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The Source of Early Stories


Question & Answer


Q: By Owen Foster

I have a lot of respect for the non-literal interpretation of the New and Old Testament, but there are certain parts that I cannot see any metaphorical value in.
 My stumbling blocks are these:

1. What is the metaphorical message given by the genealogy found in genesis and in the gospels? It is the former that precisely gives young earth creationists their earth age.

2. What is the metaphorical value of the various horrific laws laid down in Deuteronomy or Leviticus? I can’t see a non-literal interpretation of telling us to destroy people who have sex if a woman is on her period.

Feel free to reword these questions, but please do try to answer. I am searching for Christ but there are so many stumbling blocks. My recovery from atheism is being hindered by Christians who either tiptoe around these issues or tell me to worship an evil tyrant.

A: By Fred Plumer

Well Owen you are on your way to a more clear understanding of the Bible, what it is and what it is not.

First let’s look at your question, number 1. I hope my answer explains a lot about the rest of the Bible.

First, one has to remember that the majority of the Bible was not actually written. And the parts that were written down by the original authors, particularly in the New Testament, were being translated, numerous times, redacted and were hand-picked by scribes with their own explanations. What you read in these “metaphorical messages” did not start out as written stories. These are most likely stories that were first told by the ancient people whose relatives lived in the Mesopotamian Valley. Most scholars understand that “humans” were first formed in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago. But these were, in large part, groups or tribes who lived off the land and were what we would call today “hunters and gathers.” Where religion existed, in those days, it was in large part matriarchically.

Somewhere around 10,000 to 8,000 the people who migrated to the Mesopotamian Valley began to organize into communities. And for the first time humans began to domesticate their animals and crops, live in separate houses or huddles, and gather as a community to make laws. It was a long process but one of the changes that occurred over the millennium was a transition to more patriarchal gods.

All along this roughly 6000 year journey we are on, the people were telling stories. Many of these stories ended up in the Bible, if you understand their significance. For example there is the story of Cain and Abel. What was Cain’s punishment for killing his brother? He had to toil in the fields. This is, in part, right out of the conflict between the hunters and gathers and the people who decided that they were going to organize and farm. The Midrash of this story (point of the story) is, he who kills, kills his brother or sister.

Another example is the flood story. If you know anything about the Mesopotamian Valley, you know that it was known for its huge flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers until several dams were built in the mid-seventies. But these early settlers looked for the most fertile ground to make their stand and of course, it was in the plains where these tremendous floods had been and would be again and again. Thus it is not difficult to understand where the flood story came from. This is why, floods from God appear in so many of the different religious stories today.

Now when you read the early OT stories, remember that these are not stories that were written down as they happened. They were stories told probably over community fires by possibly, an honored grandmother, who wanted to explain to a child why her mother has to go through so much pain to have a baby. These are created stories that attempt to explain why people have to die or why we are punished when we do something bad. This is why these ancient people believed in a three tiered world. These were never intended to be factual. Factual was not a word that they would have understood.

This is one of the reasons I have to chuckle when someone tells me that the earth is 6,000 years old. As you pointed out, this is done by the fundamentalist and some evangelicals by taking the ages of the people, starting in the Genesis stories, and carrying it through the entire Bible of the made up people, and possibly some real ones. Then they add up all of their ages to figure out how old the earth “really is.” This is why we find people who supposedly lived extraordinary long years when all of our scientific data tells us that the average age for these ancient people was between 30 and 40 years. It was an honor to live a long life and this is why, for example, Adam is supposed to have lived to be 930 years old and had his first child at 130 years old. His son lived to be 912 years. These are the kind of beliefs that keep some “Christians” from accepting the truth. That is why they are still looking for the ark and denying that prehistorical animals like dinosaurs actually existed. And yes, many of them still believe the earth is flat.

Regarding the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, question number 2, I believe you are a little off here but with the right idea. This are not metaphorical but rather some pretty harsh laws the some early Jewish people believed they had to follow when they were wandering tribes. However, the Leviticus laws were actually written in large part, for the honored Leviticus priest. They were considered a cleansing so that they would be pure.

Remember these were ancient times and were much harsher times when they were written. Jesus would not have lived as long as he did if his community had been following these laws. Ninety percent of Jewish people do not treat these rules as something of importance today. Only the most conservative Jews would even consider them relevant.

As far as your movement into Christianity, none of this should slow or hinder your progress. You just have to stop listening to fundamentalist and some evangelical Christians and listen more to the wonderful stories of the very human Jesus, who fought for the rights of the poor, who stood up to authorities, who gave the ultimate sacrifice, who loved people of all persuasions, who lived as a caring mystic, and who truly believed he was doing God’s work. What was His work? Live your life fully, with compassion and love. Focus on his positives and truly live more freely.

It is not a bad place to be.

~ Fred C. Plumer

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author

In 1986 Rev. Plumer was called to the Irvine United Congregational Church in Irvine, CA to lead a UCC new start church, where he remained until he retired in 2004. The church became known throughout the denomination as one of the more exciting and progressive mid-size congregations in the nation. He served on the Board of Directors of the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) for five years, and chaired the Commission for Church Development and Evangelism for three of those years.

In 2006 Fred was elected President of (originally called The Center for Progressive Christianity – TCPC) when it’s founder Jim Adams retired. As a member of the Executive Council for TCPC he wrote The Study Guide for The 8 Points by which we define: Progressive Christianity. He has had several articles published on church development, building faith communities and redefining the purpose of the enlightened Christian Church. His book Drink from the Well is an anthology from speeches, articles in eBulletins, and numerous publications that define the progressive Christianity movement as it evolves to meet new challenges in a rapidly changing world.

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