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Literal vs. metaphorical?

Postby Rita loves pizza » Tue Feb 28, 2017 1:42 pm

Are there any verses in the Bible that explicitly advise the reader to take its contents literally rather than metaphorically? I always thought it was strange that Christ usually chose to teach in terms of parables, i.e. metaphors, but that some people believe the Bible does not contain metaphor.

I realize that there are sections of the Bible which don't really make sense as metaphors e.g. all the detailed lineages (So-and-so begat so-and-so) lead one toward the interpretation of some books as literal history rather than metaphor. But are there verses in the Bible that explicitly discourage a metaphorical interpretation? Thanks.
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Re: Literal vs. metaphorical?

Postby jimwalton » Tue Feb 28, 2017 1:54 pm

First, the Bible is a rich literary collection containing music, poetry, metaphor, allegory, archetypes, parable, hyperbole, metonymy, irony, simile, and many other literary forms, as well as genres such as prayer, prophecy, blessing, covenant language, legal language, etc. "Literally" quickly becomes a word with very little meaning or helpfulness. If a poet says the trees of the field will clap their hands and the mountains will jump for joy, is that literal? Of course not, it's poetry. If a man prays, "God, kill all those people", we may all understand that his prayer is inappropriate, and is not blessed by God, but is it literal? Well, how does that word even apply? And how does it apply to archetype, allegory, parable, and all the others? It's a word that should be dropped from the discussion because it doesn't take us anywhere except to the Land of Misunderstanding.

It's better to think that the Bible should be taken the way the author intended it to be taken. If he was using hyperbole, we're to take it that way. So also allegorically, historically, parabolic, poetic, etc. Our quest is to understand the intent of the author. In that case we'll take the Bible *seriously*, but "literally" doesn't take us anywhere.

Second, just a point of correction, the parables aren't metaphors, but parables. Metaphor and parable are different literary types, and shouldn't be confused. A parable is a story (generally not allegorical) with a single point, or moral, so to speak. A metaphor is a figure of speech to suggest a resemblance. They're different things.

In answer to your question, I'm pretty sure the Bible never uses the word "literally," as it likewise doesn't use the word "metaphor" or "allegory." We have to take the texts the way the author intended them to be taken. There are thousands of places where the author intended us to take his writing literally, but he never says, "Hey, take this literally!" But also, since the Bible has layers (like an onion, like Shrek), there is often spiritual meaning behind the literal history. That doesn't detract from its historicity, but in the Bible there is almost more to the text than meets the eye.

> But are there verses in the Bible that explicitly discourage a metaphorical interpretation?

Thousands of them.

Jesus: "I will rise again."
Jesus: "Love one another."
Paul: "Forgive each other as God in Christ has forgiven you."
Jesus: "You are healed."
Jesus: "Follow me." (meant literally and figuratively)
Jeremiah: "Jerusalem will fall to the Babylonians."
Daniel: "Tonight your kingdom will be taken away from you. The Medes and Persians are outside the city walls even now."
David: "I'm sorry for my sin."

Thousands upon thousands of these.
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Re: Literal vs. metaphorical?

Postby Noffy » Tue Feb 28, 2017 5:48 pm

> In answer to your question, I'm pretty sure the Bible never uses the word "literally," as it likewise doesn't use the word "metaphor" or "allegory."

Galatians 4:24 uses the word "allegorical" in the ESV or "figuratively" in the NIV. I'm unaware of any verses that use the word "metaphor" or "literal".
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Re: Literal vs. metaphorical?

Postby jimwalton » Tue Feb 28, 2017 5:49 pm

Thanks for the correction. You are right. The word in Gal. 4.24 is ἀλληγορέω, where we get our English word "allegory." I missed it because I did a word search in the NIV. What it means there is "To speak something else than what the language means, in this case calling a deeper spiritual sense," which is the kind of thing the original poster was asking about.
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Re: Literal vs. metaphorical?

Postby The Righteous One » Sun Mar 05, 2017 1:54 pm

In addition to what Noffy said, Hebrews 11:17-19 says "figuratively speaking" in the ESV and "in a manner of speaking" in the NIV.
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Re: Literal vs. metaphorical?

Postby jimwalton » Tue Mar 21, 2017 4:30 am

Thanks. It certainly carries the idea that not everything is literal (but we knew that anyway). This term is different from Gal. 4.24. That word is ἀλληγορέω, this one is παραβολῇ (parable)—using word pictures; speaking figuratively.


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