The argument over a literal or figurative understanding of the words of the Bible seems to me to be largely a difference of opinion about whether the historical validity of numerous passages is vital to the message and purpose of the book. Those insisting on a literal interpretation appear to attach great importance to certain historical facts either past or future. The veracity of the scriptures under this paradigm is totally dependent on being able to demonstrate and maintain their historical accuracy. If academic findings challenge that accuracy in the slightest, those findings must be denigrated and their proponents neutralized. That, of course is where many within Orthodox Christianity position themselves.
The need or requirement for historical validity for the orthodox is obvious in their theology. Theirs is a process driven salvation, a process which take place in history. The resulting salvation is said to be faith based but that faith is supposedly built on historical events orchestrated by God. The faith derived there from is a faith in a prescribed history without which such faith is vain.
Almost anyone will admit to the use of poetry within the Bible. In fact, a certain portion of the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) is clearly categorized as such. Poetry by definition is not literal, i.e. understood as historical fact or even intended to be understood on a fundamental word by word basis. Poetry, in fact, is aimed at projecting a thought, emotion, or concept which is best achieved in a format which literally defies a single, concrete interpretation. Many will remember as much from attempting to decipher poetry in high school English class. Bible poetry and symbolic passages are proof positive of non-literal content within the Bible. The use of poetic writings within the Psalms, for example, and the use of symbolism in the parables of Jesus exist right along side other passages whose historical accuracy is seen as essential to the literalist.
In an alternative viewpoint, the Bible is seen by many as largely metaphorical, conveying its message and fulfilling its divine purpose without depending on absolute historical accuracy. The parables of Jesus are a prime example of this method of instruction. Without a doubt the Bible does record certain historical events and does so in the same way that many writings do, noting them in passing as part of a larger discourse. All such historical references would logically be subject to the usual human errors and adjustments unless God intervened. Since the Bible has numerous examples of differing historical accounts, it seems evident that absolute, demonstrable historical accuracy is not necessary to its purpose and therefore God did not intervene. In fact, the orthodox response to such observations quite often includes a declaration that the Bible is not a history book per se, so minor discrepancies are expected. These discrepancies merely reflect the individuality of the various writers, which, by implication, God allowed because they were harmless. Such an admission merely supports the alternative viewpoint I propose, namely that the historical accuracy of the scriptures is not essential. As noted, this does not mean that much of the Bible is not historically based, only that the historical accuracy is a non-issue.
Many Bible students and scholars seem to recognize a deeper level or levels of understanding than that derived strictly from the basic storyline. In other words, they see a message within the message on some level. This is the basic motivation for continuing study of the biblical text for most students. An ever evolving understanding suggests that the basic elements of the Bible story, including its historical portions, are not the gift but simply the adornment or gift wrapping. As long as we insist on reverencing the wrapping we will never experience the gift itself.