The plain, simple meaning. What it naturally means. Literal, straightforward meaning. A Hebrew word that has come to stand for it is p’shat (puh-SHOT), “to remove, strip off, flatten” (it also has a second meaning, “to advance, dash ahead”). Richard Longenecker says in Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period that it came to mean “to stretch out, extend, make plain.”
The idea of interpreting the Bible literally is commonly thought to be the right way to do it. The dirty secret is that most religious belief systems are not based on a collection of ideas derived by literally reading the Bible. No branch of Judaism simply reads the Pentateuch literally and applies it directly to modern life. Dozens of intervening exceptions and transforming equations come into play, so that no one is stoning rebellious teenagers in the Jewish world.
In the same way, modern Christians have a pre-existing set of beliefs which rely on reading some texts and not others. Or at least, some texts fit well into the belief structure and others must be demoted or reinterpreted in a way that fits with the dogma. Thus, verses like “the Lord does not reject forever” and “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” are incorporated only by reinterpretation (they can’t possibly mean that God ultimately forgives and resurrects everyone, right?).
Still, plain reading of the text is a common goal. Even the famous allegorical interpreter, Philo of Alexandria (lived in the time of Paul), often read the Bible with a literal eye. This is especially true concerning the practice of commandments, the do’s and the don’ts.
But literal interpretation, as has often been observed, raises many questions. Is the meaning in the words themselves or does it reside in the intention of the original author, the intention of editors who updated biblical texts, some hidden intention of God, or is it something entirely different (is meaning what the reader decides it is?)?
So, for example, Deuteronomy 6 says to write “these words” on the “doorposts of the house.” The common Jewish interpretation seems to find the meaning in the words themselves. Therefore, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is one of two Torah passages written in a tiny Hebrew script on parchment, which is made into a tiny roll and inserted into a small object (a mezuzah) affixed to the door. So “these words” comes to mean the very paragraph included in the commandment.
Someone else, arguing that Moses is the author of Deuteronomy, might take issue and say, “No, Moses did not mean just this one paragraph. He meant all his words.” That could lead to at least two divergent practices. In one, a person might feel obligated to place the entire Pentateuch on the doorpost. This would be a rather absurd and impossible commandment (a Torah scroll is large and impractical to mount on a doorpost). Or it might mean people picking and choosing verses or sayings they like from the Pentateuch, with no uniform selection required.
But another person might say, “We think Deuteronomy is not written by Moses, but a later figure — the Deuteronomist, possible Jeremiah or his scribe Baruch.” It might follow that “these words” means the book of Deuteronomy and that the commandment is to place part or the whole of Deuteronomy on the doorpost.
A historian, however, or a historically minded interpreter, might say the original audience heard this command in light of common practices of the day. People from the surrounding cultures would inscribe phrases on their dwelling places in various ways. These could be prayers, expressions of loyalty to a god or goddess, blessings, etc. They might be intended to ward off evil or invite the presence and favor of a deity. By this interpretation, any words derived from the Pentateuch might fulfill the commandment. But it should be an inscription that can be read, not a tiny parchment hidden inside a box (mezuzah) attached to the doorpost.
Finally, someone who thinks a text’s meaning is what the reader sees in it — with no objective constraint to a single meaning, an author’s intention, or any original audience and culture from the time a text may have been written — might feel liberty to write whatever they want on the door.
Most people, in spite of the difficulty of pinning down what literal means, can see a general truth about literal interpretation. Some things are plain. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. We might debate what acts of violence are murder and whether some acts of violence are permitted. We might debate what kinds of marriage or relationship are sacred and bound by the principle of fidelity. But some acts are indefensible violations of these commandments to the vast majority of people.
And there is a general pattern of literally obeying Torah that characterizes Jewish life (or the observant segment of Jewish life). Working and shopping on the Sabbath is not permitted.
As we will see in forthcoming articles, literal reading was only one ancient Jewish mode. When do we read it literally and when do we look to a more creative mode of interpretation?