A question that comes up all the time for me is whether a particular passage, word, or phrase, is intended to be taken literally or nonliterally. I see a lot of work has been done to split the Bible into various senses, (e.g. literal, allegorical, tropological, analogical), but when it comes to asking how and where these are applied, it's really difficult to get an answer that can be procedurally applied to any given phrase or chapter to determine which category it belongs to. Its more like the categories are built to explain a pre-existing framework for understanding a particular set of difficult passages, rather than to enable readers, knowing only the categories, to determine where every Biblical expression fits into that framework. This brings me to you guys; I'm hoping to find some practical steps I can take for any given passage to determine whether it's supposed to be literal or not.

This issue finds itself relevant to all kinds of circumstances, for example, helping and understanding people with Asperger's, or interpreting everything from song lyrics to recipes, or the rules in board games. In spite of the broad applicability of the issue, I can find very little by way of objective procedural guidelines for distinguishing, in any given communication, whether it should be taken as literal or not. So, an ideal answer will find itself broadly extensible to every didactic text or speech.

Has anyone written a manual on this topic, which details (or attempts to detail) practical rules which can be applied to the majority of human communications (or the majority of writings in a given particular language), to distinguish between literal and nonliteral expressions? Is the distinction even possible to articulate consistently?

Note: I am not asking for rules which will enable a person to construct the meaning for any given idiom or nonliteral expression, only rules which will enable a person to distinguish between expressions which are and are not intended to be taken literally.

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I don't know if there is a book that sets out rules for the metaphors and similes in God's word. But, there ought to be as very many people believe the false mantra that everything in the Bible is literal.

Mostly, it comes from reading and studying God's word. The key words "as", "like," "but", "is," and "are" set forth comparisons and equivalents, similes and antonyms that God uses to enable us to grasp a concept much easier.

For instance, when He said of the prophets of Jerusalem in Ezek. 22:25, "There is a conspiracy of her prophets in the midst thereof, like a roaring lion ravening the prey;..." the word "like" is the trigger. It sets up one comparison that God has defined for wicked people that oppress and steal from others, as well as those who commit murder.

Thereafter, whenever you see that same usage of a roaring lion, you have God's definition.... wicked rulers, wicked people who murder and steal from others.

Again, in Ezek. 22:27, "Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey.." the princes or rulers of Jerusalem, those in positions of power and authority of other people are compared to predator beasts - the wolves - that feed off the weak and young. All of the comparisons to predator beasts are speaking of wicked, evil, tyrannical rulers.

God has also defined for us the political, apocalyptic language from Gen. 37:9-10.

"9 And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me.

10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?" (KJV)

Jacob understood the meaning, that the head of the household, the ruler was the sun; the next ruler or queen was the moon; and the eleven brothers were the stars. That they all bowed down to Joseph meant that Joseph would be ascending to power greater than theirs.

This became the standard prophetic language for kings and princes, rulers and governors of a land / nation. If their light shone, they were in power and ruling. If their light did not shine, they were to fall and be removed from power. This is the genesis of the stars falling from their heavens. It is not literal, but figurative.

"That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, ..." (Gen. 22:17, KJV)

God defined the first instance of the usage of "stars of heaven" as the descendants of Abraham, the tribes of Israel. So when prophetic language is used, we can recognise the figurative use of the stars falling from the heavens as the children of the tribes of Israel, the ruling princes and priests who fell from their positions of power, and lost their offices / stations.

There are other comparisons that we find from the little adverbs "as" and "like."

"The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times." (Psa. 12:6, KJV)

Are God's words literally silver? Not at all, but He is giving us the value of His words with the definition / comparison made. And, then He gives us other definitions in His poetry.

"My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass:" (Deu. 32:2, KJV)

God compared His word, His doctrine to the falling rain. It would pour down upon them, either tenderly or as showers.

The best way to know God's figurative language is to follow the definitions He provides us with the small words.

See my post "Frequent Mistakes - Part V: Roses are Red, Violets are Blue" here ShreddingTheVeil.

See also "Heaven and Earth Have Passed Away" - ShreddingTheVeil

And, "It's Not The End of The World - Part III: Judgment Language in the OT" - ShreddingTheVeil


What [Book] contains rules which enable a person to distinguish between literal and nonliteral Biblical expressions?

The Guide for the Perplexed written by Maimonides (Rambam) & composed 1190 CE contains philosophical views regarding Tanakh's idiomatic expressions in prophetic visions, Meaning of Hebrew names, Function of Angels, Personification of God, etc.

[Book] : https://www.sefaria.org/Guide_for_the_Perplexed

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