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Literal truth, allegory, and metaphor

Discussion in 'Bibliology & Hermeneutics' started by seebs, May 19, 2002.

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  1. seebs

    seebs God Made Me A Skeptic

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    So... How do people decide which parts of the Bible to read as literal truth, and which parts are allegory or metaphor? Obviously, there's at least some metaphor ("the four corners of the earth")... but how do you sort it out?
     
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  2. Blackhawk

    Blackhawk Monkey Boy

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    i look at the context. I ask what kind of literature is the author writing? Poems will have much more symbolism than history. Also I look at word usage of the day and their beliefs. What did they think at that tims? I ask questions like that.

    blackhawk
     
  3. seebs

    seebs God Made Me A Skeptic

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    Well, to give a concrete example:

    Some people believe that Hell has a literal lake of molten (but not boiling) brimstone.

    Other people believe this is metaphorical, and describes the suffering of being without God for eternity.

    How would one go about figuring out which theory is true? (And no, "reject God, die, and find out" doesn't meet my needs.)
     
  4. GraftMeIn

    GraftMeIn The Masters Gardener

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    I've always thought of this one as literal, but in either sense you take it, It's still no place I want to be.
     
  5. BigEd

    BigEd an adopted child of God

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    In a sense I think any description of heaven or hell is at least in part a metaphor. because both of these places cannot be truely understood in our current state of mind and body.
     
  6. Caedmon

    Caedmon kawaii Supporter

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    I believe that genre can often determine to what degree metaphorical interpretation should be used. For instance, Genesis appears to make a genre shift after the eleventh chapter. But if someone can't go that far, then surely, at least the creation stories and affiliated events must have some metaphorical and mythological qualities to them.
     
  7. seebs

    seebs God Made Me A Skeptic

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    Well, having met people who disagree, I guess it's not as clear as that. *I* think it's obvious that almost the entire creation thing is myth, because I can't think of a reasonable way for God to explain science to us that far back.

    On the other hand, how about, say, the story of David and Goliath. Literal? Metaphorical? Hyperbole? Allegory? I can't tell!
     
  8. Caedmon

    Caedmon kawaii Supporter

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    Hmmm, that is a difficult call. Well, if I had to make a choice, I would want to regard it as literal, possibly hyperbole, fraught with symbolism. I don't know!!! :D
    Regardless though, I believe that David and Goliath is an absolutely clever story. ;)

    And what about the story of Job? Would it matter if the story of Job did not literally, historically occur? Again, some stories such as these hold intense power in and of themselves, power that transcends history and science bearing eternal witness to aspects of God's Truth.
     
  9. seebs

    seebs God Made Me A Skeptic

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    Exactly! I once had a long debate with my wife about the Job story. She felt it was an incredibly dishonest story, because God is loving, and does not torment people to win bets.

    I've seen it widely asserted that Job was a philosophical teaching story before it got put in the Bible, and that it was updated when it was added to the Bible to give it a "happy ending", but that originally, the point was for the three "friends" to show three different philosophies that people followed in those days.

    After much consideration, I did finally answer her complaints, BTW. Here's the thing: God doesn't torment people "to win bets". He might, however, make one person suffer to show another person what faith is, or why it matters. "But He doesn't convince anyone!", she objects. I say that is, in part, the story that tells us that God may still be planning to redeem Satan in time. The seeds of doubt have been sown; Satan has been told that we see through simple tricks.
     
  10. LouisBooth

    LouisBooth Well-Known Member

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    "*I* think it's obvious that almost the entire creation thing is myth, because I can't think of a reasonable way for God to explain science to us that far back"

    Hmm..well since science is about direct observation, I'm not sure I trust it with anything that long ago :)
     
  11. seebs

    seebs God Made Me A Skeptic

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    Science isn't *just* about direct observation. You can do reasonable science looking at the past, too. If you want an in-depth discussion of how (and when) science can be useful for evaluating the past, feel free to start a thread in SC&E, it's a *fascinating* topic.

    Uhm.

    By "fascinating" I mean that the sorts of people to whom the distinction between a result and a confidence interval is an interesting one, may also find this tolerable. ;)
     
  12. LouisBooth

    LouisBooth Well-Known Member

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    "Science isn't *just* about direct observation. "

    Umm..yeah, it is. Have you ever heard of the scientific method? ;) Science is much more reliable when you're dealing with direct observation. anything else is much more speculative in nature.
     
  13. Caedmon

    Caedmon kawaii Supporter

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    I don't think it's so much how distant in the past that it occured that makes a scientific interpretation invalid. I think it's more because of the style in which it was written. The Genesis creation story is highly archetypal; I interpret it ascientifically, more like a work of mythic literature. For example, Cain's ancestors' names have peculiar implications:

    Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.
    His brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.
    As for Zillah, she also gave birth to Tubal-cain, the forger of all implements of bronze and iron; and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah. - Genesis 4:20-22, NASB

    Jabal is the father of shepherds.
    Jubal(where we get our word "jubilation") is the father of music/musicians.
    Tubal-cain is the father of smiths/metalworkers.

    Anyone can appreciate the distinct symbolic associations in these names.
     
  14. Chili

    Chili Member

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    When all makes sense you will have it figured out. This will probably mean that all is metaphor unless otherwise stated as in Jn.6 "my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink."

    Just because it is metaphor does not make it untrue but in fact makes it more real, as in "my kind of real" as if we have been there and know firsthand what the author had in mind.
     
  15. Caedmon

    Caedmon kawaii Supporter

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    I'm not sure what you mean. :scratch:

    To my knowledge, John never says anything in his Revelation is not literal. Can I interpret it literally? BTW, nice plug... ;)

    Again, I'm not sure what you're saying. :scratch:
     
  16. Didaskomenos

    Didaskomenos Voiced Bilabial Spirant

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    humblejoe's right. Determining whether the interpretation should be literal or metaphorical is dependent on the literary genre it is written in. Acts was written as historical (although there are certain "spins" he puts on what he chooses to tell), but Revelation and many of Jesus' sayings are in the apocalyptic genres. The opening chapters of Genesis match other contemporaneous mythological writing styles, so if not mythological, it is at least loaded with metaphor.
     
  17. Chili

    Chili Member

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    Is there not a scripture someplace that tells us that when we meet God face to face all will be made clear?

    Probably because Revelation is not to be taken literally.

    Real here means something that is prior to us by nature and second to us from the bible. Could that be possible? It is according to Jn.5:39-40.
     
  18. parousia70

    parousia70 I'm livin' in yesterday's tomorrow Supporter

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    What an excellent point!

    All of scripture is to be taken "literally" because the "literal" meaning is the "intended" meaning.

    The idea so casually thrown about that a "spiritual" interpratation is somehow polar opposite to a "literal" interpratation is misguided.

    The Spiritual realm is just as "lteral" a reality a the temporal, and arguably even more so.

    Our physical choices do not have eternal consiquences, our spiritual choices do.

    Scriptures that indicate "stars falling to earth, earth splitting in two, heavens rollng up like a scroll" etc, are describing absolutely literal events, even though they are not describing actual disturbances in the material, physical universe.

    A "literal" interpratation is discovering whatever the author intended, be it history, allegory, poetry, apocalyptic, etc...
     
  19. Jaywalk

    Jaywalk Regular Member

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    I don't see why the story of David and Goliath would be anything other than literal. It's in the middle of a set of historical books, the introduction and results both lead into historical stories. It's consistent with the rest of the story of King David. There's no sign of poetic form or allegorical content here.

    The story isn't even particularly fantastic. A proficient marksman with a sling can kill and slingers were common on the battlefield of the day. Admittedly, a unarmored slinger who offers to take on an oversized swordsman is displaying astonishing confidence; you've got one shot, maybe two, before the swordsman reaches you and makes the sling useless.

    But that's the point of the story, isn't it? A person who trusts in the Lord can do amazing things. But real people do amazing things all the time; it's no reason to disbelieve the story.
     
  20. artybloke

    artybloke Well-Known Member

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    With regard to David & Goliath - of course it is "literal" in one sense; but it doesn't absolutely have to be historically accurate just because the writer could tell a good story. It is entirely possible that it happened - though as slings were actually very effective weapons when used well it's not that amazing either. And if Goliath was suffering from giantism, he would have been a lot more vulnerable than he looked, especially with all that heavy armour to slow him down.

    But all this detail also makes for a good believable story, and you'd get in historical fiction as well as history - it doesn't automatically make it, or any of the rest of the stories concerning Saul and David, necessarily historical. I have a tendency to think that there is probably at least some historical fact in these stories, though much embellished to make David look like the good guy.

    But I don't put my faith in stories, however historically accurate they are. I put my faith in a person who can save me and show me the way to live.
     
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