Taking the Bible Literally ...
... is more than you think!

We hear, from many good people that one should take the Bible literally. That it is an unchanging document and it should be greatly respected. I agree with all of that. I really do. The problem is that I also believe that I should be open-minded about what I think the Bible says, because it is possible for me (and others) to be wrong! Here's an analogy, from a true story, about taking something 'word-for-word'.

When I was growing up in New Jersey, back in the early 60's, one of the top shows on television was the Red Skeleton Show. He was a great comedian, and often had great guests. On this particular day, his main guest was the comedian Milton Berle. Milton shared with Red the following introduction that Milton wanted Red to use to introduce him. It read like this:

Ladies and Gentlemen! I want to introduce to you a man among men! Who belongs nowhere but in show business! Who cares for nothing but a laugh! I give you Milton Berle!

Well, before we take the easy step and show you how Red totally changed the meaning of this introduction without changing a single word, let's make this more like scripture. Let's write that phrase above the way that Hebrew was once written: Without vowels or punctuation or even capital letters. So we would have:

lds nd gntlmn wnt t ntrdc t y mn mng mn wh blngs nwhr bt n shw bsnss wh crs fr nthng bt lgh gv y mltn brl

Wow. That's very different. But we are not yet done. Not only did ancient Hebrew not have vowels, it did not have punctuation marks, nor any spaces between the words! I am also told that there was no capitalization of letters! So, let's go there as well:


Wow again! Now that makes no sense at all, does it? Seeing some of the words is possible, but very difficult. Let's go back one step, and reconstruct the spaces and capitalization, without the vowels. But, I will make some minor changes that don't affect the words. If you don't spot them, don't worry. The next step will give you Red Skeleton's 'revised' introduction that brought the crowd to its feet in delight.

Lds nd gntlmn wnt t ntrdc t y mn. mng mn wh blngs nwhr. Bt n shw bsnss, wh crs? Fr nthng bt lgh gv y Mltn Brl!

When you're done trying to figure that out, just go on to the next part, and be ready to laugh at Milton's expense and at the routine they created.

Ladies and gentleman I want to introduce to you a man.
Among men who belongs nowhere.
But in show business, who cares?
For nothing but a laugh I give you Milton Berle!

Here's Milton's original again, compare it to Red's revision.

Ladies and Gentlemen!
I want to introduce to you a man among men!
Who belongs nowhere but in show business!
Who cares for nothing but a laugh! I give you Milton Berle!

Quite the difference isn't it? Here's another way to make a huge difference in meaning, this time by translation. Now, we all know that a "little kitten" and a "little cat" is the same thing, right? Well in many cases that's true, and in many languages they are the same.

But if we are translating from another language the phrase that the man called his wife while they were in the living room, the phrases (at least, in American culture today) would have virtually opposite meanings! When a man calls his wife a "little kitten", there is purring going on! Yet, when a man calls his wife a "little cat" it sounds like the fur is flying!

So the only way to know which translation is correct, or more precisely, the only way to have a better understanding of what was said, and what was meant, is to go beyond the "literal" to an understanding of what was happening! That takes prayer, listening and most importantly, God's help!

Now, here are two examples of this type of error happening in scripture. There first is from the Old Testament, the second from the New Testament. Even though the second is from the Greek, not the Hebrew, the principle, and the challenge remain the same.

I have sat in on a sermon, where the preacher condemned all desires, based on the first verse of the 23rd Psalm, which he read out of the King James Version as: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." Here the preacher was unaware that in 1611, when the King James Version was written, that the phrase "not want" meant "have everything I need". This verse refers to God's provision of our needs, not the denial of all desires. Well meant, but not complete.

In our other example, we'll look at the time that Jesus told the disciples about false prophets that are to come. Here is the scripture I refer to, Matthew 24:4-5 in several versions:

King James Version: "And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many."

New King James Version: "And Jesus answered and said to them: "Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many."

New International Version: "Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many."

Good News: "Jesus answered, "Watch out, and do not let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, 'I am the Messiah!' and they will fool many people."

New American Bible: "Jesus said to them in reply, "See that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Messiah,' and they will deceive many."

Four of the five versions above make it very clear that what this passage is saying is that people will claim to be the Messiah and will fool many. The King James Version alone leaves another possibility, which is that many people will come telling us that Jesus is the Messiah, and will deceive many about the question's answer.

The Greek is best translated by the King James Version (so it appears to me, anyway) which appears to read that many church-going people will be deceived by the church. No, not on who Christ is, but on the question that the apostles asked which He was answering! So, it appears that, many leaders who claim that Jesus is the Messiah will deceive people as to His return and the signs of the end of the age!

My point is this, look at that group of consonants above, and be humble about how well you understand what God is telling you. Remember also that the Hebrew law would not allow a fact to be established by only one witness. Use that when studying the Bible: If God is telling us something, He'll tell us in more than one way, in more than one set of scripture. He doesn't contradict Himself, we only misunderstand when we jump to an answer too quickly!