Last night I was having a discussion with some friends about different stories in the Bible like Job and Jonah. During the conversation, we dove into the question of whether or not the characters in these stories literally experienced the things they did. Take Job, for instance. Did God literally make a deal with satan where he was allowed to take everything away from Job including his children and personal well-being? And does anyone really think that having more children and more possessions makes up for the loss he experienced in the first few chapters?
Personally, I do not see Jesus, the Word of God, treating Job like this, and if Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature, then I don’t see God doing it either.
I think, instead, that the Book of Job was written to answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job’s wife and three friends represent conventional wisdom. “Surely Job did something wrong, right?” And, yet, Job maintains his innocence throughout the story. The book ends without really giving an answer because, I think, there doesn’t always have to be one. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and it’s not that God needed another angel (as if God needs anything) or that the person sinned. However, the story tells us, that God is with us through the tragedy and can make all things new.
But here’s my point: regardless of whether or not the story literally happened, it is just as true, just as sacred, just as inspired, and just as real.
In fact, debating whether or not Job is a historical account of a man’s suffering and God making a bet with an other-worldly being called satan misses the point. If we focus on it, we actually miss the truth that is within the story.
The same is true with Jonah. I’m not interested in whether or not Jonah was swallowed by a big fish or a whale and how all that works. To me it isn’t the point of the story. The purpose of the story is to challenge Israel to answer the question of how to deal with the other nations. Did God care about them? Did God want a relationship with them? That, to me, is why the book is left without an end; Israel had to answer the question for themselves.
Most debates that focus on whether or not an Old Testament story really happened (is “literally true”) distract us from the challenge of the story. We can spend hours debating the specifics of Jonah’s journey to Sheol, but then we miss the challenge to take the word of God to our enemies because God loves them too. We can write books on how to interpret the creation story, but if we focus too much on those debates, we might miss the challenge of God creating order with everything in its place and how sin disrupts that order.
There are Christians of different backgrounds who take some stories as being more historical and others being classified as poetry or parable, but the truth in the story isn’t dependent upon whether or not those passages are a video camera view of what happened in the past. The parables of Jesus are true even though they are sometimes exaggerations, over the top, and totally unrealistic (like a king forgiving a debt of 10,000 talents or a merchant selling everything to purchase one pearl). But Jesus’s parables aren’t less true than the historical accounts of His life.
I have a good friend who loves to read a wide range of scholars. Some of them have different views as to the historicity of certain Old Testament books, but he tells me over and over that he gets a lot from these books regardless of how he disagrees with their views as to the exact nature of those stories. He is able to find truth in those pages because the truth is often deeper than “literally true.” The truth is in the story.