Sense of the Old Testament" by Tremper Longman III (1998, Baker Books, 154 pages). Longman lists nine general principles for successful interpretation of Scripture:

1. Discover the author's intended meaning.

2. Read Scripture in its context.

3. Identify the genre of the book and passage.

4. Consider the historical and cultural background of the Bible.

5. Consider the grammar and structure within the passage.

6. Interpret experience in the light of Scripture, not Scripture in the light of experience.

7. Always seek the full counsel of Scripture.

8. Discover how the Scripture passage presents Jesus Christ.

9. Be open-minded and tolerant of other interpretations.

Taking the first passage cited (Leviticus 1:9) on burning a bull on the alter as a sacrifice, a series of qualifying questions to the hypothetical scenario might go something like this: Who is the biblical author and who was his message originally intended for? What was their immediate and surrounding culture? What is the purpose for the sacrifice mentioned in this passage? Who is authorized to perform the sacrifice? Do you have any right to presume you can do this yourself? Is true humility required? Is the "pleasing odor" the smell of burning meat, or does it symbolize a certain posture in the heart of the one offering the sacrifice? Is there any requirement to sacrifice animals in our day, or has the requirement been met for all time by another, more perfect sacrifice? (Hint: Read Hebrews 9-11).

The other verses listed in the e-mail can be similarly addressed. Taking these verses literally doesn't mean reading them with blinders on. Like any learning, it takes a disciplined approach to study. People who can ask cynical questions can probably ask intelligent ones, too. But that's up to them.

Eric Taylor


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