When and When Not is Scripture to be Taken Literally?
We, all the Children of Israel, believe that everything in the Prophets has the literal meaning of the written words.
There may be exceptions if the apparent simple meaning fits one of four categories:
1. It contradicts common experience as in the case of Eve who was described as the Mother of all Living Creatures (Genesis 3:20).
2. It contradicts common sense as when God is described as a Devouring Fire (Deuteronomy 4:24).
3. It contradicts another part of Scripture, as when Malachi (3:10) tells us to test God whereas we have already been told (Deuteronomy 6:17) not to test the LORD your God.
4. It contradicts what our forerunners [the Sages] received as where it says FORTY STRIPES HE MAY GIVE HIM, AND NOT EXCEED [Deuteronomy 25:3] and our Sages said that no more than 39 stripes may be administered.
The way to resolve all these [apparent contradictions] is to seek a linguistic parallel where the words are used in such a way as to accord with how we interpret them and not contradict it.
The mother of all living creatures [concerning Eve, Genesis 3:20] may also be understood to mean the mother of all human beings.
FOR THE LORD THY GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE [Deuteronomy 4:24] is a simile and approximation since HIS punishments are like a consuming fire that burns quickly as its says, FOR A FIRE IS KINDLED IN MINE ANGER [Deuteronomy 32:22].
So too, we find it says,
PROVE ME NOW HEREWITH [Malachi 3:10] after having already said,
YE SHALL NOT TEMPT [Hebrew: "tinasu" i.e. test] THE LORD YOUR GOD [Deuteronomy 6:16].
The solution is that a proving-test may have two applications:
One is to test whether the Creator can do something or not. This is forbidden as it says AND THEY TEMPTED GOD IN THEIR HEART BY ASKING MEAT FOR THEIR LUST. YEA, THEY SPAKE AGAINST GOD; THEY SAID, CAN GOD FURNISH A TABLE IN THE WILDERNESS? [Psalms 78:18-19].
The second way of testing involves the situation of the individual in the eyes of the Creator as to whether he has an elevated status or not. The testee already admits that God can do the thing. This is permitted, as we find with Gideon:
[Judges 6:36] AND GIDEON SAID UNTO GOD, IF THOU WILT SAVE ISRAEL BY MINE HAND, AS THOU HAST SAID,
[Judges 6:37] BEHOLD, I WILL PUT A FLEECE OF WOOL IN THE FLOOR; AND IF THE DEW BE ON THE FLEECE ONLY, AND IT BE DRY UPON ALL THE EARTH BESIDE, THEN SHALL I KNOW THAT THOU WILT SAVE ISRAEL BY MINE HAND, AS THOU HAST SAID.
This test [of the Almighty by Gideon] is in the same category as PROVE ME NOW HEREWITH [Malachi 3:10].
We find that FORTY STRIPES HE MAY GIVE HIM, AND NOT EXCEED [Deuteronomy 25:3] is interpreted by our Rabbis to mean thirty-nine. [The number forty may be considered] to be a rounding-off of 39 just as the forty years of wandering in the Wilderness was actually only 39 rounded off to forty as it says,
AFTER THE NUMBER OF THE DAYS IN WHICH YE SEARCHED THE LAND, EVEN FORTY DAYS, EACH DAY FOR A YEAR, SHALL YE BEAR YOUR INIQUITIES, EVEN FORTY YEARS? [Numbers 14:34]. In this case the first year had already passed by without them bearing the punishment.
In like manner [we seek] similar resolutions to apparent difficulties whenever we come across one of the four contradictions mentioned above.
Source: Ha-Emunot ve-HaDaot, HaMamar HaShevii, Techiat Ha-Maytim,
Lewin-Epstein edition p.109
[Numbers 14:34] AFTER THE NUMBER OF THE DAYS IN WHICH YE SEARCHED THE LAND, EVEN FORTY DAYS, EACH DAY FOR A YEAR, SHALL YE BEAR YOUR INIQUITIES, EVEN FORTY YEARS, AND YE SHALL KNOW MY BREACH OF PROMISE.
[Deuteronomy 4:24] FOR THE LORD THY GOD IS A CONSUMING FIRE, EVEN A JEALOUS GOD.
[Deuteronomy 6:15] (FOR THE LORD THY GOD IS A JEALOUS GOD AMONG YOU) LEST THE ANGER OF THE LORD THY GOD BE KINDLED AGAINST THEE, AND DESTROY THEE FROM OFF THE FACE OF THE EARTH.
[Malachi 3:10] BRING YE ALL THE TITHES INTO THE STOREHOUSE, THAT THERE MAY BE MEAT IN MINE HOUSE, AND PROVE ME NOW HEREWITH, SAITH THE LORD OF HOSTS, IF I WILL NOT OPEN YOU THE WINDOWS OF HEAVEN, AND POUR YOU OUT A BLESSING, THAT THERE SHALL NOT BE ROOM ENOUGH TO RECEIVE IT.
[Deuteronomy 6:16] YE SHALL NOT TEMPT THE LORD YOUR GOD, AS YE TEMPTED HIM IN MASSAH.
(b) Kaplan: When and When Not
Handbook of Jewish Thought
by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Israel 1979, p.145
7:74 The Torah must be studied as a whole, since one ambiguous passage may be clarified by another.178
One must be careful to take an overall view, and not interpret any scripture out of context.179
7:75 There are times when the Torah speaks in allegory and metaphor.180
There are four conditions under which there is a tradition that the Torah is not to be taken according to its literal meaning:181
1. Where the plain meaning is rejected by common experience.
2. Where it is repudiated by obvious logic.182
3.Where it is contradicted by obvious scripture.
4. Where it is opposed by clear Talmudic tradition.183
7:76 Where none of these conditions hold, the scripture must be taken literally, and not rejected on the basis of mere prejudice.184 In such a case, even when a passage is also interpreted allegorically, the literal meaning must still be retained.185
178. BaMidbar Rabbah 19:17; Tanchuma, Chukath 23. Cf. Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 3:5 (17a); Tosafoth, Kerithoth 14a, s.v. Elah; Sedey Chemed, P'ath HaSadeh, Dalet 24 (2:134).
179. Rambam, Iggereth Teimon (in Iggereth HaRambam), p. 19. Cf. Berakhoth 10a; Rashi ad loc. s.v. Shapil.
180. Moreh Nevukhim, Introduction, from Hosea 12:11.
181. Emunoth VeDeyoth 7:2 (83a).
182. As in the cases of anthropomorphisms; Moreh Nevukhim 2:25. See above, 2:23.
183. Cf. Minchath Chinukh 232:4; and Zohar 3:85a; Minchath Pittim, Orach Chaim 156; Makor Chesed on Sefer Chasidim 673:1.
184. Emunoth VeDeyoth 7:2.
185. Shabbath 63a; Yevamoth iib, 24a; Teshuvoth Rashbam 415; Rashbam to Genesis 1:1, Ramban on Sefer HaMitzvoth, Shoresh 2 (19b); Maharatz Chajas, Shabbath 63a, Megillah 13a, Yevamoth 79a; HaMikra VeHaMesorah 16. It is for this reason that the Torah is called a "witness;" lkkarim 3:21.