Friday, July 29, 2005

Then Israel sang this song (Biblical language)

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.


Anonymous said...

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Brucker said...

Feel free to link to me if you wish. I'd simply describe this blog the way I do in the top banner.

Check out the other blogs I link to, some of which are Christian blogs. Especially check out "running from elevators", my blog on philosophy and culture which has other links to other Christian and non-Christian blogs.

Na said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brucker said...

Unfortunately, the distinction between the styles can be vague, and there is a fair amount of difference of opinion. In addition to that, there is a lot of belief that passages can have both literal and figurative meaning. (One that I discuss in this blog is Genesis 22, in which Abraham offering up his son Isaac as a sacrifice is seen by Christians as a symbol of Christ's death on the cross.

One of the things that I know has been done by some scholars (although I'm admittedly sketchy on the details) is to analyze the grammar of passages that are clearly of one sort or another. I once read an article claiming that while some people think Genesis 1 is just a highly-symbolic poem, the grammar of the passage is similar to other clearly historic passages. For various reasons, this article left me with far too many unanswered questions, but it's interesting anyway, I guess.

One of the things I've heard said about interpreting odd things such as multi-headed monsters is that one should probably assume the passage is meant literally if it makes any sense at all to take it that way. In the book of Revelation, there's a seven-headed dragon that John sees in his vision; that's so beyond anything in our regular experience, that it pretty much makes sense to assume symbolism there. As it happens, a few chapters after the dragon shows up, an angel explains the meaning of the symbolism to John, so we know for certain that it was symbolic. On the other hand there's also a story of two prophets who are killed in Jerusalem, and people from all parts of the world see their dead bodies; people used to think that was a symbolic passage, but in modern times, we have satellite television and the Internet, meaning that an event in one part of the world could be seen everywhere.

Anyway, I think I've always tried to focus on explaining, wherever I happen to know it, what the mainstream Christian view of a passage is, what the mainstream Jewish view is, any alternate views that I think are interesting, and (if I have one that differs) my own view. If I can, I explain why a certain view is taken (unless it seems obvious to me, in which case if it's not to a reader, I hope they would ask about it) and what it implies for a modern reader of the Bible. Unlike some people, I don't tend to take the position that my view is the only reasonable view, as I do think these things are open to interpretation (obviously, since I'm interpreting them).

Last thing I'd like to say once again, because I do think it's very important, is that the Bible is not meant to be a science textbook, and those who choose to treat it as one are on very shaky ground. The evolution/creation debate in particular is at times a very ugly thing, and I think it shows not faith in those who wish to silence views that appear antithetical to what (they think) the Bible says, but rather doubt. Science is in the business of finding newer and better ways to understand the world around us, and if someone thinks the better our understanding of the world is, the less the Bible will seem credible, then that person obviously doesn't think much about the credibility of the Bible, don't you think?

Na said...

Sorry was just editing the last bit where I put the word "to' in by mistake, and wanted to change "and" to "but", to do that I had to delete and repost. Before deleting your post wasn't showing so I thought it would be okay. Will post again anyway, and have a look at the reply.

Is the four styles (and which bits are which) generally agreed upon? How and who was it decided that the multi-headed monster was a metaphor, and what sort of percent of Christians accept the "real" interpretation you are going to give us? What makes one interpretation better than another given the right favourable allowance being made?
I think it's fair enough to accept that classifications may not be particularly spot on in a book as old as the Bible, but I've really only come across this from a epidemiologist position relating to the plagues, where the plague of frogs were more likely to be toads
I suppose the skeptic might use it to show how out of step with modern understanding the bible is, trying to question the book's reliability in general when the word of an all knowing god should be timeless; or if they are just cataloging mistakes, then they might put it in as a technicality. But I think your point (at least to the extent you have represented it here) is valid, but it is far from the biggest concern

Na said...

Again thanks for the response, I am only going to add something about the last paragraph. I think that creationists are doing the same thing with truth as some do with morality (as I have talked about on your last post). Like the "goodness" of god is accepted by some without question, and all morality stems from how close or far away from that "goodness" someone is. I think the creationists start by accepting the literal reading of the Bible as fact, and all truth stems from how close or far away it is from that reading of the Bible. The role of science for a creationist is to figure out how reality, as we get a deeper understanding of it, fits with what they "know to be the truth".

Brucker said...

I'm afraid you're quite right about that. As I was trying to say up above, it's a lot like lying to cover up perceived holes in your world-view. if you're doing that, then it shows a clear lack of confidence in that world-view, at least in my opinion. (This would be a good place to say that I really appreciate your questions and observations, as they've made me have to think about this stuff in a far deeper manner than I have in some time.)

I have some issues with science as well, though. The thing is that I think it's just a part of human nature to want to call the things you believe in "truth" and ignore theories and evidence that go against them. Long version here.

Na said...

I'm pleased your enjoying it, me too :)

I have responded to your science page.