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The Bible: Literal or Figurative?


April 2013 037

There’s a lot of debate among those who study the Bible as to whether we should interpret it literally or figuratively.  And there are a lot of different ways people interpret the Bible.

Nothing states this so poignantly to me than something Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint Church (commonly called “Mormons”), wrote.  In describing his struggle as a youth to learn which church was true, he wrote: “…the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”  (Joseph Smith History 1:12)

How to interpret the Bible is a tricky question.

Obviously, the Bible is not meant to be entirely literal or entirely figurative.  I can’t think of any book intended for adults that was entirely one or the other.  Even in casual conversation, we blend the literal and the figurative.  To think otherwise is to be a simpleton who shouldn’t discuss books intended for grown-ups.

Fortunately, I’ve never actually met someone who insisted that we take the Bible entirely literally.  This near-mythical Bible literalist, however, is someone that atheists like to take jabs at.  (Just google “stupid bible literalists.”  You’ll see.)

Many parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally.  When God gives a commandment, such as “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” and then lists in detail everyone who should not work on the Sabbath (which really is everyone), that really means we’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath!  (See Exodus 20:8-11)

The Bible describes many miracles, telling us that Jesus walked on water, calmed the storm, healed the sick, and rose from the dead.  Those things really happened, and are also meant to be taken literally.  To insist that those events are figurative is to deny Christs’ divinity.  (Of course, that might be what you’re trying to do, but if you believe in Christ as the Savior, then you must also believe He worked miracles and was resurrected.)

Likewise, it’s pretty obvious that some parts of the Bible were meant to be figurative.

For example, Jesus taught “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:5)  We can easily understand that this is a metaphor.  Jesus was not literally a vine, nor are we literally branches.  Jesus was trying to teach His disciples to rely upon Him rather than ourselves.
The Bible has a great many metaphors, analogies, and allegories.  None of these are meant to be taken literally; they are meant to teach us something.

There are also many parts of the Bible which common sense tells us must be figurative.  For example, when God created the Earth, each creative period is called a “day,” yet the sun and the moon, which largely define our concept of “day,” weren’t created until the fourth “day.”

Similarly, we are told that Cain, son of the first two people created, married a wife.  Where did she come from?  Seth also had a son.  Who was his mother?  The Bible gives no clarification.

Some common sense is in order when interpreting the Bible.  Personally, I think a story should be interpreted literally unless there is a persuasive reason not to.  (Lack of faith on the reader’s part does not constitute a persuasive reason.)

I think there’s a more important question than whether something was meant literally or figuratively.

That question is: Is this necessary to my salvation?

Does it really matter how long the Creation lasted?  Does that change the redeeming power of Christ to save?  Well, no, not really.  In that case, it’s not really important.

What is really important about each Bible story is the take-away point.  These take-away points are the teachings that will increase our faith.  God created the Earth.  How He did it or how long it took isn’t super important.  The important part of that story is that we and the whole Earth are His creation.

Saying I believe in the Bible will do me little good if I don’t try to live the way God would want me to. At best, it makes me apathetic, and, at worst, hypocritical.  We need to focus on the teachings that we are to implement in our own lives, like humbling ourselves before God and loving our neighbors.

Additional References:

  • Should the Bible Be Interpreted Literally? on Christianbiblereference.org  –  brief history of Biblical interpretation
  • I Read the Bible Literally! (sometimes) on patrickfranklin.wordpress.comcommentary on the literal/non-literal “controversy,” explaining how this is an oversimplification of a very complex book
  • The Bible, a Sealed Book  on lds.org – a Latter Day Saint (Mormon) perspective on interpreting the Bible

What are your thoughts?  Share in the comments below!



  1. I think that you are correct. I think that the Bible means exactly what it says and that one cannot understands what it says unless one understands that it utillzes figurative language at times to convey its meaning. The trick lies in discerning which passages those are.

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