Of Spaceships and City Streets: G.K. Beale on Two Kinds of “Literal” Reading

In his massive and massively helpful A New Testament Biblical TheologyG. K. Beale spends the opening chapters outlining the storyline of the Bible and the eschatological nature of the Old Testament. Rather than defining eschatology as merely that category of doctrine that describes future events, he rightly explains how the original creation came with “eschatological potential” (89). Still, what is most helpful in his approach to reading the Bible eschatologically is his approach to reading the Bible “literally.”

Much debate continues on this point today, and to quote the “theologian” Mandy Patinkin (of Princess Bride fame), I do not believe most people who demand a literal reading know what that word means. Or at least, their definition and use only consider one aspect of a literal reading—namely, a narrow reading of individual texts, without considering how a literal reading can also be applied to whole books, including the whole canon itself.

In short, Beale provides a colorful illustration which helps get at the heart of this debate. He affirms that a close-up view of the world (i.e., standing on a city street) and a distant view of the world (i.e., one taken from a spaceship) are both literal. The difference is one of perspective, not care for what’s in view.

Just the same, some passages in the Bible (especially those related to apocalyptic literature) present visions of God’s world and God’s work from different distances. And thus, we should read them accordingly. Just as we should  seek to consider when any passages is written in revelation history, we should also consider from what distance is this prophetic word being spoken.

This is why Beale’s words about Genesis 49 are so helpful; they teach us that a literal reading is not defined by strict adherence to the textual horizon. Rather, literal reading applies at all phases of the Bible. Here are his words.

Accordingly, Jacob’s prophecy is similar, in a sense, to inhabitants of another planet in a spaceship some distance from the earth. They can see with the naked eye the earth and its various shades of white, blue, green, and brown (representing clouds, bodies of water, and land masses). They radio back to their home planet and describe what they see from this distance. It does not appear to the naked eye that there is much distance between the spacecraft and the final destination of earth, only empty space and a few other planets and stars stand between them. When their spaceship approaches closer to the earth, however, the stars and planets are better recognized as actually far from earth after all. Then when their spacecraft reaches earth and begins to descend into the atmosphere over, say, New York City, they are able to make out the rivers, forests, valleys, and particularly the city, buildings, houses, cars, and people.

Both the distant and the close-up views are “literal.” The close-up picture reveals details that someone with only a distant view cannot have seen. The close-up view even offers what looks like a different reality from the one seen from the distant vantage point. Nevertheless, both are literal depictions of what is actually there. Jacob’s focus on the distant, prophetic climactic destination of Judah’s reign is compacted together with other events involving other tribes that appear to him perhaps close to and leading directly up to the historical end-time climax, but as redemptive-historical revelation develops, these other events take place long before the zenith point in Judah is reached (just as the planets and stars are finally seen to be farther from earth than formerly perceived). (95–96)

As we read the Bible in 2019, may we read the Bible literally but not narrowly. May the Spirit who inspired the Word teach us how to read his Word, so that we might understand how every verse runs like a river to Christ. In this way, a literal reading of verse is improved by the literal reading of the whole canon, and vice versa. To that end, let us labor and may God give us aid.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds