Marcus Borg has proposed a "historical-metaphorical" reading of Exodus (particularly the narrative of the event itself) in which deliverance and salvation are established as key themes in a grand metanarrative. This is incongruous with the narrative's own self-claims in Exodus 16:32 in which God commands Moses to keep manna as proof for future generations of God's providence.

Furthermore, Jesus affirms its truth in John 6:49-51:

Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.

What is the evidence to support Exodus as a deliverance metanarrative and not as a historical narrative / historic event?

  • Isn't this now asking the opposite of the original question? Nov 13 '13 at 20:44
  • @Bruce: Thank you, I've altered it slightly. Nov 14 '13 at 4:22

The metaphorical school of interpretation of Scripture is perhaps an organized reaction against the overly literal school of interpretation espoused by those generally well meaning folks who say quite vehemently and with an air of finality,

"I believe the Bible is literally the Word of God!"

In other words, there may (I repeat, may) be no other defense of the metaphorical-interpretive position than

"Well, it's got to be a better method of interpretation than the wooden literalism of those simple-minded fundamentalists!"

Forgive my hyperbole. There are probably many well meaning folks in the metaphorical camp who would not engage in the old ad hominem (i.e., name-calling) argument. Frankly, I am neither well versed (or even versed!) in their methodology nor in their theology. Moreover, I am the first to agree that it is long past time for Christians to abandon the locution "the Bible is literally the Word of God."

The article to which you provided a link, "Marcus Borg’s 'historical-metaphorical' hermeneutic," however, seems to indicate there is more than a little resentment in the metaphorical-interpretation camp directed towards the "inerrant-literalists."

While as a rhetorician I am at times perhaps too quick to assume there to be a polemical motive at work behind the scenes, when there may in fact be no such motive, the clear-cut line in the sand drawn by Bible interpreters like Borg by attaching the label "inerrant-literalists" to an opposing school of thought is clearly a rhetorical move on their (or his) part. In other words, Borg's strategy may be to make a straw man out of the opposing school of thought and then do his thing without bothering to consider the legitimate points the other side might be making.

One of the points many (if not most) verbal-plenarists (and even inerrantists) make is that both the historical context and the meaning of a text to both the people who wrote it and to the people/audience to whom it was written are very important indeed, just as Mr. Borg insists. In fact, I'll be so bold as to suggest the vast majority of conservative theologians hold that an in situ hermeneutic is fundamental to any hermeneutic worth its salt.

Granted (and sadly), many Christians today are too quick to apply the Scripture to their lives today, bypassing almost completely its in situ meaning to the authors and the authors' audience

Furthermore, Borg's lumping together the words inerrant[ists] and literalists may not be warranted. There are perhaps more inerrantists who are not literalists than vice versa! I suggest the label "literalist" is unfortunate and perhaps even undeserved, because what the ostensibly "literalist" folks really mean to say is the following:

"I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible in the original manuscripts."

There is a world of difference between believing the Bible to be literally the Word of God, on the one hand, and believing the Bible to be verbally and plenarily inspired on the other. Yes, the Bible is a literal book in that it is readable and understandable (at least on the surface, that is) by any literate person. (Notice the common etymology of the words literal and literate!) There is, however, a great deal of the Bible's content which is highly figurative and therefore far from literal. I believe many so-called "literalists" know this, though they may be in the minority by virtue of being theologians or students of hermeneutics.

Language theorists and rhetorical theorists (of whom I am one) go so far as to suggest that human language is more figurative than literal. We need go no further than to notice, for example, how each of the five human senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling) is a springboard for expressions having nothing to do with the senses, literally speaking.

"I smell something fishy going on here." Or, "I smell a rat!"

"Oh, I see what you mean." Or, "I saw the light, and suddenly things became so much clearer to me."

"His comments left a bad taste in my mouth." Or, "I gave him a taste of his own medicine."

"I'm not the kind of guy to get in touch with his feelings." Or, "The actor gave a touching performance."

"I hear where you're coming from."

Many of Jesus' "I ams" were clearly figurative, not literal. They were springboards for meaningful meanings and even Truth with a capital "T", but not literal meanings.

"I am the good shepherd." (I seriously doubt Jesus ever owned a flock of sheep!)

"I am the door to the sheepfold."

"I am the bread of life." "I am the water of life."

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser." (Forgive me, but Jesus, though we do not know what He looked like, almost assuredly did not resemble a vine, nor did His Father literally engage in pruning grapevines.)

"I am the light of the world."

We could go on and on of course, and we need not even go to the book of Psalms for obviously figurative language, either, though there is a great deal of it in the Psalms, from "trees clapping their hands" to "I am a worm and not a man"; and from "many bulls have surrounded me [and] strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me" to "for your arrows have sunk deep into me."

Between figures of speech and tropes, of which there are myriads, virtually no extended passage of the Bible would be even remotely understandable were they to be elided from the text.

By the same token, however, the Bible is not purely figurative, for it contains historical narrative, historical facts (many of which square with purely "secular" historical accounts), names of people, places, and things who/which actually existed, and so much more.

There needs, therefore, to be some agreed-upon rules for understanding "how to read" a given biblical passage. We call these rules hermeneutics, which is the science and art of interpreting any writing, whether it is the book of Jonah from the Tanakh or a parking ticket from 2013, and everything and anything in between!

Behind every hermeneutic worth its salt, of course, is a presupposition or two which give form and shape, sense and sensitivity to the understanding of a given text. Just as "a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" (Paul Simon, from his song "The Boxer"), so too does a man see in a text what he expects to see. Being upfront with one's presuppositions is the least a good interpreter of texts can do.

Carefully defining one's terms comes a close second in terms of an interpreter's responsibility to his or her audience. In interpreting the Bible, some of the key words which need to be defined clearly would include the following:

inspiration, inerrant, natural, supernatural, miracle, history, narrative, figure, figurative, literal, trope, metaphor, parable, allegory, language, meaning, reality, unreality, truth, Truth, text, context, subtext, historical context, synoptic, culture, exegesis, morality, commandments, God (and His various names and titles), prophet, prophecy, priest, Israel, heaven, hell, poetry, proverb, analogy, creation, culture, mores, folkways, customs, taboos, worship, interpretation, eisegesis, application, literal, law, Law, doctrine, Word of God, fallible, infallible, original manuscripts, author, evidence, reliability, transmission, accuracy, belief, unbelief, faith, error, scribe, gloss, copyist, word-for-word translation, paraphrase, reading, application, spiritual, thought-for-thought translation, fulfillment, theme, continuity, discontinuity, sacred, secular, and the list could go on and on and on.

In short, consistency is of paramount importance in hermeneutics. Stating one's presuppositions, defining one's key terms, being open and transparent in one's modus operandi, and then proceeding to elucidate a text in a manner that is consistent with each of the preceding (i.e., presuppositions, key terms, m.o., elucidation) is a tall order, but all are necessary in interpreting a given text with integrity.

If one assumes, for example, that what appears on its surface to be "straight historical narrative" is "in reality" just an extended metaphor or even an allegory, then how one makes sense of the text will diverge radically from how another person who considers the text to be historically accurate narrative makes sense of it.

Who is right, or closer to being right--the interpreter with the figurative hermeneutic or the interpreter with the more literal hermeneutic? There are likely many different approaches to proving who is right, or closer to being right, but again, a great deal depends on one's presuppositions and how one defines the crucial, critical, and fundamental terms one is going to use in interpreting the text.

Perhaps the most telling presupposition an interpreter can have in approaching the Bible is whether or not he or she believes in the supernatural or even God, for that matter. Whereas belief or unbelief in God is not necessary in interpreting virtually any other kind of writing besides "sacred" writings, when interpreters approach the latter, it is incumbent on them (in my opinion at least) to be honest as to whether or not they proceed from the basis of belief, or unbelief, or agnosticism (which is neither one nor the other).

For one to say,

"I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible in the original manuscripts,"

means, in essence, the following:

  • The Bible's inspiration extends to all its verbal content, both literal and figurative
  • The Bible's inspiration extends from Genesis to Revelation
  • The Bible's inspiration begins and ends with the original manuscripts

Another adjective which many but not all Christians frequently append to the key terms of the affirmation as I have worded it is the word inerrant. Many inerrantists are quick to point out, however, that a error-free text existed in the original manuscripts only. In other words, each subsequent generation of copies introduced some scribal errors and glosses, though in the vast majority of cases, these errors are minor and do not affect any major doctrine of the Bible.

In conclusion, many, if not most, conservative Christians who believe in the supernatural origin of the Holy Scriptures, also approach the Bible as they would any writing. In other words,

  • They consider whatever texts appear to constitute historical narrative to be, in fact, historical narrative, unless there are internal evidences to indicate otherwise (as, for example, in the six days of creation in Genesis, which some Christians interpret as six literal 24-hour days, while others interpret as six eons of indeterminate duration).

  • Poetry is poetry and is to be interpreted appropriately; trees do not normally clap their hands, but in poetry they can and do!

  • Proverbs are pithy rules of thumb that are generally true, but not always and not necessarily. (For example, some wise believers are wealthy, in part, because of their God-given wisdom; other Christians are full of godly wisdom but may never be wealthy. This apparent disparity is only apparent, as there are different criteria for true wealth, biblically speaking. See 1 Timothy 6:6-10.)

  • People who are given names in the Bible are assumed to be real people, unless, again, context and internal evidence mitigate otherwise.

  • Laws are laws, not suggestions, and they very often are universally applicable for all time (e.g., the Ten Commandments).

  • Prophecies can be interpreted as forth-telling and/or foretelling, but as the latter, they must eventually come to pass if they truly foretell future events.

  • The commonsense meaning of words--that is, the literal meaning--and the figurative meaning of words are to be interpreted as either one or the other, but rarely, if ever, as both at the same time. When there is difficulty in determining whether the meaning is either figurative or literal, both the immediate context and the context of Scripture as a whole (commonly called the "analogy of Scripture") will more often than not provide enlightenment.

  • As with any writing, each author of Scripture had an overall purpose in recording his words for his peers and posterity. Themes and recurring themes are the norm, even for a book like the Bible which was written and compiled over the course of centuries. Furthermore, each author had a unique style of writing which in part was attributable to such factors as his education, personality, culture, temperament, specialized training, and personal preferences, strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the authors of Scripture were not stenographers taking dictation, but real people, warts and all, who were borne along by the Holy Spirit of God (see, for example, 2 Peter 1:19-21).

  • Understanding the meaning of a text requires that we first understand what the text meant to its author and its audience. An understanding of Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek, as well an understanding of ancient history and cultures, can be invaluable in this regard, though they are not absolutely necessary (unless one is a Bible translator). Even average people, whether they were the original audience or an audience from the 21st century, can grasp and apply the Bible's meaning. Cultures may evolve, and civilizations come and go, but human nature stays pretty much the same from age to age. Moreover, "All Scripture is inspired by god and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16,17). In other words, the Bible constitutes a trustworthy and complete guide to both faith and practice.

  • And last, but certainly not least, God revealed Himself, His plans, and His purposes through the Scripture progressively and in stages, with the two most obvious stages summarized in the expressions the "Old Covenant" and the "New Covenant." Faith, however, is the common factor that unites Abraham of old with a Christian in 2013. The content of that faith, however, has expanded as God's Word expanded, until the canon of Scripture was complete. As Hebrews reminds us, "[Abraham] was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. . . . All [God's men of old] died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth" (11:10,13).

We Christians today are also to live our lives as sojourners and strangers in a foreign land, but we, unlike Abraham and all the Old Testament saints, live in the fulfillment of the New Covenant which was enacted and ratified through the shed blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

  • 2
    +1 for being an interesting exposition on Bible interpretation, but it doesn't answer the original question. Oct 14 '13 at 10:07
  • @TwilightSparkle: I think I agree with you. I'll edit the answer accordingly. Oct 14 '13 at 16:29
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    How much time it took to write this? +1 for the hard work :-)
    – Mawia
    Oct 14 '13 at 17:05
  • 1
    @Mawia: Many hours, but I enjoyed every minute. Thanks for noticing! Don Oct 14 '13 at 18:23
  • 2
    @TwilightSparkle: You're welcome, I'm sure. As far as creating a separate question, that is entirely up to you. I did, however, edit my first version (which is now the Revised Standard Version!) to provide what I think is a better, more direct answer to your question about "how do they defend . . .." In rhetorical matters, proponents of a particular view tend to frame their view as a contrast to a different--and often more popular--view from their own. I guess that's my answer in précis form. Seven-Up's marketing campaign years ago was, "We're the un-cola." Make sense? Oct 16 '13 at 16:10

I can answer from reason. The parables of Jesus (prodigal son, etc.) are meant to be taken as having deep spiritual meaning, regardless of whether they portray actual events God saw.

Similarly one could argue that the Exodus can tell deep spiritual truths about God's love for humans regardless of whether it's historical. The opposing view is a bit like saying nothing can have allegorical meaning unless it's historically accurate.

Disclaimer: I don't see any need to teach the Exodus as merely allegorical.

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