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"One of my friends has a question but wants to stay anonymous:
Why didn't He write the Bible in plain English instead of a bunch of stories and riddles that allow room for misinterpretation?"

Hey, thanks for the question! This is definitely a tough one, and Christians have been asking this question for millenia.

The smart aleck, sarcastic side of me wants to immediately quip that the English language didn't even exist 2,000+ years ago when the Bible was written. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. While my wife might roll her eyes at me for acting like such a know-it-all, this is really important to remember when studying the Bible. The book that we all read nowadays was translated from two ancient languages, one of which (ancient Greek) isn't even spoken anymore. That said, we do have some very accurate translations based on very ancient texts.

I think what your question really deals with is the literary nature of the Bible's language, so let me break your question down into three parts: stories, "riddles," and figurative language.

So, why is the Bible full of stories? Well, there are a number of reasons.

1. The Bible spends a lot of time relating historical events, specifically in many of the Old Testament books, the Gospels, and the book of Acts. How else do you relate these events, except through stories? I guess it could be written in the form of a history book... and actually, the books of first and second Chronicles and first and second Kings read very much like a history book. But yes, other parts of the Bible do read like a story.

2. As any good English major (such as myself) will tell you, there is so much that can be taught through a story! Many times, you can make a simple statement or express a truth, and nobody will buy it. But if you express that truth in a story without necessarily coming right out and saying it, oftentimes the story will drive the truth home much, much more effectively! In the English department, we usually refer to stories that do this well as "literature." By putting a truth in story form, it helps us to experience it much more deeply than if someone just told it to us. The grand narrative of the Old Testament imparts many truths, most of which are also explicitly restated in places like the Wisdom Books and the New Testament. Some of these truths are "God is all powerful," "God is love," "God is present everywhere," "God is all-knowing," "God is a just God," and many more. If someone just told you those things, would you believe them right away? Through the Old Testament, we see how God displays his various characteristics in the history of the people of Israel. This helps drive these truths home more than anything else!

You refer to the Bible as "a bunch of stories and riddles." I will agree with you when you mention the stories, but what exactly do you mean by "riddles?" I don't really agree with you here. I can see that some things can be difficult to comprehend at times, but I don't think that it means those hard-to-understand things are "riddles."

The connotation of the word "riddle" implies that the person giving the riddle doesn't want the person hearing or reading it to actually find the answer, and often, riddles involve seeming paradoxes. I don't think that we have any blatant "riddles" in the Bible.

Figurative Language
I think this may the single biggest thing that you are having issues with. It would be nearly impossible for me to give you a full analysis of the theoretical purpose behind the use of metaphor and other figurative language in this simple blog post. Regardless, here are a couple of reasons metaphor can be useful:
  1. 1. Metaphors can help us understand a new concept by relating it to something that we already know. By saying that God is like a mother hen, for instance, it doesn't mean that God has wings... the metaphor is just helping us understand one of God's characteristics, specifically his sheltering, caring nature and the fact that he is always looking out for us.
  2. 2. Figurative language can help explain something that we don't fully understand. In the book of Revelation, John describes many fantastic things that don't seem to make sense and that seem hard to understand. One of the reasons that he uses the language he does could be that he is simply trying to explain, based on his knowledge of his world, things that he could not possibly comprehend. 
  3. 3. A metaphor is a literary device (see the "stories" section above). As such, it is useful to provide variety. Would you really like the Bible to read as a series of "dos" and "don'ts"? Well, I'd contend that the very nature of the message is entirely opposite of that anyway. However, it's important to note that the Bible isn't written as a textbook. There are many different types of writing, and much of it is literary in nature.
  4. 4. How else do you explain a being as complex and unknowable as God? This relates to #1, but it's important to realize that you can't just say "God is love." Well what is love in the first place? How is he love? The questions multiply instead of diminishing.
While this has been a very brief attempt to answer a really deep question, I hope that my response has helped you understand a little bit better why the Bible is written the way it is. If you have any more specific questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below!

2 responses to "Tough Question #1: Language of the Bible"

  1. Great post Greg!

    I appreciated your brief, yet concise, analysis. I also hope that this post reaches whoever originally asked the question and that it could be helpful to them when dealing with the issue of language and how the Bible was written.

    It reminds me of A.W. Tozer's thoughts on the topic of language, analogies, and trying to describe God.

    Tozer describes God and his attributes as a being that is unlike anything (that we have knowledge of). He continues to explain that what we perceive is based upon what we know, further defining learning as a process of relating concepts/things to what we already know. Tozer recognizes that this is a flawed, but important use of intellect and learning. While it is necessary to understand the supernatural through the natural, we mustn't depend on that knowledge and analogies to define God. Doing so leads to idolatry as he explains through this passage:

    "When we try to imagine what God is like we must of necessity use that which is not God as the raw material for our minds to work on; hence, whatever we visualize God to be, He is not, for we have constructed our image out of that which He has made and what He has made God is not. If we insist upon trying to imagine Him, we end up with an idol, made not with hands but with thoughts; and an idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand."

    Analogies and "likeness" is used to explain the supernatural in the Bible. Language cannot lead us to a full understanding.

    "Let faith support us where reason fails, and we shall think because we believe, not in order that we may believe." - AW Tozer

    Maybe I should write a full post with all of this in mind... :)


  2. Maybe you should! That's great stuff, AJ. Believe it or not, much of what we talked about in my Rhetorical Theory class this semester relates to this, even though we weren't talking about the Infinite.

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