Burnt or Fired?

Friday, May 1st, 2020

Audio Version

In my last blog post, I referenced the sobering obituary in Leviticus 10 of the deviant, errant eldest sons of Aaron, brother Nadab and brother Abihu. They lost not only their priestly jobs but also their mortal lives to an incinerating blast of furious flame. They were very literally fired.

To speak of their fearsome demise as being fired, might sound glib. But I do have a good reason. I am not just playing cute with terminology. My intent is to demonstrate the important difference between the literal use of a word as opposed to the common use of a word. 

For example, if I were to say, “I got fired today” you would very likely understand the word fired in a common, conventional way, and not in a strictly literal way. We know that the phrase to get fired means that one’s employment was abruptly revoked. That is just how the expression to get fired is commonly used. But it is not the literal meaning — not at all. Hopefully, no one got burnt, singed, or scorched in the event. Someone simply lost their job.   

This confusion of the literal and the conventional can become a problem for us when we read texts in translation, like the Bible. Our tendency is to lean too much on the literal meaning of a word. Unsurprisingly, we want to read things literally. It is seemingly the most straightforward and simple approach. But it is not necessarily the best approach. Sometimes a word is better understood through common convention or specialized use. We need to find out how that word was commonly used or how it might have been understood in a special context.

For example, in the Book of Revelation Jesus is spoken of in many different ways. He is called Jesus Christ. He is called the Alpha and the Omega. He is called One Like a Son of Man. He is called the Faithful Witness. He is called the Son of God. He is called the Holy One, the True One. He is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is called the Root of David. He is called the Lamb. He is called the Word of God. He is called King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is called the Bright Morning Star. He is called all of these names and titles, and quite a few more.

Some of these names and titles for Jesus are literal. He is literally the Son of God. He is literally the Faithful Witness. But some of the names given to Jesus in the Book of Revelation cannot possibly be literal. Jesus is not literally a lamb. Jesus is not literally two Greek letters. He is not literally a lion. He is not literally a star. We should acknowledge the difference. And we should try to understand these non-literal names and titles within their historical and literary context, and by virtue of their common, conventional use by Christian churches way back in the first century.

Rather than think of the Book of Revelation in strict literal or non-literal terms, it is much more helpful to think of the book in historical and contextual terms. We should ask questions like: How would first-century Christians in the Roman province of Asia have heard and understood this? What would have been their common understanding of this word, this sentence, this symbol, this image, or this reference? 

We should also pursue answers to questions like: What exactly is being referenced here? Is there a historical reference here? Is there a scriptural reference here? That last question is especially important, since subtle scriptural references appear in almost every verse of Revelation. That’s no exaggeration. 

In conclusion, we cannot read Revelation in strictly literal terms. It has too much symbolism. And it contains far too many subtle references. But sometimes Revelation does have literal elements. Since every reader is an interpreter, every reader must try to discern when the book is presenting literal material and when it is not. Revelation itself will often provide telltale clues. Always try to discern whether what you are reading is symbolic, literal, or a blend of the two. 

One thought on “Burnt or Fired?

  1. I fully agree! This reminded me of a historical theologian’s discussion I recently read on an object/word being the thing itself, a sign of the thing, or sometimes both (maybe Aquinas or Abelard?). It is best for those in the Church to be equipped to interpret God’s Word, both individually and communally.


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