I do not think that the Old Testament is a modern type of history book, where everything is chronologically and historically accurate (not all modern history books are such either).
The Old Testament imho is a theological book, a book of faith, of religious truth. Do I believe that the universe and the earth formed literally as is written in the Book of Genesis?- no. But I believe that God created the heavens and the earth, and what was written in Genesis is a religious truth!
Well, I take them literally, at least when it comes to the Creation of the World, the Fall of Man, the Universal Flood, the Sun standing in the sky for Joshua, the parting of the red sea, JOnah and the Whale, etc. If it is in the historical books, or in Genesis (the pre-historical book) or in the prophets, I assume it happened.
I’m not a Christian, but I will answer the question as though I were a Catholic.
I would say that a literal reading of the OT misses the main point of it. It misunderstands the genre of literature in which it was written. We moderns often assume that all narrative accounts that are written are intended to be historical accounts whose purpose was to faithfully record events for the sake of remembering past events, but this is an idea that is only a few hundred years old.
In the ancient world, people didn’t keep narratives alive because they simply wanted to maintain archives of events, but to illustrate a point. Herodotus wrote his histories not to give a record to satisfy the academic curiosity people might have of the events he wrote about, but to glorify the Greek people.
Similarly, the purpose of much of the OT isn’t to give a detailed historically accurate account as it is to use examples to illustrate the nature of Man, God, and the nature of their relationship. The predominant theme of the OT is that of man’s separation from God through sin and the need to repent in order to restore his relationship with God. almost every story in the OT is intended to illustrate this point through example.
Take the creation narative in the book of Genesis for example. It depicts God creating the heavens and the earth, calling them good, and then making a garden, creating mankind which he calls ‘very good’ and Mankind falling away from God due to sin and being exiled from the garden.
The reason why it emphasizes God’s creation of the world the way it does is because it demonstrates that God’s love for mankind, which he considered to be the greatest of his creation. This may seem obvious now, but many pagan cultures near Israel believed differently. For example, the Akkadian creation myth Enuma Elish depicts the gods making humanity not as something to be loved, but as being a last minute addition to creation who were created solely to act as slaves to the gods. In other words, Genesis portrayes the creation the way it does to contrast God’s love with to the opression of the pagan gods taught by many pagans.
It also depicts God making the heaven and the stars and the forces of nature one by one. Remember that the pagans worshiped these things as gods in themselves, so the intention of Genesis is probably to emphasize that the sun and moon and other such things are not divine, but were created by the one true God who alone should be worshiped, rather than the forces of the natural world.
Not literally. Even the Magisterium teaches - in documents as well as on some of the comments included at the bottom of certain official editions of the Bible - that not everything is literal. I may quote a few things later.
To quote St.Thomas (I 1.10, ad 3), “The parabolic sense is contained in the literal, for by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely, operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ.”
I will give another example that is rather subtle.
“God walked in the Garden.” In my understanding this is a figure. The meaning is that He made Himself known to Adam and Eve.
In his ground-breaking encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), Pius XII gave permission to Catholic scripture scholars to adopt new ways of reading the scriptures which were more congruent with these new historical methods.
In its final form, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 18 November 1965, Dei Verbum continues the trajectory initiated by Divino Afflante Spiritu, allowing Catholic scripture scholars to read the Bible as arising within particular social and cultural contexts. It places this insight, however, within a larger framework of divine revelation and the role of the Church’s teaching authority. As such it needs to be read in the context of Lumen Gentium (LG), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, particularly those parts on the teaching authority of the Church.
The third chapter contains the basic principles whereby Catholic scripture scholars should approach the Bible. Thus it continues the teaching of Divino Afflante Spiritu by encouraging scholars to read the Bible within its historical context. While it is true that God speaks through the Bible, the human authors remain “true authors”, not just secretaries taking dictation from God. God speaks through them “in human fashion”. So in order to understand the biblical text it is necessary to pay attention to the “literary forms” of the text, for example whether it is historical, or poetic or prophetic. We must understand the “customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative” (n.12) of the authors if we are not to misunderstand what the author intends to convey.
I**nterpretation requires attention to the literary forms of the text… the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.
So the Authors of the Old Testament are real authors inspired by God, but they wrote in their own context, using their own literary forms, “whether it is historical, or poetic or prophetic.” And “We must understand the “customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative” of the authors if we are not to misunderstand what the author intends to convey.”
We are challenged to find how God is speaking to us today, rather than trying to prove the historicity of certain texts.
I do not take them all literally…I think some are stories of what could have happened…and are used to guide us and teach us… give us an idea of the beginning of our faith
history…along with learning to develope a relationship with God…
I think it’s more complicated than that; each book in the Torah, Writings, Prophets, has its own literary style, implication, and meaning.
Some stories are presented as meaningful theological pieces interwoven with reality (Genesis), some are more historical (Judges), and some are poetic (Psalms).
We must remember that the Bible, as we know it, is not one big book, written by the same author, at the same time, in the same place.
It’s more akin to a library.
I think a more appropriate question would be; do you make sure to understand the historical context, theological implication, and Hebrew thought which was intended as the foundation behind each individual book of the Bible?
Once you answer that, then one can begin to ask, was this or that even meant to be literal or not?
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