Should We Interpret a Bible Verse Literally or Figuratively?
It depends on context. A person’s soul is in peril if he thinks Jesus was using poetic exaggeration when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). On the other hand, a Bible reader might maim himself unnecessarily if he fails to recognize the hyperbole in Jesus’ statement that we should cut off our hands and gouge out our eyes to avoid sin (Matthew 5:29-30). Like all people who have ever spoken or written, biblical authors use different styles of communication at different times.
Of course, everything the Bible affirms is true, regardless of its literary genre. Still, every time we open our Bibles, we must determine what style of communication is being used and read accordingly. As a primer, here are a few of the literary styles used in Scripture and some rules for interpreting them taken from Robert Stein’s helpful book, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible.
– Historical narrative recounts events and is meant to be understood literally – not as fable. In this vein, Article XIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics insists that literary techniques not be used to evade historical accounts.[i] For instance, some scholars have tried to fictionalize the story of Jonah and the Fish, but Christ treats Jonah as a real person in Matthew 12:40-42, and so should we. More than 40 percent of the Old Testament and nearly 60 percent of the New is historical narrative, including much of the material in the Gospels and Acts.
– Songs and poetry are geared toward evoking emotion rather than speaking with scientific accuracy. With biblical poetry, the reader must determine the author’s message without misconstruing symbolism as narrative description. For example, the song in Exodus 15 poetically describes Pharaoh’s army as being “thrown into the [Red] sea” (15:1) even though it actually followed the Israelites through the parted waters before God sent them crashing back down.
– Proverbs are pithy sayings that express general truths or rules of thumb; they don’t convey ironclad guarantees. A classic example is Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” While parental training generally sets the course for a child’s life, there are exceptions. (See BibleMesh blog article, “Is Proverbs 22:6 a guarantee?”)
– Parables are fictional stories that illustrate spiritual points. Generally, a parable teaches one basic point and is not intended as an extended comparison in which every detail has spiritual significance. About a third of Jesus’ teachings are in parables, including the story of the sower and soils in Luke 8 and the lost sheep in Luke 15.
– Idioms are expressions with meanings not derived from the normal meanings of the words in them. In modern English, our idioms include “raining cats and dogs” and “kick the bucket.” In the Bible you will find idioms like “their hearts melted” to describe a loss of courage and “the apple of His eye” to describe being precious in God’s sight.
The list could go on, but you get the idea. Unless we know what style of communication a biblical author is using and how to interpret it, we may wonder if archaeologists have ever found the tombs of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.