The last few posts have dealt with “difficulties” in the Old Testament. As I was talking about some of my questions with a man who is part of an Orthodox tradition (or, one as close as possible where he lives), he mentioned how the Orthodox read OT passages like 1 Kings 18 (and others). What he described intrigued me. Here is what he said.
There are essentially three ways of reading the Bible. First, you have the literal way of reading Scripture that is principally concerned with whether or not any event historically happened. In this way of reading Scripture, authenticity means everything. Second, there is the moral way of reading Scripture. This method seeks to find the moral reality being taught in every passage. Finally, there is the spiritual way of reading Scripture. This method put far less significance on historical reality than the literal method, and less emphasis on a purely moral reading. Spiritualizing the text meant finding what the passage said about God, his world and his work in the world. He described these three ways of reading Scripture as an incline with the literal way of reading Scripture as the lowest form of reading Scripture and the spiritual reading as the highest way of reading Scripture. If after all that it is unclear what he said, let me apply these methods to 1 Kings 18.
The literal way of reading 1 Kings 18 ends with a difficulty. Elijah kills all the four hundred prophets of Baal. The literal way of reading makes much of historical details, and treats them as if they are gospel truth. While I believe historical accuracy should absolutely be sought, this method over emphasizes whether or not every detail literally happened. However, the highest way of reading Scripture sees 1 Kings 18 ultimately not about Elijah and the prophets of Baal, but about the Lord God’s supremacy over against any world system that seeks to challenge his authority. So, instead of 1 Kings 18 speaking about four hundred specific false prophets the text actually speaks against any and every “prophet” who proclaims that any other god is god. 1 Kings 18, in this view, is here to tell us not primarily about an encounter on Mt. Carmel, but actually about how in every encounter with an opposing world system, one opposed to the truth of God, God always wins. His kingdom triumphs. His prophets are vindicated, and God’s enemies are finally brought to the truth in judgment.
Sounds odd, right? If we are honest, we struggle with such a view. Why? Our culture is obsessed with literal truth. Yet, the Bible dealt in bigger categories than pure, literal truth (for another helpful post on literal truth vs. “poemtruth”, Rob Bells, blog posts on “What is the Bible? http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/69818535098/what-is-the-bible-part-23-why-this-library-parta ; even if you disagree with him theologically, this particular post is quite helpful). Another example of a non-literal truth might be the book of Job. There have been theologians throughout church history who have wondered how historically accurate Job is. But, what if the literal historicity of Job is not the point of Job? What if the point of Job was to show the power and presence of God in the midst of suffering? What if Job was a story with the purpose of telling all those who suffer that God is with his people, and he cares immensely for them? Or, in another passage, what if the point of Genesis is not to tell how God physically fashion the heavens and earth in a matter of six literal days? What if Genesis 1 is not saying how the creation process started at 8am every day and continued working, sometimes straight through lunch until 5pm? What is Genesis is actually telling not the process of creation but the purpose of creation? Make sense?
The New Testament uses symbolic/spiritual language, too. How many of us read the parables and see the truth in those stories. Rarely do we decide the parables’ worth by whether or not they historically happened in real time and space. Or, when the Bible describes Jesus’ being tempted three times in the wilderness by Satan, are we to read that Jesus was tempted literally only three times? Or, do we understand “three” as a biblical means of talking about completeness? In other words, do we read about his temptation knowing Jesus was actually tempted three times, or that he was tempted fully (Heb. 4:15)?
Some of the challenges we encounter in Scripture might be handled with the Orthodox way of reading Scripture. After all, there is really one message of Scripture. God created all things for his glory, but his creatures, whom he gave and gives breath to, entered into rebellion against him. Because of this rebellion the kingdom of man was set up in opposition to the kingdom of God. Darkness fell over creation brought about by man’s fall. The Bible tells the story of how the kingdom of Light is expelling the darkness as the good news of Christ goes forth. To put in another way, the entire Bible is actually telling the “spiritual” reality behind what we perceive with our senses. Maybe the Orthodox way of reading Scripture is actually more faithful to reality, not as we see it, but reality as God sees it.