It never fails that I find myself perusing some interesting forums on Catholic Answers. Just the other day I wound up on a few old threads that were discussing some of the generous life spans in the early chapters of Genesis. You remember; those people whom Scripture says lived for many centuries.
Throughout the thread the discussion came down to two distinct and opposing factions that, if given the chance, would have excommunicated each other right there on the forums. On one side you had the literalist interpreters, those who believed that the exact meanings of the words were the exact meaning of the texts, un-nuanced by deeper meanings. They viewed the Bible as a precise historical record. If Genesis says that Seth lived 912 years (which it does) that means gosh darn it that Seth literally lived for that long (somebody who died today who had lived 912 years, would have been born in the year 1103 when Henry I was king of England). There were no literary devices in use in that text. I was surprised to see many of these commenters also espousing extreme young earth philosophy (not that I’m saying that that is bad, it’s just not something I’ve been used to in Catholic circles).
On the other hand you had the literal commenters who immediately and flippantly dismissed the texts as obviously symbolic. People today don’t live anywhere close to that long so the text could not be stating a numeric fact; it was using a literary device in order to inform the original audience of a deeper meaning. Anyone suggesting otherwise was a dangerous fanatical fundamentalist.
I could see both sides. On the literalist side commenters were dumbfounded that Catholics of faith found it so difficult to believe that God could have allowed humans to live to such long life spans. They were astounded that they would prefer the science of our current human state to the infallible word of God, which according to one commenter was recorded word-for-word from the lips of God (perhaps I’ll write about the problem of that idea in a later post). On the literal side, the commenters simply could not believe that someone could not see that there are many different kinds of literature in the Bible and that all could not be interpreted in the same way, that not all passages are to be taken literally.
I fall in the middle somewhere. So these are my messages. First to the literalists, those who hold that the Bible is history book and that the word-for-word, plain meaning of the texts is the supreme or accurate interpretation. You must realize that none of the texts in the Bible were written in modern English in 21st century western literary culture. You simply cannot expect all texts in the Bible to fit our contemporary modes of interpretation. You must go back to the literary styles of the date and place. This is precisely what the Catechism teaches in Paragraphs 109-114.
But my second message is perhaps even more important, and it is to the literalists. Don’t simply assume that an event is a literary device simply because something seems scientifically impossible. Sure, the Church doesn’t dogmatically teach that the great Flood was a real historical event that actually occurred, but neither does she dogmatically teach that it is only a device used to teach a lesson. We cannot assume that because the Flood is scientifically improbable that it didn’t occur. Our God is a God of miracles. If we dismiss the long life spans, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Lot’s Wife, the Plagues, the Parting of the Sea, and the numerous other miracles simply because they were scientifically or archaeologically unlikely, what is to stop us from denying other miracles: the wine at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000, raising Lazarus from the dead, the healing of lepers, the vanquishing of demons, and the two miracles that I would argue are most important: the Resurrection and the Eucharist?
I am not saying that every miracle recorded in the Old Testament actually occurred, but we should be careful when we dismiss something as a literary device simply because it is too awesome to believe to be true. We worship a God, not a god. We worship one who creates the natural laws, but is not bound by them. We worship a God of surprises, a God of love, a God of surprising love! We worship a God who daily performs miracles across tens of thousands of altars in order to manifest his love and his salvation to every race, tribe, and tongue. We are not on a symbolic journey, but are truly on a quest for the miraculous.