At one of the Republican presidential primary debates, viewers were invited to present questions to the candidates via YouTube. One questioner was an intense young man who held a King James Bible. He asked, "How you answer this will tell us everything about you. Do you believe every word of this book, and I mean specifically THIS book that I'm holding in my hand?" This young man was challenging the candidates to commit not only to the literal truth of the Christian Bible, but also to this one particular version of it. And, presumably, any answer less than a firm "yes" would demonstrate to the questioner that the candidate is not a "man of faith."
The question brought nervous laughter as the candidates took deep breaths, knowing the dangers inherent in their answers, especially given the criticality of the religious conservative vote. But none of the candidates, all who profess to be religious, answered with a simple "yes." Each gave varied and subtle answers. While a cynic may see these as political equivocation, I was pleased and impressed, because the candidate's answers were theologically sound rejections of simplistic literalism.
This young man's question reminded me of a conversation I had with a fundamentalist friend many years ago. We were discussing the Bible, and I mentioned to him that, in general, Judaism does not read the Bible literally. He looked at me in shock. "How can the Jews be God's chosen people and not respect His word?" he asked, and then added, "Are you calling God a liar?" Beyond his odd circular reasoning, the truth is that no matter how much one may want to read the Bible as a clear account of strict rules and actual events, the Bible inherently resists such literalism, for the following reasons:
The Bible is written in foreign languages.
The books of the Jewish Bible were written in Hebrew, and the Christian books that were later added were written in Greek and Aramaic. Any versions in any other languages, then, are translations. And as we all know, much is often lost in translation. For the Hebrew Bible this problem begins, appropriately, with the first word, B'reisheet, usually translated as "In the beginning." But this is not the only possible, or even most accurate, translation. This word can be more accurately translated as "With beginning." While this may seem a minor grammatical difference, the theological implications are momentous, implying that the Bible does not tell us about historical events that happened at the beginning of time, but rather about our Creator's intentions. The exploration of this one word is the basis for an entire branch of Jewish mysticism. Other translation problems are more obvious. In the fourth century translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the "Vulgate," for example, Moses is described as coming down from Mt. Sinai with horns on his head. This comes from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word karnai'im, which can mean "horns," but in this instance means "light rays." This mistranslation has lead to the superstition, which was common until quite recently, that Jews have horns.
The Bible must be read as a whole and in context.
The Bible is a very complex book that can only be understood as a whole and in reference to other passages. For example, the sixth of the Ten Commandments tells us, "You shall not kill." The Hebrew word for "kill" here is used elsewhere to connote revenge killings, and so the commandment is specifically against premeditated murder. This absolute prohibition does not apply to killing in war, self-defense or accidents, though, for which different words are used, and for which different types of responses are proscribed. In this way, we see that the Bible recognizes how the intention behind an action is crucial to its consequences, and how the law applies to all people equally. This is the real meaning of "an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth." While this passage is often thought to mean that one should show no mercy -- that we should poke out the eye of an eye-poker -- exactly the opposite is true. This passage is a declaration of equality, teaching us that everyone's eye and everyone's tooth is of equal worth, regardless of the status of its owner.
The Bible requires interpretation.
In spite of the popular belief that the "true" religious stance is one of biblical literalism, the fact is that even the most orthodox branches of religions are not, never were, and can't be, based on the literal reading of ancient Scriptures. No Jew, for example, lives by the strict word of the Torah, and none could, because the Bible can be very unclear (what does that bit about "don't stew a kid in its mother's milk" really mean?), often relies on metaphor, and was written by a different culture with references to things that no longer exist. This is why the Jews created the Talmuds -- extensive documents that openly present questioning and arguments about the meaning of Bible texts. Similarly, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist theologians continually debate and hone the meaning of their Scriptures. This is not an attempt to ignore, whitewash, or avoid what is written, but is the very process by which religions are created, grow and stay relevant.
The Bible is read at many levels.
There is a long and established tradition of reading holy texts as containers for deep truths that are embedded in the story. Judaism, for instance, teaches that there are four levels of reading the Bible. Each level takes us deeper into the text, revealing more insight. The first level is a "surface," literal reading. To think of the story of Adam and Eve as merely describing real people who lived 6,000 years ago in a garden populated by talking snakes and magical trees, is to read at this level. This is considered to be the level of children. The next two levels encourage us to ask questions and to find personal interpretations in which we become co-creators of the text. At the final level one uncovers buried secrets. Here, the narrative is understood as a "garment" over something hidden below -- the nature of creation and the working of the cosmos. This is the level of the mystics and prophets, who brought forth the deepest and most transformative insights from the text.
As a rabbi, do I believe that God -- the eternal, non-physical, animating and creative energy of everything -- actually "wrote" the Bible and gave it to us exactly as we have it? Of course not. While one may imagine, as did Cecil B Demille in "The Ten Commandments," that a lightening bolt from heaven inscribed two tablets with God's words, God does not write books. People do. The Bible itself tells us that the texts we have were written by people -- by Moses, the Prophets, King David, King Solomon, the Apostles, and various scribes.
Do I believe that the Bible is a holy, sacred document, and do I believe that it contains words that came from a direct human contact with the Divine? Yes, of course I do. When reading the Bible we don't need to choose between a literal reading and a rejection. Both are small-minded and spiritually deadening positions. The Bible is far too rich to be reduced to such a flat formula, and we are far too magnificent to allow ourselves to be so small.