Whoopi Goldberg on “The View” recently stated that the Bible wasn’t meant to be taken literally. The specific issue was some verse in Isaiah. The implication was that Isaiah–the person who wrote Isaiah (let’s assume that was his name)–agrees with Whoopi Goldberg on stuff.
I’m sure that’s exactly what a Ancient Near Eastern Jew living 2,600 years ago was like. Sure. He was exactly like Whoopi Goldberg. Maybe they had the same last name, even.
“Isaiah Goldberg” would have made a great politically correct guest on “The View,” taking every opportunity to spank that evil Elizabeth.
Let’s script it out briefly.
GOLDBERG: And now, ladies and gentleman, here to interpret–non-literally and non-offesively–what he wrote 2,600 years ago–the Writer of Isaiah in the Bible–Isaiah!!!
[Cheers--Applause--Standing Ovation]. “He’s just like us! Non-offensive.”
I ‘ve been asked, “Do you take the Bible literally?”
I am starting to roll my eyes.
My response, more and more, is to ask the person to define “literal,” or “literally.”
I give them about 30 seconds before I start to yawn. They typically stare at me like a deer in headlights. I give them another 15 seconds before I start to walk away. (This is awkward in busses, boats, airplanes or on rollercoasters).
I don’t know what the word means in this context. And please, give me the benefit of the doubt here, I am not trying to be snotty.
“Literally” has multiple definitions. In fact, two of those definitions are the opposite meanings. The word is it’s own antonym, similar to other words like, “scan, peruse, really, cleave,” etc.
I am faced with a choice, given the multiple definitions of “literally.”
Should I take your question–”Should the Bible be interpreted literally”–literally?
Mull that one over a few times before responding.
If the answer is “yes,” I still have no clue what you mean. That is, until you clear it up for me with more words. But then, those other words and sentences I will have to interpret. Should I take those literally? Now, back to the beginning, How would you like me to interpret your question?
I think the authors of the Bible would like their writings to be interpreted the way that they intended, or at least what can be fairly and most reasonably inferred from what it seems like they intended.
And, if you wrote something, you would think and feel the same way. Whoopi Goldberg even feels that way, wanting us to take her statement about Isaiah “literally.”
That’s true about everyone who writes and speaks. It’s true about me. It’s true about everyone who has written me an email, or a postcard, or a letter.
It’s true for the writers and framers of the U.S. Constitution. Should we take the requirement that the President be 35 years of age or older literally? Or should we say that infants are eligible? If we say that infants are eligible–we could take that literally or not–and make it mean that an infant has to be 35 years old to be President.
Words and sentences mean something. They mean things. How to tell what they mean in certain contexts is the art and science of interpretation. This stuff is often tough, and has to be studied, thought about, cared for.
Lots of smart, dedicated, sincere people have already done the heavy lifting on this stuff. They write commentaries. You have to decide who the smartest is. You have to decide who wrote the best commentary on the passage in question. But that means that you have to dig in a little bit to some commentaries–which you have access to!–and snoop around. See what you can dig up. See what makes the most sense to you.
Here is a great resource–lot’s of well-balanced and careful thought went into making this list of commentaries that are the best for the books of the Bible as well as other interesting topics: List of Commentaries.
Don’t get me wrong. I am saying the exact opposite of what you think I am saying. Don’t take what I am saying literally. I’m saying do take what I am saying literally (remember, literally means opposite things).
Confused yet? How can you possibly understand a written text unless it means something? That’s my point.
What’s it mean? That takes work, especially for older stuff like the Constitution, or Plato, or the Bible, or Joan Didion.
Is it good to be literal? Is it bad? Is it inaccurate to be literal?
Some dictionaries list antonyms of “literal” as “fiction,” and synonyms as “truth.”
But like I said, and don’t take this literally. But do, please–”literally” is its own antonym.
I say, ditch the word “literally” for now. Just try it. You won’t lose a thing. Substitute “accurately.”
Now the question is, “Should the Bible be interpreted accurately?”
The answer is no.
But don’t take what I said literally.
Nice essay on the definition of “Literal” here.
image credit: latimes.com