Donkeys, Elephants, and Poems (Is the Bible true? Part 4)

What happens when you interpret a poem like a legal document? Weird stuff.

In the U.S. world of politics, Democrats are often charactered as donkeys and Republicans as elephants. There are poems stored on the internet about donkeys and elephants that ask people to choose between being a donkey or elephant.

Now imagine the human race is still going strong 2,000 years from now, we still have access to these poems, the U.S. goes the way of Rome, and with the exception of a few experts in the field of U.S. Politics (comparable to say medieval experts now), the political association with donkeys and elephants is all but lost.

Imagine someone finds a poem and starts reading about people fighting over donkeys and elephants. They’re going to do one of a few things. Assume the poem is literally about people fighting over donkeys and elephants and think to themselves this is why the U.S. fell. Or they’ll pause and ask themselves maybe this poem isn’t literally about people fighting over donkeys and elephants. Maybe there’s something deeper going on at which they’ll have to apply an interpretation process.

So is the Bible true? It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a halfway accurate way of interpreting it. In our fictional case above, the person studying the poem should start with LITERATURE TYPE first. When you study scripture you should always ask yourself what literature type you’re reading first. It’s going to help you interpret what’s going on.

Imagine walking into a courthouse, reading legal documents like they’re poems and applying logic that allows you to reduce a legal document to nothing more than poetic phrases that mean nothing about what the legal document is actually talking about. Now reverse the process: imagine taking a poem and treating all of the symbolic language in it as literal fact. People fighting over donkeys and elephants? No. People fighting over politics. Oh.

Different literature types require different rules of interpretation. When you’re reading anything in scripture you have to ask yourself what type of literature you’re reading. Is it a poem? Is it a narrative? Is it historical? Is is apocalyptic? Is it a letter? Is it a song? The American Bible Society has a piece on literature types on their website worth reading.

Poems are generally symbolic right? Law documents are literal. Narratives might have a mix of figurative and literal. Songs are sort of like poems yes? Genealogies? Literal.

So let’s take our question again, Is the Bible true? You must ask what sort of true you mean. Let’s take Revelation 12. It tells a story about a Red Dragon chasing a woman clothed in the sun, who is giving birth to a son who would rule the nation. Take my word on it, it’s apocalyptic poetry which means it’s symbolic. Symbolic images can point to real events but it doesn’t mean the imagery is literally true.

This chapter in Revelation is not literally true. A literal red dragon isn’t actually chasing a literal woman clothed in the sun, giving birth to a boy would who rule the nations. It is however figuratively true. It’s a poem, much like the donkeys and elephants example above, that describes a real event, not literally, but figuratively. That event is none other than the birth of Christ to Mary and how the evil one influenced Herod to try and get Jesus killed at a young age. The poem pointed to a real event but the literalness of the poem wasn’t the point. What it poetically describes is.

Now for the buzzkill. Sometimes the only way to know the literature type you’re reading in scripture is to know the original language and their sentence structures. That can be daunting. Hebrew poetry structure looks different than English poetry structure. An example of this is Genesis 1–2.

People hate it when you suggest Genesis 1–2 isn’t a historical record or written with a structure that implies literalness. Genesis 1–2 is Hebrew poetry. The reason that people do not like this is because it messes with their view of how things are supposed to work and it challenges them and lets be honest, no one ever wants their views challenged.

Now you can try and interpret Genesis 1–2 as a scientific historical research paper but it’s not written in that format. You can apply scientific, historical, or literal interpretation rules to this poem if you’d like but at the end of the day, Genesis 1–2 will always be Hebrew poetry (be sure to check this information out about Hebrew poetry). More often than not, poems are symbolic.

So how do you interpret a poem? Symbolically. How do you interpret the symobolism? You cannot without context. That’s our next post. Is Genesis 1–2 poetically true? Yes. Does Genesis 1–2 truly reveal God? Absolutely.

Literature types you might find in scripture

  • Historical Literature
  • Dramatic Literature
  • Song Lyrics
  • Legal Documents
  • Poetry
  • Wisdom Literature
  • Apocalyptic Literature
  • Narratives
  • Sermons

You may appreciate this article on literature types in scripture. From “Hebrews 1:1 says that God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. The various ways includes these different literature types.”

Is the Bible true?

  • Part 1: Or maybe the better question is, “How is the Bible true?”
  • Part 2: Are we retelling these stories with the same motivation the original storytellers did?
  • Part 3: A process for getting at that question
  • Part 4: Donkeys, Elephants, and Poems
  • Part 5: Wild boars are the key to unlocking it all
  • Part 6: Onions in PaRaDiSe
  • Part 7: The God and Satan Contradiction
  • Part 8: Creation to New Creation
  • Part 9: Answering the question
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