Talking Snakes, Donkeys, and Believing the Bible
by Robin Schumacher
Skeptics of Christianity many times throw out statements like this in an attempt to dismiss both the Bible and the Christian faith: “Well, if I could believe in a talking snake, maybe then I’d take the Bible seriously.”
Can you believe what the Bible says about history, Jesus, and more when it has narratives that describe animals speaking like human beings? I think you can; let me explain why.
Taking the Bible Literally
I firmly believe that the correct way to interpret the Bible is to adhere to what is called the Literal-Historical-Grammatical method of interpretation, which aims to discover the meaning of a particular passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood. As the first part of the name implies, this means a literal reading of the text.
Once a Christian affirms a literal interpretation of Scripture, immediately skeptics pounce and ask questions such as, “If that’s true, then Jesus must be a literal door, because he says in John 10:9: ‘I am the door’.” Unfortunately for the doubter, their argument is flawed in a couple of ways. First, it commits the logical fallacy of ‘reductio ad absurdum’, which seeks to establish an argument based on the supposed absurdity of its opponents claims.
But more importantly, the skeptic fails to understand that the Bible utilizes many different genres (e.g. poetry, narrative, didactic teaching, etc.) and literary techniques in the same way that other literature does. These methods do not take away from a literal reading of the Bible at all, but instead add much depth to the text as they’re designed to do. Some of the most common practices found in Scripture include the following:
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- Phenomenological language, which is used to describe everyday things in common speak. Example: “It came about at sunset that Joshua gave a command…” (Joshua 10:27)
- Hyperbole, which is an obvious and intentional exaggeration. Example: “look, the world has gone after Him”(John 12:19)
- Metaphors, which are a figure of speech used to suggest a resemblance. Example: “For I proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock!” (Deut. 32:3-4)
- Anthropomorphisms, which are attempts to represent God under a particular form, or with some type of living attributes and affections. Example: “Let me dwell in Your tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings.” (Psalm 61:4)
- Personification, which is the attribution of a personal nature or character to inanimate objects or abstract notion. Example: “The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Is. 55:12)
- Symbolism, which represents some reality by depicting it in a figurative fashion that is descriptive of that reality. Example: “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 1:12)
These literary techniques in no way circumvent a literal reading of the Bible and, in truth, the intellectually honest skeptic understands that. However, what does one do when some Biblical narrative seems so fantastic and opposed to everyday experience – like an animal speaking in human language? How does one interpret the Bible then?
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