In Exodus 6:5–6, God said to Moses:
I have heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the Israelites, “I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.”
Ten plagues later, the ancient Israelites were on their way from slavery in Egypt to freedom as a self-governing nation.
The exodus from Egypt is a seminal story in the formation of the Jewish religion and nation. It is the basis of Passover, one of the most important religious festivals in Judaism.
Yet there is little or no archeological or documentary evidence (outside of the Bible itself) that such mass migration of two or three million people from Egypt to Palestine ever took place. Current scholarship suggests that the Israelites most likely had continuously inhabited the land of Palestine. If there is any grain of historical truth to the story, it appears that it must have been a much smaller and less spectacular event, perhaps involving a few hundred people instead of a few million.
Does this mean we must throw the story of the Exodus out the window as a myth and a fallacy?
Not at all.
The truth of the Bible, and of divine revelation in general, does not depend upon its historical or scientific accuracy. The Bible, as the Word of God, is concerned not with material-world truth, but with spiritual truth.
The Exodus story has become a powerful metaphor for Jews and Christians alike. It tells a deeper story of the human longing for freedom from bondage of all kinds: political, social, financial, emotional, intellectual, and especially spiritual bondage.
In this post, we’ll apply the story to a specific issue: freeing our minds from the oppressive bondage of literalism in our reading of Scripture.
Yes, I am suggesting that reading Scripture in a doggedly literal way is a form of slavery from which we must be freed if we are to fully inherit the spiritual kingdom of God.
Literalism is a recent phenomenon
Before digging into the Exodus story let’s set the record straight:
Biblical literalism as we know it today has only existed for about two hundred years—a mere one tenth of the two thousand years of Christian history.
This may be surprising to many people, given the loud and insistent nature of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians today. It’s easy to get the impression that that’s how the Bible was always read, while the idea that there are deeper, spiritual meanings in Scripture is a Johnny-come-lately in Christianity.
In fact, the opposite is the case.
For the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, it was generally assumed that the Bible, as the Word of God, has deeper meanings. Jesus himself set the trend by his heavy use of parables in teaching the people. The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament also makes extensive use of symbolism in interpreting the ancient Jewish temple and sacrifices. Taking their cue from the New Testament itself, hundreds, if not thousands of Christian theologians from Irenaeus (130–202) and Origen (184/5–253/4) in the second and third centuries onward interpreted the Bible symbolically and allegorically rather than literally.
It is true that in general, up until recent centuries most ordinary Christians believed that the events recounted in the Bible happened historically as they are described there. However, this was not due to any doctrine or principle that the Bible must be read literally. They simply had no other information to go on.
It was only with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s that the trend toward today’s widespread Biblical literalism began. When Martin Luther (1483-1546) promulgated his doctrine of Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”), it was aimed not so much at establishing literalism as it was at ending the Catholic practice of promulgating doctrine without any Scriptural basis, solely on the authority of the Catholic church. However, this doctrinal principle started a trend that eventually led to fairly strict literalism in large swaths of Christianity.
That trend came to full fruition when it became clear that the movement toward science and reason that characterized the Age of Enlightenment was not going to support the historicity and scientific accuracy of much, if not most of the Bible. The doctrines of Biblical literalism, infallibility, and inerrancy that are foundational principles of many Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christian churches are not based on the Bible, nor do they have strong roots in early to medieval Christian history. An insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible was first clearly articulated in the early 1800s in reaction to the scientific revolution. It developed from there into various doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy as a way to defend the Bible from what was perceived as an onslaught from modern science, reason, and logic.
Christians who accept these recently hatched principles of literalism find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being forced to fight a rearguard battle against the advancement of the sciences from archeology and cosmology right through to zoology.
This is a form of spiritual slavery. It requires the minds of its believers to operate in a narrow, constricted field of thought, closing their eyes and blinding themselves to much of the spectacular intellectual and social advancement that we humans have achieved in recent centuries.
Egypt symbolizes knowledge—whether true or false
What does all of this have to do with Egypt?
It helps to understand that in the ancient world, Egypt was seen as a land of vast learning and knowledge. There the ancient spiritual traditions were preserved. Egypt also developed and employed technology that was very advanced for its day—technology that was used, for example, to irrigate its crops and to build its world famous pyramids and Sphinx. In Egypt there were great libraries and literary collections of ancient lore, culminating many centuries later in the famous Library of Alexandria in the Nile Delta region of Egypt.
In Old Testament times, the knowledge and wisdom of Egypt had become proverbial. Here, for example, is a passage touting the surpassing wisdom of King Solomon:
God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. (1 Kings 4:29–30)
One of the ways this symbolism of Egypt as knowledge appears repeatedly in the Bible is that Egypt was the go-to place when there was famine in nearby lands. Abram (later renamed Abraham) spent time in Egypt to escape a severe famine, and returned from there quite wealthy (see Genesis 12:10–13:2). Two generations later, in one of the longest story sequences in the Bible, Jacob’s entire family landed in Egypt to escape another severe famine in the land of Canaan (see Genesis 37; 39–47).
What do food and famines have to do with knowledge?
Quite simply, just as our body hungers and thirsts for food and drink, so our mind hungers and thirsts for knowledge and understanding.
Have you experienced times when life just didn’t make sense? Have you ever struggled to understand why things were so difficult for you or your family, or why there was so much conflict in your community or in the world? Has life ever just not made sense, and you longed for some way to make sense of what was happening?
If so, then you have experienced a spiritual famine.
When the Bible speaks of famine in the land, it symbolizes a lack of knowledge and understanding. And the most common place to go during famines was Egypt.
Because crops in Egypt were not dependent on local rainfall as they were in most surrounding areas. In Egypt, the crops were not watered from the sky. They were watered by irrigation from the Nile river, which flowed from a distant source, and in most times and seasons was regular and reliable in its patterns of flooding, leaving behind rich silt that fertilized the topsoil, and then receding to its banks during the growing season.
The symbolism of the Nile is clear enough. Life-giving water, which satisfies our thirst and makes it possible for both plants and animals to grow, symbolizes knowledge and understanding that satisfies our intellectual and spiritual thirst in a way that is essential to the growth of our minds. And just as the Nile flows from a distant source, so the ancient spiritual and practical wisdom handed down from earlier ages flowed into Egypt, fertilizing the soil of its inhabitants’ minds, and watering them with understanding and insight.
Of course, not all knowledge and understanding is actually true. Though Egypt in a good sense represents a knowledge and understanding of the truth, in a negative sense it means knowledge and understanding that has been corrupted and falsified so that it is no longer true.
When Bible belief goes astray . . .
Christians look to the Bible as a source of truth from God.
At the most basic level, God is, shall we say, a major character in the Bible. In the Bible story God frequently speaks to the people, teaching them and guiding them in the way they should go, and chastising them when they go wrong. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ, who is God with us (Matthew 1:23), gives many teachings on how to live a good and spiritual life.
At a deeper level, according to Jesus Christ the entire Bible speaks of him (see Luke 24:25–27, 44). This means that all of the Bible has deeper meanings that relate to God and spirit.
But what happens when people start to believe that the Bible is more about material things than it is about spiritual things?
What happens when people start to think that the Bible is about history and science, and not so much about God and spirit?
- What happens when people read the Creation story in Genesis 1, and the main lesson they get from it is that God created the material universe in six days?
- What happens when people read the story of Noah and think it means that all Christians must believe that a flood of water covered the entire earth right up to the top of the tallest mountains? (Genesis 7:20)
- What happens when people believe that God interfered with the rotation of the earth so that the Israelites could have a miraculously long day in order to defeat their enemies (see Joshua 10:12–13), or so that the shadow could go backwards on a sundial as a sign that King Hezekiah would recover from his illness (see 2 Kings 20:8–11; Isaiah 38:7–8).
Each of these things is flatly contradicted by science, which tells us that:
- Our world is the result of nearly fourteen billion years of events that have unfolded since it all started in the Big Bang.
- There is nowhere near enough water available on earth to submerge all the mountains.
- Even if it were possible to slow or reverse the earth’s rotation in order to produce a longer day or cause a shadow to move backwards on a sundial, the results would be catastrophic.
According to overwhelming scientific evidence, not only these, but many other things recorded in the Bible simply could not have happened as they are described.
Does this mean that the Bible is wrong?
Only if it is read as a textbook of history and science.
. . . and becomes literal slavery
But reading the Bible as a textbook of history and science misses the whole point of a revelation from God, such as the Bible is believed to be by Christians. Our belief in the Bible goes astray, and leads us into slavery to false ideas, when instead of looking for divine messages about God and spirit in the Bible, we read it as if it is meant to tell us how the physical earth was made and how the solar system works.
The Christians who came up with the idea that the Bible is literally true and without error historically and scientifically may have had very good intentions. Their belief in the Bible was being eaten away by all the new discoveries of science and religion. They were experiencing a spiritual famine. They didn’t understand what was going on, and they needed some way to make sense of a very confusing time in the history of Christianity.
Like Jacob and his family, they went to Egypt in a time of famine. They looked to the Bible and to spiritual traditions to try to learn and understand how to approach Christianity in a new era of human intellectual and social development.
Unfortunately, while their intentions may have been good, over time they ended out enslaved to a set of false beliefs about the Bible that has caused them to be more and more at odds with the advance of knowledge and understanding in our world.
This, I would suggest, is the literal slavery that has put much of Christianity into intellectual and spiritual bondage. Their (true) belief that the Bible is God’s Word has been held captive by the false idea that the Bible is meant to be an authority on material subjects such as science, history, and culture. So strong is their persuasion that the Bible is a literal and material authority that they will reject all reason, science, logic, and experience that contradicts their superficial and literal reading of Scripture.
This is a sorry state of affairs for the Christian church and its ministry, which the apostle Paul described and envisioned in these words:
Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5–6)
Just as the descendants of Jacob toiled and died under the lash of slavery in Egypt, so much of the Christian church is toiling and dying under the lash of a Biblical literalism that is contrary to the clear message of the Bible itself—which continually prompts us to look beyond the literal words to the deeper, divine and spiritual meanings they contain.
Does it really matter if the Bible is literally true?
Now I want to introduce a radical thought:
What if almost everything in the Bible didn’t actually happen as it is described there?
What if most or all of the Bible is a work of fiction, rather than of non-fiction as is commonly believed by the faithful?
Would it really make any difference to the message of the Bible as a revelation from God, inspired by God, if most of it is more like a historical novel than it is like a history?
Does any essential part of Christian belief and practice depend upon the Bible being a scientifically or historically accurate document?
Thanks to a blog post titled “Emerson as Bricoleur” written by a philosophically inclined atheist, I recently became aware of a French philosopher named Pierre Hadot (1922-2010). In Hadot’s book Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, he argues that the writings of ancient philosophers were not intended primarily to convey doctrinal truths, but rather to “form [the reader], to make him traverse a certain itinerary in the course of which he will make spiritual progress.”
In other words, Hadot argues that the primary purpose of ancient philosophy was to bring about spiritual change and growth in people. Doctrinal, historical, or material-world accuracy was at most a secondary concern.
So here’s another radical thought:
What if the entire purpose of the Bible is to bring about spiritual change and growth in its readers?
What if the Bible writers simply didn’t care about what we today call science and history? What if in their minds these material-world things paled into insignificance compared to the crucial, eternal importance of learning, practicing, and being transformed by the spiritual and divine truth that comes from God?
What if God has much more important things to say to us in that precious book of spiritual life that we call the Word of God?
Jesus said (in a modern translation):
What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? (Matthew 16:26)
To follow his lead on our current subject, what good would it be for the Bible to explain the material workings of the whole world, if in the process it neglected to teach us about the far more important and eternal issues of the soul and its eternal life and salvation? Would God waste even a single word in the Bible doing anything other than teaching and guiding us toward the life of our souls?
When Christians fall prey to literal interpretations of the Bible, it’s not just that those interpretations are wrong and fallacious. It’s that they waste those Christians’ valuable time immersing them in fruitless controversies with scientists, archeologists, historians, and so on, when they could be spending that time listening for the deeper messages of God shining through the literal words of the Bible.
Perhaps some parts of the Bible are literally true as written. But as fascinating as it may be to look into such questions, it can easily become a major distraction that makes it hard for us to focus on the true, spiritual message of the Bible.
For the most part, it simply doesn’t matter to our spiritual life whether anything in the Bible is literally or historically true. And the more we immerse ourselves in these literal and materialistic interpretations of the Bible, and all the resulting controversies, the more we are enslaved to the letter that kills, while missing the spirit that gives life.
Moving from literal slavery to spiritual freedom
None of this is necessary for Christians or for anyone else who wishes to follow a spiritual path.
It is possible, through the power of God, to break free from the materialistic fallacy of a literal interpretation of the Bible.
For those who ascribe power to the words of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels, there is a path toward a deeper understanding of the Bible. Jesus’ use of parables in teaching the people suggest to us that all of God’s words in the Bible point to deeper meanings. We read in Matthew 13:34–35:
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
“The prophet” in question is actually Asaph, a Psalmist, who opened Psalm 78 with words similar to those that the Gospel writer quotes. Psalm 78 then goes on to provide a poetic history of the Israelites from the exodus out of Egypt through the conquest of the Holy Land to the high point of the Israelite nation in the reign of their greatest king: David.
All of this is introduced as a parable involving deep and hidden knowledge. And Matthew ties these parables of the Old Testament in with the parables of Jesus in the New Testament. Do we really need more than this to understand that the entire Bible is a great, divine parable offering us hidden knowledge about our spiritual life and our relationship with God?
Two and a half centuries ago Emanuel Swedenborg offered a vast and deep spiritual interpretation of the Bible that does full justice to the teaching of Jesus and the Gospels that the Bible is a parable telling us of deeper things. In Swedenborg’s massive work Secrets of Heaven, he lays out in painstaking detail, verse by verse, the deeper meanings found in the books of Genesis and Exodus. In doing so, he offers a pathway out of the confining slavery to a literal interpretation of the Bible toward a broad human and spiritual view of Scripture.
Swedenborg does not claim any credit for these spiritual interpretations. Rather, he says he was guided by the Lord Jesus Christ to an understanding of the spiritual meanings in the Bible that have lain hidden for thousands of years under the choking grip of materialism in human society and in the church.
This understanding of the Bible as a divinely inspired book containing deeper meanings that are all about God and about our own spiritual rebirth and salvation frees us from the need to battle scientists, philosophers, historians, and all others who are wise in the ways of the world. Focusing on the spirit that gives life within the letter of the Bible lifts us above all these worldly, historical, and cultural issues to a higher realm of spiritual understanding.
It was in reference to Swedenborg’s deeper understanding of the Bible, of nature, and of spiritual life that Helen Keller stated in her book My Religion, (later edited and republished as Light In My Darkness), “One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see” (quoting from John 9:25).
There is no need to be shackled in bondage to the letter that kills. Instead, we can be freed by the knowledge that within the literal meaning of the Word of God there is a spiritual meaning that can lift us up to new life in the freedom of the spirit of God.
For further reading:
Thanks for linking back to my blog, Lee. This – “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” – could have been said by one of the Stoic philosophers that Hadot (and Foucault) discuss in their books. I do not know to what extent Jesus and his first followers were aware of the tradition, but it seems quite likely there could have been an influence.
You’re welcome, and thanks for stopping by. Palestine was a crossroads of the ancient world, and Greek culture had heavily infused the Roman Empire at the time Jesus lived, so it’s certainly possible that the influence of the ancient Greek philosophers reached into first century Palestine.
Excellent article, Lee, thanks for making this confusing subject clear.
Thanks, Walt. Glad it was helpful to you.
This article explains the value of non-literal interpretation of Scripture very well, so thank you. But how can we distinguish what parts of the Bible really did happen in a literal sense from those that did not? Sure, it’s largely irrelevant with events like the Exodus or the flood, but how do we know that that the Resurrection happened or that Jesus really did perform miracles as the Gospels say He did? For that matter, how can we be sure that God or the afterlife exist based on a frequently metaphorical book like the Bible? I do believe that the things I just mentioned are real, but I’m trying to figure out how to discern helpful metaphors from genuine physical truth, and I want to know what you think about this. Thank you!
Thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked the article. You pose a great question.
As I said in the article, for most of the events in the Bible it doesn’t really matter to our spiritual life and to the primary message of the Bible whether they happened literally. I tend to think that something like ancient Israelite history did happen. But it’s questionable whether it actually happened as described in the Old Testament story. And I don’t think any of the story up to somewhere in Genesis chapter 11 was ever intended to be taken literally.
In the New Testament, the Gospels themselves don’t entirely agree on exactly how things happened. John, in particular, tells the story in a very different way than the other three Gospels. Only Matthew and Luke include the birth story. And Mark has very little about the resurrection. However, they do all agree that Jesus was born, lived a life here on earth, had a ministry in which he taught his disciples and did various miracles, was crucified, and rose from death a few days later. And that seems to be the minimum that has to have actually happened for Christianity to have any basis.
Most of these things we can’t really know from any other source but the New Testament. There just isn’t a lot about Jesus in any of the secular literature of the time. Of course, there are alternate Gospels, but they seem to have been written later. Even secular historians generally agree that there was an actual, historical person named Jesus, so that one’s not hard to believe. As for the rest, it depends whether you think the Gospels are “based on a true story,” as they would say in the opening movie credits. For my own take on this, please see:
The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus
And about whether we can believe anything at all about God, the spiritual world, and the afterlife, see:
Where is the Proof of the Afterlife?
I hope these articles help. Feel free to comment again if you have more questions or want to discuss these issues further. But once again, in general, other than the key facts about Jesus’ life, it just doesn’t matter to our spiritual life or the Christian faith whether the things in the Bible happened literally as described. The Bible’s message is spiritual, not earthly. It is the spiritual message and meaning that really matters, and that sets it apart as the Word of God.
Thanks for your reply and articles, which help clarify this issue for me. I agree that we should focus on the Bible’s spiritual meaning, and I think that taking a strictly literal approach is hurting Christianity’s standing in the world as a credible religion.