The Problem With Taking the Bible Literally


What would happen if you spent one year trying to take the commands of the Bible literally?

Recently, two people have tried such an experiment and written books about their experiences. A.J. Jacobs, a Jewish man, wrote a very funny book entitled?The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Rachel Held Evans, a Christian woman, is writing a book entitled (I think) A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

On her website, Rachel says the following about her book:

On October 1, 2010, I committed one year of my life to following all of the Bible?s instructions for women as literally as possible?from the Old Testament to the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation, from the Levitical purity codes to the letters of Paul.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of experiment? After all, don’t many Christians, myself included, want to take the Bible literally? We’re Christians after all. Bible lovers. We put Bible verses on the back of our cars and wear cheesy t-shirts with fake product logos on the front and Bible verses written on the back.

Unfortunately, the problem with both A.J.’s and Rachel’s projects is that they don’t interpret the Bible according to it’s own rules. In other words, they don’t really interpret the Bible literally.

To interpret the Bible literally means (yeah I know, this sounds a bit academic): to interpret each verse in light of its literary genre, historical context, author’s intent, AND point in salvation history. This last point is where lots of people go wrong when it comes to interpreting the Bible literally.

So, for example, Rachel writes:

This month, as part of my?year of biblical womanhood, I?m submitting to?taharat hamishpach, or ?family purity,? as described in Leviticus 15-18. This means I am ceremonially unclean for a total of twelve days. For those twelve days I can have no physical contact with my husband (no sex, no hugging, no affectionate pats on the back), and no physical contact with men (no handshakes, no high-fives, no passing of items like salt and pepper shakers).

As a nod to the storied ?red tents? of the biblical matriarchs (which scholars are uncertain actually existed), I spent the first three days and two nights of my?niddah (?removal/separation?) camping out in the front yard.

It’s a funny idea, right? And pretty creative, I might add. But it’s not taking the Bible literally, and it’s not biblical womanhood. Why? Because the Levitical purity laws were given by God specifically to the people of Israel. They were intended to help Israel be a pure people, separate from the surrounding pagan cultures. They took into account the specific cultural norms of the day and addressed those norms. They were written to a people living in a near-East culture. And most importantly, they were Old Covenant laws.

As Christians, we are not under the Old Covenant in any way. Romans 6:14 says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The law?was fulfilled by Jesus, completely and totally. Now we are under a new covenant in Christ. The old rules don’t apply. To try and apply old covenant rules to the new covenant is like trying to apply the rules of baseball to basketball. Or like putting new wine in old wineskins. It just doesn’t make sense.

Now why do I even care about this? Why does this bother me? Because my generation is losing its hold on the Bible. My generation is more interested in making up its own rules when it comes to womanhood, and just about every other matter. My generation thinks that whole idea of differing roles for men and women is ridiculous.


I don’t think that Rachel is trying to make the Bible look bad. I really don’t. She’s a Christian too, and cares very much about the Bible.

I am concerned, however, about the collateral damage of her project. She isn’t demonstrating true Biblical womanhood. The version of Biblical womanhood that she is portraying seems weird, bizarre, and out of place. Because it is. It’s a hybrid of old covenant and new covenant behavior. And by portraying this as Biblical womanhood, I think she does damage to those who truly are pursuing Biblical womanhood.

Rachel, if you happen to read this, please don’t take it as an attack on you personally. I know that you are a fellow Christian and that you want to honor the Lord. So if I’m misunderstanding this project, please feel free to correct me! I hate it when people misunderstand me, and I don’t want to do the same to you.

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Stephen Altrogge

I'm a husband, dad, writer, & Mixed Martial Arts Salsa Dancing Champion. I created The Blazing Center. I've also written some books which people seem to like. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook