Okay, one last post about context before I really start with specifics. Or at least I hope I'm done; I'll give myself the weekend to ponder the matter.
There are two things to keep in mind about the Bible as you're reading it.
First of all, you have to take each piece of the Bible as it was intended to be read. The Bible is full of different styles of writing, and each style has different purposes. The majority of the Bible is in four styles: historic, epistle, prophecy, and poem. There are others, I think, but this is what I remember off the top of my head. Type one is most of the Old Testament through the book of Esther, and the New Testament Gospels and Acts. Type two is the rest of the NT excluding most of the book of Revelation, and bit of the OT here and there. Type three is most of the OT after Song of Solomon, and the bulk of the Book of Revelation. The last type is scattered about here and there, but most of the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon.
Why are these so important to understand? Well, in particular, the last two types largely use symbolic language, and are far less likely to be intended for taking literally. Poems will use a lot of flowery imagery that one is not intended to take literally at all, while prophecy is often filled with bizarre images and personifications of nations and social concepts. When Daniel is seeing multiple-headed beasts rise out of the sea to spew filth from their mouths and cast nations into the bottomless pit or whatever, you're not meant to assume there is a literal interpretation of this probably 99% of the time. It's pictures of concepts with its own coded language that unfortunately isn't always easy to understand. In a poem, if the LORD holds the world in the palm of His hand, we need to know that God doesn't have a real hand, nor is anyone really holding the world; it's also a symbol, but usually one easier to understand, and not so deep in symbolism. I may get back to this subject in a later post, most likely when I get to passages of these types.
Secondly, despite what a few odd people seem to believe, the Bible is not a science textbook. One of the most well-known examples of this is Leviticus 11:13-19. Aha! the skeptic thinks, a bat is not a bird! Actually, it is, and this is why. I'll make mention of it when I go through Genesis 1, but in the system of classifying animals in the Bible, there are just a handful of catgories. If it swims, it's a "fish", regardless of whether it has gills, scales, flippers, etc. If it walks on land, it's either a "beast" or a "creature that creepeth," whatever that's supposed to mean. And of course, if it flies, it's a "bird".
While many of us are likely to scoff at this system of classification, one only need look at our own culture to see that we do the same thing. The most prominent place we do it is in nutrition. When we talk about foods, we classify them in a completely different way than zoologists and botanists do. Tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, peppers, and a number of other food items are fruit, but we don't call them fruit, because we think of fruit as a nutritional classification. I've actually seen diets that classify Coca-cola as a fruit, believe it or not! More specific to the sort of classification listed above, though, is the fact that we have things like "jellyfish" that are called by the name "-fish", but aren't truly fish in the technical sense. Generally, these and other things of a scientific nature are rather arbitrary and determined by culture, so we have to look at the information through the cultural lens of an ancient Hebrew.
Now, to leave a parting thought to contradict these two items in an odd way, I think it's interesting that the closest the Bible comes to being scientific is in the writings of Solomon, which happen to be among the most poetic of the whole book. Go figure. I'm sure I'll end up talking about that if I get to it eventually.