Jeff Street (my church) blog. Our daring youth minister, Roger, wrote and passed on a wonderful start to our Advent season that is worth reading.
I've been in conversations with the usual gang lately (names withheld to protect the guilty), and we were discussing biblical exegesis and why we take some parts of the Bible literally and some parts figuratively. Most on the Right freely admit that they take parts of the Bible figuratively (no one much believes that the earth has four corners or that Jesus really wanted us to poke our eyes out, for instance), so it's not a matter of WHETHER we take the Bible literally or not - none of us do, fully - but WHEN do we take a passage literally and when do we not.
I suggested some fairly standard/orthodox critical biblical reading criteria that I use (judge any one passage based on the whole Bible, judge any passage based on Jesus' specific teachings, interpret the unclear and obscure through the clear, strive to understand context and language, etc). From what I gather from them, their main approach to deciding what is and isn't literal is the "obvious" test - ("It's OBVIOUS that there aren't four corners of the earth, so it must be figurative..."). I pointed out that that is a fairly subjective measure but never got much of a response except what we've come to expect from them (yer an idiot!).
When it came to a specific passage like where God commands Israel to wipe out a city, including its children, I would say to them, "Well, isn't it OBVIOUS that a good and just God would not command the slaughter of children," which was not well received. (No, is the short answer. It is not obvious that God would not command the of children - who says they're "innocent," anyway?)
Anyway, all of that to say that this led me to ask, continually and with never an answer: ON WHAT BASIS? On what basis would we assume that such an outrageous statement about God ought to be taken literally? Just because it is obvious to them? That's not a very authoritative source.
Because it was written in a section that is "obviously" history was their best answer. To which, I responded, yes, OT passages like this ARE telling a history. BUT they are doing so NOT in the manner that we tell history today, but using more mythical, legendary, epic type of storytelling.
This led me to do a bit of research (and I know that this has been done and done better by others, I just couldn't find a source online - please feel free to point to any books or sources for better info) about how history was passed on in the early years of human history. Consider...