When reading the Old Testament, should we interpret it literally or metaphorically?
Answering this question depends what we mean by ‘literally.'(the best answer to nearly every tough theological question: ‘Depends.’)
‘Literally’ originally meant ‘as the author intended,’ or the closest interpretation to what the author wanted to convey. However, it has come to mean something like ‘accurately’ in our everyday use. So if we are asking whether the Old Testament is true, accurate history, or is it just a bunch of made up stories, the answer is, it depends! (Namely, it depends what part you are reading!) Most of the time, the truth is somewhere in the middle, swaying closer to one side or the other depending on what book you find yourself in.
Most theologians would say that the Bible is mostly historical: that most if not all of the figures in these stories were real, actual people, who did and said things that were pretty close to what we read in Scripture. I mean, there is such a people as the Jews, and such a town as Jerusalem, right? And most of the places you read about can be visited if you can afford the plane ticket! However, because many of these stories were passed down orally over many generations before being written down, we cannot know for sure how historical they are, and we cannot know if the stories have taken on a bit of a life of their own in the telling. Ever hear an old person talk fondly of the Good Ol’ Days? They probably aren’t lying to you, but the stories have gained a little more flair over years of telling than really took place. The older the story, such as the stories of Job or Noah’s Ark, the more likely they are to have took on bits of ‘flair’ which aren’t entirely historical.
However, it is fair (and orthodox!) to read the Old Testament as history, especially if you don’t have time to read more into it. However, these books contain more than history as well, and are written in different genres, such as apocalyptic, prophetic, poetic, etc. It is also important to remember that an author is usually trying to convey a particular lesson over and above true-to-life history, and that they aren’t writing to people who’ve taken History 101. If you have a hard time believing certain events are historical, such as Noah’s Ark or Jonah and the Whale, that’s ok! You are required as a Christian to believe they ‘literally’ (aka ‘accurately’) happened just as was recorded in Scripture. If we have problems with a story, we can always do some more research as to what the author is ‘literally’ trying to convey: such as this: is Jonah actually a metaphorical figure that is meant to represent Israel as a nation?
And remember — our faith and salvation is rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, not whether we believe the earth was ‘actually’ created in six twenty-four hour days.