This started as a reply about hermeneutic in the context of the flood on my personal blog. Do we take the flood literally or not. My interlocutor was exasperated exclaiming that to not take the text literally implies words have no meaning. This is exactly backwords. Here is my response to him.
Yes, you are exactly right. Words have meaning. There is this word hermeneutic, which I have used on more than one occasion used in this sentence. Yet, you gaily trounce in with replies like “Why start with the Bible at all? Why not just make up your own stories if that’s what you’re going to do anyway?” or other remarks along the “making it all up” line as if every religious person just takes their preconceptions and hammers the text until it fits. That is not what any honest theologian does (and I think the majority of people atheist or faithful are as honest as they can be). That word, hermeneutic means, “the method by which one extracts meaning from a text.” See that word there. Method. It is there for a reason.
Look at the Garden of Eden story for a first example, as it is a little easier. At the beginning of the story there is a mention that this story is at the juncture of four rivers. Real rivers which however in reality are nowhere near each other. They do not “meet” anywhere. This we are taught is a signal found in other literature from the period. It is a sign or signal that the story at hand is poetic or symbolic. It doesn’t portray a real place but a noetic one. In the story of the flood, God finds every person but “Giants were in the land” and “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Now, a reasonable person might find that this is just such a similar obvious signal in the text. Giants are mythic or noetic creatures. Similarly the idea that every man but Noah thought of nothing but evil continually is also unreasonable. That the following is a not historic but a moral tale. This is a consistent method for locating symbolic text. There are other hermeneutical methods, historical-critical, literary methods, and so on. The early Christians searched the text for signs and symbols of New Testament events, as noted early in this discussion where the Fathers located types or signs Baptism in the story of the Flood (through water evil is washed away) in this story and so on. Again, a consistent hermenuetical method. It is not “made up.” The method is developed outside of the text and then consistently applied.
Did everything recounted in Exodus take place exactly as the text recounts? Well, as a comparison there may have been a historic King of rocky Ithaca named Odysseus but that does not mean he killed a giant man with one eye. That also does not mean that nothing recounted in the Odyssey took place or that the story contains no great moral truths because Polyphemus is purely or mostly noetic.
You have never granted anything but literal interpretation of the meaning of these words in a modern Western anthropological context as a valid hermenuetic to be used. While this is consistent with your intention of belittling religion is it not useful in interactions with anyone but a small percentage of fundamentalists within of any modern religion today. You should realize that there are a variety of hermenuetics and any one person may find one (or even to use more than one at the same time) a useful method when approaching texts.
Again, its just like with the Year of Our Lord, a poetic phrase used on a graduation document filled with artistic calligraphy and other poetic imagery to note a rite of passage. Yes, the original people who founded that phrase meant it literally. But does that mean that it is the only way to extract meaning from text? No. This phrase also means just plainly a definition of a year 1 to be used in common. And you are exactly right words have meanings. But the plural there is important. They have many meanings and can hold many meanings at the same time. You want to hold to the literal meaning in this case, because it can rile you up and anger you. But the problem is that doesn’t correspond to the reality. Most people don’t think of Jesus birth when they read “In the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Nine Hundred and Eighty” on their High School diploma at all. To pretend differently is just plain dumb. And as I suggested because there is no poetic rendering of CE that is why “In the Year of Our Lord” remains today.
Finally, you wonder that a person who does believe in the literal flood and I, who does not, can be said to worship the same religion. There is another word I’ve used frequently on this site. Adiaphora. This word is used to describe doctrine. One differentiates statements made by and about a faith as either dogma (which means essential) or adiaphora (which mean not dogma or unessential). For me, and for I think most modern Christians with whom I interact, whether you take the flood literally or not (or whether Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch) is adiaphora. It is not important. The empty tomb is dogma. That is, if you don’t believe the tomb was empty, then you do not follow the same religion as me.
For the Eastern Orthodox defining the boundary between dogma and adiaphora is not the same as the legalistic West. There is not complicated legalistic “Confession of Faith” defining the line between dogma and adiaphora. We hold as dogma the Creed, that which was stated by the 7 Ecumenical councils and has been accepted by the church, and in that which has been proclaimed as true based on a collective reading of the Church Fathers. But there is there is a lot of leeway within some well defined boundaries here. The Fathers for example wrote bookshelves full of texts which don’t always agree … you have to find the center. What does “accepted by the Church mean” regarding the councils. For that, knowledge of church history, our liturgy, and tradition defines and describes those boundaries. Exactly where this boundary is might be termed a mystery. And the word mystery here is taking the meaning I noted in an earlier post, as that which cannot be put into words but is experienced instead. Hence, there is not now and will likely ever be an Eastern Orthodox confessional statement.
Our liturgy doesn’t talk about the literal Pharaoh and Moses but the noetic Pharaoh is mentioned more than once. You can believe in him and his interactions with Moses as history or not. Adiaphora. What you cannot do is dismiss the story as worthless for the liturgy and tradition does not. The noetic Paraoh is real (and a mystery).