We often hear the question of whether we should read and interpret The Bible literally or allegorically. I would say we should do neither. I would suggest that we take the words in The Bible seriously and read them normally.
What do I mean by that? I believe every word in The Bible is there for a reason. Therefore, we should take every word seriously. I also believe that we should read The Bible as we would any other similar text by using normal interpretation for that type of text. For instance, you would not read and interpret the text in The Wall Street Journal the same as you would a poem by Robert Frost. And so it is with The Bible.
There are several types of literature used in The Bible, including: didactic literature, narrative literature, poetic literature and wisdom literature. As noted above, you would not read and interpret each of these the same way.
Didactic literature is like a lawyer writing an argument. It is very logical and very well laid out. A good example of this is Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Narrative literature is used for the telling of a story. It described the events that happened. The Book of Acts is a good example of narrative literature as it describes events that happened in the early church.
Poetic literature is, well, poetic. However, Hebrew poetry doesn’t use rhyming words like English. Instead, it uses parallelism- what is said in one line will be said differently (either the exact opposite or the same thing, they have different tools of parallelism). So you should read it as a Hebrew poem. The Book of Psalms is poetic literature. If you read it like you do Romans, you’re likely to say, “I don’t like what he said here.”
Wisdom literature is a revelation or observation of how life usually works. Notice I said usually works. If you read it as a promise from God, you will have trouble. A good example of this is Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” If you take that as a promise, you will be in trouble; but it is a good principle.
Another area of interpretation where people get in trouble is discerning the different between descriptive and prescriptive verses. A good example of this is Acts 2:44-45 “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” That is descriptive not prescriptive. Luke is simply describing what these early Christians did. Just as in wisdom literature, you can get in trouble by misinterpreting descriptive literature and prescriptive literature.
The Bible also uses puns and figures of speech. If I say, “John lost his shirt in the stock market”, you know that John didn’t literally lose his shirt, but that he lost most or all the money he invested in the stock market. When Isaiah 55:12 says, “the trees will clap their hands”, we know that trees don’t have hands and that this is just the personification of trees. Of course, determining the figures of speech is made more complex because of the number of languages (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and English) involved, and because each language has many figures of speech. You can find more in E. W. Bullinger’s book Figures of Speech Used in The Bible.
Finally, The Bible uses symbols. But the symbols have clear meaning once you understand the way it works. Many of these symbols are interpreted in other parts of The Bible. For instance, the Book of Daniel is the interpretive key for the Book of Revelation. Another example is Numbers 21:8-9 “The LORD said to Moses, Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” is the prelude to John 3:14-15 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” The Bible is a great interpreter of Itself.
I hope this blog article will help you in your reading, interpretation and enjoyment of The Bible. The more I study and understand The Bible, the less allegory I see in It.