Why we can’t always read the Bible literally

If you want to read the Bible better, it’s important to understand that we cannot read it all literally. There are different genres in the Bible, and we will read the Bible better when we learn to recognize imaginative language throughout its pages. Annabel Robinson explains the imaginative language in the Bible and why we can’t always read the Bible literally. 

There’s much more to life than processing facts.
There’s much more to life than learning how to be more efficient.


Is the Bible an Instruction Manual?

The Bible speaks to all of life. It’s not just an instruction manual. I ask myself why we thought it was an instruction manual and why we thought it could be reduced to propositions.

Part of the answer is that we’ve been taught that it’s true (or inerrant, or infallible, or whatever), so it must consist of facts.

Another part of the answer is the digital age we live in. We like it if we can plot things on graphs, sort them out into true and false, and draw easy-to-remember diagrams.

Our education system buys into this. T/F exam questions can be marked by machine. So we learn things as facts, expecting to be tested on them as true or false.

But think about some things that have happened in the last month. My list would look something like this:

  • We celebrated the retirement of a long-time pastor in our church
  • It rained a lot. (We needed the rain.)
  • A friend got sick with Covid and ended up in the hospital
  • I got an unexpected tax rebate
  • We got some repairs done on the house

I had feelings about each of these things: celebration, relief, joy, worry, and distress. Sometimes mixed feelings.


Expressing Feelings


Feelings aren’t true or false. They just are. They’re important, too, for all sorts of reasons. Why do we like to add emojis to our texts? God has feelings. He loves, empathizes, and is angry. The fruit of the Spirit is full of feelings: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But they can be hard to put into words. This is where poetry and music come in.


Different types of genres like poetry in the Bible mean we cannot read the Bible literally.

Psalms and Poetry in the Bible

A psalm can give expression to a vast range of emotions, from praise and joy to the depth of suffering. Some psalms are full of anger and despair. These usually end in praise as the psalmist stops to consider the love and faithfulness of God.


Poetic Conventions

Poetry uses all sorts of literary devices to help us feel what we are reading. In the providence of God, most of the devices of Hebrew poetry work just as well in English as they do in Hebrew and just as well today as they did three thousand years ago.


The first thing you’ll notice about poetry in the Old Testament is its use of “parallelism.” An idea stated in the first line is followed by some variation of it in the second line, either restating the same thought in different words:

I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations. (Psalm 89:1)

or following it with a contrast:
For the Lord knows the way of the righteous.
But the way of the wicked will perish. (Psalm 1:6),

or elaborating on it in some way:

The fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm,
and all of them are righteous. (Psalm 19:9).

REading the Bible literally

Other Devices Used in Poetry

Then there are many indirect ways of saying things that capture the imagination. These include
simile, when we say one thing is “like” another (The words of the Lord are flawless,
like silver purified in a crucible Psalm 12:6)

metaphor, like simile, without explicitly saying “like” (The Lord is my rock Psalm 18:2)

metonymy, substituting a similar idea (“I am a worm” Psalm 22:6)

rhetorical questions that don’t expect an answer (How long, Lord, will the wicked be jubilant? Psalm 94:3)

hyperbole or exaggeration (“my heart has turned to wax” Psalm 22:14. This is a metaphor as well.)

personification (“the seas have lifted up their voice” Psalm 93:3).

(Our ordinary speech is full of examples like this. As I write this, the radio is on, and the host is saying that the comment section on Facebook is a “cesspool” (metonymy). We say things like “I had to wait for hours” (hyperbole) and “Why didn’t I think of that?” (rhetorical question)).

We can’t read the Bible literally, simply because language isn’t like that.

We can’t read the Bible literally, simply because language isn’t like that.


There are two other features to note in the Psalms. One is repetition, especially noticeable in Psalm 136, where every verse ends with “his love endures forever.” This is no doubt intended to be read responsively. I was recently in a prayer meeting where this psalm was read aloud. We got the point, and it coloured all our prayers.


The other is the use of acrostics, in which each line begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The best known is Psalm 119, in which the letter changes every eight lines. Most translations indicate this. Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, and 112 are also acrostic psalms. This is the one feature of the Psalms that can’t be translated. It helps to know that the psalmist was working with this extra self-imposed constraint—we won’t be looking for a structure that is always logical.


Related Articles: How to Read Poetry In the Bible,  How to Read Hebrew Poetry, How to Read Psalms, Spoken Word

© Scripture Union Canada, 2021

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