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Parts of the bible are meant to be taken literally, other parts are allegory, there is poetry, similes and metaphors, history, prophecy, visions, dreams and symbolism, etc. How do we know which is which? Context. Words, sentences, verses, paragraphs and chapters don't stand alone. Read the surrounding verses, paragraphs, chapters and even books to shed light on what type of literature is present.
There is no general rule for interpreting the bible. With any literature, there are a variety of tools we need to use for interpretation. The bible is God’s book and the Holy Spirit is the author. The Spirit inspired human beings to communicate his message using their own words and the language styles and conventions of the cultures they lived in. There are many different genres or styles of literature and the bible uses several. Historical narrative is very common in the bible because it communicates God’s relationship with human beings over thousands of years. Many books of the bible record historical events for the nation of Israel from God’s calling of Abraham to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The authors expect us to take these messages at face value, that is, literally. The books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are called wisdom literature. They communicate what wisdom looks like and how to obtain it. These books use the principles of “compare and contrast” in language style to help us understand wisdom. The books of Psalms, Song of Solomon and Lamentations use a poetic and song style of literature with a great emphasis on descriptive language. These authors use strong emotional language to help us see what is going on in the human heart when spiritual life is present and what it feels like in the absence of God’s presence. There are many Old testament books that are Prophetical literature. God provides messages to his authors about future events that will happen to the nation of Israel if they don’t repent and turn back to God. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us the historical narrative of the birth, life, ministry, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But these books devote most of their communication to the teaching of the kingdom of God and the good works that Jesus performed. But embedded in all of this are many different figures of speech that Jesus used to communicate spiritual truth. The book of Acts is the historical narrative of the early Christian church. The Epistle books are the letter writing style, addressed to specific churches or individuals. These letters include messages of encouragement, instruction, admonition, correction and training. The letters often address issues that both the author and the recipients were already familiar with, but we don’t know anything about, except what is revealed in the letter. The book of Revelation is called Apocryphal literature. Its subject is what will happen in the “end times” when human life on this planet will come to an end at the second coming of Jesus Christ. The most common figures of speech used in the bible are simile, metaphor, personification, hyberbole and parable. Here is an example of each. Simile (Psalm 1:1-5) …that person is like a tree planted by streams of water…they are like chaff that the wind blows away. Metaphor (Genesis 2:24) That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. I know a family whose son got married and literally left his parents and never saw them again for years because he believed this passage literally. Hyberbole (Matthew 18:8-9) If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. Personification (Proverbs 3:13-18) Blessed are those who find wisdom….long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour. Parables (Mark 4:30-34) Jesus spoke many parables to help us understand through everyday stories what the kingdom of God is like. In this parable Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It is the smallest seed but becomes the largest garden plant, so too, the kingdom of God.
The Bible is many books in one book. All of it is Truth. You either believe all of it or none of it. Mainly it is a biography of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is in every book, if you look for Him. Yes the Bible is literal, particular to the time, and day, but also has information for our time and day. Check out these two verses for literal... Luke 21:24, "And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the Times of the Gentiles are fulfilled." Did this happen? Deuteronomy 25:11,12 "If two men fight together, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of the one attacking him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the genitals, then you shall cut off her hand, your eye shall not have pity on her." That's pretty graphic, literal, I would say.
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