Is it literally true?
Finally shaking off the shackles of slavery, over two million people set out from Egypt to form a new nation which would learn to worship their single God. That god led them every step of the way and wrote commandments for them to follow. They wandered in the desert until all the original sojourners had been replaced by a new generation. Their descendants would conquer the peoples who lived in Canaan and they would start a new nation there.
Sound familiar? Check out the Exodus story in the Bible. It’s all there, plus dozens of other details. Millions of people accept that story as an accurate description of historical events—albeit visually reinforced by movies such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
For nearly 3000 years that story has been used to portray God as a supernatural power who does what’s right for his people, interacts mainly with the leaders, causes untold hardships on those who disobey or resist him, and eventually leads them to a wonderful land. It’s a story with many incredible details, but it was accepted as literally true in both Jewish and Christian religions.
Then came the human studies of anthropology; the research of thousands of archeological digs; and the scholarly critical methods of studying literature. No one could come up with one shred of evidence of such a group of people living in Egypt, nor traversing a desert. Two million people sojourning for 40 years would definitely leave archeological evidence—as one author put it—of their hygiene issues in that very dry desert.
So, it’s just a metaphor?
On the other hand, that legend is rich with metaphorical truths. It’s about our living in our own bondage to pharaohs that enslave us. It says we can leave bad times and bad jobs behind and venture to where new opportunities might be flowing with milk and honey. It is a story of liberation and following the God of Oneness as our guide to a more fulfilling life—even if events along the way are not easy to accept.
Do you read that story as literally and historically true and does it cause you to trust in a supernatural god who was known thousands of years ago? Or, do you read that story as a metaphor (a myth in anthropological terms) that supports you in developing wholeness today?
That’s how they saw the world.
The Bible was written by people who believed in a three-tiered flat earth. Their God was their unique refinement of stories and descriptions circulating at that time. They collected and created stories in the style of their oral-tradition era that would explain to others what they experienced, and thought was important.
Just as our knowledge of the universe has dramatically changed, so have our ways of understanding the Bible. Until just a couple of hundred years ago, Bible interpretation was mainly based on plain reading, i.e., according to its literal meaning. From the creation story (calculated to have been no more than six thousand years ago), to Jesus’ virgin birth, to Revelation’s apocalyptic verses, each story and bit of history was considered factually true.
However, we have inquiring minds and many people have been questioning some of the basic tenets of Christianity for hundreds of years. Early people had no idea that those twinkling holes in the night dome were really gaseous balls of fire whose light had taken hundreds, thousands, or even a million years for the light to reach us. Yet, even before telescopes poked into the sky and people asked, “Do you see God up there?” they were asking about the nature of deities.
In the interest of brevity, allow me to skip (for now) the questioning spirit and scholarly research that has gifted us with new perceptions of biblical meanings. What is important is that new insights have given the Bible deeper and richer meanings—understandings that can lead to better human relations and development in modern times.
So, the problem is that one can’t just read a passage and say in a simplistic way: “The Bible says it, so I believe it.” We can’t just take old Sunday-School-facts and make them applicable to our complex adult life. In addition, I want to be clear that new ways of looking at the Bible do not necessarily make it easier to grasp. However, good interpretive reading is more than worth the effort.
Old concepts of what we read into the passages get in the way of better meanings. I guarantee that when certain passages are read, we initially process them according to our early Sunday School mentality. Here’s a parallel example. During the early years of the NASA space program, psychologists would pose a question to the astronauts: “What’s the moon made of?” Invariably, what popped into the head of every one of these smart, highly trained, individuals was Green cheese! Ridiculous, yes, even though a few moments later their higher brain functions would take over and explain the geological composition of the moon.
In a similar fashion, most people bring their traditional early learning to the Bible. They are nodding their heads at God’s judgmental decisions, or Isaiah’s uncanny predictions about a messiah coming in 500 years. They look for what they “have to believe” for Jesus to save them from their original and continuing sinfulness. Or, they may ask, will this reading help me get to heaven? Or, isn’t it nice that Paul wanted to start the Christian church? Yet, none of those concepts are honestly biblical.
We need to unlearn a lot of our previous concepts and rebuild deeper and more profound ways of understanding and applying what treasures these historical writers have given us. The benefits will be more fitting for the 21st century. Biblical truths are certainly universal but have been layered over by old dogma.
And let’s face it. Not all passages, stories, even books of the Bible, are equally relevant. Out of the thousands of stories, legends, and sentences in the Bible, if you rated their value to living an abundant life of wholeness, just a few passages carry the most impact. Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE – 10 CE) supposedly was asked to explain the Torah. He replied, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” Out of 66 books, some verses are key, others provide supporting commentary.
Is that all there is?
God did not stop revealing fundamental truths 2000 years ago. Over the centuries, many people have discovered and made equally important statements about a well-lived life. Their life experiences should be included in biblical study. While the Bible is certainly the primary collection of writings for Christians, there are other authors who can give great insights into how we can relate to our oneness in Ultimate Reality.
So, is that Exodus story literally true or does it only illustrate metaphorical truths? Richard Friedman, eminent Jewish biblical scholar, says it’s bits of both. In a recent book he makes a strong case for just one small tribe of Levites leaving Egypt and eventually becoming the priestly class of Israel. It’s not as dramatic as two million people following Moses and eating from the hand of God for four decades, but it’s realistic enough to give some credence to the Exodus legend.
A progressive’s Bible is neither literal nor just metaphorical. It contains kernels of events, great myths and legends, and fascinating explanations of how to live and love abundantly in Ultimate Reality.
Bonus page: To make a graphic comparison between two views of the Bible and how that has led to two views of God, I created a separate outline that you can see Here.
________________________________ July 13, 2018
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.