One of the larger puzzles in understanding and applying scripture to our lives is to try and figure out when something is meant literally (fact) and when it is meant figuratively (pedagogical story). As I pointed out in my last post, I submit that God is the Master Storyteller, and that we don’t need to take everything he says literally in order to feel comfortable that He is still telling us the truth.
For a related example, we are fully capable of reading C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and J.K. Rowling’s recent Harry Potter and distinguish underlying, resonating truths without being offended or afraid that these authors are, perhaps, making lots of stuff up. There are some that would argue that fiction is all a pack of lies. I would prefer to see stories as a pack of truths–either about the world, about human nature, or, unwittingly, about the author. It’s just our job to read and find it.
But I also want to state for clarity’s sake that the Bible isn’t a book of quaint, moral tales that are pure fiction, either.
Sometimes, of course, God does both. It doesn’t have to be one (fact) OR the other (figurative). For example, in the story of the Israelites in the book of Exodus, through God and his prophet Moses’ help, the Israelites are freed from Egypt. There’s that famous account of the Ten Commandments in there, as well. Anyway, in this story, after their exodus, the Israelites disobey God and are condemned to wander, lost in the wilderness for years, making what (scholars say) an 11 day trip as the bird flies into a journey of 40 years.
This is a literal event. (If you don’t believe me, suspend your disbelief a moment to work with me.) The Israelites were actual people who were rescued from Egypt. Afterwards, they forgot the miracle of it and truly did disobey God, and as punishment (or, rather, a teaching tool), God allowed them to get lost. They wanted to do things without God, so God let them have their way.
This is also a figurative event. When we, as God’s children, decide we know better than God and we don’t ask for His help or listen to Him, we get lost and wander in the spiritual sense as well. We flounder about our lives, trying to figure out which way is up and which way is down, what will make us happy and what will make us miserable, and so on and so forth.
Of course, God will never abandon us and He will certainly keep trying to help us, just as He did for the Israelites–again and again and again. This, too, is both a literal and a figurative part of the story.
God is quite capable of using history to teach us something. He is also capable of using science for that very purpose.
Abraham as the Famous Biblical Astronomer.
If you use the Book of Abraham in your canon of scripture, (one of my absolute favorite books, by the way), and maybe even if you don’t, you are probably aware that as well as being one of the most famous prophets of the Old Testament, Abraham was also an astronomer and taught astronomy to one of the pharaohs. This is pretty cool, not going to lie. (He, however, isn’t the only learned astronomer in the scriptures. “Three wise men” from the New Testament, anyone?)
There are people who use the third chapter of the Book of Abraham as an astronomy textbook. They think that when God (and Abraham recording it) talk about the different stars and their relationships to each other (bigger, smaller, relative location, etc.) that the science of it is the whole point. Just like those who think the “science” in the Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis was the whole point of the chapter.
Even though starmaps are cool and I want one painted on my ceiling one day, I think God intended something else than to write a vague, highly incomplete chapter on astronomy for an ancient textbook. As seen in verses 16-24, God uses the incomplete science but complete analogy he set up in the first half of the chapter to explain an important spiritual truth. That God is greater and has more glory than mortal mankind’s greatness and glory, (as compared to the relative glories of the stars). That He is our God and our Creator, and–somehow still more importantly–that He has all power to save us (verses 19, 24, 27) and to give us what He has to share (verse 26).
God used astronomy to set up an analogy that Abraham, as an astronomer, could relate to and was deeply interested in. God knew Abraham–very well, I might add. Isn’t that cool? God told Abraham a story using stars to teach him something profound–and to bring him great comfort and peace.
Just think–then that means that God knows me, knows what I’m interested in, and how to relate and talk to me.
God as The Master Storyteller.
Stories, I submit, are a form of creation. Why can’t a God of Creation, who creates as part of His happiness, create stories, too?
Stories are also a lot like puzzles. There are multiple ways to view them, and everyone experiences them differently. But, at least in my experience, it seems that bit by bit, I learn more and more from them. I parse more and more truth about the world from them the older I get, the more knowledge I seek and I attain, and the more experienced at life I become.
But those who don’t want to look, don’t see it. Those who don’t ask, don’t receive.
You know, it’s almost like God did this on purpose….
Food for thought.