googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Psalm 58:8: Snails Don't Literally Melt but Some Critics are Literally Stupid

Friday, June 15, 2012

Psalm 58:8: Snails Don't Literally Melt but Some Critics are Literally Stupid

I know I shouldn't call anyone stupid but sometimes I can think of no other way to say it. I browse Yahoo! Answers occasionally and recently came across this gem:

Why does the bible say that snails 'melt'? Wouldn't an all knowing God know better than this?

Psalm 58:8 (King James Version)

8As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.

It's such a weak criticism that I would normally ignore it as a straw man argument raised by a fringe nut. However, this isn't the first time I've heard this particular criticism so I will amend my opinion and say the criticism is a straw man argument frequently used by lots of nuts.

Do I even need to spend much time rebutting this? I mean, the correct understanding of this passage is fairly obvious. So rather than wasting a lot of words explaining the passage, I'll quickly explain the passage then spend the rest of my time examining the critic.

The Book of Psalms is a collection of poetry. They were originally sung so they could correctly be called songs or hymns. Like any poetry, words are used to paint pictures and sometimes (as in the case of Psalms) convey symbolical – though not necessarily literal - truths. Don't they teach metaphor, analogy, and similar devices in 6th grade English? The snail (or slug) may shrivel under salt or leave a slimy trail as it moves but it doesn't literally melt. Likewise, in Psalm 1, neither is a blessed man literally a tree and neither is there a literal path of sinners. Is that so hard to understand?

When critics raise points like this, it tells us more about the critic than the Bible. I don't want to paint with an overly broad brush but I can only think of three reasons why arguments like this are ever used:

1) Some critics may be grossly ignorant. Perhaps they aren't familiar with the literary genre of Psalms but the fact that one such critic wrote the question above demonstrates that he is at least literate. Is he not familiar at all with such literary devices? If he heard someone say, “I could eat a horse,” would he believe the speaker literally claimed to be able to eat a horse? Such ignorance goes far beyond a lack of familiarity with the Bible. It borders on lunacy.

When someone raises this objection, we should start with the assumption that he is simply not aware of the heavily poetic language used in Psalms. Once it's pointed out to him, perhaps he'll quit the argument. If he still cannot genuinely identify so obvious a metaphor, perhaps he is more than ignorant. He is a simpleton.

2) Some theophobes may be so contemptuous toward the Bible that they are truly blind to its use of literary devices. It's like conspiracy theorists who see a government plot in every headline. When people read the Bible with such a jaundiced eye, they see every word in an ill light. They might understand the use of things like simile, hyperbole, and personification when it occurs in ordinary language, but when it comes to the Bible, they suddenly cannot distinguish between a poetic expression and a statement of literal fact.

By the way, this same phenomenon occurs among theistic evolutionists. They have no trouble interpreting passages that say Jesus rose on the third day (Acts 10:40). However, when they read Exodus 20:11, they suddenly cannot understand what the Bible means by six days.

3) If Bible skeptics insist they understand the use of literary devices yet still pursue this point as if it had substance, then we can only assume they are deliberately lying so they might prey on the ignorance of others. Indeed, what other option is left? If they are truly bright enough to understand the ordinary use of language, and it has been pointed out to them that this is a poetic expression, then there is no other reason to repeat the falsehood except an evil motive.

In conclusion, I again repeat that I don't ordinarily call people stupid. It's not a very nice term. Still, why would any intelligent person use such stupid argument? Perhaps I could temper it by calling him “challenged” or some other polite term. It's either that or call him a liar.


Steven J. said...

A couple of not-quite-disagreements:

I think, here, the problem is that a simile or metaphor implies that you are comparing something to something that literally exists. A blessed man is not literally a tree, but literal trees exist. The "path" of sinners is not a literal road, but literal roads have to exist for the metaphor to occur to the writer or be understood by the reader. "Snails melting" is not where one would expect to find a figure of speech here.

On the other hand, I've noticed that many translations render "melt" as "leave a trail of slime;" the same word is being used for the actions of snails and ice because both leave a liquid trail behind them. It's less figurative language than a different way of linguistically carving up the world: lumping together the actions of a snail and a melting chunk of ice because both leave behind a trail of liquid as they move (most languages have words that lump together meanings that, to speakers of some other language, seem utterly bizarre).

Of course, we could argue at vast length as to when various biblical statements are meant literally or figuratively. Gerardus Bouw, for example, is a six-day creationist Christian who agrees with quite a few atheists than when the Bible speaks of the Earth being unmoved and the sun moving around it, it speaks literally ("if we don't believe what the Bible says about the rising of the sun, how can we believe what it says about the rising of the Son?"). To me, references to the "windows of the sky" in Genesis and Malachi make perfect, literal sense, given the cosmology of other middle eastern cultures of the time (or even the extrabiblical writings of Jews from the first centuries BC and AD). But even Bouw will not go that far.

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

I think you're splitting hairs. It's not at all unusual to make figurative use of things that do not exist. I could say, for example, “sin is a three headed monster that destroys body, mind, and spirit.” Of course, there are no three headed monsters that I'm aware of.

In discussions about Biblical veracity, there are other passages that could be described as contentious. Psalm 58:8 isn't among them. People who cannot identify Psalm 58:8 as a poetic expression are either grossly ignorant or lying (as I discussed in the post). When people make that criticism of the Bible, it's difficult to take them seriously when they raise what could be a more substantive criticisms.

Your reference to Biblical passages about the earth not moving, for example, is a little less obvious as an expression. I think I'll write a little post about it, by the way, but for now, let me say that points raised like this warrant discussion. However, when a critic raises silly points, like claiming Isaiah 55:12 is saying trees have hands, it only demonstrates that his objections are not sincere.

Thanks for your comment. God bless!!