Recently I have discovered that the more I read, especially works of fiction, the more the Bible makes sense. In fact I think many difficult passages can be cleared up using stuff learned in high school English. That is if you had the will power to pay attention. One term that I learn in high school was hyperbole. Hyperbole is define as “an extravagant statement or figure of speech not intended to be taken literally.” A common example is “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Most people will realize that a person who says this means he is really hungry, not that he could literally eat a horse. Eating an entire horse in one sitting is physically impossible. Trying to force the meat contained in an average horse down your throat would result in the gastronomical explosion of your stomach and other digestive organs. Of course no one thinks about this or visualizes the results when they interpret the statement to mean, “I’m extremely hungry.”
Knowing what hyperbole means helps make sense of confusing passages in the Bible. In Luke 14:26 Jesus tells his followers to hate their family. This seems to go against the commandment to honor your father and mother. I don’t think Jesus is contradicting other parts of the Bible. He is using hyperbole. You should be so devoted to following Jesus that your feelings for your family should look like hate in comparison to your love for God. No where does he suggest rejecting your family. In another passage in Luke he attacks the Pharisees for not providing for their parents because they have devoted all their time a resources to God. Further proof comes in a parallel passage in another gospel. It states the same, without the hate part.
Another example of hyperbole is in the story of the rich young ruler. After the young man leaves, Jesus tells his disciples that it is harder for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. By experience some of us have seen that there are rich people that become Christians. The Bible also contains examples of wealthy followers of God, Job and Abraham for example. It is also physically impossible for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle. Theoretically you could construct a gigantic needle large enough for several camels to pass through. I don’t know what you would sew with it though. There is a Christian urban legend that a gate called “The Eye of the Needle” existed in Jesus’ time. In order for a camel to travel through the gate it first needed to kneel and then have its burden removed. Only then could it travel through the gate. This explanation sound spiritually correct and is inspiring. It could and probably has produced a few great sermons. The only problem is that no solid archaeological evidence exists for this gate. If such a gate did exist it was a few hundred years after Jesus was on earth. Jesus is using hyperbole here to say, “It is really hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom,” not that it is impossible. We might say that it is harder for a elephant to fit into a Geo Metro than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
An important part of being a good reader is knowing how to interpret or understand what you are reading in its particular context. When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” or that he is the Son of God. This is not hyperbole. He is not saying that the Father and him are so close that it is like they are one or God is like a Father to him. When Jesus says he and the Father are one and that he is the Son of God, he means it literally! His audience knows it too. When Jesus says in John 10:30 that he is one with the Father the Jews prepare to stone him for claiming equality with God. If you notice his response Jesus doesn’t try to correct them. He doesn’t say, “Put down the rocks. There’s been a big misunderstanding. I was speaking in hyperbole. Didn’t your rabbi teach you that in school.”
My suggestion from this to read more (fiction and non-fiction). Learning to read and interpret well takes practice. Maybe dig out an old English textbook. To many Americans are becoming functionally illiterate. They are able to read and write, but not enough for practical use. This makes it hard when so much of what God has communicated to us is in written form. I’d also have to say that many Christians are functionally Bible illiterate. They can read the words, but are unable to understand or communicate them in a way that’s transformational. Understanding something as simple as hyperbole opens us up to the beauty and power of God’s word. Oh, and the title of this post is hyperbole in case reading this did not change your life.