5 Things in the Bible We Should Not Take Literally

Britt Mooney

Contributing Writer
Published Sep 11, 2023
5 Things in the Bible We Should Not Take Literally
Brought to you by Christianity.com

As a parent, I’ve been frustrated with my kids when they don’t clean up after dinner, or they forget their chores and therefore, have uttered the common phrase, “I’ve told you a million times …” before further explaining their mistake. If I’m particularly frustrated, I might say I told them “a billion times.”

Or perhaps after skipping a meal and having a late dinner, I’ve sat down at the table and said, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

These are cliché expressions many use but don’t mean literally. I haven’t counted, but I can say with some confidence I hadn’t told my kids “A million times.”

I’m simply expressing how I’ve told them enough they should definitely know better. I’ve never been hungry enough to actually eat a horse. I’m sure eating a horse in one sitting is impossible, even if I were hungry.

Hyperbole is a common device in everyday conversation used to create emphasis, evoke strong emotion, and make a point. We exaggerate to emphasize a concept; not meant to be taken literally. Hyperbole adds color, humor, and drama to their speech.

The Bible is a holy book, sacred in its inspiration and use, but it also uses literary devices and genres such as poetry, narrative, metaphor, and even hyperbole.

Jesus especially used hyperbole during his teachings to express the extreme and absolute truth of his doctrine. However, he never meant for us to take certain phrases and ideas literally.

Proper reading of the scripture means realizing when Christ was using hyperbole to make a point. Here are some important examples.

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Brood of snakes

1. Trampling Serpents and Scorpions

This verse is part of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples as he sent them out to preach. The use of metaphors like “snakes and scorpions” and “power of the enemy” symbolizes spiritual dangers and opposition rather than literal creatures.

Taking Luke 10:19 literally can lead to misunderstandings and dangerous behavior. Interpreting it as a mandate to handle dangerous animals or test one’s immunity to harm might disregard the broader message of faith and obedience.

A literal reading overlooks the broader teachings of humility and reliance on God. The Bible consistently encourages believers to place their trust in God’s protection, rather than testing it recklessly.

The context is being sent out to preach the gospel, and the disciples were sure to meet resistance, both spiritual and physical. For us, we should also understand how we are called to the Great Commission, to go and make disciples, and as such, will encounter spiritual and physical resistance.

However, we take comfort in God’s protection and power to defeat and overcome spiritual conflict while called on his mission.

“Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19).

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woman covering one eye peering through hand plank in my eye

2. Pluck Out Your Eye

Jesus used hyperbole here to emphasize the seriousness of sin. Our disobedience to God hurts ourselves and others, and seen through God’s eyes, sin is an extremely disturbing act, going against the image of God he created.

Jesus uses this disturbing image of plucking out our own eyes to reveal how awful and self-destructive sin is. In other words, Jesus is explaining how we should avoid sin like we would avoid mangling our own body since sin mangles our eternal soul.

This is the exact opposite of literally telling us to disfigure ourselves. Jesus wants us to live according to righteousness to be whole and complete.

Also, Jesus continually explains how sin is an issue of the heart, not external. Disfiguring ourselves won’t address the root of sin, our own desires.

It is those desires we must see as needing to change and remove, and Jesus continually preached repentance and a change of heart over self-inflicted harm. This type of religious self-harm is legalistic to the extreme, the opposite of grace and inward change.

Interpreting these verses literally contradicts the overall message of grace, forgiveness, and transformation that Jesus taught. Jesus often used hyperbolic language to emphasize the seriousness of sin, but he consistently preached repentance and a change of heart over self-inflicted harm.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell”(Matthew 5:29-30).

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The Lord's Supper

3. Eat Flesh and Drink Blood

It might seem silly for us to take this one literally since it contradicts the sacramental understanding of the Eucharist in many Christian traditions. The majority of Christians believe the bread and wine used in communion symbolize the body and blood of Christ, commemorating his sacrifice, rather than literally becoming his flesh and blood.

We have almost two thousand years of clear teaching and religious traditions where we don’t actually eat flesh and drink blood. The Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t have that history, and the large crowd hearing him speak these words were understandably offended and confused.

On one level, Jesus’ regular use of hyperbole might give a clue to this phrase as a metaphor. At the same time, eating human flesh and drinking human blood was against clear biblical prohibitions against consuming blood (Leviticus 17:11-12).

This sounded like cannibalism and human sacrifice, which is what the evil, idolatrous nations would do, nations God wiped out for this particular sin.

In context, Jesus didn’t explain how he didn’t mean it literally when most of the crowd left him that day. It was a challenge to accept him completely and wholeheartedly.

So much so that he turned to his closest disciples and asked if they were going to leave him, too. Their response, “Where can we go? You have the words of life.” They stuck with him and got the explanation later during the first communion.

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him’” (John 6:53-56).

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Mother and daughter looking confused on a couch

4. Hate Your Mom and Dad

Did Jesus want us to hate our families? Shouldn’t we love people?

Interpreting this verse literally would conflict with other teachings of Jesus that emphasize love, compassion, and familial responsibilities.

Jesus himself taught the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself and the parable of the Good Samaritan, which underlines the importance of caring for others.

The principle of interpreting Scripture in light of the overall message of the Bible is essential. Jesus’ central teachings encourage love, reconciliation, and harmony among individuals and families.

A prophecy related to John the Baptist announcing the coming Messiah is how God would turn the hearts of fathers to their children and children to the fathers.

The term “hate” is extreme, especially in light of our relationships with family, and this would get anyone’s attention. Yet Christ wasn’t telling us to be abusive or hateful to our family. This was a matter of identity and how Christ should have primacy in our lives. True disciples of Jesus must love him above all else, which is why other translations say, “Anyone who loves mother or father more than me isn’t worthy of being my disciple.”

We are to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. The resulting promise is how all of our earthly worries will be taken care of in light of seeking first the Kingdom, which would naturally include family relationships and reconciliation.

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).

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Man and woman looking at each other from their park benches

5. Lust Is the Same as Adultery 

Again, Jesus uses language to emphasize the seriousness of sin. This verse is in the same passage as plucking out your eyes and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus continues to underscore the importance of addressing the root causes of sinful behavior rather than focusing solely on outward actions.

During Jesus’ time, it was common for married men to see a woman they wanted to have sex with, but since that would be adultery, they would divorce their wives and remarry the new woman.

The Law of Moses allowed them to get a certificate of divorce, so they abused this as a loophole to commit adultery. Jesus challenges this further in the chapter, making it clear they are still committing adultery (Matthew 5:32).

Jesus was challenging the legalistic approach of the Jews to society, how they manipulated the Law of God for their own selfish ends. The Mosaic Law was meant for compassion and redemption. To use it for loopholes to sin was abuse and evil.

God looks at the heart as well as the action, and the root of adultery is our lust. We must repent, and in the New Covenant, we’ve been made a New Creation, filled with the Holy Spirit as partakers of the divine nature.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Reading the Bible, we must remember to interpret through the voice of the Holy Spirit and trusted teachers in community to help us understand the deeper meanings to change our hearts for our eternal good and the good of others.

For further reading:

What Did Jesus Mean by ‘I Have Given You Authority to Trample on Snakes’?

What Does 'An Eye for an Eye' Mean?

What Does the Bible Say about the Lust of the Flesh?

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This article originally appeared on Christianity.com. For more faith-building resources, visit Christianity.com. Christianity.com

Britt MooneyBritt Mooney lives and tells great stories. As an author of fiction and non -iction, he is passionate about teaching ministries and nonprofits the power of storytelling to inspire and spread truth. Mooney has a podcast called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author of We Were Reborn for This: The Jesus Model for Living Heaven on Earth as well as Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.

Originally published Wednesday, 13 September 2023.