Genesis (1:26) tells us that God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” If we are to believe this literally, God has eyes, arms, hands—and one might even expect that he must have internal organs such as liver, spleen, and colon. But since there is no reason to believe that God digests food, there is no reason to believe that he has internal organs—and if he does, what does he eat and where does it come from (and where does it go)? He actually has as little use for feet as he has for a liver since he doesn’t need to walk, and he has no use for eyes since they serve to process light and he didn’t create that until Genesis (1:3). Besides, he is supposed to be omniscient so he wouldn’t need them in the first place. And moreover, who is he talking to in Genesis, and why? This is all very bizarre, but it is what we are left with if we take the Biblical statements to be literally true.
We know that other ancient peoples created their Gods in their own images. That explains why the Greeks had gigantic Greek-speaking humanoids living on Mount Olympus. As Heraclitus said 2500 years ago, “horses would draw the forms of gods like horses; cows would draw them like cows.” It seems clear that the God of the Bible was created in the image of the ancient Jews by the ancient Jews. But that isn’t what the The New Compact Topical Bible tells us. It says, “the image is not corporeal but rational, and spiritual, and social.” The Oxford Companion to the Bible tells us that it “probably means that God makes beings with whom he can communicate and who can respond.” Let’s pause to think about it for a moment. The Bible tells us something in straightforward language, but this poses problems for us that it wouldn’t have posed for its original audience twenty-five hundred years ago (and that audience was not Christian). So, now we salvage things by interpreting the passage, contriving a different meaning that we are more comfortable with.
But isn’t “interpretation” supposed to be a no-no? Isn’t the Bible said to be the literal word of God just as it stands. (This presents problems, too, since it has passed through the hands of many copyists, editors, and translators before it reached us.) We are told by fundamentalists that the earth was created about 6000 years ago: 4004 BCE was the date favored by Bishop Usher—at about tea time on October 23rd, or something like that. Let’s look at 2 Peter (which is a text of dubious authenticity—but if we admit that, we have to admit a great deal more): the writer is concerned about the fact that the kingdom of heaven—which Jesus promised would come during the lifetimes of some of those listening to him—hasn’t arrived, and that scoffers might make capital of this inconvenient truth. He says that people should wait patiently: “do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Doesn’t this invite us to interpret the creation as having occurred over a period of many thousands of years (perhaps millions). Doesn’t this contradict the main argument of the six-day creationists?
Who gets to decide when the Biblical text must be interpreted and when it must not? What constitutes a good reason for interpreting it, and what constitutes evidence for a good interpretation? I’ve only touched on two issues out of the hundreds that confront the attentive reader of the Bible. In the case of the “image of God” it is clear that the words were probably intended to be taken literally by the ancient Jews, and that they probably wouldn’t have understood them in any other way. Nonetheless, we should be ready to admit that they cannot be taken literally now. They form a creation story, very much like that of ancient people all over the world. In the case of the “days” of creation, “Peter” himself tells us that such language isn’t to be taken literally; that is, he is “interpreting” it.
I once heard a televangelist comparing the language of the Bible with British English, itself. He said that if you hear the word “boot” in England, you should know that the word is used to denote the trunk of a car. He went on to say that the Bible is like that, filled with mysterious “Biblical” meanings which constitute a concealed narrative—which he would decode for us. But the Bible is not like that—it is not a code. The problems of Biblical interpretation are those of historical linguistics, the transmission of the text, the politics of the ancient world, and the literary forms and traditions that prevailed at the time. The people most able to give us help are historians and other scholars—not preachers.
Preachers are like Imams: only the popularity they have acquired by their preaching gives their words any power, yet many (perhaps most) claim to get that power from their communion with God, Himself. (They are like Imams in that as well.) To know what to make of the Bible you must not only read it, you must read about it, about the texts and the transmission of texts, about the translations, and about the world in which it was produced. And if you really want to learn, it is very important that you be willing to read books that challenge your belief instead of books that mimic scholarship in order to reinforce existing dogma. If your beliefs are based on a solid footing, you have nothing to fear, and you may learn something vital.