Sometimes it is asserted that we should just take the Bible literally–as if it is obvious what a literal reading might entail. For example, consider the following passage from Isaiah:
“Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD; awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, that pierced the dragon? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over?” (Isaiah 51:9-10)
Now, if we are reading “literally,” should we determine on the basis of this text that the LORD (Yahweh) has an arm? If so, what sort? Well, if literal, then wouldn’t we expect a physical arm? And if so, then how might one reconcile this with passages such as John 4:24 (“God is Spirit”)? And when precisely did God “cut Rahab in pieces,” especially since this Rahab is further identified as “the dragon” (or sea-serpent)? Obviously we are bumping up against something complex. (Regarding how this passage connects to other similar stories in the Bible and the literature of the ancient Near East, consider Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988]).
For devotional purposes, I have been working through The Philocalia of Origen. Origen was an enormously prolific third-century Christian writer, and The Philocalia (meaning “the love of the beautiful”) is an ancient compilation of some of his most profound work. The following quote, which pertains to this whole question of a literal reading, caught my eye:
“The word of God therefore arranged for certain stumbling-blocks and offences and impossibilities to be embedded in the Law and the historical portion, so that we may not be drawn hither and thither by the mere attractiveness of the style, and thus either forsake the doctrinal part because we receive no instruction worthy of God, or cleave to the letter and learn nothing more Divine.” (Origen Philocalia 1.16; trans. George Lewis, 1911).
Is Origen right? Could it be that God has placed in the Scripture complexities, goads, and spurs that will deliberately trip up the virtuous reader–causing the reader to stop, ponder, think, and fervently pray for insight? If so, what are the nature of these stumbling-blocks? Undoubtedly I will have more to say about this in the future, but for now it suffices to ponder, along with Origen, the degree to which God rewards those who earnestly seek–those who when encountering puzzles in the literal sense or the basic narrative sequence of the Bible are willing to delve into God’s arrangement of all affairs (both in Scripture and in the broader world), and to “see” not just the surface, but how the surface is a sign that points beyond itself to the transcendent. After all, Jesus does seem particularly keen to encourage us to pursue a deeper engagement with his constant refrain: “The one who has ears to hear, let that person hear” (e.g., Mark 4:9, Luke 14:35).